Author: Vidya Samson
Indian Maidens Bust Loose by Vidya Samson was a fun, quirky and charming read, and I enjoyed it very much. Vidya’s style is cute and funny, sometimes quietly, so you find yourself chuckling, at other times outrightly so you find yourself laughing out loud.
Vidya’s humour is contagious and before long, you find yourself a fly on the wall of the Desai household, the unseen guest at their board, where much of the fun takes place.
The story concerns the four-member Desai family, Papa Rasik, Ma Meena and daughters Nisha and Vinita, who live in the home of Meena’s mother, Naani. Meena’s father has died, and it is the death of this stern patriarch that causes Damini, the other daughter who ran off with her American musician-lover to the US, to consider a visit home to India after 25 years of being away.
The impending arrival of Damini, Meena’s sister, with her daughters, Lauren and Amber throws the Desai family into turmoil, providing the girls a respite from the steady stream of ineligible and loser suitors, and the faintly discouraging and dysfunctional family. Papa and Ma both rant against the lack of Western values.
The stage is set for a confrontation.
The adventures pile on thick and fast from the time the Americans land at Ahmedabad airport. The trusted Maruti 800 adds to the fun, pitting the family against a crazy mob. These events are followed by the theft of Damini’s bag at a local expo, followed by the subsequent nabbing of the thief, power outages, interminable suitor visits, much to the consternation of Nisha and Vinita, a peaceful protest, outside the municipal authority to demand water, which ends up in the four cousins being thrown into jail, not to forget the rescue of an urchin at a garbage dump, an elopement from a marriage pandal, and a cow adopted by Papa as a mascot that would bring wealth to the family.
The book has all the ingredients that might be completely easy stewing in a Bollywood potboiler, sewn together by Vidya’s humour and charming writing.
First person narrator Nisha Desai makes flippant and irreverent remarks that make you think. Dinner had the feel of a condemned man’s last meal.
About her father’s overeagerness to get her and her sister married , she says, Apparently he resented the food we ate.
What I had long ago taken for granted, what had become all but invisible to me, now loomed large and embarrassing. This refers to the mandatory judgment of India by Western eyes.
There are antagonists galore. There is the BSR, short for Bharati Sanskruti ke Rakshak, modeled on a real life organization. Fictional, its antics are scarily real. The name loosely translates to Protectors of Indian Culture, and you know how dangerous that can get. Unlimited power in the hands of the rabid.
There is Gita, whose gossip can destroy reputations and homes.
There is Papa, who disapproves of almost everything that his daughters do, and Ma, who does not have a loving and affectionate relationship with her daughters.
And then there are the other characters, who drive this book on.
They include Damini, and her daughters, Lauren and Amber. These three women are the core of the book, and the daughters especially push the action forward with their forthright attitudes and their outspokenness. Their behaviour is refreshing in contrast with the Desai girls, who are inhibited by circumstances and family compulsions.
The lines that the characters speak are all funny. An additional element of humour is brought on by the strange English spoken by Papa, Ma and Naani. But generally between Damini with her new-age science, Naani and her proverbs, Papa’s BSR leanings and rabid philosophy, the, there is plenty of food for amusement. Some of the most laugh-out-loud moments are brought on by the cousins’ introduction to the Indian toilet.
The chapter names are quirky and colourful, as are the cast of characters. Only Nisha comes across as insipid in comparison with the others. She was a foil to the others, whose actions were the plot of the story.
Such a pity, since we know she is far from boring. Her thoughts are so interesting, but that didn’t stop me from feeling disappointed in her as a character.
Nisha wants to work, preferably in the US, but her dad won’t let her. Her reasons for wanting to live in the US are unconvincing.
She tries to ingratiate herself with her aunt and cousins, in the hope that they will support her American Dream, when her Papa clearly won’t. This was another thing that appeared selfish. If her father wouldn’t let her work in a TV channel in Ahmedabad, she could have considered moving to another city.
Harbouring dreams of living and working in the US seemed too far-fetched, and the means she adopted to achieve her dreams, cosying up to her cousins when she is not being shortlisted by a rich American suitor, aren’t at all the sort to endear her to us.
Nisha also has a penchant for reading romances, and towards the end of the novel she takes to likening real situations to the plots of the novels she reads. Had this happened throughout the book, it would have been more consistent. As it is, it only shows up towards the end, making it appear to be a hastily contrived device.
Even the beginning of her tentative relationship with Jay, the neighbour’s nephew, seems hastily added on, to give her a happy ending. In contrast, I admired Vinita for taking risks to ensure that her marriage with Ashok became a reality.
The end of the book seemed totally forced, and I found my interest flagging as a result. I wished the Americans didn’t have to return. They kept this book simmering hot, and it was fun while they were around.
Much as the ingredients seem like they belong to a chick-lit novel, and the title also gives that impression, I would hesitate to call this chick-lit. There is so much more to this book.
Vidya effectively manages to raise a number of serious issues through her funny book and does complete justice to them too. These include the differences between the East and the West, the perennial debate about the lack of moral values, the relationships between sisters across generations, superstition as a way of life, and the lack of basic rights such as water, among other things.
If only the narrator had been a stronger character, I’d cheer even more for this book.
Vidya Samson, take a bow!