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Laughter that doesn’t reach the eyes

Published : Jan 30, 2016, 8:27 pm IST
Updated : Jan 30, 2016, 8:27 pm IST

Pre-publication praise does not always do a book good. It can create expectations that are truly hard for the author to live up to. Sometimes the anticipation and subsequent disappointment can even put a reader off a new-to-her author for life.

Pre-publication praise does not always do a book good. It can create expectations that are truly hard for the author to live up to. Sometimes the anticipation and subsequent disappointment can even put a reader off a new-to-her author for life. So I was apprehensive when I finally got my paws on The Private Life of Mrs Sharma by Ratika Kapur. Would it live up to all the lovely things I’d heard about it, or would I discover it had been damned with too much praise It didn’t take me longer than a page to realise that I’d be adding to the praise. From the very first sentence I sank into the world of Renuka Sharma, and I suffered 24 hours of a book hangover when I returned to my own world and the realisation that I could not possibly start another book right away; I’d have to ease myself out of this one first. Mrs Sharma is a dutiful wife, mother and daughter-in-law; she was also a dutiful daughter when her parents were alive, particularly to her mother whom she took care of in the final stages of cancer. She’s focused too, with grand plans for her small family and big business dreams for herself. Till she’s in a position to realise these plans and dreams, however, she will continue to work as a receptionist with her husband in Dubai, earning more than he ever could in India as a physiotherapist. And she’s focused on her son, Bobby, who will get an MBA one day and then a job at a multinational where he will wear suits. (Two-piece suits, not three-piece, because Mrs Sharma may be economically lower middle class, but she knows what’s in and what’s out.) Living with her in-laws while her husband is away, Mrs Sharma’s life is on an even keel till she strikes up a conversation with a stranger on the metro. As this becomes a friendship, she comes to realise how dissatisfying a life of duty and focus can be. Here I must differ somewhat from the back cover blurb which burbles on about the clash between tradition and modernity. Yes, that does come through in The Private Life of Mrs Sharma, but to me there’s more to the book than that. There’s also fear and depression caused by repression. Though Mrs Sharma’s mind is slowly opening to possibilities to which it had fearsome barriers before she met Vineet, her metro friend, her growing realisation of just what she is missing in her view of life shows how depressed she is. She talks of happiness and sexual satisfaction with her husband, but seems only to realise she had these things when she tries to justify to herself her need to step off that straight and narrow road with Vineet. Repressing her own needs all her life for the sake of her parents and then her husband and son, she is too logical, too reasoning, too closed-minded — and too weighed down by the need to care. Loving people, she thinks, is a burden. No matter what she does, she can never relax. There’s always something to do for someone in her care. She is like the lizard in a joke her husband had once told her. One of two lizards who live on the ceiling of a room tells the other, “Let’s go out and see the world.” “How can we ” asks the other lizard. “If we do, who will hold up the ceiling ” Mrs Sharma, says Mr Sharma, is the lizard who holds up the ceiling. But being with Vineet is an escape for Renuka Sharma. On those occasions, she can get away with not holding up the ceiling — and this makes her realise how the straight and narrow road of her life has made her the only person in the family to hold up the ceiling. Her husband and son are domestically inexperienced. They are also not as ambitious for an economically secure future as Mrs Sharma is. So her time with Vineet is a joy — or would be a joy if Mrs Sharma wasn’t somehow convinced that by enjoying herself, she’s destroying her son’s life. Bobby, suddenly, has developed a taste for alcohol; just as bad, he wants to drop out of school and become a chef. This could only happen because her mind is elsewhere, thinks Mrs Sharma. And there’s Vineet. Vineet whom she likes because he makes no demands on her suddenly wants to marry her, Bobby and all. He wants to help her bring up Bobby. And her husband will be home soon, after two years away. What on earth is dutiful Mrs Sharma to do The Private Life of Mrs Sharma is a stunning book. Rarely do you get so into the mind of a character even when a book is written in the first person like this one is. It’s beautifully written too — which may be its only, though tiny, flaw. A woman of Mrs Sharma’s background and education would probably not be able to write in English as smoothly as this, so in spite of the deliberate use of Indianisms, something about the book does seem a little “off”. But that’s a universal problem with Indian writing in English, a language that is not as fluently spoken in the country as many people believe. I really think you should read this book.

Kushalrani Gulab is a freelance editor and writer who dreams of being a sanyasi by the sea