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Fiction: Closing the distance

November 07, 2010

The Distance is Soborna Roychowdhury’s debut novel in which she deals with several serious issues, including the male-dominated society and the patriarchal family, politics on campus and outside of it, and love and arranged marriages. It also deals with life in the US minus family values, love and affection. However, it is the tongue-in-cheek humour surrounding such serious issues that add sparkle to the book.

When I first started reading the novel, I wondered why Saborna had titled her novel The Distance when she could have given it a much better title. However, on finishing it I realised that none other could have been more apt. It is the distance between dreams and realities; between a husband and wife; between arranged and love marriages; between India and the US and between cultural and family values, along with the distance between openly-declared and unrequited love. The protagonist, Mini, narrates how her parents got married and how on their wedding night they discuss Calcutta’s top two football teams: Mohan Bagan and East Bengal. Somerset Maugham also creeps up on the topics discussed. Ironically, love and romance seem to be amiss and are nowhere to be found 25 years later as Mini’s mother complains to her sister Rini, ‘I don’t have those kinds of saris. Where would I wear them? The only place your brother-in-law takes me is the bank and the post office.’

On another occasion, Mini’s father’s culinary skills come into display and how he relishes the dish once it has been prepared, ‘That afternoon my father sat down to have lunch with a bowl full of cooked chicken, savouring the rising aroma with his closed eyes, dipping one finger at a time to judge the richness and texture of the sauce.

‘My brother and I sat down as excited as he was to begin this grand and rare feast in our house. After putting one drop on the tip of his palate, he smacked his lips and let out a long sigh. My brother and I imitated him immediately and burst into laughter.’

Death is a prominent fixture in Saborna’s book. At least four of the characters die by the time the book ends. Mini, while writing about her grandmother’s death, says, ‘My mother stood near my grandmother’s head with a hand-fan, looking down at her face. There were beads of moisture around her eyes, rising from a deep pool of memories. I wondered if they were memories of suppression, of lost freedom and constant interference.

‘Or was it affection underneath it all that rises from proximity, having a history together, sharing of common experiences. Who knew what emotions lay behind those tears that day when she bent down to touch my grandmother’s feet to bid her farewell.’

From this you can easily infer that Saborna is a powerful observer and a deep thinker. She does not provide any answers, but leaves it to the reader to arrive at a conclusion. Once you pick up the book, you won’t feel like putting it down. The tempo keeps on building up, slowly and steadily.

However, I did find a few faults in the book, particularly where grammar is concerned. Saborna seems to be mixing up the articles ‘a’ and ‘the’ at some places. She consistently writes ‘Are’ instead of ‘Arre’ which is Hindi for ‘Hey!’ It is a pity that the editors proof-reading the book did not do an efficient job. Also, a glossary would have done the book a world of good. She uses Hindi words even where English ones are available. She could have easily used saffron for ‘kaiser’. I am sure all these errors will have been taken care off by the time its second edition goes into print.

Saborna’s laconic humour is delicious, her occasional political comments are shrewd, and her deft thumbnail character-sketches reveal a keen eye for the essential extraordinariness of ordinary folk.

One more thing: at the end of Chapter 5, Saborna writes, ‘Looking for new adventures and thrills wasn’t an option for either of them.’ However, it can be safely said: Looking for new adventures and thrills through her second novel is definitely an option for book lovers. 

The Distance (NOVEL) By Saborna Roychowdhury Mindscape, India 236pp. Indian Rs195