Tale of strong-willed women

Three Parts Desire
By Shailaja Bajpai.
Pages 416. Rs 399.

Reviewed by Aradhika Sharma

I have always been an avid reader of Shailaja Bajpaiís columns that she writes regularly on television for a national daily ó pithy, caustic, humorous and tongue-in-the-cheek write-ups, which are truthful and no-nonsense. I was, thus, on the lookout for her first book Three Parts Desire. I had a gut feeling about it, and Iím happy to report that the feeling was completely justified because the book turned out to be a wonderful read, about characters that are as strange as they are real ó strange in their realness, actually.

Fearlessly, Bajpai creates these characters and unflinchingly, though not cruelly, does she set about exploring them ó their machinations and weaknesses; their kindness and loyalty. You can actually smell them, feel them, hear the intonations of their voices ó sometimes you turn away in disgust, and sometimes you reach out in compassion.

In the introduction to Three Parts Desire at her book launch, Bajpai said, "People ask what it is about. My answer is that I was guided by Jane Austen: write what you know about. So, for a person, who has spent far too long watching saas-bahu TV serials, what could this be about but family?" (Is Sir V.S Naipaul listening?).

Three Parts Desire is a "womanís" book. The main protagonists are three generations of women ó Mem, Didi and Baby, who share a strong, loving yet uneasy relationship amongst themselves. The mother-daughter relationship in each generation is troublesome, as these relationships are wont to be, yet the women understand each other while at the same time, they remain in strife. Itís the different ideologies, the different dreams and the different times they live in that are responsible for the fundamental difference, but still the mothers hurt for their daughters and aspire for them. They endevour to steer them in the "proper" direction, while feeling helpless about being able to do so. Yet, every woman must make her own choices and her own mistakes in the life that is uniquely hers even though closely entwined with the women of the family.

Itís easier for Mem, who belongs to a generation of women who are born into obedience, but less so for Didi, who is born with an indomitable, restless spirit that takes her from one unsuitable relationship into another. Didi is helpless in the hands of love and thatís the cross she carries until the time she becomes a recluse in a small house in a hill station.

Itís the hardest for Baby, who loses her sense of belonging somewhere along the way, when she is uprooted from the home she loves by her mother and whisked away to this remote house with just Sita and Didi for company. Baby is a rebel and Kartik, the man she chooses, is himself a troubled soul.

Apart from the family of women, there are a couple of strong women, Sita is Didiís maid and a staunch loyalist and support for all three generations of women; Som Devi is Didiís mother-in-law, with whom she shares an extremely uncomfortable relationship. Also her adversary, Som Devi sees all, knows all and has a sharp tongue that she uses against her daughter-in-law, who, obedient at the face of it, does much as she wants to, even sleeping with that son of Som Deviís, to whom she is not married. Is her husbandís impotence to blame or is it her restless soul, is left for the reader to decide. In any case, itís a dysfunctional household in 3 Chor Bagh, where Didi must live after she gets married.

An unusual device that Bajpai uses is to not name her characters. Thus, all you have is Mem, Didi and Baby ó relationships rather than names. Bajpai feels that "names do not matter, but relationships do". The book spans 30 years, and around four locations ó New Delhi, New York, 3 Chor Bagh, and a "hill station". The narrative keeps going back and forth in time, which is rather confusing because it sometimes seems unnecessary and sometimes disturbs the flow of the narrative.

On the whole, the book is a "juicy" read ó plenty of shock value, plenty of highs and lows. The 416 pages are a trifle too many and the book could have been more compact, more edited for a smarter feel, but one still reads on, with enough interest till the last page.