Sunday, November 2, 2008

No Country For Young Women

This appeared in the latest Tehelka


To attempt a novel about an adulterous relationship in this day and age is to set oneself a formidable task. The history of the novel is, after all, studded with memorable heroines who have indulged in illicit liaisons: Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina and Isabel Archer, to name a few. Yet, this is the terrain that Shashi Deshpande sets out to explore in her ninth novel, In the Country of Deceit. Despite the singular flavour of a small town in south India in which it is set, the signposts are all too familiar.

This is the story of the single, 26-year-old Devayani living in the town of Rajnur, in a refurbished house that used to belong to her parents. (Symbolism alert.) She’s a bookish, innocuous English tutor, and her existence is a staid one, enlivened by meetings with her immediate family. One evening, at a dinner hosted by Rani, former Hindi movie heart-throb and new friend on the block, she meets the married, 40-something Ashok, the town’s district police superintendent. The affair between the two, initiated by the man in uniform, follows the predictable pattern of private trysts and secret agonising before the consequences catch up with them.

There’s an appealing artlessness to Devayani’s character, and to her discovery of the relationship’s passionate highs and lows. Since the novel is largely a first-person account of the affair, some amount of solipsism is inevitable, with much self-examination happening in the wee hours. To offset this, the author introduces letters from Devayani’s aunt, cousin and others – dismayingly enough, though, most of the letter-writers use a similar tone of voice.

The subplots deal with laying claims on others’ lives, either metaphorically or heavy-handedly. For example, there’s a property dispute in which Devayani is embroiled, involving lawyers and letters; and then there’s also the unstable back-story of Rani, whose circle Devayani becomes part of when helping her to script a comeback film. These, however, seem attached Lego-like to the spine of the novel – that is, the adulterous relationship -- and as such, serve to partition the plot, not thicken it

The book’s progress is stately for the most part, with Deshpande taking her time to advance the mood and milieu. Nevertheless, there are moments that jar. For example, Ashok falls for Devayani at their first meeting itself and after modest hesitation, Devayani matches his ardour. The foundation of their relationship thus seems less organic and more based on the need to progress the plot. Additionally, details of Ashok’s wife and daughter, which would have added more dynamic tension, are thin on the ground.

In the Country of Deceit, then, is not without a certain modest appeal. Clearly, among its strengths is the evocation of place and of the network of family relationships. Alas, when it comes to dealing with love and its discontents, as is the case with so many other such works, the road to banality is paved with good intentions.

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