I could begin this review of ‘That Autumn in Awadh’ with a love quote, perhaps. But Rachna Singh’s semi-autobiographical romance novel does not leave one dreamy-eyed feeling all mushy inside. It did not me. For me, this story is too real to make typical. This story acquires poignancy through the context it was set in, and the life-like realism of characterization.
Somewhere around the year 1996, Samar and Sara find themselves drawn to each other, working hard in the same office but battling harder to resist falling in love. Slowly, they succumb, knowing fully well that a Rajput versus Christian battle will rage soon as their families know. And as expected, it does. The story moves from romance in office to lock-ups and house arrests. From intimate moments stolen clandestinely to unshielded threats to life. The plot hinges between the two poles of young, vibrant, hopeful love on one hand and bitter, coercive communal divides on the other. While the turns in the plot keep you absorbed as does their romance, a feeling of foreboding around these star-crossed lovers refuses to leave your side till the very end. A dose of Rachna’s humour helps balance that out, especially in the workplace scenes.
Most relevant – the communal context
There is a timelessness, sadly, to the context the love story is set in. The context of xenophobic communities working over-time to keep themselves ‘unblemished’ by foreign winds. Doing everything in their power to prevent such social embarrassments as their own blood marrying outside the community brings.
‘Nons’ coming for the church-sponsored functions are unacceptable. Sara’s father pronounces a prospective groom for his daughter ‘low caste convert’. She muses ‘The quintessential ‘all God’s children are equal’ did not quite pan out the same way outside the doors of the church’. At Samar’s place, in ‘bhajans that were cacophonous’ sit families ready to join hands against transgressors, holding court, pronouncing judgement and even ready to shed blood, for does not Samar’s uncle feel bold enough to pronounce ‘If he were my son, I would have shot him dead’? You know, as well as I do, how this forms a reality around us still.
Most real – characterization
You know how stories about love spoil us! They make us feel like heroes and heroines in our own love stories, even as they decorate theirs’ in solid shades of valour, loyalty and sacrifice. ‘That Autumn in Awadh’ celebrates these qualities in its protagonists, but without aggrandizing them. In other words, keeping them as human and as real as the readers reading it. Hence, every act of courage by Sara and Samar comes after multiple sessions of timid musing, and every step forward on the rebellious route with a thought spared for the conservative parents. Their misgivings and confidence, both, are beautifully expressed by Rachna. Perhaps, this being her own story in part, played a role in that.
The minor characters are present only to propel Sara’s and Samar’s story forward, either assisting them in their escapades or adding a delightful note of laughter in a world beset with uncertain tomorrows. The foci always remain Sara and Samar.
For most part of the first half, Sara and Samar are ‘two solemn heads (doing) some tough talking to two defiant hearts’. Playing I spy with putting a name to their relationship, this ‘something more’ than friendship, remains ‘unspoken, unnamed and unfathomable’. Between HR meetings and MBA classes, their faux defenses shed gradually, and their relationship develops slowly till the ‘invisible envelope of love surrounding them’ reaches a can’t-live-without-each-other magnitude.
I liked the individual characterization. I felt happy to see Sara surpass Samar, at multiple points in the story, if not in her conviction then certainly in breaking stereotypes, even though she too was often ‘in no shape to argue’ against meeting suitors her parents arranged for her, a point which her sister brings up later in the story. Samar, on the other hand, dithers more, and again and again, from the point where he declares that he will have to marry a girl his family chooses to still worry about Sara getting a ‘smooth entry into my family’ despite the high drama of cancelled weddings and body guards. Frankly, I wanted to shake him by the shoulders at this point, slightly tired of his continuous musings on family.
And then I realized, why, Sara and Samar are only a product of their times! A century when the institution of family was important enough to rein in or rethink youthful impulsiveness. A time when it took time to decide the next step, if not to make up your mind. An era when women and men were working independent of their parents but not cut-away from them. When parental assent mattered in its own ways, and so best efforts were made by lovers to convert rebellion into acceptance, even if the parents stood rigid as rocks.
Most enjoyable – Rachna’s humour
Rachna is effortless with her humour, a self-enhancing type of humour consisting witty descriptions made matter-of-factly. Marry that with comments about quirky colleagues or quirkier communities and it becomes a delicious home-made cake – sans frills, or hyperbole.
At work, Deboprotim Dutta, Head of HR (and funny pronunciations too) is a character who adds much laughter to the reading. A work place where ‘engineers had a way of answering questions correctly, without solving the problem’ but where ‘studious girls … were dressed in stodgy, sensible engineer-like attire, the primary function of which was to conceal any trace of feminine lure’. Where food is like ‘buckskin parantha’ and ‘bullet proof paneer’ and dancing parties see ‘balding senior managers trot up to the relevant missus while adjusting the trouser belt below the canopy of flesh and sweeping them in their arms. The image was macabre’.
A delightfully funny account of the Christian community is the cherry on the cake for me. At Easter lunch ‘the crowds … charged towards the makeshift lunch pandal with the fury of enraged crusaders. Roomali rotis flew like unmanned gliders only to land on plates like manna … the raita quivered on the wobbly wooden tables, maybe saying a silent prayer of thanks since it did not feature high on the list of hungry desires’ for there was chicken biryani in attendance. And getting ready for suitor-seeing meant ‘apply only Charmis cream and dab with Liril powder. Then, using a wet towel, wipe it off, to leave only a subtle trace’. Or where reasons for leaving Church before the holy communion could be ‘clubbed under un-ending sermon or biryani-kebab-cooking-delays’.
The one problem, for me
Rachna says she wrote this semi-autobiographical love story not as a narrator. She wrote it like a third person, observing the turns and twists Samar and Sara go through after stepping out of herself. How far she managed to remain an ‘observer’ to documenting this true love story only she knows. But I notice in the ‘Acknowledgements’, which is obviously her speaking, she adds a “disclaimer” saying (a) She has used actual names of ex-employers to lend authenticity to the narration, but then (b) Ribbing of Christian community was in jest, and neither did she want to offend the Rajputs because ‘it’s these quirky little things about all Indian communities that make us such a vibrant society’.
While I cannot question her choice of subject to lend authenticity to her story and did enjoy the ribbing, I am disappointed to see the apologia which calls coercive and life-threatening ways of communities ‘quirky’ and adding vibrancy to society. Maybe, since she was writing this as a third person, she need not have kept it so tame? I would have wished a bolder portrayal of how regressive communities can get in suppressing love. While the events are there, since the judgement is missing (even from Sara's mouth), the horror of some situations seems to wane.
The final word
‘That Autumn in Awadh’ is a for-the-young and by-the-young story of love across the shadow lines of caste and community. A marriage of fiction and fact to create an interesting read, and a story which will find echo in many hearts torn between love for an ‘outsider’ and allegiance to a family. From the dash of humour to the lovers’ dash in autorickshaws (I cannot get the image of pretty Sara and caring Samar challenging Fate sitting in an auto out of my head), the author keeps you engaged with her easy language and keeping the plot interesting till the very end. The book comes with the quietest of love poetry, but that is what kept it so real and so relevant, for me.
Title: That Autumn in Awadh
Author: Rachna Singh