What first caught my attention in Buku Sarkar’s Not Quite a Disaster After All, was its front cover – a photo of a person lounging on a bed. We do not see their face, what we see instead is a pair of naked legs, clothes strewn about on the floor, and a view of the city through a partly-open window. Even though there’s a clear view of skyscrapers and cars lined on the road, what struck me the most about the photo was its bareness. No socks or pants adorn the legs, the window lacks any curtains, the bed is covered with a modest white bedspread, the walls are peeling off, and the clothes on the floor are not particularly glamorous.
You do not see covers like this very often, at least not on books published in India.
The bareness in the prose very closely resembles that of the photograph on the front cover. Anjali and Anita, friends and Sarkar’s two protagonists, are two Indian women living in America. Anjali, carefree and unmarried, lives in New York City whereas Anita, a frazzled wife and mother, lives in the suburbs of Ohio. The two, wildly different from each, find resemblances in the undoing of their lives. Like the photograph on the front cover, the austereness of their individual lives are laid bare as we follow them across years and continents.
Entanglements and freedoms
The book – I am not sure if I can call it a novel – opens with Anjali’s childhood in Calcutta. It is made abundantly clear that Anjali is a child of wealthy parents – both of them have high-paying jobs, the house is tastefully and expensively decorated, rows of servants attend to its occupants, and vacations mean leisurely trips to Europe. Anjali is adequately loved, as is proven by the pencil cases brought from Japan and a gift of cans of Coca-Cola.
While the former invites scrutiny of her classmates that makes her realise she is “different”, the latter puts her in a conundrum when an opportunity arises for her to share a can of soft drink with a cousin. On a trip with her parents to Switzerland, the child witnesses a couple kissing in public and realises that such freedom is something “fundamentally missing” from her life. The strange juxtaposition of privilege and unbelonging follows Anjali, and the text, till we see the last of her.
Meanwhile, we meet Anita after she has left her husband. Not for good, but to find a job in a city while her husband focusses on his writing. We don’t know anything about Anita’s childhood or how she met her husband, Mark. We find her quite literally in the middle of movement – fidgety and unsure of herself – walking along a street and looking at shop windows.
When she spots a dress she can “potentially wear”, a seemingly ordinary shopping experience turns into a looking glass that reflects the unadorned, unbearable truths about her marriage – that she was married to a chauvinist, who constantly patronised her in his “wonderfully gentle and inspiring ways”. From her Indian eating habits to her reaction to New Yorker magazine articles, nothing was beyond scrutiny or criticism for her husband.
After Anjali moves to New York City in search of the ephemeral freedom of her childhood, she gets into a relationship with Shane, a bartender – the kind her family in India would disapprove of, which is why he makes for an ideal mate. But can such a relationship ever endure one’s personal inhibitions and ambitions? No, Anjali finds out.
Shane’s mostly-zen demeanour is understood by Anjali as a lack of “passion and fierceness”, in direct contrast to the “qualities” she is made of – always ready to fight and have her voice heard, as a child in the company of her nine cousins in Calcutta and later as a 40-something writer who micromanages her own book launch event.
Anita, in the meantime, tries to make peace with herself, as a mother and wife, as she ventures back into corporate life and the promises of New York City where she had met Anjali many years ago and has returned to in search of a job, selfhood, and lost libido.
Femininity between the lines
The six vignettes in the book are interconnected though not interdependent – you would be able to make sense of each’s individual crisis even if you decide not to read the chapters serially (not that I recommend it). This speaks favourably of Sarkar’s writing – she has deftly captured the anxieties that her protagonists face in each stage of their lives.
Another aspect that struck me about the book was how feminine it is. The first instance of sexual abuse, a well-fitting outfit offering much-needed confidence, the solace of female friendships. Sarkar is also a photographer who often photographs herself in her private spaces. The protagonists of Sarkar’s fiction are in many ways like Sarkar in these photographs – they offer glimpses of their lives but do not fully let you in and are always remarkably aware of their limitations and strengths.
The verdict is in the title. Sarkar’s first book is not quite a disaster, far from it. In fact, Not Quite a Disaster After All is made memorable by its evocative prose, wry humour, and fine dissection of feminine afflictions.
Not Quite a Disaster After All, Buku Sarkar, HarperCollins.