In 2008, the Booker Prize catapulted Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger to international attention and spawned a whole new sub-genre of cringe fiction. Writers of high social privilege started taking it upon themselves to speak on behalf of the ‘oppressed’ (i.e., people who are mostly mistreated by members of these writers’ own class)—usually through a sorry mimicry of what the former presumed to be the latter’s ticks, accents, quirks, and inherently venal streak.
In Adiga’s debut novel, a chauffeur (familiarly referred to as ‘driver’ by South Asians of all classes) is a villain-hero who trumps his ‘master’ to scale peaks of amoral glory. In Shivani Sibal’s debut novel, Equations, appearing more than a decade after Adiga’s, the same formula is given a different twist. Her protagonist Rajesh is the son of the driver of a wealthy business family from Delhi, a man who turns the tables on his father’s employers as he reinvents himself as a politician through grit, canny intelligence, and craftiness.
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Unlike Adiga’s attempt at forging a distinctive style, albeit one that involved mocking Indian English, Sibal steers away from linguistic bravados. Her story is told in bluntly realistic details, reinforced by the occasional use of colloquial Hindi which, to her credit, she leaves untranslated in a bid to bring an authentic Indian feel to the plot. The markers of wealth are laid on with a trowel, even though the Sikand family, as we meet them in the beginning, have fallen on hard times. Aahan, the spoilt scion and Rajesh’s contemporary, is crushed by alcoholism, bad business decisions, and his father’s bigamous life. He is reduced to showing off second-hand BMWs to guests, foreign booze no longer overflows at his parties, and the whole world is sniggering behind his back about his father’s open secret of a marriage to a Muslim femme fatale.
Rajesh, on the other hand, is going from strength to strength, thanks to the opportunities offered by a decent education (supported by the Sikands), which led him to a career in student politics, before elevating him to the berth of a state minister. (In case you don’t get enough sense of his ill-gotten gains, Sibal has him wear an iWatch, “a gift from a wealthy constituent” in 2013, two years before Apple even launched the gadget.) For an Adiga copycat, Rajesh's ascent would have been sufficient cue for him to avenge the humiliations hurled at his family by the Sikands, most of which were unthinkingly internalized by his parents or bounced off their seemingly thick skin, as is the case with every other “servant” in the household. But Sibal is more subtle in her treatment of the plot, and ends it with, literally, a sweet revenge.
Clever intentions notwithstanding, Equations moves rather like a whimsical creature—galloping away with jolly vigour, conjuring vignettes charged with high drama, painting a sharp-eyed portrait of Delhi elites but never quite able to sustain a narrative coherence. Part of its problem is the shoddy structuring. The last third of the book, when Rajesh manages to woo and marry an Indian American woman called Sana, is the most interesting, but it is prefaced with pages upon pages of repetitive monologue (Rajesh gives a blow-by-blow account of his whole life to Sana, which the reader has already been subjected to in just as much detail earlier in the book). The flashbacks, when used, are clunky and feel mistimed, more like interruptions than transitional passages.
The other trouble, less easily fixable perhaps, is the lifelessness of Sibal’s prose, even when it is well paced. Chunks of Equations read like bland notes towards a novel, setting up dramatic moments but never unpacking their fullest potential, which better dialogue and more spirited action could have improved. The result, alas, feels closer to a promising first draft of a first novel rather than one that has been, for inexplicable reasons, fulsomely praised by the Who’s Who of the literary world.