23 July 2010

The counsel of strangers by Gouri Dange

Bonfire night and its consequences
Reading this book so soon after One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, I felt mildly let down because it used the same story-telling device. A group of strangers share interesting, intimate stories from their own lives. It is a good device – but two in a row meant a little less enjoyment for me.
Comparing the two, I felt that while Chitra may well be a more experienced and sophisticated storyteller, and an internationally famous author besides, there’s no doubt in my mind that Gouri’s novel is not only just as well written, but has a lot more depth and relevance too.
Six of the 80 guests at a wedding, strangers to each other, find themselves sitting together outside the general range of festivities. Each one looks around and forms private notions about the others based on external clues. There is an underlying assumption that their composed, contented facades contain only calm within.
While the external clues are certainly valid, and the one with the military air does turn out to be an armed-forces man, the one who looks like a professor is indeed an intellectual, and so on – the truth reflects a universal reality that each person, no matter how bland and peaceful their appearance, carries a unique and painful story.
These six represent an interesting range of contemporary Indian lives. Their stories explore the existing trends in topics such as romance among the elderly, the stereotypical lifestyles of Indians permanently resident in the US, the world of Bollywood successes, rural education in India, the downside of academic pressure coupled with obsessively “cool” parenting, and many more.
Gouri Dange is good at getting beyond pretence and perceiving situations with a relaxed but penetrating eye that spots their subterfuge and hypocrisy. I also liked the way the language of each story is adapted to suit its speaker. Best of all was some lovely poetry which I nearly reproduced here, with permission – until it struck me that the reader would enjoy it more in the context in which it was presented.
I had enjoyed Gouri’s first novel 3 Zakia Mansion too (though not as much as this one) and felt it was strongly biographical. I don’t know whether it was or not, but when some pages of this book suddenly wafted some of that atmosphere back over me, I thought I must ask Gouri how much this one was based in experience and how much based in imagination. She replied, “Very twined. Perhaps 50-50.”
As it turns out, these strangers provide each other not just a non-judgemental repository for their outpourings but also simple and effective advice, and this surely reflects Gouri’s own professional skill and experiences. A counsellor herself, she doubtless treads the cutting edge of human suffering, constantly engaging with new manifestations spurred on by increasing urbanization and technological development, and some of that is beautifully expressed here.
For me this is the best kind of book – a good story, well told, and one strewn with subtle messages about life and learning that can only enrich you.

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