Beauty redefined
Shubhshil Desraj

Skin Deep
by Nergis Dalal. Penguin Books. Pages 301. Rs 250

Skin DeepBeauty may be skin deep, it may be overrated and superficial, yet all initial contact is visual, we are all affected by the physical appearance and accordingly base our opinions and prejudices. Who can be a better witness to this than Naaz, protagonist of Nergis Dalalís latest novel, Skin Deep. Nergis Dalal is a prolific and reputed writer. Skin Deep is perhaps her most stirring work. With a deep insight and artistic sensitivity and a language that is lucid and spontaneous, she weaves a spellbinding story of Naaz Jusswalla, which has an eloquent picture of Parsi experiences woven into it.

The Jusswallas are a prosperous Parsi family living in Hyderabad. The Jusswalla twins, Naaz and Yasmin, are an unlikely pair of twins, with same environmental influences, yet different personalities. Naaz is dark and plump with rough, curly hair, but is intelligent and has a depth of character. She is restrained, decorous in behaviour and traditional in outlook.

Yasmin, with her delicate gloss of charm, is effortlessly graceful and flamboyant in dress and style. Being shallow, she thinks beauty gives her the mandate to distort reason and throw her weight around. Relationship between the sisters is extremely hostile. As Naaz says: "Yasmin, my sister, my twin, my enemy`85"

Moving from their childhood to adulthood, the differences become more stark and each sister develops out on her own.

Their English mother, Sophie, who delighted in the superficial things of life, was harsh towards Naaz, but loved Yasmin, a new and more alluring version of herself, and gratified all her whims.

The grandmother was "enormously rich, head of a thriving business and owner of huge property". She zealously believed in the social values enunciated by the Parsi culture and regarded any deviation from it as blasphemous to her.

With Naaz she had a close loving relationship and did all she could to make her life less weary. To liberate her granddaughter from the fears that stalked her mind, she turned the wheel of fortune in her favour by leaving her all her wealth.

Naaz became aware of the amazing prowess of financial security; money gave her a new outlook and stirred in her a newfound liberty, it was a stepping-stone to endless vistas of opportunity and fulfillment. She "`85 wanted and planned on having her own home and husband, who not only I but the world would respect and admire."

A new thirst for education makes her enroll in the University in Delhi, where she meets Ramesh Verma, a student of architecture. She is determined to marry him, even though his background, culture, religion and family could hardly have been more different from her.

In ten years, Ramesh is a "recognized name" and she "better off than ever". The couple could have lived happily ever after, but Yasmin, her eyes roving in search of new pastures, decides to pay them a visit.

Ramesh, who had been genuinely disinterested in women, gets seduced in a matter of three days. Then she leaves, smiling and triumphant.

Brief, clandestine meetings and passionate moments propel them into a heady affair. Ultimately, Ramesh is ready to seek divorce from the woman who pulled him out from poverty into this dazzling world.

To know how fate rounds off the story, read Skin Deep; itís worth it.