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[February 14, 2013]
Quick Lit: Those Pricey Thakur Girls
Feb 15, 2013 (Mint - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Anuja Chauhan's new novel is, among some other things, the romance between Debjani and Dylan, a Delhi equivalent of Lizzie and Darcy (Pride And Prejudice). The parallel is unmistakable, and Chauhan's milieu, which she knows thoroughly and fondly, gives the story its authenticity.
It's the 1980s, when every morning the dreary Desh Darpan theme music plays in every household -- Desh Darpan being Doordarshan (DD) of course, the state television channel. As the feisty Eshwari, Debjani's sister, says, the DD theme music is "like the ghost of a dead baby wailing for its phantom momma. And that logo -- it's like a massive unwinking eye -- I think it's a conspiracy to mass-hypnotize the whole country into mindless submission." Eshwari enjoys the formidable reputation of a rebel at Modern School, Barakhamba Road, and her words, early on in the novel, are an example of the author's intimately observed, love-hate gaze on the time she writes about. She laughs at her characters, but never mocks them. Eshwari's words are also prophetic because the climactic union of journalist Dylan Singh Shekhawat and Debjani Thakur would finally have to depend on their stand for or against the Indian state's self-aggrandizing, propagandist agenda in public media at the time. The hangover of the Emergency era is palpable in some details.
Chauhan's prose is a mix of wit and colloquial exuberance. This trademark style was evident in her first two novels, The Zoya Factor and Battle for Bittora, after reading which I decided she was the only Indian writer of popular fiction really worth buying.
Those Pricey Thakur Girls, like The Zoya Factor, has a brisk narrative and whimsical characters. Love, marriage, traditional girls from upper middle-class families who maintain a faux-colonial social air, state censorship, the north-south divide -- Chauhan offsets her comedy of manners against the canvas of a nation still finding itself, and speaking up. Globalization is nascent, and colonial attitudes are yet to leave drawing rooms and ballrooms.
Justice Laxmi Narayan Thakur and his wife Mamta live on posh Hailey Road in Delhi in a bungalow with tall walls caveated by glass shards that gleam under the sun. They fuss over their five daughters named, strangely, in alphabetical order -- Anjini, Binodini, Chandralekha, Debjani, Eshwari -- each of them distinctly capable of troubleshooting and disarranging the Thakur scheme of life. Anjini is the beautiful one, the skilful flirt, foiled by Debjani, who is quietly her own person and beauty. Debjani loves and protects stray dogs, and works as a newsreader in the robotic Desh Darpan. The girls think in English and speak with the kind of clipped English that changes, for example, Satish to "Steesh". Chauhan delineates the speech of her characters in delightful detail -- her biggest achievement in this story. Another family with south Indian connections, the Shekhawats, are a family of boys. Dylan, an investigative journalist, matches up to Anjini in physical magnetism, but is all ears for Debjani, who is intrigued by the scandals of Dylan's personal life and his brilliant credentials as a journalist. The parents, like Jane Austen's Bennetts, grapple with sibling rivalry and obsessions about the right suitor, the right time to get pregnant and the right kind of femininity that befits society in and around Hailey Road.
Those Pricey Thakur Girls is a gratifying quick read -- as good as comic romances can get. A happy ending somehow fits, in this chintzy era of Love 86, electric blue Maruti 800s and Campa Cola. Even so, Chauhan believes Debjani and Dylan will have to try very hard.
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