Anuradha Sarma Pujari’s first Assamese novel, Hriday Ek Bigyapan, was published in 1997. It is set in post-liberalisation India where the economy had opened up, “globalisation” had become a catchphrase, but liberal values remained scarce. Aruni Kashyap’s English translation, My Poems Are Not For Your Ad Campaign, performs an act of quiet balancing in keeping the socio-cultural milieu of the 1990s alive while keeping the narrative from feeling dated, efficiently bridging a gap of 26 years. With a distinct coming-of-age flavour, albeit with a protagonist in her late 20s rather than adolescence, the story traces the journey towards the self-realisation of Bhashwati Chaliha, a small-town girl with a conventional middle-class upbringing.

A patriarchal culture

Bhashwati studied anthropology at college, worked at a school for a short while, married a suitable boy, a personnel officer in a multinational company, moved with him to Delhi and studied Mass Communication there, published a collection of poetry, moved to Calcutta, and without much exercise of will or agency, almost accidentally, found a job with an ad agency as their Public Relations Officer. In Bhashwati, the novel identifies a moral compass, a self-conscious, refreshingly unjaded heroine whose critique of the capitalist enterprise and of deeply ingrained misogyny in patriarchal cultures shapes much of the book.

The artificiality of the professional space Bhashwati inhabits is exposed in the very first chapter, as she waits for an interview in the impersonal stillness of her proposed workplace: “She waited in an empty room, which was neither too small nor too big, with a white plastic painted wall (…) Apart from the potted plants, Bhashwati was the only living being in the entire room.” The lack of vitality the room displays is transferred, textually, into a near-constant dissonance between the real and the fake in everything that Bhashwati experiences.

William Mazzarella, in his 2003 study of advertising and globalisation in India, defined advertising as “a kind of public cultural production, centered on a distinctive form of commodity production, the production of commodity images.” He insisted that consumption was not just a social practice, but also needed to be situated within “a range of practices – commercial, political, subversive, disciplinary – that shape contested, and often internally contradictory, public fields of representation and discourse.” Bhashwati’s world of print advertising perfectly exemplifies this. Shaped by public discourse in a patriarchal culture, the advertisements that come out of Bhashwati’s agency turn women’s bodies into commodities, up for sale in a social and cultural space that continually devalues women. Women’s bodies are used to sell products targeted at men, playing, obviously, on the sexualised image of women as transactional objects.

The misogyny of a culture that trades in gendered dreams – power to men, domesticity to women – is explored at length in Bhashwati’s own copywriting and in her observation of photoshoots and her colleagues’ casual pronouncements of judgement on the clothing, behaviour, and morals of women. The complicity of women, a frequent by-product of any patriarchal society, is also brought under Pujari’s critical lens. The exploitation of vulnerable women and the hypocrisy of those who hold power over them is a recurring motif in the book.

Cityscapes and mindscapes

The novel also indulges in that chimaera of our post-truth world- the pursuit of an unsullied truth. Through Bhashwati, the reader encounters multiple women who fall within varied matrices of class and power. Of these, Mohua, a free-spirited, single mother, the precursor to Bhashwati’s current professional role, is a narratological foil to Bhashwati. Mohua’s refusal to let her poetry be used by the company’s ad campaign, her refusal to be a sellout, is what gives the book its axis, and the translation, its title. There is an undeniable smidge of self-indulgence in Bhashwati’s impassioned defence of Mohua’s writing when she says, “You are looking for a truth that has not been betrayed. You are looking for life. Looking for a heart.”

Mohua finds a solution to her crisis of confidence in a corrupt world through acts of selfless service. She inspires Bhashwati and her husband to make similar “selfless” choices. It is difficult to not be at least a little bit cynical about Mohua’s idealism or Bhashwati’s wide-eyed innocence, but perhaps that is where the core of the novel lies – in the belief that individual acts of love, service, and social responsibility can affect sociocultural change. Life, to Mohua, is a “never-ending investigation”. The pursuit of truth by both Mohua and Bhashwati segues into a pursuit of integrity and ethics, and scathing criticism of an obviously skewed model of liberalisation.

Bhashwati’s cultural location is also a political one. A migrant to Calcutta, she is often nostalgic for her home in Assam, particularly the site of her idyllic childhood, her aunt’s home at Dibrugarh. Her exploration of Calcutta, its para addas, its class structures, and the misogyny of her industry, all are filtered through the consciousness of an outsider who never quite fits in. In clear contrast to Bhashwati’s un-belonging, there is a long vignette, running almost 30 pages, of Mohua’s initiation of her friend into her Calcutta, one of the micro-histories, found families, ruined fortunes, and love that triumphs over all else. Even as Bhashwati discovers a Calcutta rich in heritage, culture, and human emotion, she remains resistant to the idea of cities. Guwahati, the place she lived in for a few months after her wedding, seems to her like the lament of a broken land: “She felt suffocated in her concrete house that was constructed by mercilessly levelling a portion of a hill’s chest. The hills of red earth were all levelled or torn open to make space for new constructions. Wherever she went around the city, she saw tortured hills- their wounded chests, their lungs wide open.” More eco-feminist than anthropomorphic, Bhashwati’s meditations on the city spaces she negotiates are both incisive and empathetic.

The title of Pujari’s novel, Hriday Ek Bigyapan, translates loosely into “The heart, an advertisement”, a reference to Mohua’s manifesto-like letter to Bhashwati. It is interesting then, that Aruni Kashyap changes the focus of the title, from the wishful to the magnetic, drawing the reader’s attention to Mohua’s primary act of rebellion, her claim to selfhood and agency, as well as her disavowal of the compulsions of a consumerist culture. The women in the narrative – Bhashwati and Mohua, certainly, but also other women – the receptionist Maya, Geeta Basu, the young executive at a small magazine, Ranga mashi, the lonesome and entrepreneurial descendent of a zamindari family – all ensure that the book is not read as the cherry-picked indictment of one industry but is, instead, the critique of a social and cultural moment in which women have been divested of power; love, romance, and intimacy have been abrogated in favour of monetary success, and human beings have no value outside of their productivity.

At the same time, the book also posits a solution to what might well be an existential crisis in the globalised world. Its protagonists seek meaning in art – in poetry and painting, in moonlight and song, and in reconnecting with human relationships. The premise is simple, perhaps even simplistic, but this simplicity and its shining idealism are exactly what makes the book noteworthy.

My Poems Are Not For Your Ad Campaign, Anuradha Sarma Pujari, translated from the Assamese by Aruni Kashyap, Penguin India.