26 August 2013

Book review: The Weight Loss Club

A book review published in yesterday's Asian Age.:

One of my favourite books when I was young was called Songberd’s Grove. Written in 1957, Anne Barrett’s book is about a bespectacled 12-year-old boy called Martin who manages to bring a fun bunch of characters together to save his post-war London neighbourhood from the ravages of the local teenage bully. It’s intended as a children’s book, and I was 12 and bespectacled myself when I first read it. But it remains in my list of most satisfying books — I still re-read it sometimes, back in my old room in my parents’ house, revelling in its cast of feisty children and eccentric adults, its lightly-worn but infectious London-love, and the joyful machinations of plot by which all the knotty problems of the neighbourhood are untangled, fortuitously and collectively.

The Weight Loss Club:
The Curious Adventures of Nancy Housing Cooperative
Rupa, 2013. Rs. 250
Devapriya Roy’s second novel, though definitely not a children’s book, gave me something of that sense of satisfaction. Perhaps the pleasure lies in the creation of community where all that existed before was a dysfunctional urban vacuum. Though The Weight Loss Club starts out with the beginnings — or is the remnants — of a community already in place: in contemporary Kolkata, unlike in ’50s London, there are still middle-class ladies who send extra bedding to neighbours upon whom relatives are known to have descended, college-going youngsters are still asked to go borrow sugar from the neighbours and certain mashimas can still be depended on to hold up the annual Durga Puja festivities, sturdy as pandal scaffolding. 

Roy’s is by no means the first Indian English novel to attempt an urban neighbourhood. And in line with most such previous attempts, Roy’s setting is not exactly a neighbourhood — would that be too large, too variegated, too divided by class? — but a building society, a place whose occupants can be assumed to share a middle-class lifestyle. Plenty of recent high-profile novels have been set in building societies — Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower used a Mumbai housing cooperative called Vishram as a locale from which to think about money and the new Indian middle class; Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People, though focused on the Chacko family in particular, recreated with elan the wider dysfunctional milieu represented by the ’80s Madras building they live in. Less talked about but equally interesting are Amitabha Bagchi’s layered recreation of a Mayur Vihar housing society in ’90s Delhi (Above Average, 2007), or the comings and goings of domestic help, watchmen, waiters and residents in the Chennai apartment building of C.K. Meena’s feminist murder mystery (Dreams for the Dying, 2008).

The Weight Loss Club, while thankfully not tagged as chicklit, takes itself slightly less seriously than all these books — it is written chattily, and makes gentle fun of several of its characters: a match-making aunt, a crushing college boy and several colony aunties. Yet, it is more deeply invested than all of them in the potential of community — especially (but not only) in the possibilities of redemption provided by female bonding. 

It is a bit of an idealised world, where the Mukherjees’ MA-PhD daughter bonds effortlessly with the Sahais’ barely-graduate daughter-in-law, where the Mukherjees make no superior-sounding bitchy remarks about the Sahais for being Sahais, and every element of multi-cultural Kolkata is pulled into the party — the Mukherjee son’s best friend is Marwari, the Mukherjee daughter’s closest colleague is Muslim, and no one rolls out the expected stereotypes about the sole Anglo-Indian couple in the building. One has the niggling feeling that real life is more like Eunice D’Souza’s slyly acerbic Dangerlok (2001): the protagonist Rina just about says hello to her neighbour, who comes from “what a BBC newscaster called Utter Pradesh” — and whom she then proceeds to refer to for the length of the book, as “Utter”. 

But the book’s hopefulness does not condemn us to an entirely rose-tinted view — there are crisp, effective descriptions of depressingly recognisable Kolkata types, none of whom I’ve met in a book before. The classic college rockstar-shmuck, the NRB who eats only at five-star-hotels while declaring his love of Kolkata, the school-gate mom obsessed with her son’s marks, the self-aggrandising tuition teacher — they all get my vote. As do almost all the principal characters: the socially-inept philosophy lecturer, the girl on a marriageability diet dreaming of biryani, two very different depressed housewives. But not so much the person who’s meant to string it all together — the mysterious yogini lady, Brahmacharini Sandhya. Her 'real-life' memoir punctuates the book, but it seemed to me eminently skippable.

This is an affectionate look at reasonably real women with all-too-real problems — did we really need a totally unreal door-desh-ki visionary to come and solve them? Roy is more at ease being chatty and observant, but there are moments when she displays an ability to etch quiet grief: “The dark here was familiar to John, more familiar than any other dark, anywhere else in the world”. It’s not clear why she felt the need to lay it on so thick with Sandhya — her Caribbean-London roots, her cancer-survivor narrative, her tragically aborted love story all seem unfortunately tacked on to a leaner, cleaner book. In fact, there’s something strangely tacked on about the weight loss theme itself — as if the publishers think women these days will only buy a novel if it’s dressed up as self-help. The revelation is that this is a sort of self-help book — but what it might help you shed is the weight of the world.

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