Painfully ever after

Painfully ever after

A pack of lies: Urmilla Deshpande Tranquebar,2009,  pp 291, Rs 295

The idea of home as a mirage and the futility of family, friendship and life itself is what is both surprising and familiar in Urmilla Deshpande’s debut novel A Pack of Lies. Her heroine Ginny hovers in the limbo that lies between her estranged parents and struggles to make sense of her journey through various homes across various continents with a carefully cultivated air of resignation beneath which lurks a hungry need to love and be loved.

The dark and twisty maze through which Ginny travels from India to Japan to Sri Lanka to Canada is thick with betrayal, hope and smoke from rolled joints, and it’s populated by a diverse gallery of eccentrics. There’s Kamal, the ‘calendar’ photographer with an insatiable appetite for young, firm flesh; there’s gentle Bijou who channels his rage at being confined to a wheelchair into breathtakingly beautiful paintings; there’s a wicked stepmother who gets cancer of the ovaries because she has locked up all her meanness within; and there’s Bree, full-time air hostess and part-time pin-up girl, who thinks her Bible-thumping mom’s beef chilli fry is a better companion than bestial boyfriends.

And of course, there’s Ginny’s mom, who shapes (and warps) the destiny of her daughters.

Inscrutable to her daughters but worshipped by the literary world, her moody silences and her drinking binges are an asset to the narrative, infusing it with sharp stabs of pain and guilt and such other natural emotions. She rubbishes the notion that mothers cherish all their children equally — or at least say they do, because she is certain that there’s more conflict than closeness between her daughters and herself.
With a child’s sense of wonder, Ginny recounts her charmed, prosperous life until her parents’ divorce spelled the end of her “lovely, secure world.” With a curious sense of detachment, she chronicles her subsequent journey to a tiny flat in Bombay where there is barely enough food and clothing but a vast sense of loneliness. Look out for the part where she describes the deep pleasure she feels while scarfing a simple dish of green beans served at the local Parsi orphanage.
Shaped by the shared survival instinct that allows them to press on in hard times, Ginny, her sister Millie and their half-sister Simi forge bonds which neither distance nor dreadful parents can weaken.

Though broody, dark, raw and riddled with pain, A Pack of Lies has its frothy moments: Ginny’s mom’s ‘let’s cook without cooking’ mantra — where meals involve decadent rituals such as slathering yellow, creamy butter on great hunks of shop-bought bread — make for delicious reading; and Ginny’s saucy, funny but truthful descriptions of sex take the sting out of failed relationships. She is hardly what you would call a happy girl but Ginny is unusually honest, and I think you’re going to want to spend as much time in her company as you can.

The best thing about the book is that you will reach the last page and still feel like you  haven’t completely figured out most of the characters. They are not as fraught with cliche as most fiction archetypes. There are no glowing lights at the end of the tunnel. In this, lies Urmilla Deshpande’s skill as a story teller.

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