In the opening chapter of Devika Rege’s debut novel, Quarterlife, Naren Agashe, an NRI working as a financial consultant in Iowa is at a coffee shop, avoiding a certain old white man prone to racist homilies. The US is on the eve of its MAGA (Make America Great Again) moment and tensions are running high, so Naren decides to let it slide and vacate his seat for the elderly racist. Later that day, he visits the Lincoln Zoo and sees a wondrous creature, called a “jaguon". The caged hybrid is one of only two in the world. Born of the accidental mating of a jaguar and a lion, it is sterile.
There are two connections here—one is that like the India-born, America-dwelling Naren, the jaguon is a hybrid, and, also, caged. Second, mirroring the jaguon’s sterility, Naren too is filled with impotent rage because he did not push back against the racism he suffered. Either one of these connections would have conveyed Rege’s point adequately but the author goes on, overcooking the well-known writing dictum “show, don’t tell", writing an essay where a few crisp lines would have sufficed.
The book’s crux comprises Naren’s return to India and his attempts to make sense of the changes sweeping through his life as well as his country. Stifled by her too-safe New England upbringing, Amanda, whom he knew in college, has accompanied him to India to teach at a slum. Naren’s brother, Rohit, is a film-maker whose ambition, although abstract, is fiery. The two siblings, their friends—Gyaan, Kedar, Omkar, Cyrus and Ifra—and their differing viewpoints form the ideological core of the novel. They quibble about identitarian matters and the direction they want to see the country take.
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On occasion, these “debates" sound like ways for characters to tick progressive talking points off a list, rather than being driven by their core character traits. By doing this, Rege denies her characters any chance at being human—they end up feeling like sentient megaphones tasked with public service announcements.
After a long-winded “debate" that could have been easily chopped to half its size—in fact the novel as a whole could lose 100-odd pages and be significantly better for it—Ifra, the sole Muslim in the room, storms out. The reason being somebody downplays the seriousness of Muslim lives being lost in pogroms. Omkar, a Hindutva-supporter, realises only then that Ifra is, in fact, Muslim. Rege’s conclusions about men like Omkar are well-covered ground. Besides, in reality, Hindutva hardliners like Omkar would not be surprised at the fact of an English-speaking, white-collar Muslim woman—many of their favourite targets like Rana Ayyub, Arfa Khanum Sherwani, match this description.
At around the halfway mark in the novel, for example, there is a party scene where the Agashe brothers and their friends are talking loudly amongst themselves about the state of the nation. The set-up to this scene is well-done and like a lot of passages in this book, the premise is quite promising—but the execution is suboptimal. This scene’s conclusion reminded me of Govind Nihalani’s classic film Party (1984), which has similarly impassioned state-of-the-nation debates. However, Rege’s characters aren’t as accomplished or as sure of themselves as Nihalani’s, and as a result their earnest declamations don’t quite have the same devastating effect. Throughout, Rege does juggle a number of subjects, tackling class and caste politics, Hindutva, corporate life and the internal life of characters who feel unmoored by their circumstances.
In the very last chapter, Rege does attempt a daring technical leap of faith, for which she deserves credit. It’s a chapter that contains much truth about storytelling in general and novel-writing in particular, and it comes with a neat little reference to Arun Kolatkar’s book of poems, Jejuri. On the whole, Quarterlife is a case of “interesting set-up meets flawed execution". Rege will almost certainly write a very good novel someday; this one, meanwhile, can be filed under “honourable misfires".
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Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.
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- FIRST PUBLISHED31.07.2023 | 10:00 AM IST