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Three Parts Desire By Shailaja Bajpai, HarperCollins, Rs 399

It gets difficult at times to carry on reading Shailaja Bajpai’s debut novel because of its sheer volume. Its narrative style is unconventional. That Bajpai works as a journalist is stated inside the cover of the book. It is possible, then, that a journalistic writing might have crept into her fiction. The saving grace is the theme that Bajpai has chosen for her novel. It is the story of a woman who carries with her secrets from her past that she wants to forget but is unable to. It might have been the subject of the story that prompted Bajpai to adopt her unique narrative style.

Three Parts Desire is the story of the uneventful life of a woman known as Didi, who lives with her faithful ayah, Sita. Her story moves across cities and countries, across time, in such a way as to make you feel uncomfortable. Linked to Didi is the life of her daughter, Baby, whose mission is to unlock the secrets that she thinks her mother is trying to hide from her. There are other characters who help Baby build or mar relationships, in a drama that is ordinary yet interesting, dull but not colourless, prosaic but resounding in our memories like the lines of a beautiful poem.

The novel begins with Baby and her lover, Kartik, though the story is largely about Didi. The first 30 pages or so leave the reader trying hard to figure out the story and the protagonist. Slowly, things start to settle. Strangely, most of the main characters in the novel have no names, in spite of being so important. Even though she is called Baby, Didi’s daughter is sturdy, tall and mature. Another character, with whom one of the women becomes deeply involved, is only called Bhai. Yet, the man with whom Didi briefly gets physically intimate in the United States of America is named Jeff. The man she is forced to marry is called Purushottam. There is no dearth of characters — one finds names such as Som Devi, Mahendra, Mr Hamer and Lobo Chachi. Even the dog is given a name — Buddho. The novel does not really have chapters — instead, the frequent changes in time mark the beginnings and ends of sections in the book. When a new section starts with lines or thoughts taken from the previous one, it is jarring for the reader.

Three Parts Desire in all likelihood refers to the secrets of Didi’s life. Her first secret is the one she carries with her from New York about her sexual relationship with Jeff. The other secret is darker; she wants to forget it, but cannot. A third secret may involve her relationships with Bhai and Purushottam, or with men like Mr Hamer when she stays with her in-laws for a while. Flitting across a time span between 1950 and 1980, the novel moves between three places — New Delhi, a hill station, and New York. Didi’s life and secrets slowly unravel — they are as ordinary as they are unique. Didi is the symbol of the modern Indian woman, a rebel bent on following her desires even when she knows that she is making a mistake. Baby is very much like her mother in looks, upbringing and character. She is independent, leads a riotous life, and even Kartik finds it difficult to understand her. Didi realizes the purpose of life when it is too late. “By the time my chance came”, she tells Baby, “there were too many mistakes and too little time to learn.” But she does learn a significant lesson when she finds out that her mother-in-law was aware of her secret love life when she was staying with her at 3 Chor Bagh. Whether or not Baby discovers her mother’s secrets is for the readers to find out. The novel has something beautiful to offer for those who can read it till the end.