February 14, 2020
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Cloying Homilies

Requires no mental effort to understand and has no distracting literary qualities.

Cloying Homilies
Accidents Like Love & Marriages
By Jaishree Mishra
Penguin India Rs:250; Pages:213
As a piece of drawing-room fiction, Accidents Like Love & Marriages is perfect. It requires no mental effort to understand and has no distracting literary qualities. Its primary theme is marriage. All the action is painted in lurid, bathroom-tile colours, with no tedious nuances or annoying surprises. We know from the outset that a wealthy Punjabi family consisting of a middle-aged couple and their two sons is about to be socially embarrassed by a fling the elder son has with an English woman. Sure enough, that is what happens. The book ends with the family shattered and its members speeding away in different directions.

Since we are not encouraged to like any of the characters, this conclusion causes us no unseemly anguish. We are permitted to return to our afternoon teas on the sofa with our hairpieces intact and our make-up unsmudged.

It may well have been written by one of the central characters, Mrs Swarn Sachdev, an obese ex-beauty for whom the word "tiresome" would be a compliment. Like everyone else in the book, she is one-dimensional, but in a sense the story is told as if from her perspective, limited to the far horizon of her own dining table. She is surrounded by stock characters of the kind flogged to death in TV ads: the Boring Husband, the Stupid Adoring Manservant, the Rakish Unmarried Younger Son, the Over-Smart Daughter-in-Law, the Limpid-Eyed Malayali Prospective Bride and her Terminally Quaint Malayali Parents.

All the favourite stereotypes are upheld: the South Indians are intellectually advanced but unworldly. The Punjabis are crude and ostentatious. The sons are testosterone-driven and mother-obsessed. The children are cute. The Indianisms are cloying. The in-laws are weird. The English Other Woman drops her haitches and has the supernaturally advanced sexual skills (alas, undescribed) that Indian men have been taught to expect of western women. The tale is set in the prehistory of Indian urban life, when Indian couples of the wealthy industrial elite could still be outraged to discover that men are capable of adultery. It’s possible that the author, acclaimed for her first novel Ancient Promises, aimed at writing a fast-paced lightweight quickie with a touch of satire. If so, she has succeeded only in revealing her naivete in matters societal and emotional.

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