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  Books   03 Jul 2023  Book review | Slow & lovely dive into a middle class Indian girl’s young angst

Book review | Slow & lovely dive into a middle class Indian girl’s young angst

THE ASIAN AGE. | KUSHALRANI GULAB
Published : Jul 3, 2023, 1:04 am IST
Updated : Jul 3, 2023, 1:04 am IST

The entire book is about secrets. Secrets held by Mallika, the protagonist

The entire book is about secrets. Secrets held by Mallika, the protagonist. Secrets held by Mallika's mother, Mallika's aunt, Mallika's neighbours and Mallika's friends — all the main characters. If I were to describe Fear and Lovely the way I want to, you would hear a robotic voice uttering ‘spoiler alert’ at the start of almost every paragraph.
 The entire book is about secrets. Secrets held by Mallika, the protagonist. Secrets held by Mallika's mother, Mallika's aunt, Mallika's neighbours and Mallika's friends — all the main characters. If I were to describe Fear and Lovely the way I want to, you would hear a robotic voice uttering ‘spoiler alert’ at the start of almost every paragraph.

For days after I finished reading Fear and Lovely by Anjana Appachana, I wondered how I would write this review.

The entire book is about secrets. Secrets held by Mallika, the protagonist. Secrets held by Mallika's mother, Mallika's aunt, Mallika's neighbours and Mallika's friends — all the main characters. If I were to describe Fear and Lovely the way I want to, you would hear a robotic voice uttering ‘spoiler alert’ at the start of almost every paragraph.

Fortunately, the beginning of the book has no secrets that I can accidentally reveal. That's because it describes the construction of a secret that will lead the reader to all the other secrets that reside in the story. This secret-in-the-making is about Mallika, who has lost three days of memories and — just as important — her mental health, due to a concussion, and these lost memories form the crucial centre of one of the most character-driven novels I have ever read.

Mallika is about 19 years old when she loses her memory. It's 1976 and the Delhi colony where she lives buzzes with constant gossip, which is why she must be protected by the secret constructed by her mother and aunt. Our heroine is one of nicest, kindest people anyone could know. But she is desperately shy. So shy that people who don’t know her well think she’s snobbish (because she comes across as aloof) or boring (because she seldom speaks). But she is neither of these things. Rather, she has a wicked sense of humour, she is stubborn on matters of principle no matter how annoying this makes her, and later in the book, as she recovers from her mental breakdown, she discovers a strong sense of self.

One of Mallika’s best friends is Randhir, her neighbour’s son, who seems to understand her so well that everyone, including her mother and aunt and sometimes even Mallika herself, believes the two of them will marry at some point. But Randhir has secrets he has never shared with Mallika, even though he knows most of what she conceals from others. And though Randhir’s friend Arnav initially believes Mallika is boring, he learns otherwise when Mallika asks him to help her with a suspiciously procured puppy.

This is as far as I can go with the description of the story without giving anything away. Because though Fear and Lovely has a plot, this is only revealed in the secrets shared with the readers by no less than eight characters, including Mallika, none of whom tell each other their truths. While Mallika narrates the main story, the others speak up at intervals, adding their thoughts on life, the universe and everything, as well as any tiny facts they may know of the days lost to Mallika.

Unfortunately, Mallika remains unaware of what these people are thinking and doing because they never tell her the truth. At least two of them really do want to tell her, but can’t bring themselves to do it at the present time. They will tell her sometime soon, they convince themselves. Just not now.

This makes the book madly frustrating, because there is no forward movement at all. All the characters do is go over the same things again and again and again, adding fresh information when they find it or finally admit it to themselves, but then going round in endless circles again. Even at the end of the book, Mallika is as clueless about the three days lost to her memory as she is at the beginning.

Even the truth that is finally revealed to the reader via the other characters has no meaning because Mallika knows nothing about it.

But. But. But.

Despite the faults in the storytelling, I must say that I consider Fear and Lovely a book to keep for life. That’s because of the characters. I love Mallika and the people who surround her. They are so well drawn that as I read the book, I could see their faces and their forms. They are strong, funny, vulnerable, scared, annoying and real. I want them in my life forever. And I hope to heaven that Anjana Appachana writes a sequel to this book because I need to see these characters grow.

Fear and Lovely
By Anjana Appachana
Penguin India
pp. 472; Rs 699

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