A member of the domestic staff in my house muttered a thickly accented “sorry”, a word she had picked up from me, when I saw her sit on one of the dining chairs. I shrugged, not knowing what to say. When I was twelve, I didn’t realise why she was apologising. In her debut novel Equations, Shivani Sibal provides the contours of the world that mandates this apology.
Although playmates Aahan Sikand and Rajesh Kumar occupy the same space, Sikand House, they lead different lives. The mansion co-opts the world that surrenders to the talons of class. It preys on their friendship. An older Rajesh, the son of the Sikand family’s driver Laxman, who used to be “amongst the first to do the Laxmi puja”, spatially demotes himself to “his appropriate spot at the rear of the gathering, behind the family and senior servants.”
The third-person perspective drives Sibal’s nonlinear prose, which lets several characters’ points of view steer the story. Each character exposes the realities of the other that they wouldn’t admit themselves.
Aahan’s wife Parul’s perspective reveals him as an abuser who slaps her on the night of their engagement for talking to her ex. A coddling mother, a semi-absent father, and a silver spoon stuffed into his mouth make for an Aaahan who cannot recognise his mistakes. When a student files a sexual assault case that leads to his expulsion from his university, he fails to recall the victim saying no, “not seriously anyway”. Sibal’s writing claws out the entitlement that follows Aahan wherever he goes, when his mother accuses the victim of racism.
Aahan’s mother, whose name the author doesn’t reveal throughout the novel, veils herself as a stereotype of a rich woman. But behind the camera, she’s a woman weighed down by a broken marriage that harmonises her weight gain, alcoholism and insecurity. Nooriya, her husband’s mistress, worsens this breakage. The story moves from acknowledging her lover as Aahan’s father to revealing his name as Asif, a name granted by a religious conversion, along with the right to have Nooriya as his second wife.
While the narration sets up the exposition – taking the reins in the novel – the dialogue slithers between the paragraphs to bite. Sibal does not bother to translate some of it, preserving the cadence of Hindi in italicised sentences. But the lack of translation does not isolate readers as she leaves crumbs of English in the dialogue’s trail.
Sibal uses form and plot to present language as a privilege. This intention exposes itself to the reader when Aahan calls his mother “Mummy” and his ayah, Rajesh’s mother Babita, “Ma”. And the way Rajesh’s warden makes a patronising pun of how her son’s “hostel” was not a “hotel”, fully aware that an “unlettered” Babita wouldn’t understand, marks the potency of this language divide and the gaze of the literate.
“Inevitably, Nooriya and Aahan’s mother came face to face. Aahan’s mother had conducted many imaginary conversations on lonely nights leading up to this moment. Nooriya looked her up and down, and said, ‘Oh hello there, we’ve met before. We have your husband in common.’ She blew a smoke ring nonchalantly.”
Along with Aahan’s mother and Nooriya, Parul fills the gaps in the stories of the men in the Sikand family. Her marriage to Aaahan is a “love marriage”, but they grow to live in “separate living quarters like his parents before them”. Through Parul, Sibal disfigures the trope of the dutiful wife.
While Parul stands by Aaahan during a bad patch in his life when his family slides down a snake as one would on the board game, she rolls the dice for herself and her children, not for him. Nor does she have any qualms in confessing as much.
“He waited patiently, denied access to their bedroom while she chanted ‘Nam Myoho Renge Kyo’ for an hour and a half, and approached her whilst she was getting ready for lunch with their son’s friends’ moms, applying her makeup stooped over the shared bathroom sink – now that she no longer had a dressing table. She hadn’t responded, and didn’t remove her gaze from the mascara she was applying. She finished up, picked up a fire-engine red tweezer and decisively plucked a thick, black, stray hair from her chin, and looked up. ‘Fuck off,’ she said as she squeezed past him through the bathroom door into the bedroom.”
Although the perspectives shift between characters from different classes, they twist around one another’s lives, slipping in through the cracks in the narration, making cameo appearances via crossover perspectives. Sibal divides the novel into two parts. The first part tackles the lives of those who have a right to the wealth that Sikand House symbolises, and the second, of people considered secondary and unimportant (ironically placed in the same order) in a class hierarchy.
But Sibal’s prose weaves the story of the Kumar family through the same lens that governs the lives of the Sikand family: class, education, marriage and politics. Rajesh’s story traverses Sikand House and its servants’ quarters, the Sikand factory in Delhi’s industrial area, the Jagdambika Camp, and his rented house. In Sikand House, Rajesh’s performance as the driver and ayah’s son includes feigning ignorance, as expected of those in the lower class.
Classist undertones tailgate the “archaic notion” that assures Aahan’s friends of Rajesh’s inability to comprehend English. But this notion accelerates Rajesh’s rise through the so-called ranks. Sibal, through a carefully curated timeline within the plot, unspools this underestimation as bait. When Sikand senior pays for Rajesh’s education, he unknowingly funds a ticket of independence that would will Rajesh to fly his family from living in the servant quarters to a house, an amenity that MLAs like him receive.
His position as MLA obviously disturbs the status quo. Sibal decks Rajesh’s story with a marriage that guarantees a foreign passport for his children. She embroiders these sequined desires into the fabric of the story so they can stand out and alert the reader.
Rajesh’s wife Sana met him as a student interviewer. The novel uses this simple premise to let the first person point of view sneak into the prose through dialogue. When talking to her, Rajesh’s accent fluctuates between rags-to-riches and counterfeit American, teasing out how he chooses to introduce himself to the world.
But his tolerance for classism dissipates through the length of the story, as he evolves from a child who had to shamefully present a performative apology to the Sikand family to a man who quips, “These are people, Madam, humans. Not animals in a safari park to photograph”, when Sana attempts to photograph a beggar knocking on the car door.
“‘At the call centre, my English became perfect. I can confidently speak to a reporter like you,’ he said with an American twang. Sana didn’t correct him, she was a researcher and not a reporter, and she had never heard an actual American speak with that accent. ‘The party can use these skills, my knowledge of the ways of bade-log, unka uthna-baithna kaise hota hai, ladies se kaise baat karte hain. My party has dedicated people, very hard-working, but they haven’t had the privileged upbringing that I have had, so I have a special place.’”
Sibal’s novel carries the sentiment that Rajesh throws at Sana. It doesn’t romanticise the worlds it displays. Instead, it drowns these worlds in prose that forces readers to question notions of class. Many writers lace their narratives with stories of the underdog, but the clichéd telling of the rise dulls the satisfying aftertaste. In Equations, Sibal resists such a story and charts the reality of what it means to make it.
Equations, Shivani Sibal, HarperCollins India.