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AND THE MAYBE TOMORROW

One Day By Ardashir Vakil, Penguin, Rs 395

One Day, like the otherwise very different Bridget Jones’s Diary, is quite unmistakably a Nineties’ London novel. It is about an Indo-Anglian marriage, but does not sound like an Indo-Anglian Novel. And this is what makes reading it a refreshing, though ultimately forgettable, experience. The contemporary market for fiction in English has made it perfectly possible for most well-educated people to write a readable novel — one has to have an ear for prose and have led a geographically complicated life. Besides, the banal is “in”, making everyday life a veritable gold-mine. These propitious conditions may not breed Bovarys and Karenins, but they help pull off such “post-colonial, post-modern, post-everything” fictional PLUs as Ardashir Vakil’s Priya Patnaik and Ben Tennyson.

Vakil’s 24-chapter novel describes 24 hours in the lives of this north-London couple and their three-year-old son, Whacka. Priya is a sophisticated subcontinental dazzler, whose literary pedigree goes back, through the ravishing Ila in Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines, to such Thirties heroines — patrician, beautifully brittle, naturally intelligent, and as naturally faithless — as Brenda Last in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Priya has grown up in Delhi, in an elite, Congress, freedom-fighting family (her mother is a distinguished Indian writer). Then economics at SOAS and Oxford (where she meets Ben), followed by a BBC World Service job. She feels “absolutely accepted” in New Labour, multicultural London, lives in mid-posh Hampstead and her closest friends are the Batstones in Camden Town — a warm, batty, Old Labour, avidly reading, arts-and-crafty English family, skilfully depicted by Vakil, especially the Judi-Denchish mater familias, Jocelyn, who is the life and embarrassment of every children’s party.

Ben has grown up in an English town and minor public school. After English at Oxford, he has spent a year in India, teaching at Mayo, trying to master fine Indian cooking and undo his parentally instilled English parochialism. He now teaches English at a riotously multi-racial London comprehensive, and is also slowly giving up his dream of blitzing the English market with his unwritten book of fusion recipes. As schoolteacher, food-writer manqué and Priya’s husband, he is profoundly torn between asserting his own solid English mediocrity in the face of Priya’s brilliantly impulsive and cosmopolitan messiness, and his irresistible fascination with and gratitude for everything that Priya’s complex being has brought into his life, culturally, intellectually and sexually.

Vakil’s layered and dream-haunted anatomy of an ordinary day in their lives captures both the inevitable pain and the self-renewing excitement of this “difference” between two human beings. The difference erupts most catastrophically in the unfolding of their sexual lives — real and fantasized — outside marriage. The novel opens with a self-consciously prolonged account of the couple in their bed, Priya masturbating extravagantly (“in first person singular”) while Ben reads his tennis manual, lying next to her in comfortable indifference. It ends with their son’s birthday party — a Woody-Allenish swirl of conversations and manoeuvres, in which all the parameters of Ben and Priya’s life (“the overworked, over-entertaining parent classes”) are touched upon, a trifle too systematically. The guests leave, and the conjugal review of the party turns into a full-blooded row. Vakil’s most unflinching prose is kept for this last terrible episode of what Meredith had called “modern love”. But mutual violence, like other forms of mutuality, could be strangely exhilarating, bringing its own dear recognitions. Vakil pulls this off too, as night and London close in, bringing with them the balm of hurt minds, and a sense of cosmic rue, “the yes, the no, the sad yesterday and the maybe tomorrow”.

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