BABYJI by Abha Dawesar. Anchor Books, 2005. Paperback, 356 pages. $13.
3336268d7de0738b238739a21a615f1e-2annels a wonderful new Indian reality.” To be sure, this is not your run-of-the-mill Indian novel. Sex, homework, and more sex are the order of the day, but that is only on the surface. What brews within Anamika, the 16-year-old narrator, is heady stuff. Dawesar has created a character who actually thinks before she acts and (gasp!) cares about the world.

So what is this new Indian reality? “Well,” Dawesar starts with a slight hesitation, “I can’t begin to speak for Meera Nair, but what I think she means is that in the past 10-15 years, Indian society has changed so much, especially urban India. It has changed economically, and the individual has grown so much more important. Women are more independent, have more choices about marriage, careers, and their lives in general. There is a sexual revolution of sorts brewing in the country. This book addresses the generation facing the changes.”

In fact, in the very first paragraph of the book Delhi is described thus:

Delhi is a city where things happen undercover. A city where the horizon is blanketed with particulate pollution and the days are hot. A city with no romance but a lot of passion. You ask how passion without romance is possible? The same way sex without a nightlife is possible. Delhi churns slowly, secretively. What emerges is urgency.

It is this churning undercurrent of life that Babyji is all about. Anamika, a seemingly normal teen who happens to read the Kama Sutra, has affairs with women, and has a brilliant philosophical mind and a fierce social conscience. What could overwhelm a narrative like this might be the sexual detail, the shock, and, for some, the distaste of the frank sexual escapades of a young girl. While Anamika seems, at first, to give in to every desire (not unlike many her age), there is no cognitive override here: she is deliberate to a fault. An affair with an older woman, a divorcee with a child, and one with a low-caste servant, showcase Anamika’s desire to explore her world sexually, intellectually, and emotionally.

Anamika is often wise beyond her years, and Dawesar’s astute and sensitive writing imbues her with the emotional realities of a girl her age. On a weekend trip to a hill station with her divorced lover, Anamika is scandalized by the change in her lover when she drinks and smokes marijuana. The young Anamika feels that the older woman’s altered sense of reality leaves her emotionally inaccessible, something she finds, understandably, frightening. Overcome by emotion, she phones her mother, telling her how much she misses her. Although the book has many poignant moments, this is the one where we realize that for all of her confidence and daring, Anamika is really just a young girl.

3336268d7de0738b238739a21a615f1e-3Set in 1991 against the backdrop of the Indian government’s controversial Mandal Commission recommendations about affirmative action policies for backward, disadvantaged, and tribal people, Dawesar’s story has strong social implications. She admits that the book has different layers to it and adds, “That was one of the hardest things about writing this book: In a lot of ways it is like Delhi itself. You have what is going on, what everyone can see, all of the surface appearances, and then what lies just beneath.”

She continues, “Anamika desires idealism, not unlike many her age. Idealism in a young adult is at its most potent, you know, just going through all of the questions like ‘What is the world about and what is my place in it?’”

As Anamika becomes more sexually aware, she becomes politically aware, too, and experiences both a revulsion and fascination towards the self-immolations that were carried out against the caste-based quota recommendations. With her classmates, Vidur, Sheela, and the rogue Chakra Dev, life becomes dangerously intense, and each and every one of them (some more than others), are brought to the brink and back again.

Although Dawesar writes about India in a way not commonly done in the most recent popular literature, she has no scorn for South Asian literature that paints a more rosy view of Indian life: “Look,” she says in a clear, intelligent voice, “the world is changing. India is changing. India in the world is changing, and my writing, honestly, I think, reflects that. At least in the cities, you don’t have to conform so much anymore. There is a lot of diversity, and your lifestyle can reflect that diversity if you choose; India is keeping up with that change, has welcomed that change as well.”

Dawesar seems just as bright and bold as her writing. She came to the United States with a full scholarship to Harvard and feels quite comfortable in both countries: “You know, it is not like it used to be. Now, there is such fluidity between countries, I don’t feel as though I have to choose one place to stay. I can stay in the U.S for a few months and feel perfectly comfortable going back to India and doing the same. Things are not so binary anymore, not so stark. In the long run, India will benefit from all of its changes, socially and economically,” she states confidently.

As a writer who “works in spurts,” Dawesar says that she conceived of Babyji, originally, as just a short story. She laughs and says, “But a different story just kept coming through!” Lucky for the rest of us that it did. Babyji is an intelligent, thought-provoking and thoroughly enjoyable read, an achievement that took a lot of hard work, but the kind of hard work that Dawesar has built her life on: “You know, writing is like anything else—it is a back-and-forth process and what I’ve done evolves over a period of time. But the movement is always forward.”

Michelle Reale lives and writes near Philadelphia, and is devoted to the study of South Asian literature.

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