My novel Neti, Neti, which I wrote over the mid-2000s, concerns the life and times of twenty-five-year-old Sophie Das, a small town ingénue trying to find herself in the outsourcing offices, pubs, call centres, night streets, shopping malls, rock concerts, and lavish parties of a bewilderingly frenetic Bangalore. I wanted to capture the newness of the city – how extraordinary it might seem to someone who has just landed there – as well as the texture of this newness in itself, for Bangalore was subject to breathless change in the first decade of the new millennium. So when Sophie considers the fast food she is now able to habitually eat in slick restaurants with teenage waiters in uniform, she is marvelling at such a novelty both in relation to her own life and that of the city’s.
Sophie is young enough to want to belong to the world of her peers, but old enough to remember another world, in her case set in a different town, before middle class society was presented with this unequivocally moneyed fantasy. And that memory is the basis of both her confusion and her search in the novel. She is trying to find a model for her unhappiness, looking to earlier examples such as Madame Bovary, but eventually realises she must find a way of making this unhappiness her own.
Neti, Neti was described as “the definitive ‘new Bangalore’ novel” and as “a novel that will speak to a generation” when it was first published in 2009. It has just been reissued. Seven years on, as young people from everywhere continue pouring into the city, for work but also for a sense of location and relatedness, I’m hoping that Sophie’s story – and her saying neti, neti to what is often considered fait accompli – continues to engage.
First, the few birds remaining on earth calling urgently through the open window. Then the landlord, arguing with any one of the three nodal visitors of his morning – the jasmine-seller, the greens-seller, the milkman. Finally, the phone shrieking with all the insistence of the person calling.
Sophie Das crawled out of bed, held the phone a few inches away from her ear and went to stand by the living room window. She liked to, as she talked to Swami, watch out for her landlord’s two-year-old grandson who sometimes strayed out to play in the little mound of sand by the roadside, or climbed his grandfather’s scooter, or just stood there, arrested by a mysterious thought, till his grandparents decided he’d had enough freedom for the morning and dragged him back, bolting the gate behind him.
“Sophie, I’ve got the loan,” announced Swami. “I asked my dad for some dough to make the down payment but he won’t hear of it. In fact, he could buy me a car off the shelf if he wanted to. But no one encourages that – not the car companies, not the retailers, not the banks. Anyway, I had to take another loan to make the down payment.”
“What did he say?”
“I didn’t want a lecture on the meaning of life etcetera so I’ve kept this whole car plan to myself. But last week I just said to him straight – Appa, can you give me a bit of cash for this loan I’m taking, and instead of being curious he just quoted the Upanishads or something at me.”
“I don’t like loans either,” said Sophie.
“What do you mean you don’t like loans?”
“Just the thought of being caught in the web of them.”
“It’s not about liking loans, it’s about liking the things you can buy with them,” explained Swami patiently. “Just last week you said you liked the Chevy Tavera.”
Sophie was actually car-blind. Swami was always pointing out different makes to her, but where he saw individuality and beauty, she saw something on four wheels that moved. The gleaming black and white Tavera had looked impressive in the showroom window – that was all, whereas Swami’s longing for a car was a capacious thing that could suck him in, make him a shadow that would acquire features and personality only when he became the owner of a car. All Sophie had heard her boyfriend discuss during the last few months was the car dream (“I’m not saying I can afford a luxury sedan but there’s still no harm drooling over an Audi…I hate small cars, I hate small cars, they’re so nineties…Did you see that? Brilliant piece of work – sporty style, great safety features, high torque which ensures smoothness in stop-start traffic…”). Sophie so badly wanted Swami to shut up. The thought made her guilty and she tried to take some interest.
“So what happens if you can’t repay the loan?” she asked.
“They’ll take back the car, naturally.”
“I’ll go out in it when it’s actually your car,” she said, knowing she always spoilt it just when she decided to be good, as if there was a part of her that resisted the idea of being nice to Swami whenever another part of her made a conscious effort to.
“It will be my car the day I buy it. Sophie, loans make the world go round. People are even doling out easy monthly instalments for their cheap little cellphones and feeling proud about it. Soon you’ll be able to buy a pair of jeans on EMIs.”
“But I don’t want to have anything to do with this. I’m going to stay out of it.”
“Just because some lady in a book went bankrupt and died?”
Stop, that’s Madame Bovary, thought Sophie. Most of the garbage Sophie had read in her twenty-five years had faded against the light of three major works – Madame Bovary, Vivekananda: Awakener of Modern India and Swami and Friends. She wanted to explain to Swami that Madame Bovary was no loan junkie. It was just that her longing for love and adventure often took the form of buying things she didn’t need with money she didn’t have. Instead of living one takes loans, Sophie thought grandly, then yawned noiselessly and wished she could crawl back into the wide camera angles of her dream. Once she woke up, everything narrowed down. Everything was degrees of pettiness.
Swami tried again. “What I need to decide is whether to get a SUV, which is the sturdiest, or a three-box sedan simply because they’re the best looking. Sophie? Say something!”
Mani, the toddler, emerged from the opposite house and sat down in the middle of the lane; his grandmother followed with his breakfast in a small steel bowl. Sophie tried to wave to him.
“Sophie, I just called to figure out which type to go with and instead you’re being a pig about this.”
“I’m being a pig? I want to drive a car so big it’ll swallow people if they so much as try to press their horns?”
“Fine then, I’ll decide myself.”
Mani squatted on the ground with his mouth clamped shut, deaf to his long-suffering grandmother’s entreaties.
“Of course you’ll decide yourself,” said Sophie. “You always do.” But Swami had already hung up.
Whatever, whispered Sophie, as she went into the kitchen and toasted a slice of dry bread over the gas. She then put four small blobs of butter on four corners of the toast and waited for them to melt. In the morning, everything felt heavy. A knife had the weight of an axe. Even from its distance, Swami’s voice pressed so hard against her ear, she would do anything to cut it off.
After a few minutes he called back as Sophie knew he would.
“We need to feel happy about it two years from now, five years from now. It’s a long-term thing,” he said, while Sophie said nothing – a blank space where the enthusiastic girlfriend should have been.
Excerpted with permission from Neti, Neti, Anjum Hasan, Roli Books.