Westland, 304 pages, £12.50
Amara Malhotra leaves India, marries a millionaire in the United States, suffers the inevitable decline — divorce, depression and denial — and then gets a chance to take stock of her life and find love again.
We have heard this tale an awful lot of times before, haven’t we?
Yes and no. Meghna Pant, who has published well-received short stories, makes an interesting decision in her first novel. Amara is not self-destructive; she is down-to-earth; she has few pretensions and learns that love must be a “cornerstone” to one’s life, not a “solution”.
Perhaps it is the narration, the vivid characterisation, or the Indian immigrant’s American dream itself, Dubai-based writer Pant puts a different spin on a familiar territory in “One & a Half Wife”.
Who are we when we leave our homeland and remake ourselves in the name of progress? What is lost? What is gained? Pant cogently sets the stage in the opening chapter when parrot master Hari Pundit seals 14-year-old Amara’s fate announcing: “Green Card no problem. Marriage not good fortune. Babyji will be one-and-half wife!”
Caught between the cloistered, old-world ways of her parents, Biji and Baba, and latching on to “It Is God’s Desire”, “It Is Biji’s Desire” and “It Is His Desire”, the story charts Amara’s journey from Shimla, a small town in India, to New Jersey. Learning at a young age that marriage is irreversible, Amara grapples with old beliefs and modernity, parents’ dreams and her own independent thinking, when her fairytale wedding to Harvard-educated Prashant Roy falls apart. Malhotras’ shattered American dream, divorced Amara’s depression and social ostracism lead them back to Shimla in disgrace. But life takes a new turn when Amara discovers that life after being divorced is possible.
“I took a risk with my protagonist by making her the anti-hero in many ways and not succumbing to the charms of a stereotypical spunky, bold and entertaining central character that writers are often partial to. Most people I know are more like Amara than Scarlett O’Hara. They are bound by shackles and rules in a way that short-changes them, forcing them to live a half-life in fear of what may go wrong. And therefore when you watch Amara’s life expand and shrink in proportion to her courage, you can’t help but find a piece of yourself or someone you know in her,” Pant says of her novel’s protagonist.
A financial journalist, Pant revels in bringing together both the inevitable and the unexpected. She describes Shimla, the world where Amara grows up and goes back to after her American dream fails, with a native’s understanding of its rhythms.
The immigrant experience is an essential story for our time: exiles, who straddle two countries, two cultures, and belong to neither, and come back home to find things have changed — both temporal and semantic shifts. Some staples of our culture are so established, so embedded in the collective consciousness, we think we know them, even if we don’t. And so the feeling of betrayal on coming back to “changed” Mumbai after living in New York for three years provides the thematic fodder to Pant.
“I’d been carrying this image of old India in my head as the ultimate truth, while the place had changed to an extent where my truth had become deviant. That was also a time when reverse immigration peaked and divorce became commonplace. I combined these social triggers and my own experience of returning to a home that’s become a stranger to you.”
The predicament of being caught between two worlds and the American dream have been explored before by other immigrant Indian writers, but Pant, who took a year to write “One & a Half Wife”, says few books have explored the return to one’s own country that has forged an entirely new identity.
“‘One & a Half Wife’ captures the social realities of our time. It examines the longstanding desire of people to ‘make it’ in the US — while portraying the struggles of an immigrant family’s so-imagined American dream — and the moral cocoon in which immigrants there often live. It highlights the trend of reverse immigration and increased divorces, single parenthood, domestic violence and political muscle,” she said.
A reader-friendly novel, “One & a Half Wife” treats its idiosyncrasies as normal and makes them easily understood — Amara is just a woman whose life happens to be a bit more complicated than others. It is able to draw readers into its tender, human scheme of things because Pant treats this as the only reasonable way to look at the world.
Drawing upon her experiences and using her eye for detail to conjure her characters’ lives, Pant lets a sense of loss pervade the novel: it is a reminder of her understanding of the missed connections. Creating characters that feel “real” to a reader is an art. Establishing a believable setting for those characters, with conflicts that are also believable for the period, is a challenge. Pant manages to pull it all together — from Amara’s emotional struggle and Prashant’s misplaced love to Baba’s quiet strength. “I dare say, though, that with her borderline wickedness, living Biji’s life may be the most fun,” she quips, quickly adding: “Of course, each reader will relate to my stories in a different way, depending on their disposition, upbringing and environment, and I do not want to take away from their experience by pre-determining how they should feel about a particular character or issue.”
The story also touches upon the distressing choices immigrants are forced to make every day as they try hard to avoid being misfits in a foreign land. “One & a Half Wife” might not be the most authentic portrayal of the Indian-American experience — it becomes a tad melodramatic and contrived, and the plot meanders when on her return to Shimla as a divorcee, Amara faces the wrath of local politicians — but even with its multidimensional approach, it manages to make an impact.
For Pant, writing the novel was an all-consuming process that demanded to put the rest of her life on hold, but the hardest part was finding a publisher. “Writing in itself plays a small part in getting published. It is difficult to make a breakthrough, as publishers receive hundreds of manuscripts a week, but it’s also not impossible, especially as publishers are constantly on the lookout for new voices.”
The fittingly visual novel has also much to say about how Indian society adapts (or doesn’t) to the stigma of divorce and how our fears cause us to misunderstand, sometimes at a terrible cost. Asked if there is a universal lesson in Amara’s journey, Pant says: “Amara is aware that her marriage is not the real deal, but it sounds so perfect on paper and gives her parents everything they’d dreamt of, that she feels it a duty to her family and society. Sometimes you have to be forced to fail and make mistakes to move forward in life. Life on cruise control, as Amara tries so hard for hers to be, cannot make her reach her potential and really experience life.”
Some seek the comfort of bed or a therapist’s couch to ease grief, but Amara finds her calling in helping women coping with divorce in Shimla, where she meets Lalit. She embarks on a new journey with him after surviving divorce, displacement, loneliness, unemployment and violence. In the end, against all odds, although Amara’s big American dream didn’t come true, her great Indian dream does.
In the hands of a less talented writer it is an ending that might have seemed ordinary, but as rendered by Pant it is elegiac — a testament to her emotional wisdom as a writer. Her sensitivity to the multidimensionality of the issues and her eye for the detail of social interactions result in an intelligent, satisfying read. Describing the process of creating One & a Half Wife, Pant says it was “consuming, uplifting and exhilarating”. And so it will be for the readers.
“One & a Half Wife” was launched in Dubai only in September but Pant, a skilled storyteller, is through with her next project. “My collection of short stories is ready for publication. I am also in the early stages of writing my second full-length novel based in — and between — India and China. It is a dark comedy that portrays a family’s greed, lust and power in the wake of geopolitical tensions.”