The activity of writing has been democratized. Everyone can write. Writing is no more the privilege of privileged courtiers or ivory tower scholars. This is absolutely heartening. Chethana Ramesh is a debutante novelist from Bengaluru. The name of her first novel is 'The Blue Phoenix'. The interesting story revolves around a young woman Neela who works in a private sector company in Bengaluru. The reader cannot help but wonder if the author is partly living her own life in the pages.
The novel begins with a prologue and the prologue contains the turning point-pain of the novel. The heroine is cruelly deserted by her lover. Immediately one recognizes that this novel is about the pain of love. Love in the current world has gone complicated. The most basic of human emotions, love is a casualty of societal rules, status, outward looks, money and what not. As the novel progresses, the lurking pain does not leave. Neela is a tall, robust, young, working woman living in Bengaluru. For once I prayed that the pages might portray a positive picture of society but it is hardly so. The society, the relatives and neighbors- all have a set expectation of a girlie life from Neela. Marriage remains the hallmark. The poor girl is hounded for being single and plump.
Her cousins and friends are getting married. The tension is mounting for her. Her financial freedom and her job satisfaction have no consideration with the conservative mindset. Marry, she must marry into the caste with a groom chosen by her parents. Girl watching scenes are part of her life where the girl is watched by prospective groom parties.
Societal roles are set. It is a man's world where the parents get a daughter married "off" by offering huge dowry. The scene of typical Bengaluru with endless traffic, jittery people, office hours a day professional deadlines for completing projects. The reader has "been there, done that'' feeling. Everything is simmering so to say. Everything is perfectly imperfect. The girl is dark and fat, striving and struggling. The office is full of jealous, competitive co-workers. The family is demanding and totally unaware of mental nuances. That is how life is - crude, raw, incomplete, and half. Youngsters are losing hair and growing grey hairs. Everybody is running around tension filled. In the midst, we have our heroine who is tall, compassionate and efficient. Then comes the big boss, Ashwin Nanda. He is the catch. He is the prize. Patriarchy has ingrained it on the collective psyche that a woman gets everything through getting hold of the prized man. That is the way. That is how it is done.
A handsome man. A powerful man. A rich man. Neela is floored and so are other ladies. But Neela is genuine. Others are not. It is a predictable plot. Both fall in love. They are in the seventh heaven. He proposes. She accepts. He has lurking doubts. He is a megalomaniac. He cruelly dumps her days before their proposed marriage. From this point the novel gets more real, palpable and effective. The pain of Neela feels real. She is inconsolable. She goes into depression. She has the symptoms. She forgets. She fumbles. She overeats.
There is a subplot developing in the parallel universe. The heroine cannot fall flat. There are arms waiting for her when she falls. There is a mildly disabled Nakul associated with charity work of Neela. That story develops as it should.
The real worth of this novel lies in its minute observations. When Neela gives a public speech, she is shaking from inside and yet is able to present a confident and composed impression. It is so very true. I can vouch for the feeling. Obesity, body shaming and our constant struggle with weight is so realistically described in this novel. "Her smile froze at once, as she gazed at her large frame, particularly at her tummy which refused to stay obscure despite her loose fitting salwar. She turned to hide her side and grimaced at her large bottoms and tried not to squirm at the thunder thighs that challenged her to tell herself once more, that she was just pleasantly plus or simply well rounded or whatever lies that overweight people across the world tell themselves regularly." (14) Such are the brutal sentences. Everyday truth is not compromised.
Half of India is forever worried about marriage, dowry, childbirth and related issues. There is too much family pressure on Neela to fit into the given box. Gossip has reached new levels with whatsapp coming handy. It is all too middle class. Domestic bickering is such a hopeless situation.
Neela is unassuming and efficient. The society conditioned to male domination for centuries and centuries finds it odd to meet a level headed, rational, talented woman. Chethana Ramesh writes a d I quote, "A really strong man wants a woman who is equal to him. A weak and insecure man wants a brainless trophy wife..., quoted Dr. Stephen Juan, Anthropologist on the Today Show. The men of the twenty-first century want highly educated, self-assured, independent women.
Kudos to Mark Zuckerberg and George Clooney, the strong men of today, thought Neela. It was about time more Indian men followed in their footsteps and dared to marry successful, albeit glamorous career women. It isn't that the stronger are non-existent in our society, just that they seem to be too few and far between to make a palpable difference in the loves of most educated women, especially outside the cosmopolitan cities." (25-26)
I can vouchsafe for the truth of these words.
There is a short stint of a fairy tale in Neela's life. The linking danger is always evident. Typical Indian, typical Bengaluru-ian and typical girl stuff is so familiar and enjoyable. Beaded necklaces and the art of bargaining in "haats" bring a smile to the reader's face. The man occupies a powerful position. It all comes in one package, man, promotion, promise of marriage just as a woman would want it. All the while parallel narratives run highlighting inbuilt prejudices of our society, caste consciousness and donation to Christian organizations. Things are remarkable in a text only if one pays heed to them.
The tale continues. We are not allowed to forget glaring differences in being a girl and a boy in our society. "It was incredible. Here she was the same age as him. His parents barely knew what he was up to at any point of time, except when he joined them for dinner every once in a while. And here was this woman, intelligent, financially independent woman, who was so totally answerable to her parents." (37-38)
The model code of conduct is always and forever applicable to women. There are questions we all know, "Did marriage kill a woman's desire for other men?" (41) The honesty of the author is amusing.
Cities have peculiar pasts. There are typical stories associated with cities. " (Neela's father) was still fond of recounting stories of how he would sprint across the graveyards at Wilson garden and follow a straight path to get to Jayanagar. There were no roads, no barricades, just trees and rough countryside." (42)
Bengaluru is a benevolent city. The character of the city is assimilating. Bengaluru is a direct contrast to Chennai, "... she couldn't imagine living in a place where people refused to speak any other language other than their own." (43)
Height is a constant topic in this novel. Neela is tall. She is the odd one out. Our society is so used to tall brothers and dwarf sisters, well fed boys to starve, sacrificing girls that a tall, confident girl looks an aberration.
It is difficult for a girl to be as tall as the tall boys in town.
Neela is too much of a woman. She is not easy to handle. She has a heart of gold. She is into charity and helping others. She is unaffected by the wealth and position of Ashwin. He is flabbergasted that she is not even proud of catching him. She is not even boasting of landing with the rich guy. She is a woman who actually eats and loves eating. This is just unbelievable for Ashwin. She is a born storyteller. I cannot but think amusingly that the author reflects herself through the character of Neela.
On the other hand we have Ashwin's mother. She is a typical financially high class woman who has not nurtured her child herself. Ashwin has been brought up by Ayahs. She is diamond stuck. Her eyes are cruelly chilling.
Women too can be cruel, beastly and vain.
We have an honest depiction of the middle class. Forever worried about EMI, indian households are dens of drama. " Tears streamed down her cheeks now. She looked down at the floor in shame. And then, she pulled herself together, and a determination crept into in her eyes when she said, I'm marrying him...
There was utter silence except for Neela's soft sobs. Then Ajji exploded." (85)
People's obsession with going to "Amreeka", overdoing weight loss tactics, a girl searching for a rich guy to get things, the dirty tricks powerful men apply in hunting women - nothing is spared. What has struck me most in this novel is the honesty of the author. She has spoken truthfully. Neela has a counter voice within her, her conscience named Devil. The Devil is a good device to keep the girl grounded. She is grounded in reality. Once Neela is cruelly left by Ashwin, the novel only gets more effective. The pain is palpable. Love is pain especially for the young. The girl is in depression. She is forgetful of things. Life loses its meaning. We realize that humans are deeply vulnerable. We may take a grandiose view of ourselves but we need loving people, we need a motive to go about our routine life. Neela is lost. She is actually lost. She does not return home one evening. Her heart and mind numb, she forgets her cellular phone at home only. As the evening advances, the family, the mother, the bystanding lover, everyone gets panicky. The lady goes missing. She finally finds herself both figuratively and actually while saving the life of an abandoned female newborn. This is so symbolic. The unwanted girl child is left to die. Neela saves her. Neela saves herself by saving the child. This is the turning point of her life. She recovers herself. She has learnt her lessons. Slowly but surely she stands on her feet once again, goes back to office, meets Ashwin and realizes that she has won the battle. "No feelings at all, whatsoever, towards this man who had won a d then broken her heart." (215)
Pain shapes a person. It is the strength provider of life. The pain of the mother is also well described. Kamala, Neela's mother, is a better person after the trauma. "She made the resolution that night when Neela hadn't returned from work. The day she realized how her daughter meant to her, how much more her happiness mattered, how little the society cares. She would support her daughter henceforth, no matter what." (202)
A supportive mother is the best thing in the world.
There are many sides to one human. A man in love is different from a man running an office. The same person has many sides. This fact is well caught in this novel. Overall it is a deftly written, well paced and finely plotted novel. It holds the interest of the reader. It is to be remembered that this is the first novel by Chethana Ramesh. I truly wish that she crosses more subtle boundaries as a fiction writer. I truly wish that she does not become repetitive or slave to stereotypes. If she ever asks me, I would like to tell her that great fiction does not spell out everything. Many things are better hinted at than articulated. I can see a good author shaping in Chethana Ramesh.