I read most of Beguiled sitting in a vegetarian restaurant eating dosa. Most of the reading included craning my neck to look at the iPad because the serving plate was large enough to fit those restaurant-style one-foot dosas. Since I eat alone in a perpetually crowded restaurant, you can find a stranger sitting on the opposite side of the table and sometimes even next to you.
All the strangers peek at my iPad. Some even read a couple of lines, and at least three – it took me five meals to complete this book – asked for its name. And I saw one of the three add it to their Amazon shopping cart. I’ve read other books for Scroll in this restaurant, but none of them garnered the reaction Beguiled did. Most of you will argue that’s a coincidence, but Ruchika Soi’s story suggests otherwise. Especially since the telling tag, “based on a true story,” accompanies it.
Gitanjali – Soi narrates the book from her perspective – met Randeep (Randy) Singh Taneja at a farm party in Delhi. A single mother, a divorcee, and five years older, you don’t expect Gitanjali to fall in love with him. Not because it’s unthinkable for a single mother, a divorcee, and a woman five years older to fall in love with Randy, but because Soi craftily concretises her as a woman who (in normal circumstances) wouldn’t. “I had never intended to be anything more than friends,” she says when Randy asks her to marry him.
Soi places Geentanjali and Randy on a seesaw, with the latter being up in the air where the impending question of marriage is concerned. It’s almost irritating to encounter a man so insistent, because the writer forces us to (again) acknowledge that naiveté plagues romance.
Illustrating a charming but borderline harassment insistence, Soi warns us and imposingly foreshadows that Randy’s going to be no good for Geetanjali. But Geetanjali charitably gives Randy the benefit of the doubt, and Soi propels us to do the same.
“Maybe it’s nothing...” she said, and I nodded. “Maybe he will tire of proposing...” Except he won’t, I thought, but that’s kind of sweet, said another voice in my head. Soi encourages you to deceive yourself the way Geetanjali does herself. This non-fiction hinges on self-deception. You’ll relish the book only if you tail Geetanjali. So it’s unlikely you’ll appreciate it if you award protagonists’ decisions in horror movies with eye-rolls.
I didn’t roll my eyes at Geetanjali’s naivete. It’s impossible to.
However, the autofiction genre of the book troubles me. It enables the author to disassociate from the narrative. In Soi’s case, a vapid psychological analysis that would be better dressed as citations chaperons this disassociation, infiltrating the text.
This is not to say all psychological interpretation is bad. But Instead of lacing these inner monologues with an emotional paralysis, Soi fastens it with the “I” that hugs the narrative too tightly. You hardly see any of the characters, and all of them mesh into a colossal blob fooled by Randy, much like Geetanjali.
What’s appreciable, however, is that the dissociative tone logically follows from Soi’s conception of Geetanjali as an analytical character, chronically detached from the reader. Since autofiction permits detachment, it’s unclear why inhabiting a different name doesn’t enable a distance that fosters vulnerability.
Should Soi have written the book as an autobiography? That’s a question I can’t answer. But it’s too easy to argue that this book should’ve been an autobiography. The double detachment from the narrative, facilitated by its autofiction genre form and further exacerbated by the disjointed caricature of Geetanjali, allows a distant reading.
The tonal consistency of Soi’s writing undercuts the ending. Although over-dramatisation can be jarring, the nonchalance underlining Beguiled misleadingly argues that Geetanjali speaks retrospectively. And this retrospective perspective affects the story’s pacing, steadying it in parts that require an inflected tone.
What does Beguiled do for a world that could just watch Tinder Swindler? Soi writes cleverly, but does that suffice when the only takeaway steering your reading is: “Wow, this actually happened to someone?”
The label of non-fiction is a crutch for Beguiled. When it’s likely that her readership permits transgressive, fragmentary writing, it becomes more of a pity that Beguiled leans on conventions. Soi uses the world’s interest in non-fiction without playing it. Her book fits into a mould that contemporary writers should break.
Beguiled: A Real-Life Story of How a Woman Got Conned in Love, Ruchika Soi, Penguin Books.