Chained memories

Secrets & lies

,
Jaishree Misra
HarperCollins, 2009,
pp 406, Rs 275


If only Jaishree Misra’s latest novel, Secrets & Lies, had more gumption and less Gucci, it would have made a compelling read. The Anna Sui stilletos, the slinky Roberto Cavalli dresses and super luxurious cars like the Maybach, that pepper the privileged landscape, leave very little room for her beleaguered heroines to strike a richer and more enduring connection with the reader.

Of course, the fascination with the behaviour of the bored rich is mildly entertaining. And so are the quirky conversations, which allow Misra to respond to the real world. But it’s the manner in which her protagonists realign their priorities and face facts — in this case sordid as well as not-so-sordid secrets — that rescues both the book and the writer.
Secrets & Lies, the first of a three-book deal Misra has with Harper Collins-India, is about four school friends — Anita, Zeba, Bubbles and Sam — whose friendship, forged in a posh Delhi girls’ school, spans 20 years. The four come together to confront a secret that has haunted them all their lives — friend Lily D’Souza's mysterious death on the night of the school prom.

A word of caution here, don’t expect too many secrets to come rattling out of dorm closets. By the time you’re halfway through the book, you would have worked out most yourself. The narrative technique, which Misra employs, helps carry the story forward, spanning not just two decades but two continents as well. Delhi, Mumbai and London, the cities, where the story is set, become living, breathing characters.

As you flip the pages, you will be struck by how physical attractiveness plays a large part in how women are valued socially, especially when they are trophy wives like Sam and Bubbles; and how for men like Akbar and Binkie, age enhances their most valued assets, their earnings potential and achievement in the public sphere. You will then cringe at some clichés. For instance, there is the description of the Hindi film industry as a place where lecherous men abound and coquettish starlets try extra hard to please. And then, there’s Anita, the brainiest in the group, who has no hearth-and-home obsessions like Sam or Bubbles. But she has her meltdown moments and they have more to do with overcooked pasta and a hungry boyfriend than with the struggles of an independent, self-made career girl battling glass ceilings.

If you do not allow yourself to be sidetracked by dreary details from the domestic sphere, you will come to admire the compassionate teacher Victoria Lamb’s unexpected heroism, the women’s reassessment of relationships with friends and family, the merciful absence of any of the grown women collapsing into hysterical tears, and Zeba’s liberating ‘freedom’ jig on the plush foam mattress of a five-star hotel as the girl gang cheers her on. At the end, there is an awakening, however partial, to a powerful truth: They — as women, wives, daughters and mothers — aren’t the problem; they’re the solution.

You will also be impressed by Misra’s brutally honest description of Indian families like the Malhotras that cannot let go of a daughter, let her become a grown-up and start treating her with individual respect, unless she is married — preferably to money. They think of Bubbles as an unfinished project, completed only when they see her swathed in red and gold.

Forgive me the random thought, but there is a movie here in the making. After all, there are enough divas nestling between the pages to populate several Bollywood potboilers.

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