24 March 2013

Book Review: Those Pricey Thakur Girls

Those Pricey Thakur Girls
By Anuja Chauhan
HarperCollins India, 390 pp, Rs. 350

Anuja Chauhan’s third novel — starring a father and mother, a houseful of daughters, and a nicely bumpy romance between Daughter No. 4 and the tall, dark, handsome and difficult hero — has the unmistakeable whiff of a desi riff on Pride and Prejudice.

But though much of its action unfolds in the not-very-worldly, literally walled-in world of the Thakur family’s Hailey Road bungalow — paradise, as Chauhan throws in lightly, comes from the Persian pairi-diza, walled garden — Those Pricey Thakur Girls is a breezy, witty, thoroughly entertaining portrait of a time and a city. And whatever the pleasingly predictable plot might seem to lack in the 'serious realism' department is more than made up for by the book’s cornucopia of effortlessly accurate linguistic and sociological detail: a sharply remembered 1980s Delhi — a world of electric blue Marutis and inter-school western music competitions, in which fashionable Modern School girls had their mothers embroider pansies on their home-stitched peasant tops.

When we meet D-for-Debjani Thakur, fourth of the alphabetically named daughters of Justice (retd) Laxmi Narayan Thakur, she has just managed to pass three rounds of countrywide auditions to bag, at the ripe old age of 23, the massively coveted position of English newsreader on DeshDarpan, India’s one and only television channel. An early setpiece of a scene in which all family members present — Judge Laxmi, Mrs Mamta, their youngest daughter E-for-Eshwari and the girls’ well-intentioned but doltish cousin (his alphabetical position remains unstated, but yes, he is G-for-Gulgul) — pile fondly into the khandani Ambassador to see Debjani off at DD’s gates is enough to reveal Chauhan’s firm grasp of her milieu. She has down pat the bizarre but utterly believable cossetedness of this world, where the local dhobi’s entire family rises to wave to Baby as she departs for her first job in a sari pressed expressly for the occasion by the dhobi, and where the Bengali Market chaatwala declares the golguppas free because he saw Baby read on TV. And even as we shake our heads in recognition at the semi-feudal indulgences of this Lutyens’ Delhi of 20 years ago, Chauhan is up and running again, turning her gently mocking gaze upon everything from the Stephanian monopoly on the use of the term “college” to the countrywide obsession with “good English” which allows smarmy DD newsreader Amitabh Bose to sustain an elevated opinion of himself based on nothing but his pronunciation, while making a nice old man like Balkishen Bau the butt of jokes.

But while Chauhan displays an unremitting ear for the subtle gradations of class, she is never so simplistic as to make privilege (or the lack of it), map neatly onto the sympatheticness of her characters. So while the insecurities of Daughter No. 2, B-for-Binni, B-for-behenji, are partly explained by the fact that she was deprived of the glamorous childhood of her sisters by being sent away “to the village” for several formative years, that does not absolve her of blame for her wheeling-dealing, land-grabbing tendencies.

Some of Chauhan’s characters may be drawn with deliberately exaggerated strokes — from the oh-so-recognisable figure of A-for-Anjini, the flirtatious, good-looking sister who is the family’s self-appointed beautification expert, to the unfortunate Chachiji whose husband’s philandering with the maid has driven her to despair and totkas — but the portraits never seem to lack detail. The scenes between Debjani and Anjini, for instance, are a marvelously humorous capturing of a passive-aggressive sisterly relationship: Anji didi will go out of her way to help tart Dabbu up for her big day, but she’ll make sure to let her know that she, the elder by several years, fits perfectly into Dabbu’s jeans. And she’ll be singing Georgy Girl under her breath.

If Chauhan’s chosen backdrop was cricket for The Zoya Factor and politics for The Battle for Bittora, her milieu here is the media. It is a mediascape that would seem pretty much unrecognisable to the contemporary Indian teenager — a world in which a DD newsreader becomes an overnight national celebrity because the whole country watched her read the news, but that sole channel of news is entirely controlled by the government.

Chauhan has said in an interview that her daughters, who are 15 and 17, “seem quite into this whole ’80s thing”, and certainly her book plays on the curiosity value of this oh-so-bygone era: the single TV channel, the trunk calls, the Best-of-Hollywood video lending library, the kids fighting over whether the new VCR will be used to re-watch Masoom or A Nightmare on Elm Street.

But if there is something a little retro about many things — including the marriageability-obsession of even such a fashionable, educated bunch of women as occupy the Hailey Road household — Chauhan carefully positions her basketball-playing, tomboyish Eshwari character as the identifiable one, the one who bridges the girly-girl universe of her sisters’ generation and the co-ed-with-a-vengeance tenor of her emerging one. It is the new unshockability of Eshu that allows us to move smoothly from the rakish, Mills-and-Booneish flirtations of Dylan Singh Shekhawat to the calm recreation of “sonnets” written to Gitika Govil’s Golden Globes on the Modern School toilet walls: “Gitika Govil ke mammay mahaan/Unpe tika hai Hindustan”.

In sum, Anuja Chauhan has done such a stellar job of capturing priceyness and diceyness in her chosen era that one itches to know what those things will feel like in the next one. I am thoroughly looking forward to the sequel.

Published in the Asian Age.

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