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In Beautiful Disguises: Rajeev Balasubramanyam
India Today Jan 2001


I am confused; I'm sure this book must have a point. Perhaps it is me. I can't perceive one good reason why this book was written or why anybody should even try reading it.

In fact, this is the kind of book I like - no advance hype, no reviews to colour my thoughts. But by the end of the third page I felt distinctly uncomfortable. First of all, there is the small town described as somewhere in South India and named the 'small town'. A few details cited elsewhere suggest some place in Karnataka; a 48-hour train journey from The City up north - presumably New Delhi. References to cable TV, the Hong Kong handover and The Bold and The Beautiful indicate the time frame as present.

So here and now is where the sixteen year old heroine, again nameless [the author has an aversion to proper nouns and is obsessed by adverbs and adjectives] lives. Trapped between dreams of being a film star - Holly Golightly nee Audrey Hepburn, if you please - and consciousness which is a dysfunctional family that would make the Addams Family seem normal. Everyday, we are told, the heroine seeks refuge in the Majick Movie House that shows Breakfast at Tiffanys and like. It was at this moment I began to feel embarrassment for the author. The poor boy, born and based in the UK, was writing about a world he knew nothing about.

I grew up in a small town and even in my times, the movie theatres called Meenakshi, Rakhi etc played Tamil films. Just occasionally they would play a Kung Fu movie or a Friday the 13th or if the theatre owner was feeling very adventurous The Crazy Boys. These days it is The Titanic or The Golden Eye or Evil Dead 4 or some such mass appeal flick. Audrey Hepburn, nah! But none of all this matters to the author. He's written a book based on what must have been family reminiscences and his own impressions perhaps culled after a few weeks in India. And so he progresses from one gaffe to the other - the heroine's brother uses the compensation his company gives him to install cable TV!

The scene shifts to the Big City where the heroine runs away to escape marrying a 'horrible man', becomes a maid, nurtures a passion for croissants and champagne and Armand the Oxford returned son of the house, goes to the zoo on her days off where a la the Botanical Gardens at Singapore, Orangutans perform, discourses on life with the zoo keepers, all very erudite young people, the kind who populate Animal Planet shows, never mind that reality comprises of khaki-clad, beedi-smoking, underpaid disgruntlement. Finally, the heroine returns home after much introspection shaped by dollops of Indian mythology and takes charge of her life with a marriage of convenience. The book ends with the heroine and her parents discovering her husband in bed with another man.

Some books have characters who reign over the narrative so much so the author's presence is rarely felt. In Beautiful Disguise the contrary happens. More than anything else, one keeps marvelling at the author's idiocy and how the characters and their voices have no meeting ground. This isn't nit-picking but what does one say about a heroine [or a writer] who uses phrases like off-load in her monologues and yet thinks the word 'condolences' is something to eat.

Which is what makes me wonder if there is a hidden point somewhere. That this must be either a parable or a parody. Right now, speckled with verbal gymnastics, a display of ignorance and enough exotica [make a list of exotic India and you'll be sure to find a listing in this book] to make even the tourism department cringe, I can't see it.

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