The only lie in this pack of truths, so far as I can tell, is its title. The author’s voice is so raw with the need to tell her story that it simply doesn’t make sense except as autobiography.
But as she is the daughter of the late poet and novelist, Gauri Deshpande, it isn’t possible to think of this as just another tale of derelict parenting, embellished by a young writer’s lively imagination. A grotesque portrait emerges of life in the shadow of a highly acclaimed mother who simply did not have the time or patience to care for her three small daughters, two by her first husband and a third by the second.
Virginia, as the book’s protagonist is called, uses herself as a battering ram, a shield, a spear, anything in order to draw her famous mother’s attention. To no avail. She succeeds only in putting herself in harm’s way in various time-honoured ways. She humps every boy, man or rusty nail she encounters, she and her friends support themselves for a period on the sale of hash, she hobnobs with maybe-terrorists, she experiences close encounters of the communal riot kind. But by book’s end, after all these adventures, when she finally scrapes together a definition of personal peace, it turns out to be utterly conventional: a good man, a little son and a patch of Florida swamp to call her own. It seems a very long and winding route to have taken, only to arrive at the same old place recommended by agony aunties since the dawn of time.
There are two elements that save the book from being yet another whine-fest about life as the stub of Mom’s cigarette. One is the disjointed narrative style, in which fragments of the author’s life are thrown down like a trail of mosaic chips leading up to a portrait that is only complete towards the end of the book. By maintaining this thread of suspense just taut enough to engage the reader’s interest, Deshpande keeps us from rejecting her as the narrator of such a dismal tale.
The second is her sensual touch with language. She throws in handfuls of four-letter-word spices but mixes them in with enough fresh and succulent experiences to make her stories edible even when they’re trailing blood and family guts. She doesn’t repeat herself, she knows when to end an episode and she keeps her self-pity to a minimum, yet everything she describes has the painful tang of authenticity:
Urmilla’s tangled prose has a sensual touch. She puts in succulent experiences to make it edible even when they’re trailing family guts.
“I imagined myself in one (swim)suit in particular. It was a hideous green with bitter-gourd texture, and this cousin wore it with its matching cap that made her look like a cabbage on a stalk. But I wanted to look like that cabbage. What fascinated me most of all was the cheeks of her ass snooping outside every few minutes. She would grab the edge of the suit in her fist and pull it down.... That gesture was what I really wanted to own. It came from having worn swimsuits, from having been at a pool, from having been half-naked and from never having cared what anyone thought.... The smell of chlorine, french fries, the feel of a rubber bathing cap. The sense of rich people.”
All through this narrative, the presence that towers over every incident, triumph and failure of the author is of course that of her gifted, passionate, independent-spirited mother. We can well imagine exactly how frustrating it must have been for such a woman to have children clinging to her and we can sympathise with the problems of raising a precocious, emotionally needy daughter outside the confines of a conventional marriage. But nothing justifies her atrocious failings as a parent: she starves her daughter, abandons her at school, can’t protect her from being preyed upon by every passing man, and never shows the least kindness or compassion. Ultimately no one comes to the aid of the sad-eyed little girl, neither her grandparents, her biological father nor any other relatives and she is left to stumble her way up, finding employment as a model, a photographer’s assistant, photographer and eventually, now, as a writer.
Nevertheless, the take-home message is positive: however unhappy and corrosive your family life, says the protagonist, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, be hopeful and keep going. Survival is its own reward.