Title: Love Bi The Way; Author: Bhaavna Arora; Publisher: Penguin Random House India; Pages: 248; Price: Rs 199
Love never has an easy time in the world. And should it be something else than the ‘normal’ heterodox type, then it is deemed a criminal aberration, condemnation comes in thick and fast and in India, those plumping for such alternatives are liable to be “punished 377 times”. But as they remain undeterred, so do their story-tellers.
And Bhaavna Arora, in her third novel, offers her take on the female version of the so-called “love that dare not speak its name” but is now not so inhibited.
Her story, the latest in a tradition which began in the sub-continent with Ismat Chughtai’s short story “Lihaf” (1942), found an apogee of sorts in films in “Fire” and “Girlfriend”, and has at least one entry in various anthologies of erotica, is however, not a lesbian story intrinsically but gradually.
Extoverted Rihana, an artist making her name in the field, and introverted Zara, who is an ambitious and hard-working businesswoman seeking success in her own right, lodge together in a posh Delhi area after their fortuitous meeting. But despite their outward successes, each has a dark and a traumatic past they are not willing to share with even each other.
Both women, different as they are in temperament, also have their own ways, their defence mechanisms, to deal with their issues, which can even affect their health. While Rihana drinks, can be very blunt, has no inhibitions in approaching men but is commitment-averse, Zara is totally chary of them and chooses to immerse herself fully in her work.
But there are more problems the two friends face. The account itself begins with the two woken up one night to resolve a serious incident of domestic discord involving their maidservant and her drunken abusive husband, and as it progresses, we come to see their differing outlooks on life and love, and learn about their chequered backgrounds.
Zara, we find, is the product of a mixed marriage, which didn’t prove to be very stable and involved a fair share of bickering (including over her name), and eventually collapsed.
Were not this traumatic enough, her problems were exacerbated when the marriage her parents convinced her into, proved to be a sham , when she found her husband was gay. They are since separated but not formally divorced as Zara absolutely refuses to ever face him again, and his worries about his predilection becoming public.
Rihana, on the other hand, moved back to India from New York and doesn’t want to maintain much links with her parents, but we are not told why as well what makes her afraid of snakes, even in pictures, and her inability to tie up her own shoelaces.
During the course of their adventures, which span Rihana’s tryst with a string of eligible men – and the unexpected outcomes, Zara’s own experience of meeting with a Prince Charming who is a real prince too, their maid’s travails which get increasingly serious, a beloved pet’s illness, and attempts to exorcise their own wraiths of sadness and pain, the question is will they manage to strike up a lasting relationship to find true happiness? And if yes, with whom.
The last seems evident but the route it takes – through some one night stands, veterinary doctors’ waiting rooms, consultation with psychologists and lawyers, a sojourn in a opulent Rajasthan palace, and then a police station, enlivened with some witty banter and dialogue and a varied cast of characters are what gives this story an edge as a modern romance with a difference.
One problem that could arise however is that the antecedents of the characters could construed as responsible for the choices they make – and thus give ammunition to those who could consider this particular lifestyle choice against prevailing cultural norms, as well as aberrant. But that is a risk any story-teller has to take.
But on the whole, “Love Bi the Way”, like its predecessors listed above, is not only a mere exercise in titillation but raises issues of choices of lifestyle and otherwise, the weight, or rather burden, of the past, of expectations, and traditions, the attractions but emptiness of modern life, of a society in churning but still mostly in denial, and the hidden costs of sexual abuse.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)