Con Sequence

Con Sequence

‘Priya’ is nothing like ‘Paro’,but it captures Delhi’s inflections and idiosyncrasies

Into this summer of sequels has drifted another one. Sequels,as we all know,are frequently a futile effort to capture the flavour or the impact of an experience one can really only have once. Namita Gokhale’s followup to Paro manages to avoid that trap by being,essentially,an entirely different sort of effort. It is like reading a 1980s novel on Wall Street excesses featuring an older Holden Caulfield as a piratical takeover artist,or a spy story about a grown-up Huck Finn in the American Civil War. Nothing remains to hold on to but the names.

Where Paro was tight and densely plotted,Priya sprawls. Where Paro grins wryly,Priya grins widely. Where Paro lightly suggests a time and place,Priya revels in it. So different is everything about the books,it is almost a mistake to read them together.

Re-reading Paro is to understand once again what made it one of the most memorable India novels of the 1980s. The garish,compulsively watchable Paro,the despicable lawyer Suresh and the slowly awakening Priya were characters that seemed perfect for the times that they were written,and still have the power to move you nearly three decades on. Why,then,do Priya and Suresh,when we see them again in the sequel,retain very little of that? Priya has become tiresome,her endless self-questioning and truth-telling has become petty and self-delusional. What was charmingly contemptible in young Suresh,a petty lawyer with petty ambitions,is more disturbing and somehow flatter,and less human,in older Suresh,minister of state for food processing (with independent charge). The characters are,frankly,a letdown.

Nor does the book move as it should. I just finished reading it,and I’m already forgetting the plot; some developments come out of nowhere,some are too pat entirely,some are too predictable. All I know is that Priya started the book married and with two unmarried sons; and ended it married and with one son married and one never likely to. Whatever happened in between was just a peg on which to hang conversation and commentary.


Ah,but what conversation. And what commentary. Where Priya is immeasurably superior to Paro is in the effortlessness with which it deploys jargon for humour. Delhi-speak,for example,the endless succession of letters — CPWD,OSD,FM,CBI,2G — causing Priya too,at one point,to say about acronyms that “you don’t survive,if you don’t know the code”. Priya’s own voice has become slightly pompous and self-important,obsessed with being almost one of the 800 people that matter in India; but the other voices she hears make up for it. The new character we’re supposed to think of as post-liberalisation Paro — Pooonam,with three Os — isn’t half the tragic,attractive figure Paro was. I suppose we are expected to make a careful analysis of how the different way they use and are used by men,how Pooonam is far more effective a climber than Paro ever was,how Paro used her femininity and Pooonam uses photocopies and SMS campaigns; but frankly,you’re unlikely to bother. Pooonam is a bit of a bore.

Few other things in the book are boring,though. The compromises,intellectual and otherwise,that Delhi’s elite make to become one of the almost-800 are carefully observed and relayed to us,often in the words that are used to evade the awful knowledge of what they are. At one point Suresh — minister of state for food processing (with independent charge),lest we forget — lectures Priya on processed food and the age of advanced food technology. Priya snaps,and says something about Kalahandi and starvation. I am afraid that it was with irritable self-knowledge that I laughed aloud at Suresh’s concerned reply: “Of course I know about the imbalances in the pattern of our agricultural development.”

Priya is full of such very Delhi,angry,self-mocking humour: the Muslim driver who stops,mid-drive,to pray,and can never be reproached for fear of appearing communal; the son with a scholarship to some third-rate art school in the US that’s paid for by an American retail supermarket chain; the numerologist convinced that a name-change to “Indyaa” will make us a superpower; the bit where Priya responds to her son wondering whether she should find him a guru by saying loftily that “the guru will find you”,and thinking to herself that Indian spirituality “is like a game of table tennis,one just has to know how to return the ball”. Or this conversation,in Mumbai: “‘Dharavi is growing very fast indeed’,my brother declared righteously,as though the credit for this accrued somehow to him.”

Paro,too,was a creature of its,and her,time. That book — with its hotel bookshops,bouffants and Formica,tape recorders from Dubai,money plants in planters,ministers’ private secretaries getting people telephones — is practically an artefact. But in that book,the lives,too,seemed bound in the restrictions of the time.

Perhaps Priya will be read 30 years from now as a perfect descriptor of its time. If not,it will be because there’s too much in it,even 26/11 taking away one beloved character. But compare the books today,and you realise one thing that Gokhale may not want you to think,and one that she does. The first: people’s lives are,regardless of the constant nods at India’s horrendous inequality,freer than they were,and getting freer still. The second: that where earlier characters had to surrender to their times,today they have to compromise with them.

I don’t know which one I’d prefer. I suspect that Priya doesn’t either.