The novel is very specific: two years in the lives of three 35-year-old London women. Sunita, Chila and Tania have been close friends for 20 years or more, and the book starts with Chila's wedding to the smashing and wealthy Deepak. Chila has always been considered the slow one, who astonished everyone by capturing the eligible Deepak.
Tania is perhaps the most interesting character, who has a single successful life in film and TV. Her experiences with the establishment are probably reflective of Syal's, who was one of the first Indians to become a major name in British TV. Tania is sexy and smart, but is always seen as an Asian, and asked to produce reports on 'Asian' issues and incidents.
Sunita was a brilliant law student who settled into a restless domesticity with Akash. Sunita's dissatisfaction with herself and her husband's lack of participation in household affairs and the physical and mental exhaustion of mothers of young children are beautifully captured.
Although the women are very distinct when described from the outside, their voices when they speak for themselves are not all that different. Sunita and Tania, in particular, sound awfully similar. Still, even if they all had one voice, I thoroughly enjoyed that voice.
In the background lie the classic dilemmas about culture -- Asian vs. Brit vs. a new amalgam -- and parents and sex and marriage. But when Syal describes them, they sound fresh and perceptive and original, and often, funny. A few paragraphs here and there neatly encapsulate the debates that take us many screens of argument on Sawnet :-). For example:
Beroze was describing a recent case she had defended. A sweet old Pakistani granny had been caught smuggling pounds of pure heroin stashed in the inner tubes of her wheelchair. Her defence had been that her sons forced her into it, that she had been too weak and frail to resist.As in this snippet, even when Sunita/Chila/Tania are not speaking the focus is predominantly on women. The two males in the book, Deepak and Sunita's husband Akash, are shadowy figures, though Akash does get to speak for himself at times.
'I mean, this woman was terrified of her own children, had spent a life of dependency on the various men around her. All she had ever been was somebody's daughter, somebody's wife, somebody's mother. What free will did she have in this crime?'
'Sorry, I don't buy that bullshit any more', responded Suki tartly. 'I meet women every days who on paper have no choices, but against every odd, they up and leave their homes, challenge their families, question their communities...'
'That's not the same -' Beroze began, but Suki ploughed on.
'Nahin, it is! We spend all our energy making excuses for not doing anything. Do you know how much effort it takes to stand still and do nothing, blame everyone else for your misery? Much more than it takes to actually change things, change yourself.'
The underlying theme of the book is about choices, and Syal comes down firmly on Suki's side, of making one's own choices, rather than letting oneself be a victim or be carried away by the forces of community, culture or situations.
No concessions to those who don't speak Punjabi here; there's no glossary. If you don't know what curie or bwoti mean, you're on your own. No concessions to the non-Brits either ('a few white OAPs ventured into the hallowed front lawn' -- I'm guessing Old Age Pensioners. 'snog'? Check out the English-to-American dictionary). But this is how a good book should be -- not everything spelled out, enough tantalizing glimpses into other cultures and languages to intrigue and educate you.
Syal's gift for light humour is evident in much of the snappy conversation, and also her experience with writing screenplays. One scene in which two people are kissing while their various friends and lovers watch, unseen by the couple and each other, is a little contrived but can easily be imagined on the stage.
The title of the book is a quote from Tania's mother, and is indicative of the stories in the book. In spite of the humour, irony, and amusing conversation, the roots of the stories go deep into cultural confusions and the darker sides of the diasporic communities.
More about Meera Syal
[Fiction] [Reviews] [Bookshelf] [Sawnet]