Book Review: The walk down the aisle
A Good Girl by Chandana Roy is about how marriage can be an overwhelmingly social institution
A long time ago, when I was supposed to be a good girl and not watching 'corrupting' Hindi television shows, I used to be a bad girl, sneaking a peek at a series called Titliyan (whenever my mother's back was turned). It means "butterflies" in English; but the deep impact was "social butterflies".
Illustration by Vicente Gutiérrez
The series was a fictional documentation of the lives of a bunch of upper middle class women who, literally, take detailing on domesticity - spawned by marriages - to a new high. The reason why I thought about Titliyan while reading Chandana Roy's debut novel A Good Girl was because it's bound to fascinate those anthropologists who continue to be held in thraldom over the abiding endurance of marriage - as a social institution mind you, not as a journey of private companionship (and by the way, if you're thinking 21st century Pride and Prejudice, you better not) - and the 'character certificate' it necessitates. More often than not, the character certificate is warranted from the woman: if her reputation is mud, well then, chances of getting her married - that ultimate of all parental responsibilities - is muddied proportionately.
In A Good Girl , the protagonist Ellora Chatterjee's 'character' has not only been tarnished (under the glare of media scrutiny), but her green flecked eyes are not suitably offset by a fair complexion. She's "wheatish", but to take the sting away from that, the euphemism of "honey" is drizzled liberally. And, she is 33. "A man can marry in his forties, fifties, even sixties and seventies, but a woman cannot afford to delay her marriage after the age of 30. With each passing year, her face loses it natural glow, her eyes lose their brightness, her hair loses its sheen, her hormones start dwindling, her womb starts shrinking, her eggs become fewer and fewer, and her capacity to conceive and raise children become lesser and lesser."
So how does Ellora manage to get married? The run-up to that is what constitutes the A Good Girl . Action is spread - and dips and rises - across small-town India, a farmhouse outside Delhi, and NRI-infested parts of the United States. Ellora may have left her dubious past back in India and moved to the US for post-doctoral research, but her indiscretions - if they may be called so (because a couple of youngsters, even if one of them is a national-level cricketer, necking in the neck of the woods does not really constitute a gargantuan scandal, but then who's to know?) - keep popping up in her pretty head. Her family, the folks based in the US, are trying their best to get her hitched. She bumps into men who give her goosebumps, but in an inanely nice way. Like this: "The zigzagging path has so far hidden her from view, but as the footsteps get closer, Ellora realises that the two of them may come face-to-face any moment now. The prospect makes her quite nervous. She is aware that suddenly, for no apparent reason, her heartbeat seems to have picked up pace. 'Oh, he's Heart-poundingly Handsome,' she tells herself in an attempt to make light of the impact the man seems to be having on her."
At times, A Good Girl tries very hard to be a Mills & Boon-like set-up, but M&Bs of yore (these days, I hear they've lost their 'virginal' touch entirely), where the girl had to be unexplored: "She gasped, startled that a man's touch could do this to her... However, when Rohinton started unbuttoning her blouse and his fingers started making illicit forays into parts of her body where nobody had ever touched her before, she knew she had to stop him." But, unlike M&Bs, this doesn't cater to love and therefore marriage. this is more like, 'I need to get married, so who do I find to love?'
Happily, the ending is a tearing away from the painstakingly built up momentum of middle-class Indian insecurities and value systems; and the denouement - even if it's hopelessly contrived - is actually begotten from a questioning of identity (better late than never, I say).
As a writer, Roy captures, in very desi style, not-so-subtle nuances of the displaced Indian ethos - you know the one that becomes excess cultural baggage for many migrants from the subcontinent - and that is perhaps one reason why you should read A Good Girl . The corridors of gossip, the parental interference, the overwhelming need to conform to a conditioned social consciousness ("By refusing to marry, she is not just letting her family down, but also letting her body down. A body designed and programmed for procreation"), and the overriding (and fanned) guilt that you are too independent.