To me, summers have always been a season of terrific melancholy. The harsh afternoon sun injects everything with its cruelness – a lull descends on the streets, dispirit clouds people’s eyes, and the stillness of the summer air threatens to engulf every creature. We become used to this oppressive heat, and, as the mercury climbs higher and higher, we retreat further into our shells – accepting the suffering as our collective fate.

Rupleena Bose’s debut novel The Summer of Then spans over a decade of such painful summers and relief-bringing winters. It starts in Kolkata in the “spring” of 2010 – weather characterised by a fortnight of pleasantness and therefore, a happy state of mind. The unnamed narrator finds herself between Nikhil and Zap, two men with whom she will have exhilarating and confusing relationships for the next ten years.

She’s drawn to Zap’s carefree confidence and his unconditional love for his work. A filmmaker, he is never perturbed by others’ opinions. Nikhil, also a filmmaker, is absolutely sure of himself too. His reigning emotion is anger, and he is quick to establish authority in any room he finds himself in. The narrator, an ad hoc professor at a Delhi college and an occasional proofreader, wants to be a writer, but journals of every stripe have rejected her fiction. Her middle-class Kolkata upbringing keeps her confined to a life where money matters the most – she worries about not finding a permanent teaching position, is burdened with guilt about not being able to support her parents and letting her grandmother die on her sickbed because the family was unable to hire a more diligent nurse.

Between a rock and a hard place

Being surrounded by the comfortably rich doesn’t help. Besides Zap and Nikhil, her closest girlfriends too are not ailed by money concerns. They live in fine houses in posh localities, and they can afford to leave the country if they’re bored or it doesn’t suit their interests anymore. One of her friends, Rhea, has a personal chauffeur-cum-right-hand-man Dharamdev, whom she had plucked from the ashes after the 2002 Gujarat violence displaced his family. Rhea’s family’s abundant kindness is also a marker of their class status – one where money is not a constraint to helping a person in need.

When the narrator’s Muslim student is killed for honour for being in a relationship with a Hindu girl, she and her colleague can do little besides visit the mohalla of the dead student. The other side of Delhi is filthier and toxic, and religious fanaticism is more pronounced. College authorities disapprove of their actions and they are duly advised to sit still and let the law take its course. The futility of individual activism is haunting, especially when one is young and not backed by money and class affluence. At every turn in life, she is reminded of her inferior social status. “I could not afford to be anything more than my class identity,” she says.

When she marries Nikhil after a few years of dating, her mother-in-law reminds her of her dark skin and caste. She should be lucky to take on her son’s upper-caste surname – a tempting offer that the narrator flatly refuses. Nikhil’s anger and standoffish ways are no friends to the narrator’s dangerously low self-esteem and she finds herself seeking Zap who has been easier to talk to. The spark is undeniable and the first words in privacy are exchanged on an online messenger. This cartwheels into sex, secret escapes, and hotel room sojourns. When their affair is out in the open, neither feels any regret.

As life propels her from one ugly confrontation to another with Nikhil, the narrator grows discontent with her marriage and her professional life. Despite her growing fondness for Zap, she has been made aware several times that they cannot be in a “real” relationship.

Life is in both Delhi and Kolkata. The capital city’s toxic air and poisonous water are her constant companions. Its serrated edges bruise her and dampen her spirits. Meanwhile, Kolkata is a city she never knew. Nikhil never left and Zap came back, but the city reminds her of her family’s failures – the grandmother who died early, her father who had to leave Delhi because it got too expensive, and the two shots at love that have confounded and hurt her.

When she goes to Edinburgh for a six-month writer’s residency, she’s charmed by the promises of the West. The temperate climate and clean air promise a happy beginning but it is not easy to start over. Her return to Delhi is yet another reminder of what she could’ve been and what she could’ve had if only she had had a luckier birth.

As one is still contemplating their own difficult relationships with family, lovers, and cities, the novel introduces the natural dilemma that every woman faces in her life – motherhood. While the narrator is relieved of the burden, her best friend Viola flies down from the US to have a “test-tube baby”. The creature hankers for attention and food and the new mother wonders if she has committed an irreversible mistake. In both cases, the father is conspicuously absent. The lifelong burden has little appeal and I admire how instead of just focusing on the emotional upheaval of motherhood, the author dwells on the (often taboo) subject of its unwelcome physical manifestations.

A purgatory

Summer of Then is of course about the narrator’s ever-changing emotional and mental landscapes, but it is also about the body at large. The impenetrable bodies of class and caste, cities, and nation; the frailty of our hearts and bodies that desire and fall in love with what is solidly out of reach; and how the layers of hopes and memories that accumulate over time on these bodies disillusion us from reality and prevent us from seeing ourselves as creatures stuck like pesky gnats on these unforgiving bodies.

External changes in circumstances improve our material lives but the socio-political hurdles are far more difficult to overcome. The accumulation of wealth and experiences open up the world to us and yet they do not guarantee justice, liberty, and love.

Rupleena Bose – at the risk of sounding unoriginal – is a superbly affecting voice. She moves seamlessly through seasons and years and geographies, and the dead grandmother’s story makes one greedy for more. The stillness in the novel throbs with longing and discontentment that bear heavily on lesser people of lesser nations.

Ten years do not count for much in our long lives but a seemingly unimportant decade often changes the course of the nation. Sometimes we witness the ascent of a right-wing government, a further corrosion of constitutional values, and a breakout of a fatal pandemic – a decade becomes a century in the blink of an eye. What does a precariously employed, young-ish woman in a stale marriage have to lose against the canvas of such grand catastrophes? A lot and nothing at all. Sometimes square one is the most desirable place to be.

Summer of Then, Rupleena Bose, Penguin India.