- Karthik Narasimhan
Babyji, the second book by Abha Dawesar, revolves around its narrator Anamika, a high school student in Delhi who is precociously intelligent and more than a little promiscuous. Anamika's the type of girl that draws her insights from chaos theory and thinks of Black Holes and Sartre when watching people shit on streets; and carries on affairs with three different women at the same time while actively considering starting a couple more with men. A fascinating setup for an Indian novel, but sadly, most of the promise of Babyji ends with the premise.
Dawesar is adept at creating authentic characters, and there are plenty of those walking the chapters in Babyji. Anamika herself, a bit of a stretch for an Indian teen, is believable because she is so conflicted – mature woman one moment and clumsy child the next.
The writing – even if it is a bit gimmicky – is another plus on balance – the author can be impishly funny at times (“The air was a milky translucent color, like the cover of a Chinese dumpling”) and rather clever when she weaves in a lot of high school science into her narrative (“trapped in a benzene ring”, “I want to collapse my wave function into you”). Often though, she takes the irreverent humor a bit too far, and passages start to sound like entries to the Bulwer-Lytton contest, like this excerpt where Anamika is mulling over Ray Bradbury's Foghorn.
The story was lonely. It was the opposite of mine in someways because I had too many people in my life. But deep down it was my story, too. I had split myself like an atom into many electrons and neurons. Each subatomic particle danced with a different person and led its own life. But all of me, the whole me, did not exist for anyone but myself. On a day like today I was so alone I didn't feel whole, even from within.
In spite of the (mostly) clever writing and the believable characters, the overall narrative is contrived and awkward. It doesn't help that gags run through the length of the book, distracting from the main plot – Dawesar has Anamika call one of her lovers India, because “she is as vast and mysterious as” the country. Please. And for a plot this bold, the encounters between Anamika and her lovers are strained, mechanical, and laughably unerotic. Nothing salacious or steamy: sterile, like the coy, clothed sex in Indian movies of yore, with flowers covering kissing lips.
Babyji is a frenetic book with a lot of stuff happening, but events seem forced, transitions are jumpy and nothing binds events together. What could've been an irreverent coming of age story ends up a loose collection of clever gags. An easy read, but it probably won't get on this list.
“Lolita”, a review for Babyji had claimed, “would have debuted in this book if she were Indian.” Yeah right. Maybe a distant cousin of Lolita's, maybe if she was drunk.
Links: Abha Dawesar's blog.