Shailaja Bajpai, Three Parts Desire

In last week’s TSG. I’m rarely this entirely negative about a book but I didn’t get along with this one at all. On the paper’s website here, or slightly edited below:

 

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Is it possible to write a successful novel in which the main characters have no names? (Yes). Is it possible to write a successful novel in which practically all of the characters are unpleasant? (Yes). Is it possible to do both of these things while writing a saas-bahu saga? At this point it all breaks down.

Shailaja Bajpai’s Three Parts Desire is a multi-generational saga about the life of “Didi” (her only name, given to her by her maid and lifelong companion Sita), the daughter of “Mem”. As a young girl Didi travels to America, where she tastes freedom (in the form of friends, movies and champagne) and has a brief affair with an American boy before returning to India to be forced into an arranged marriage. Confessing her carnal experience to her new husband Purushottam, or Purush (literally “man”; even he cannot be given a real name) turns out to be a bad idea. By the time Didi’s daughter “Baby” has been born, the marriage has fallen apart.

When the story opens, Didi has been separated from her husband for some years, and is living with Sita in a small house on a hill station. Skipping back and forth in time the novel moves between Didi’s disastrous marriage and (the now adult) Baby’s attempts to understand the events leading up to the point where her mother left the family home. There is no great mystery involved here; knowing what we do of Didi’s past life, at least part of the story is obvious.

Simultaneously the novel explores Baby’s relationship with Karthik, whom she meets at university. Karthik is almost unique in the book in having a name of his own. He is also probably the closest this novel comes to a sympathetic character, and he is almost excruciatingly worthy. Baby is perpetually angry, Sita’s narrow-minded moralising is grating rather than endearing, Purush is repulsive and Didi and Som Devi, both complex characters, are frustratingly under-explored.

Characters talk like no one on earth. Didi is curious about how Karthik “[met] that beautiful but self-willed daughter of mine”. She describes her own sindoor as her “red signpost […] it tells everyone who I am”. The difficulty of creating an authentic sounding speech in English literature for characters who are clearly speaking a different language has produced some howlers in the past, and it does so here again. Som Devi’s speech is peppered with “I am telling”, and Mem insists that her husband must be “here-there” before calling the domestic help “an ulloo, Hari Prasadji, bilkul ulloo!”

Matters aren’t helped by Bajpai’s apparent fondness for the most jarring of similes. Karthik’s life “had been abruptly disconnected like a telephone line with an unpaid bill”. Later, when his hand is injured, “the blood was smeared ketchup on finger chips”. Baby goes one up (and again we have the awkward switch from one language to another) when she licks his bleeding knuckles. “’Karela,’ she observed, ‘your blood tastes of bitter gourd’”.

Then there are the overwrought bits of symbolism (for example, a long paragraph in which Baby watches a bird dithering between security and freedom before it chooses to commit suicide by flying into a tree trunk).

And there are turns of phrase from the narrative itself that are bizarre. On the very first page of the book we meet a shop assistant with “a charcoal smudge moustache and an Adam’s apple straining out of his neck”.

An un-likeable character is not necessarily a bad one and there are good stories to be told here. We are told little of Baby’s time in America, but the little we do know makes her character far more complex. Karthik’s difficulties with his family and his desire to do the right thing could make for a good character arc. Didi and Som Devi, as I mention above, are grey characters deserving of a lot more insight. And insight is what this book lacks the most – there are characters and relationships that may seem inconsequential on the surface, but are worthy of exploring; yet the book seems uninterested in doing this. It’s hard to tell exactly what it is that the novel and its author are interested in doing. The choice to give these characters universal names might imply a deliberate movement away from focusing on their individual personalities, but why? Three Parts Desire meanders through the lives of these unlikeable people, telling us next to nothing about them. For a novel that is quite long (over four hundred pages) it has very little to say.

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*Do I need a glossary for this? Briefly:
“Didi” – older sister; “Purush” – male; “sindoor” – this; “bilkul ullu” – literally a complete owl, but she just means he’s an idiot; “karela” – bitter gourd; “saas-bahu” – mother-in-law–daughter-in-law dynamics, but no glossary is enough to really explain this.

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