Book review

The delicious pleasures of third world people with first world problems having midlife crises

Swati Kaushal reveals what follows after the chick-lit part of your life written by a novelist has ended.

As January inches towards its middle and the new year begins to taste a little flat, the resolutions wearing thin on your soul, if you wish to extend the holiday mood a while longer, then Swati Kaushal’s A Few Good Friends might be just what the doctor ordered. Kaushal was one of the first few Indian English novelists to ride the new-generation popular fiction bandwagon in the world of Indian publishing with Piece of Cake (2004), a charmingly chick-litty novel set around the MBA-wielding Minal Sharma’s quest for love and life-lessons.

Over the years, the Connecticut-based Kaushal has successfully dabbled in other genres too, including YA fiction (A Girl Like Me) and cozy mysteries set in Shimla (Lethal Spice and Drop Dead). Her latest offering, A Few Good Friends, possibly invents a clever new offshoot of the campus novel, celebrating what is arguably campus fiction’s most logical sequel: the reunion saga.

Once upon a time...

Aadya Kapur (Aadi), Maalini Rao (Miru), Ambika Tendulkar (Ambi) and Kajori Basu (Kajo) had formed an inseparable quartet at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, or IIMC, the author’s alma mater, in the early nineties, “when Kolkata was still Calcutta and Mumbai was Bombay, and good girls from quiet towns were supposed to get married after graduation”.

If one were unsubtle enough to box protagonists into categories, one might say Aadi was queen bee (in IIMC she had an epic love affair with the moodily brilliant Srini whose insufferable Anglophile dad was a veritable thorn-in-the-side), Miru, the wild child (in the film version, you can see Kangana Ranaut playing her), Ambi, the middle-class kitaabi keeda signifying the modern aspirational Indian, and Kajo, the romance-reading roshogolla-swilling Bong with a million mashis and pishis who dote on her.

Their friendship survives existential angst and examination dramas, dunkings in the lake and various love-, sex- and dhoka-related ups and downs (the campus reminiscences are brief, not hard-core like Three Idiots but bathed in mellow sepia tones). After graduation and placement day, though, despite all well-meaning intentions, the girls drift apart and soon get sucked into their own lives, which, alongside India’s liberalisation boom, conspires to take them from the middle- and lower-middle to the upwardly-mobile and, eventually, to the upper echelons.

If read closely, the careers of Kajo, Ambi, Aadi, Miru and their scattered classmates working away their millions in various centres of global capitalism provide clues to understanding the shape-shifting nature of the Indian – and world – economy, though not necessarily in a self-aware way.

Twenty-three years, nine months and five days later

Ambi and Kajo are corporate hotshots in New York and Mumbai respectively, with their own crosses to bear, while the other two have opted out of the rat race. Miru runs an art gallery in Goa (and answers her teenage daughter’s increasingly urgent questions about her absent father) and Aadi is a trophy mum and wife in Gurgaon. Aadi’s son is now off to college (in the US, naturally) and she volunteers at a non-profit, Suno Kahaani, which was started by two JNU students and promotes reading among slum children, even as she fantasises about ending her unhappy marriage over insufferable fancy dinners.

Into this chaos of (mostly first-world) individual dramas appears a text message from an old classmate: “Planning a Batch Reunion, Dec 11-13, Donna Alva Resort and Spa, Goa,” something which sends all four women – and TD, Ambi’s husband and former classmate – whirling towards mid-life milestones (that may or may not involve getting rid of personal millstones).

December, 2015

“There was an impressive galaxy of luminaries gathered on the lawns at the back of Donna Alva Resort and Spa as the heat of the afternoon gave way to a cool breeze and the sun made its way down towards the water. CEOs, GMs, professors, consultants, heads of departments – if someone were to toss a pebble into this assortment, Miru thought, there was a good chance it would hit a person with a Wikipedia entry, a seven-figure salary, an elite platinum card or, at the very least, a speaking engagement or two.”

In this august melee rife with competitive sparring, Aadi, Miru, Kajo and Ambi encounter rivals, frenemies, ghosts of rivals and frenemies, friends and former lovers. And many twists and turns and cocktails later, we finally get to Keats and “ripeness is all”.

Make no mistake, this is the Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara brand of urban Indian dosti at full volume. There is heart, camaraderie and drama alright ­– but the Indian-ness is restricted only to the backgrounds of the characters, their pasts so to speak, but incidental to their present (to be fair, the characters are drawn from life and so one recognises types from one’s own circle, more’s the pity!). For instance, it is assumed that their children will only go to American colleges (while the characters all went to college in India), Donna Alva could well have been set in Spain for the plot to remain unhindered, and the specific struggles of the characters with jobs or fertility, heteronormativity or loveless marriages would echo with readers across big cities of the world.

Whether this kind of a broadly global base takes away something from the delicious local-ness that Indian popular fiction used to underscore is something to think about – but on another day perhaps. For now, though, you might get yourself a nice bottle of wine as you dip into this chatty if somewhat predictable book about forty-something women who learnt life’s most vital lessons well outside their brand name B-school while breaking glass ceilings in their own right. And who knows, given trends globally, the next reunion two decades later might just be in an organic farm where the only cuisine served is what everyone’s grandmothers ate?

A Few Good Friends, Swati Kaushal, Hachette India.

(Devapriya Roy’s latest book is Indira, co-written with artist Priya Kuriyan, a graphic biography of Indira Gandhi.)

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