Glories and whimsies of 70s Delhi

This is a delicious coming-of-age novel in which silence is loud and love for an era gone by is not whitewashed by facile nostalgia.
Last Updated : 30 April 2023, 00:21 IST

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Too little is said of book titles. This one is brilliant, establishing an instant connect with its audience as a play on the skin-whitening product aimed at the collective subcontinent skin colour fixation.

On the eve of her departure to the US for higher studies at Penn State, Mallika, the unblemished, walks up to Arnav’s rented barsaati at five in the morning and stays with him for an hour only to be caught by the strict landlady Mrs D’Souza on her way out. She is decked up, has on dark lipstick, and despite her nightly adventure, her reputation is so solid that she is let off with mere heartfelt advice. Yet, in their tiny interwoven locality, it is but a matter of time before her mothers (yes, plural) come to know. In fear, Mallika begins retelling her backstory.

Genre is the reviewer’s burden: in declaring it, much of the unspoken in the book may be lost. In a sense, Fear and Lovely by Anjana Appachana is a coming-of-age novel that veers rather deliciously into a tangled romance somewhere after the midpoint. It is ambitious too, in structure and content. This romance does not present a straight-line narrative where the boy meets the girl and the inevitable happens. Strands of many lives and their backstories flit through the storyline. The few events that impact Mallika are told and retold by a recurring cast of characters albeit with too few additions to the known facts until the narrative swells to 500 pages that a deft storyteller would edit to half this volume.

Stark realities

While the Supreme Court is currently hearing a petition on gay marriage in India, the underground river within this novel takes a life of its own as it deals with the stark realities of gay men in the repressive environment of the 70s. Entwined in Mallika’s loving relationship with her neighbour Randhir is the secret of his brother-in-law Shekhar. Both these men are closeted gay and while one chooses heterosexual marriage as his form of escape from scrutiny, the other finds respite in the anonymity of American student life at Pennsylvania. Loneliness, fear, and forced fakery mar their lives. The only failing in god-like Randhir is his refusal to act on his love for Mallika, to marry at all and that, unfortunately, makes him a sort of villain to everyone including Mallika. Shekhar is a villain too, for marrying Mahima. In this fictional world, it seems men are born only to pleasure women. And their stories, like their lives, hover at the margins of the narrative. Mallika and Randhir’s easy dovetailing into each other’s lives also serves as a warning to their friend Arnav to not venture where his heart seems to be tugging him.

This is Delhi in the 70s in all its glories and whimsies. The lingo, the gossip, the bonhomie within ‘colonies’, the all-too-familiar Doordarshan, the rock-pop music that blares into the night and the political turmoil of the Emergency — all find their spot in this retelling, soaking the reader with deep nostalgia for life as it was, but a nostalgia that is not too simplistic.

The author’s strength lies in the excellent writing of scenes where two people in love are thrown together: at a party, during a bike ride or for ice-cream outings. The tenderness, the subterranean swell of desires, and the emotions that must be camouflaged all are portrayed with great perception and balance. Also on point are the accents of the aunties — unadulterated Dilli in their mannerisms and thinking. This is a seasoned writer: a mistress of the deft touch, the understated and whose silence speaks louder. She excels in weaving into the frame a range of subjects not usually touched upon in the 70s: depression, unwed mothers or abortion, desire and sex, deeply incompatible marriages, alternate sexuality, rape and violence. The flaws — and these are mere edit level — moomphalis for peanuts aka moongphali or ‘North Indian’ classical for Hindustani classical music. And it is not red chillies, garlic and ‘rye’ used for removing nazar but rapeseed or rai. Also, basic research; for example, men’s hostels in IIT Delhi did not allow women guests in the 70s or 80s. This is the kind of book to read and pass on to your besties for it celebrates friendships that moor and love that is all-consuming.

Published 29 April 2023, 19:43 IST

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