- Karthik Narasimhan
The stories are more vignettes than conventional tales, vignettes centered around Bangalore and its high rollers – nouveau riche young men and women rolling in software money,rolling the occasional joint (and yes, the occasional roll in the hay, still seemingly rare) and generally living in a parallel universe removed from the rest of the populace. People that regularly spend more on a single meal than most of the people in the country make per month; Diesel wearing, Coach toting, Ray Ban peering folks walking around in the same city as people who cannot afford a saree a year. (Yes, I know about the trickle down effect, and am glad that the number of people that can afford such luxuries is growing and that more spending is good, but it still makes me feel queasy.)
In her eight stories, Sankaran tries to cover the entire spectrum of people that populate her universe – the smart geeks and the slick marketers, the timid wimps that do all the work and the aggressive unwimps that take credit for it, the self made and the daddy made; migrants to America, migrants from America and the parents of all these people (to provide a cross generational perspective), most of whom have a single purpose in life (or so it seems): to get their son or daughter married off as soon as possible.
Ramu studied the animated woman in front of him, a slight smile on his lips. And apart from the minor variances: his gender, darker skin color, the carefully trimmed goatee resting on his chin, and the worrisome hairline that danced away from his forehead in the coy manner that plagued so many men in their early thirties, it was practically a Mona Lisa smile – full of mystery and hidden amusement.
After this uncertain, stilted start to ‘Bombay This', the first story in the collection about a superficial-at-first-glance, but-actually-quite-deep girl from Bombay, a few techies and (yes) marriage, the stories steadily get better until the Red Carpet, and then they seem to get worse. Either that or ennui – it is different versions of the same people, and if you look closely enough, it is the same story repeated over and over again. And the author comes across as a little talkative: choosing to vividly describe things when hints would've done the job, probably part of trying to cater to a wide (phoreen) audience.
When Lavanya lets her guard down enough to throw in a few inside jokes, the book can be quite funny, like this exchange from the Alphabet Soup, an otherwise contrived tale about an America reared girl (with a slight persecution complex) who wants to explore the “strength” of being “Brown in a Brown country.”
Mr. Iyer liked to sit on the verandah, on a swing made from a sturdy plank of rosewood, leaving his wife to bustle about the house and occasionally steop out with tumblers of piping hot coffee. He himself was retired, and spent his days reading his newspapers in a skirt.
‘Not a skirt,' he said, pained when Priya first phrased her careful inquiry. ‘Not a skirt at all. It is a veshti. A lungi, a dhoti. Men's wear. Just like suitings, shirtings, and cuff links. But,' he said, ‘more comfortable for the heat.'
Oh, a sarong,' said Priya.
‘No,' said Mr. Iyer. ‘A veshti.'
Mostly though, the guard is up, and the book suffers for it.
The book does offer some interesting insights, especially when narrated from an outsider's perspective: The title story – Red Carpet, narrated by a chauffeur, and to a lesser extent, Closed Curtain – told by an old man with a window (literally) into the life of a hep, very today young couple are the most interesting tales in the book.
But in these as well as most of the other tales, the endings seem contrived and abrupt, loose ends tied up a little too well, or a careful, deliberate attempt made to leave some ends dangling. Almost like realizing on the last page that the story had to end here.
Rather refreshingly for a first time Indian writer, Lavanya chooses to write in plain English: simple and unadorned, no linguistic flourishes from the Salman Rushdie school, thank you. That and her obvious familiarity with her milieu help make the book a passable read.