For as long as Parvati Sharma can remember, every summer vacation during her teens was spent at a desk, as she toiled over her novel, writing and discarding drafts that were doomed from the beginning. The young writer would resume the school year and it would be a few months before another summer rolled by, and another attempt made at scratching out a story on the page. Nearly 15 years after those first tentative stabs at writing, Sharma is now ready to exhale as her debut novel, Close to Home (Penguin Zubaan), is out. Her second offering after the short story collection, Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love (2010), Close to Home took four years and six drafts to come into its own.
“The English writer Alan Hollinghurst said in an interview that when you’re younger, you grow out of ideas before thinking them through. The same happened to me, I just didn’t have the stamina to hold on to a thought,” says Sharma, 36, at her home in New Friends Colony in Delhi. The living room is peppered with artifacts from the family’s travels across the world: her parents are retired bureaucrats and Sharma spent a large part of her early years travelling with them through Europe and Asia. The family stead is spacious and yet, it seems as though the books it houses have taken over every bit of space — in the hallway, on a row of built-in shelves in the bedroom, where some spines stand sturdy and straight while others lean against each other. This is a reader’s paradise and a writer’s safe haven.
“I began writing short stories when I was about 30 and once those were published, people were nice about it. When I began writing again, I was acutely aware of how I was a writer now. It’s what I have always wanted to call myself, what I really want to do. But I suffered from a bloated sense of self which made me very conscious and I couldn’t write. I wondered, was this the only book I was going to write?” she says. But once she got over it, Sharma began mapping out the semi-charmed existence of Mrinalini Singh, a young woman who, at the beginning of the novel, is indulging in a wispy lesbian love affair with her flatmate and friend Jahanara in their barsati in Jangpura.
The two drink cheap alcohol, muse over thumris on lazy afternoons and share an intimacy that does not bleed into Mrinalini’s primary relationship with her boyfriend Siddhartha. She possesses an effortless ability to buy groceries for her shared life with Jahanara and make time to call her fiance in private; there is nary an upset in the delicate balance of her life.
“She’s not the most likeable person in the world but I did not want her to be an evil person. She’s got some little remains of a conscience,” says Sharma, who worked with Tehelka briefly and is a consultant with Goodearth Publications, where she is currently working on a children’s book on the Mughal emperor Babur.
Sharma is known for her spare prose and her quiet, unhurried and humorous style which brings to the fore characters who are fallible but unerringly real. In Close to Home, Mrinalini marries Siddhartha and settles into happy domesticity in their New Friends Colony home, the hours in the day drawn out by playing with Anjali, the help’s daughter, drinking vodka in the evenings and occasionally hammering out a few pages on MS Word whenever she recalls her latent ambition to be a writer.
All is well till she takes a keen interest in Anjali’s education and what ensues is a tussle that threatens to shake the foundation of Mrinalini’s happy home.
“I wanted to create a character who was not particularly sensitive to the class divide but was well-intentioned. This is a world that I know about and am privy to, and it is feudal, vicious and horrendously unequal but we prop it up because it props us up,” says Sharma. The book explores the inequalities in the household, between the breadwinner and the homemaker, the employer and the help and the complicated ways in which guilt rears its head and changes the course of several lives. “I wanted to look at the way power works inside the home, between those who appear to have it and those who don’t,” she says. The novel also weaves in a constant, yet subtle dialogue about national politics and personal ambitions. “Increasingly, I think a lot of people are impatient with the poor, with socialism. There’s this urge to charge ahead, ‘develop’, make lots of money. There is a lot that happens in between,” she says.
Is it a Delhi book then? “It is. It is set in the city, in this neighbourhood and the characters treat the state as an avuncular entity. But it’s not based on any single family as such,” she says.