Commitment and sacrifice shape and influence the lives of this sweeping debut novel’s characters: three generations of two Indian families absorbed into several decades of radical political and personal change.
The characters’ stories are assembled by Vachani’s narrator Sweta Kalra—from conversations, correspondence and government records—as she seeks information about the death in combat of her father Ranjit, an air force pilot during the India-Pakistan War. Sweta’s discoveries lead back to the unhappy marriage of her maternal grandparents, Nanaji (a freedom fighter involved in Gandhi’s pacifist resistance to British colonial rule) and Naneeji (a frivolous clotheshorse uninterested in her husband’s political passions). Nanaji’s painful life choices are echoed by the film “career” of their son-in-law Ranjit, who quickly outgrows his celebrity as a child star; suffers unrequited love for a girl (Anu) whose socially prominent family outclasses his own; and submissively fulfills his father’s will by qualifying for the National Defense Academy. Vachani, a documentary filmmaker, shows skill in her gradual juxtaposition of episodes from different time periods. But many of the connections made feel forced (e.g., when Anu, who has never stopped loving Ranjit, uncovers the truth about his fatal last flight and subsequently becomes “India’s first woman war correspondent,” the reader groans). Furthermore, Sweta’s over-insistence on achieving self-realization through becoming a skilled writer is unpersuasive and uninteresting. Fortunately, vividly portrayed secondary characters (a substitute teacher who demands her students’ best; an aeronautical savant whose ingenuity seemingly masks an inexorable death wish) are quite compelling figures. And the flawed, haunted figures of Nanaji and Ranjit achieve a memorable intensity.
A flawed novel which nevertheless frequently engages the reader’s imagination and empathy—and bodes well for its ambitious author’s future.