If you’ve read Rachna Singh’s books before, that she is funny enough to make all bones turn into ticklish ribs is a fact that needs no establishing. Her humour flows easy, is derived from life as we know it and makes no attempt to fashionably offend. If it does, and when it should, at best it feels like a pinch! So when I picked up ‘Band, Baaja, Boys!’ I was expecting it to ‘launch a million laughs’, as Rachna herself aimed. It did! What it also did was create a most memorable portrait of Allahabad such that we see it as if sitting in a rickshaw, riding through its narrow lanes, missing the paan spittle by a hair’s breath, peeking into the houses as we pass by and all that with an expert guide.
‘Band, Baaja, Boys!’ is a filmy-sweet story with a baraat of characters and a high dose of Hinglish. Each character is created unique in his localness or her quirks, his love angles or her bra straps. Man, woman or neighbor, every one you meet contributes to the Bajpai family’s story; that of 21-year-old Binny’s parents, Brajesh and Kumud, looking for an eligible match for her, while she herself tries fixing one for herself from a handful of bachelor boys. Simple, often silly, day-dreams define the characters, making them sweet as sherbet and bumbling in their small-town aspirations. They endear you individually and yet together paint a picture of the many gully-mohallas that still exist in evolving cities like Allahabad; those spaces living hesitantly at cusps of modernity even when the posher areas hurtle towards an English-speaking “open-mindedness”.
The portrait of Allahabad then is the portrait of its people; these people in Manphodganj going about their daily businesses and who Rachna brings alive. This portrayal happens in two ways. Mostly it is the hilariously detailed descriptions of characters and the episodes unfurling around them that immensely entertain while showing us Allahabad at close quarters. But at various places in the story of Binny (of parental match-making and romeo romances) the reader also senses the presence of ideas and customs which keep this society where it is - enveloped away from forward-looking views about marriage, daughters and even love.
The fun and funny first.
Rachna’s magnifying glass leaves nothing uncooked in this Allahabadi sun. Whatever comes under it becomes smoking funny! And a lot does in this place where ‘From Delhi’ was the ultimate style statement’. Girls and boys sat on separate sides, and while ‘the girls took notes the boys watched them taking notes.’ In the Bajpai family ‘an alcoholic was one who could spell r-u-m’ and precious Coke was served in glasses which ‘might as well have served eye-drops’. On the roads ‘Vikrams’ not only transported you to the ‘Minorities Institute of Technology’ but also ‘imparted sage advice via words of wisdom on their rears’. ‘Van Halen’ on t-shirts was understood as ‘forest that is shaking’ and people were rechristened ‘bijli-ghar-waley Sahay’ if the place of work was so enviable! Parents had folders called ‘Tarun Chaubey: Virtues, Merits and Assets’ for daughters and ‘padosi sun lenge’ was the surest way to calm the mother of a truant daughter down... and so on and such fun!
However, amidst all the comic happenings of the book was a note that sometimes broke the laughter, a poignant presence throughout the joy ride.
‘Band, Baaja, Boys!’ uses humour through witty one-liners and topsy-turvy events to train our lens on what still teems in many, many societies in our cities. How ‘a fair complexion almost makes up for the missing tube of flesh between the legs’. How ‘ignore the dogs’ was the precious advice parents raised their daughters with. But no parents told their son, Don’t be a dog.’ In times of need it was caste which defined friendship and in Manphodganj ‘I can make your life miserable if you come in my way’ was no empty threat. Directionless boys like Raja came to the cities to study with dreams of feudal love in their eyes while marriageable girls like Binny were kept from joining hobby classes. Mothers like Kumud fantasized about NRI grooms and foreign lands where they could wear jeans with their bindi and so proudly showcased their decorated daughters to prospective parents in law, while yet they swore to not let them go through what they themselves did at the hands of the in laws. Sonless and childless mothers stayed a distance away from new born babies. The elite watched the poor die in floods. The rich-and-spoilt lured gullible girls into shameful acts. And so …
‘Binny had pushed out her feelings of inadequacy caused by not being the boy her parents wanted. Brajesh had pushed out his frustrations that arose with the monotony of his existence. Kumud had pushed out her yearnings for a son. Each life operated within the safe, clean niche it had resolved to whittle out for itself.’
In such a scenario, where Brajesh sleeps fitfully, equally worried about the market for his bras and his beti, Binny as a heroine could have been a swash-buckling, sword-wielding leader. You know, someone who freed her sex (or herself!) from marital objectification and even from being seen as second to boys. But Rachna’s Binny isn’t that heroine, and as you read you realize the author herself did not aspire to create her that way. Her motivations for falling dupattas and flickering eyelids begin from something as simple as a need to feel wanted by someone, and end there too.
Binny is happy enough to be the ‘mistress of deception’. She is no trend-setting girl who shatters the glass ceiling and sets an example for pious friends like Manjul. At best, Binny is like a pocket patakha, a girl from a Hindi-medium school ‘who got no attention and resolved to show the boys how dumb they were.’ Aware of her sexuality and sweetly manipulative enough to enjoy her moments of escape, Binny nonetheless has no aspiration outside of what her parents have for her – that of being a married VIP. So, even as she does the unthinkable when the novel spirals to a punchy climax in Delhi, Binny only manages to somewhat scratch the glass ceiling she was born under.
Women in ‘Band, Baaja, Boys!’ are in control in their own sweet ways, but it’s more like enjoying the freedom to ride the Scooty till the end of town, and duly turning back home before it got dark. Or wearing the nightgown of your choice but with the big bindi intact. While they fail to become powerful-progressive heroines of novels, they remain successful in reminding us of how they are, with their limited controls and cushioned dreams, from among'st us all. We also correct ourselves as we realize how Manphodganj isn’t just in Allahabad, but in our "modern" cities too.
‘Band, Baaja, Boys!’ was also about another realization, for me. This is the first book with a heavy reliance on Hinglish that I have read, with even chapter titles all mixed up! My relationship with the English Language is rather like a schoolmarm’s, and from a distance Hinglish was but a hybrid I viewed as foreign to my reading taste. As I saw the characters converse in their vernacular styles, with their geographically unique words (‘bhaak’) and in indigenous accents (blew colour), I sensed how reading them in their language made them flesh-and-blood to me, even when one of them ‘suicided himself’! I could hear them, almost, as one sold bras on the road with ‘Bra…braaaaas….Taaze Braas…Bra le lo’. I could visualize Allahabad going ‘Axe-kyuj me?’ And I could see how many jokes got a punch because how can ‘paisa chaddi ki chor jeb mein hai’ be said any other way. Humour in vernacular and vernacular in humour!
There’s another thing. It is very difficult to write a language you know correctly so incorrectly that it garners the sought response. Know what I mean? Rachna’s book includes instances of such literal translations as would make you roar with laughter and in turn create a very true-to-life image of the context. For instance, Raja, preparing for the Civil Services, insists on writing letters to his mother only in English - ‘How can I tell Amma but I am telling. I am fixing daughter in law for you. For last six months, I am fixing a girl for you. I am seeing her from my coaching centre window, seeing her fatherji, then also going and seeing her house. Quality of all is good…caste is not the same Amma…but she is having our same caste sanskaars.’
I remain in an Open Relationship with Hinglish without fully committing myself to its merits, as yet, because I also see how this book can truly be appreciated only by those who know Hindi, however little. ‘Band, Baaja, Boys!’ thus becomes not just a book about the Hindi heartland but also belongs there in its truest sense. In this, and this alone, lies its limitation.
All of Rachna Singh’s books seem to be inspired from personally experienced cities and situations. The author and the narrator are always one and stories read like memoirs, even when they aren’t. This lends her works a flavour of authenticity hard to ignore, even if it makes you wonder as her regular reader if she is unable to dissociate her personal self from her art. For this book too she admits in typical coinage ‘I belongs to Allahabad and I am proud of it’. After reading what she does with it you see that it is actually Allahabad which belongs to Rachna instead!
Read it to enjoy its hilarity and its delightful frivolousness. But also read to wonder with Binny ‘Marriz…marriz…why human beens need to do a marriz? Why?’
'Band, Baaja, Boys!' by Rachna Singh is an Amaryllis publication, 2016.
[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]