A little over half a century back Delhi wore a different face. In the Lutyens’ zone, there were palatial bungalows with long driveways, sprawling lawns where the rich and powerful lived. Most of them, scions of old families, inheritors of old money. Those belonging to older generations wallow in nostalgia when the only highrise that vied with the Qutab Minar was DDA’s Vikas Minar on the Ring Road. The other towering structures yet to cast their shadow on the tree lined avenues of the capital or blight the spotless face of Connaught Place.
How times change! Today the changing power equations and the social churning have thrown up a new elite. Family feuds and property disputes coupled with declining fortunes have resulted in a new set of people taking over these properties and turning the haveli-like residences into steel and concrete apartments.
Shivani Sibal, in her debut novel, has magically recreated the times gone by. Simultaneously, she has a cast of characters and events that play out in much more recent times. The narrative opens less than a decade back when the lives of the residents of the once-fabulous Sikand House are being turned upside down. The reader is irresistibly pulled in the dizzying whirlpool that keeps growing in size. The author has an impeccable eye for detail and a great ear for (bilingual) dialogue. She is like a fly on the wall, observing and absorbing like a talented sociologist engaged in fieldwork. She may herself belong to the smart set but she can maintain remarkable distance and objectivity, reminding one of the old Sanskrit phrase “Jal Kamal Vat” — floating like a lotus leaf in water but above it.
What sets her novel cut above other works of fiction in this genre is the writer’s empathy for the underdog. There is no condescension or clinical diagnosis to prescribe a treatment. The young author has the wisdom to realise that when historical forces work on society and economy, equations change. It is human beings — rich and poor, young and old, men and women — with desires and dreams of their own who have to adjust their lives. Things are in flux and these equations, like in mathematics textbooks can’t be balanced according to prescribed rules.
Some characters are more fortunate than others realise what they had dreamt of. For others dreams turn into nightmares more often than not due to their own weaknesses and flaws in character. The book is plotted brilliantly and can be easily described as a pageturner/unputdownable. However, this would be doing the author a great injustice. Shivani has not set out to provide a light entertaining read for a reader in hurry. It carries its themes of class, caste, disparity, poverty, and social change with such grace that the reader is enticed into believing it is an easy read. The book deserves to be revisited and certain pieces re-read and savoured slowly.
It would be unfair to either review the storyline or the crests and troughs in the emotional lives of the protagonists. Reading this book is a deeply moving experience that forces one to rethink one’s relationship with this city and its residents belonging to your own social class, temperament, sexual orientation and sharing the drive or lack of it for success defined by others. The cityscape has changed at an even more rapid pace since Sikand House’s span of life was played out.
Delhi today spills over and out beyond the Outer Ring Road and the jungles of concrete have mushroomed in the entire NCR region. The Lutyens’ Gang has acquired a sinister connotation in the changed political context. Other writers have provided glimpses of a dystopian future echoing with dark comedy, the seamier side of the dark underbelly of a megacity. Some have the disturbing message that the only way out of a miserable sub-human life is through crime. Sibal’s great achievement is to retain a positive outlook without getting starry-eyed.
The battle is not to the strong, nor the race to the swift. Chance and happenstance play a role in all our lives. The characters in Equations are not exceptions but as events unravel the reader can appreciate how men and women are capable of recovering from scarred childhood, traumas of broken family life and can pull themselves up by their shoe’s strings and stand up proud. They may appear opportunistic or lacking in principles. But what is most important is that their core remains intact. Values like gratitude and compassion cast a warm glow that no reader can remain untouched by it. There are many cameo roles, cheating husbands, ambitious girls willing to pay any price to climb and climb without worrying about the trap that they may be walking in and, of course, there is a godman who provides “solace” to his rich and disturbed followers. The slices of life that Shivani Sibal has put on the platter present contemporary reality of India with great fidelity.
Strongly recommended for reading, re-reading and reflection....