A fleeting pleasure

The Pleasure Seekers Tishani Doshi Bloomsbury, 2010, pp 314, Rs 499

A fleeting pleasure

The heart of the story, around which the novel revolves, is the real-life romance between Doshi’s Gujarati father and Welsh mother. This involved a long, persistent and passionate correspondence; letters flew back and forth across the world carrying declarations of love and that is precisely what happens between Babo (Dharmesh) Patel, the one with the “jhill mill smile” and Sian Jones, the central couple in Doshi’s novel.

In the summer of 1968, 21 year old Babo Patel, oldest son of Prem Kumar and Trishala Patel of Madras, is sent to London to study at the Polytechnic and serve an apprenticeship in the offices of Joseph Freidman and Sons. He settles down remarkably quickly with none of the difficulties that migrants tend to encounter: he makes friends in office, moves out of his cousin Nat’s inhospitable home into the YMCA and very soon, falls in love with a secretary in office, the lovely Sian Jones of Nercwys village in Wales. Sian returns this ardent love and Babo is the happiest man on earth. He prepares to spend the rest of his life in the arms of this beautiful woman, in  the land of her birth, and even takes to meat-eating, a grave sin in his community of Jain Gujaratis, in the course of this
preparation.

At this point, the first obstacle appears. Nat and his wife Lila, send word to Madras of young Babo’s doings and he is tricked into coming back to India; he is told his mother is critically ill. Babo arrives to find his mother well and the family resolute in their opposition to his romance. Babo decides to give as good as he gets and takes to civil disobedience in an attempt to have his way. He stops washing and shaving, refuses to go to work at his father’s paint enterprise or participate in any family activity.

In the end, the family capitulates: they agree to allow Babo to have his Sian, if he can last six months without her. Babo agrees and dashes off to Anjar, in Gujarat, to his grandmother Ba’s village. Ba is a feisty old lady, “with a special talent that had come to her in her 53rd year”. She can smell things “from over the hills and far away” and smells Babo making his way to her. She is the only one sympathetic to his love and watches over her grandson as he whiles away the following six months, writing letters to and receiving ones with love, from Sian.

After six months of discomfort, things fall smoothly into place again. Sian arrives in Bombay, is taken to Madras and there proceeds to take her place as the elder daughter-in-law of the Patel family. There is some mild discomfort suffered again, in terms of not having the privacy the young couple craved, but even that is set right as they exit the family residence, Sylvan Lodge, to set up home in the house with  the orange and black gates in Rutl and Lane. Two daughters are born here, Mayuri and Beena ( Bean) and the story now develops a new intensity as the girls are followed into their tumultuous lives, lives certainly more eventful than their parents’ have been.

This story contained uncommon possibilities, all the ingredients were there: the story of love across the continents, family opposition, the perils a Welshwoman would have faced in her attempt to breach the walls of orthodox Gujarati society; even an earthquake. Somehow, all these elements were eventually put together in a distant, almost passionless manner.

Many a time a reader was told that certain feelings were being felt; for instance, that “melancholy had set in” ever since Sian had come to Sylvan Lodge but the reader was only distanced by such a remark. The real Sian was still left inaccessible. The only character perhaps, one could have reached, was Bean but even she, ultimately, was not fully comprehensible when she said “she wanted something definitive to happen to her.”
An aspect of the writing that jars is the author’s frequent use of phrases such as jhill mill, rhim zhim and khat phat, among others. This determined insertion does little for the narrative and one wishes the author had flexed her poetic muscles more effectively.
This is, in the end, a story that leaves the reader wanting more, much more.

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