Three Parts Desire is a dark book about love,longing and loss. In fact,loss drives the characters of this tale.
It is a story of three generations of women and the central protagonist is Didi. As an over-protected 22-year-old,she finds herself in New York in the 1950s when her father is offered an assignment with the UN. She manipulates her indulgent mother Mem to allow her freedom generally not offered to an Indian girl at the time. This allows her to meet and fall in love with an American but she is pressured into marrying a boy of her familys choice back home in India. On her wedding night,however,she chooses to tell her husband Purushottam of her indiscretion and pregnancy and this secret destroys their relationship even before it gets a chance to develop. Didis daughter Baby is accepted by the family but not the man she considers her father,and she grows into a wilful,restless and independent girl.
Her life is moulded by her mothers decision to leave 3 Chor Bagh the house Didi married into without any explanation. This impacts her relationship with the men in her life,leading her to a path of self-destruction where anger and confusion are never below the surface. The only steadying influence in their lives is the maid Sita who entered their home when Mem was a young wife. She serves as the moral compass to the women and constant companion.
This is a story wide in scope and big in the telling. It moves effortlessly from New York to New Delhi as it chronicles the life and times of unusual women with unusual strength and resolve. Bajpais experience as a journalist holds her in good stead when she weaves the political events from the 1950s to the end of the 1980s into the novel. However,it is done deftly and plays a secondary role to the development of her characters. Even when the Emergency is brought up,it is more as a catalyst for the meeting with Baby and Kartik.
What is also really interesting is the fact that the central characters are deliberately left unnamed,as if to imbue them with a sense of Everywoman. And it works well. This absence of names in a sense is reflective of the role that women are assigned in society,even today. For example,Baby points to the fact that women are referred to as Baby till they get married.
Three Parts Desire is a curiously old-fashioned book and is written in that tone. The dialogue between the characters is filled with colloquialisms that are peculiar to the way we speak English and again kudos to Bajpai who has a very sensitive ear and uses the language to demonstrate the complexity and layering of a middle-class home at the time. She has a superb understanding of the dynamics of an Indian family and handles it very subtly. For instance,the growing relationship between Bhai and Didi that ends in a love affair. Or,the final revelation of the terrible secret that drove Didi away from 3 Chor Bagh. The disappointments and resentments are all handled with unusual depth and the characters are beautifully fleshed out. If there is a flaw,it lies in the authors liberal use of adjectives. So everything is over-described,from the colour of the skin to the fall of a saris pallu. But,in a strange way,it isnt disturbing as it works with the way the stories are told and lives unfold.
Shailaja Bajpai is a consulting editor with The Indian Express