New India has everyone riveted
The average Indian novel in English rarely eschews the urge to be panoramic in scope, lest it be doomed to ‘limited readership’. The attempt to make it relatable to a larger audience often becomes its tragic flaw. This attempt pulls even some of the most gifted fiction writers into the gyre of the generic. Are only authors to be blamed for it? Certainly not. The forces of the market are alive and kicking and, like it or not, the haloed world of publishing is, after all, an industry. Despite this, some novels leave you with a smile: at least the author writes well.
A cross between the Amazon series Made in Heaven and Upamanyu Chatterjee’s iconic English, August, Devika Rege’s debut novel Quarterlife is an ode to New India. Just like the OTT series, Rege’s novel is a compendium of contemporary socio-political debates that we have had one too many. The use of binaries of hopeful-hopeless, idealistic-worldly wise et al — mostly set in an urban context even when the action takes place in the boondocks—is a familiar ploy of Indian novelists writing in English.
Rege’s protagonists are anxious about their future. Their reasons are different and all brought together; they are meant to convey a representative picture of an anxious country to the reader. India promises and is promised a change and everyone is excited, even if nervously, about this turning point. Naren Agashe comes back from the US for some kind of emotional redemption, his brother Rohit wants to tell a story, his friend Amanda wants an ‘experience’, and his cousin Kedar is waiting for a social apocalypse — New India has everyone riveted. If you haven’t guessed it so far, yes the story is set in 2014. There isn’t a lot in the plot that we have not got from television series, films, media reports, or family dinners.
The biggest problem with Quarterlife is that even the main characters are reduced to being mere scaffolds of ideological stances. Globally speaking, fiction writing has moved well beyond archetypes and some of the finest writers in Indian languages, too, don’t touch them with a barge pole. Benyamin’s Goat Days, for example, works exactly for that reason, among many others. Zooming out to capture the zeitgeist is rife with risks: individuals get rendered minus the wrinkles on their foreheads and the smell of their armpits. Like fingerprints, everybody has a unique one.
Rege’s literary fingerprint is the very end of her book. It compensates the reader for going through more than 300 pages of performative politics—gender, electoral, communal, sectarian, class and everything in between. The last part of the book is titled ‘Release’ and it does just that. The reader feels drawn towards the author and there is, finally, a bond established. While one can flinch at sentences like “In the narrow living arteries of Banaras, there is no civilisation, only the clamour, the flux and the detritus of everyday life”, they can be forgiven in the spirit of this newfound camaraderie—not with any of the characters but their creator.
Rege should capitalise on this in her future works.
By Devika Rege
pp. 420, Rs 599