Haunted by the past

Haunted by the past

Lead review

Haunted by the past

Emotional: The bond between a mother and child.With this book, Jaishree Misra completes her commissioned trilogy of books. As with the previous ones, she shuttles between countries with her protagonists; in this case, England and India. The author drew her inspiration for this book from the story of the British politician, Claire Short, who gave up her son for adoption, when young, and had a grand reunion after the boy turned 18. This is the official age at which adopted children in Britain are provided access to their birth records, if they choose to ask for them.

In A Scandalous Secret, the life of Neha Chaturvedi, the protagonist, is turned upside down when a secret from her student days comes back to haunt her. Like with Jaishree’s other stories, this one also revolves around the lives of the rich and the famous.

Despite Neha and Sharat Chaturvedi being a childless couple, they live a picture-perfect high-society life, which is now threatened by the arrival of a letter from the UK. 

The writer, Sonya, has a link with what Neha imagined would be her buried past. The chapters juxtapose between Sonya’s life in England and Neha’s in Delhi in a seamless fashion. Jaishree is a wizard with words and holds the reader’s interest, as she builds up the suspense while slowly explaining the circumstances leading up to the arrival of the letter.

The novel deals with secrets and lies, starting with the first one that she tells her parents about why she does not want to return to Oxford to complete her studies; her great dream as also that of her father’s. While Misra’s stories invariably involve deceptions, the subtle message that she conveys is that redemption can only come from telling the truth. Also, in some way, the novel seems to hint at retribution, as Neha views her childless state as a punishment for giving up her baby for adoption.

In the last chapter, the reader is informed that Alastair, who is responsible for Neha’s miseries, has “fallen on hard times”. But here it is unclear why Neha is made to feel “strangely sick” rather than gloating that “divine justice had been done”.

When Neha decides to confess her past to her dear friend, Jasmeet, she is surprised to learn of Jasmeet’s secrets. Using Jasmeet, the author puts forth the interesting idea that most people have skeletons in their cupboards, and secrets: “All those marriages that I thought were perfect when I was growing up; they had all suffered some trauma or the other at some point. Not necessarily affairs, but problems of some sort.  And all of them kept it a secret.”

Besides Jasmeet and Sharat, the other characters who make an impact are Laura and Richard Shaw, the childless British couple who adopt Sonya and love her to death. Their anxieties about Sonya wanting to make the trip to India with friend Estella, to find her birth mother, are understandable, as also Laura’s fears that they may lose Sonya.

In an interview, Jaishree had mentioned that her timeline for each book was a year and this might have affected her characterisations. This rings true in the unexplored emotional connection between Neha and Sonya. Also, the convoluted way in which Sonya is made to realise how she has escaped a fate similar to that of her mother’s at Oxford, is disappointing. These, however, can be glossed over, as overall Misra weaves a fine tale about how secrets from the past can cast an ominous shadow over one’s present.

A scandalous secret
Jaishree Misra
Harper Collins
2011, pp 378
Rs. 299

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