It is a story in two parts. The first part takes place in a small town in India and it is about people with typical middle class values, habits and tendencies. It is the story of a harried mother and father (referred to as one entity or mamapapa )with two daughters Uma and Aruna and a son Arun who is born late, when his mother has reached middle age.
Uma is the bumbling eldest daughter who wears thick glasses and occasionally gets fits. She can do nothing right, whether at studies, home keeping or cooking. The author has painted her very bleakly. The only joy she has lies in her collection of Christmas cards given to her by her Christian school teachers.Her education is cut short when the brother is born and she is needed to look after the baby.The few people who try to give some meaning to her life are frowned upon by her parents.
Her parent’s greatest worry is to get her married. The first groom who comes to see her prefers her prettier younger sister. The second groom swindles the dowry money and calls off the engagement on the pretext of wanting to study further. She gets married to the third proposal brought for her, but that too ends in a divorce as it is found later that the groom is already married and had hoodwinked Uma’s family for the dowry. So Uma is at home with her parents more like an unpaid servant jumping to serve their every need. She is a typical middle class woman who bears her lot stoically, like Indian cattle, a beast of burden!
Her sister Aruna is beautiful and clever and makes a good match and lives life on her terms.
Arun the darling son is expected to study and win laurels for the family.
The first part deals with the lives of these commonplace characters.
There are a few other characters in the novel, like the religious aunt and the nephew who is considered a wastrel. Then there is also the cousin Anamika who is everything that Uma is not, yet has a fate worse than Uma. She gets a scholarship to study in Oxford but her parents get her married as is expected by Indian standards. Her husband’s family ill-treat her for twenty-five years. Finally she dies of burn injuries, self induced or otherwise as is hinted at. The first part of the novel ends with her ashes being immersed in the holy river.
My thoughts on the first part: I did not enjoy reading the first part. For one, we in India have seen, heard, read about and lived with such characters that we cannot find anything new in their stories to interest us. It is almost as if the novelist has heaped every form of abuse that an Indian woman can possibly go through, except maybe rape, on the female characters in the novel. Many middle class Indian woman do lead happy contented lives, you know!
Maybe readers from other countries will be fascinated with the portrayal of Indian woman and think, ‘we are like this only.’
The second part is set in USA. It is chiefly about Arun the pampered son who has issues with socially interacting with people. To top it he is a vegetarian. He has to live with an American family for a month during vacation when the hostels are closed. The second part deals with this period in his life. The typical American family seems normal on the surface but dig deeper, everything is wrong. What the author wants to showcase is that despite the plenty in America and the freedom to live life as they please they are not happy. The mother who takes pleasure in shopping and over stuffing her freezer, the father who is content with beer and barbecue, the son who spends a lot of time jogging and the daughter with Bulimia seem very stereotypical.
The author tries to expose two opposites, pressurized Indian women (fasting) and American women who have much freedom(feasting) who in the final analysis are prisoners of their systems.
Overall, the style of the novel is too simple with hardly any gripping lines or turn of phrase that reverberate in your mind after you have closed the book. I did not relate to any of the characters in the novel. They were like puppets merely playing a pre assigned role.
If this story were to be taken as a movie it would make a low budget tear jerker from the black and white era.
Would I recommend this novel?