Pushing forty, divorced, and disillusioned even further after a failed live-in relationship in London, management consultant Lata Ghosh goes on a little holiday to Kolkata to meet her mother, the lovely but annoying Manjulika Ghosh, who would visit her every year in London, urge her to freeze her eggs, and try to lure her back to Kolkata with tales of friends who were doing astonishingly well there. It’s not easy to argue with a woman like this: “Manjulika Ghosh taught history and geography in middle school. She also only wore the finest Dhakai saris on her annual journey to London, where unlike the other passengers who emerged from Heathrow looking like crushed paper towels, she glided out like Aparna Sen on set.”
Once in Kolkata, Lata’s friends from Presidency college pop up (including Ronny-an ex) and you can look forward to squeals of joy, cheerful banter, laughs and love-or maybe not. The problem is, Lata Ghosh is a bit of a moaner. This is her default mode: “Lata fell back onto the mattress and covered her face with the crook of her elbow. The exhaustion of last year, things staggering to a stop after the final break-up with Ari (after which she went through the excruciating block-unblock-block-unblock saga for months). The annoying clients, the terrible Tinder dates, the daily commute, the wetness of weekends that followed the terrible Tinder dates. The long journey from Heathrow to Dum Dum. Everything seemed to rise around her like a river in flood. She was sinking.”
Moan and groan, ad nauseum. If Lata were a character in a Wodehouse novel, rest assured no one would holler “Hail to thee, Blythe Spirit” on catching sight of her. Dear me, no-she is more like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, “Alone, alone, all, all alone/Alone on a wide wide sea!/And never a saint took pity on/My soul in agony.” Which, actually, is perfect for chick lit. Unfortunately, Lata is far too beautiful (Helen of Troy was a moniker thrust upon her by the Head of the Economics department when she failed to answer a question) and intelligent and competent to be a chick lit heroine, and not witty enough besides-her best friend Aaduri has all the best lines!
Before you think we’re treading into Jane Austen’s Persuasion where old flames meet after years, the answer is a firm no as well. Both Lata and Ronny have had other loves in between, and no tortured bouts of yearning for each other. In fact, more than Lata, it’s her family members who look forward to her getting back with Ronnie, now a famous award-winning filmmaker, who currently is in a relationship with the young daughter of a legendary Tollywood star.
The most charming romance in this book is the one that blossoms between sarcastic, no-nonsense Aaduri and her seemingly earnest boss with a spoofy, dead-serious-editor sort of name: Hem Shankar Tiwari. Only, Hem and Aaduri are not writing poignant editorials on poverty alleviation or award-winning investigative stories on defence deals-they work in the digital space where memes, hits, etc are the things that stress them out most. It's terribly embarrassing when young, just-out-of-some-US-university trainees know more on the subject of digital media than their bosses!
Satire is what makes you turn the pages of this book: Ronny leads to hilarious takes on Tollywood, and his agony over his new script is painful. He chops and changes and rarely meets deadlines, which makes his almost-Marwari assistant, Bobby Bansal, feel like tearing her hair out.
Bobby is only the first of the almost-Marwaris you meet in this book. Her cousin is engaged to Lata’s cousin Molly (who organises her wedding by ordering almost everything online, which is so smooth). As the final tiresome and troublesome offline wedding preparations finally kick off at Ghosh Mansion, you meet the entire strict vegetarian almost-Marwari family (who are actually from UP, but no one can tell the difference). This integration between Bengalis and Marwaris (almost, or not) is a nice, warm touch, considering that Marwaris have been a part of West Bengal for ages.
Kolkata is dutifully and beautifully paid respect to. If you had lived there during the seventies, eighties or nineties, you’d probably sing along with Lata when she bursts into of the most loved non-Bengali songs during those decades, Dolly Parton’s yowly “Jolene”. It doesn’t matter if you’ve lived in Kolkata or not, though.
The characters are alive, the one-liners are fun, and the observations are witty. If a happy ending is what you’re after, you may be disappointed. Lata finally has a valid reason to feel depressed, but take heart-there’s a silver lining too!
While Lata's mother may not think Friends from College is a worthy book, she would perhaps agree that it is a pleasant and comforting read. Feel free to ignore Manjulika Ghosh’s stricture on books to read while travelling: “You bought a new book to read on a journey-and mind you, no potboiler or whodunit either. A worthy book. To accompany your worthy self.”...