The year is 1996. A principled and spirited woman sets her sights on becoming a member of Parliament. When and how does she get there? The story unfolds through the perspectives of two dramatically contrasting characters whose lives become tragically entangled. Waheeda is a thirty-two-year-old woman from Uttar Pradesh who enters politics after her brothers are murdered. Monish, her secret lover, is a scion of a Delhi business dynasty, who is trapped in his bullying father's empire. Their affair is set against the backdrop of a tumultuous time in politics--tumbling governments and three national elections taking place over three years. Their personal and public lives clash as they struggle to achieve their power for her; fortune for him; unaware of the dangers that swirl around them. Everything is interconnected, not just wealth and politics, even if the characters are not fully cognisant of this.
Manual For A Decent Life by Kavita Jindal is written with great insight and emotional depth about relationships - family dynamics, love, marriage, work. Expectations of parents for their adult children can be hard to escape. Set in India, you will learn much about the tension between religious groups and the power struggle of political parties, in this vast country with an astounding number of regional disparities in culture, language, treatment of women, and more.
'A single magpie, one for sorrow, on the drive.' So starts the Manual For A Decent Life, Kavita A. Jindal’s first novel. A simple sentence, and very evocative of what is to come, though you may forget this as you delve deeper into the richly detailed novel.
Set in India in 1996, this is the story of Waheeda, daughter of a well-known politician, Aseem and how she tries to fulfil her father’s ambition of entering politics to become an elected MP. Waheeda’s brothers have died some years ago, and the shadow of that loss haunts the family. Aseem is used to having his own way and just like he used to when she was a child, he makes the adult Waheeda pick a chit to choose her life path 'She lifted one of the origami triangles. The paper dry in her tense hands. She unfolded the paper. Nulkazim.' Her choice made, at some stage, her father’s ambition becomes her own, completely moulding her persona. Herein lies the character’s complexity. At one level, she is a beautiful, passionate woman who enters willingly into a secret relationship, and on the other, she is very restrained, almost appearing cold, maybe due to the restrictive atmosphere she operates in. And then there is the other protagonist, Monish, young , handsome, a bit of a player, scion of a Delhi based business dynasty. Monish is however the reluctant scion, he enjoys his luxurious lifestyle, but is derisive of his overt, almost comically, materialistic brother and father.
Waheeda and Monish are an unlikely match; in terms of age, religion, backgrounds, ambition, and this makes their passionate love story so interesting. There are very few novels written about the secret lives of politicians, and then add to that, women politicians from a traditional Muslim family. Similarly, Monish and his lifestyle, complete with glamourous girlfriends, is very interesting. This world we see; restrictive and conservative, then glamorous and modern, makes the book unique. Set in 1996, at the time mobiles were just introduced in India, it is not dated, in the sense that the value systems and the challenges are very accurate of present-day India as well. Set entirely in India, Jindal offers a glimpse into the lives of a different kind of Indian, perhaps not what the west would be familiar with. This is another reason why an authentic book like this needed to be written.
Jindal has skilfully told the story from different viewpoints and weaved it together, in a very detailed tapestry. The first half is somewhat slow, but all the effort of the scene setting and detailing, helps the reader, to understand the raison d’etre of the characters, in the second half the pace is more eventful. The last few chapters stand out, being very powerfully written. You know these theme park rides? Where you start off in a boat on a still calm river and as you go along, there are signs that all is not what it seems to be, but you ignore the signs, since you are instead enjoying the scenery, the view, and then all of a sudden, everything changes, and there you are falling a hundred feet down! You scream in horror, and then back you are in still waters, thinking of the ride, and realising it was so reminiscent of life itself. And that is how I felt, after completing the Manual for a Decent Life! I don’t want to say more and give away the story, so read it for yourself!
I confess to knowing nothing about life or politics in Indian in the late 1990s, but that made the whole reading experience of ‘Manual for a decent life’ by Kavita A. Jindal all the more intriguing and sweeter. Within pages I cared about Waheeda, her aspirations and dreams, and was quickly immersed in her world. Social constraints have Waheeda trapped in a marriage where her husband no longer wants her in his life, yet they have a daughter, precious to both of them, and cannot separate formally. Pushed into a new political role where she finds herself a candidate in the local elections, Waheeda finds her private life on display at all times and governed by the strict rules of her society and culture. Amidst this scrutiny she risks everything by falling for Monish, a younger Hindu man from a wealthy and influential family, and has to hide their passionate relationship with constant lies and secrecy. We see how complex and dangerous political canvassing is for a female candidate, yet Waheeda bravely embraces the challenge and uses her influence to improve the lives for school-age girls. The final outcome is tragic and heartbreaking as Waheeda’s family is once again ripped apart by violence. I enjoyed the rich details of Waheeda’s world in this novel and found it an absorbing story of two people who really should be together but because of social, family and religious rules have to deceive everyone around them for any chance of love. What surprised me was how both men and women are constrained by rigid social rules, neither can find true freedom to simply be themselves or follow their dreams. Lyrical prose and great characters kept me hooked to the end.
A book that examines the life, ambitions, longings and regrets of Waheeda, a woman living in in a fictional district in Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in the 1990s, and how she is compelled by her circumstances to become a politician. It is a fascinating love story set in the political turmoils of that time, an account of how the people adapt themselves to these shifts of power and values, as it raises important questions about the independence of women and the choices that they make in that society.