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~Hey, Look at all the Lonely People~
Lessons In Forgetting by Anita Nair is a story of two lonely people, each tortured in different ways by things they have lost, things they can't help but remember or by things they never knew and need to find out. It's a beautiful tale set in southern India, juxtaposing sophisticated city life with traditional rural ways, contrasting the different prejudices of these environments, and bringing two characters with their own personal tragedies together whilst leaving us as readers to observe whether they can battle through their problems in order to eventually find each other. But it's not just a love story - or a story with a potential for love - it's also a complex mystery, a search for truth and for answers to explain the destruction of a human being.
Meera is the perfect corporate wife and a successful writer with a best-selling cookery book and a guide to how to be what she is - the perfect corporate wife. Her husband Giri is the corporate man, successful, proud to show off his accomplished wife and to be the envy of his colleagues. I say colleagues and not friends because Giri doesn't really 'do' friendship. He's possibly also not as good as Meera thinks at being a husband either as she's about to find out at the start of the book. We observe that he appears to have married Meera less for herself and more for her lifestyle which represented a world he'd never known and into which he was seeking a route. When they met she lived in a beautiful but ageing villa in Bangalore with her mother, Saro, and her grandmother, a once famous actress called Lily. Giri was won over by an afternoon tea of dainty doilies, perfectly presented 'best' china and the overall air of cultured gentility that was alien to his past. He married her, moved in with the three generations of women and together he and Meera added a fourth generation - a daughter and a son.
Over time the very thing Giri wanted so much turned into a noose around his neck. Meera and Giri open the book, going to a poolside party at an expensive hotel where the well-to-do folk of Bangalore are displaying their perfect lives of urban fashion and success. Meera eats, drinks, flirts a little, forgets to count how many glasses she's knocked back. Her son asks where his father is - they search for him and learn that Giri left the party two hours earlier, turned his back on Meera and their 13-year old son Nikhil and calmly, quietly walked out of her perfect life. She makes excuses, he must have had to leave for the airport, something important must have come up, but the dark clouds of disaster are gathering overhead.
Professor J.A. Krishnamuthy also known as Jak (his initials) or Kitcha, his childhood pet name, is at the party, recently arrived in the city from his life as a professor in an American university. His research is into cyclones and he's an expert in turbulence and devastation. Meera's in calm shock sitting in the eye of the storm that's just hit her life. A mutual friend asks Kitcha to drive Meera and her son home and he remembers being a 13-year old himself as he glimpses Nikhil in the back seat. At the same age, Kitcha's father walked out on the family to go and live in an ashram. He recalls the sense of despair and abandonment and knows this young man is going through what he's already known.
Kitcha's return to India has been to search for answers. In the spare bedroom of his house his teen-aged daughter Smriti lies trapped inside her body after a violent physical and sexual attack on a Tamil Nadu beach. She's unable to communicate, unable to feel or express herself. She just lies there trapped and tortured by her injuries. The girl who left America to study in India was wild, beautiful, principled and passionate - the girl who lies on the bed is damaged so badly that all he and his aunt can do is strive to keep her company and keep her comfortable. Kitcha is a man with a mission - he has returned to hunt down her attackers, to find out how this transformation took place. Who hurt his girl, how did it happen, and to some degree, who can he blame for this wasted life?
When your husband walks out it's hard to get your publisher interested in your next book about being the perfect corporate wife. Meera's publisher makes excuses, obfuscates, and leaves her high and dry. The household can't get by now Giri's gone and Meera's income-stream has been blocked. She needs a job and she'll pretty much take anything - but nobody wants a mature woman whose skills are restricted to writing and throwing nice dinner parties. Kitcha offers her a job, helping with his research, keeping his papers in order, keeping his aunt company. Meanwhile he's off to the coast trying to hunt down the boys who knew his daughter and to uncover the identity of her attackers. Meera has an admirer, a younger man who pursues her and whom we later discover is improbably linked to her employer's daughter and her story. That thread of the story is a little hard to reconcile with an otherwise more realistic and pragmatic tale.
~Much more than it seems~
Whilst we watch Meera fall for Kitcha and Kitcha fall for Meera, we share their individual pain. Meera's daughter blames her mother for the marriage breakdown, takes sides with her father, lets slip there's a new woman in daddy's life. Meera's mother and grandmother each try in their own ways to save money, to help her out, to fill the Giri-shaped gap in all their lives. Kitcha tracks down the boys, learns about his daughter and what she was doing, how she played three friends off against each other, how her American-raised passion for doing 'the right thing' got her involved in schemes to prevent female infanticide. The book is shot through with heavy themes that set it apart from a conventional romance. We learn about the roles of men and women, about city sophistication and country prejudices, but most of all we learn about the ability of the human spirit to deal with knock-backs and to seek for justice.
~Put her on your 'must read' list~
Anita Nair is one of my favourite Indian writers. The first of her books which I read was 'Ladies Coupe', a tale of a woman running away from her repressed life and exchanging stories with other travellers in their train carriage. It was a very special book and put her onto my 'must read list'. I also have her novel 'The Mistress' and 'Lessons in Forgetting' is the third of her books on my shelves. It's a complex and carefully constructed tale but occasionally seems to be trying a little too hard. The book is broken up into sections which are characterised by the different stages in the evolution and development of a cyclone - I found these cyclone phases didn't add to my enjoyment of the book but they were very easy to ignore without interrupting my reading. She also weaves in the classical story of Hera and Zeus, aligning Meera with the mythical Hera, with Giri as the philandering Zeus. I found these bits a little bit irritating but not hard to set to one side whilst I got on with the core of the story. There's a little bit of an element of 'trying too hard' in these constructions - this story is so good and so solid that it doesn't need gimmicks or distractions and I would have loved it slightly more without them.
This book will be sold under a different title - the Lilac House - in its USA edition and a film based on the story was released in India in February this year. It's not yet on DVD but based on the trailer alone, I know I want to get a copy. Nair is not afraid to tackle controversial topics and she write beautifully. Her characters are flawed, human and usually ones with whom we can empathise. Her plot is complex and engaging, we're soon hooked and carried along on the wave of intrigue. I'm aware that many readers are a bit put off by Indian writers and can be concerned about the use of terms they don't know or language they don't understand. This is not an issue with 'Lessons in Forgetting'. It's a story that could take place anywhere but which is all the more intriguing and compelling for that being a place I know, recognise and love.