Let’s open with full disclosure:
- Over thirty years of reviewing books, I have pretentiously emphasized high-brow literature.
- My one snobbish review that strayed from works worthy of Pulitzers, Bookers, or Nobels was of Chetan Bhagat’s 2 States. The conceit of that review could be captured by the New York Times quote in the graphic accompanying the review: “the biggest selling English language novelist in India’s history.”
- I’ve been too busy (or perhaps too high and mighty) to read books fairly or unfairly categorized as rom-coms or the more pejorative chick-lit.
- When I received a request to review Bowled, but NOT OUT, I had just completed my own debut novel, Double Play, and was contemplating if any literary agencies would swat my queries like bothersome mosquitoes buzzing in their ears.
Why this self-deprecating self-disclosure?
Perhaps, gentle reader, I simply want you to know that your loyal reviewer has empathy for any writer who can, in the encouraging words of Anne Lamott, create a world of fiction “bird by bird.” These three words – Bird by Bird – are the title of Lamott’s step-by-step guide on how to write and live. The subtitle, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, frames this review.
What Ruchira Khanna’s self-published novel lacks in craft, it more than makes up for in lively charm and compassion. After reading Bowled, but NOT OUT, I asked my wife if she remembered reading Harlequins from her college days. Mangla responded, “Yes, a few Harlequins, but mostly Mills & Boon. Why do you ask?”
I explained that I was reviewing a book that I thought was a romance novel, but I didn’t have any background in this genre. Mangla asked me about the plot.
Bowled’s plot is rather straightforward. In early 1980s Delhi, Saru Bhatia, a feisty environmental activist, shuts down the development of a government building because of the pollution caused by dumping construction waste into a local stream. She becomes something of a media darling and is interviewed on television by the dashing Sumeet Bajaj. Saru is taken by Sumeet’s “hundred-watt smile that showed off his pearly whites” and Sumeet confesses that none of his “attractive young women” admirers “have been honest, forthright, and fun to be around like” Saru. Saru blushes. Sumeet proposes. And readers are invited to a cricket match of a marriage wherein Saru attempts to hit a few sixers but is eventually bowled out by a termagant of a mother-in-law.
Sumeet is a “Mama’s boy” who provides Saru little to no emotional support outside of bedroom intimacy that results in a daughter, Simrn. Saru learned to love cricket when she herself was a child; her father, a retired Army colonel, encourages her to take charge of her and Simrn’s life, like a captain would his floundering cricket team. Thus Saru leaves her marriage, leaves India, and makes a fresh start in New York where she earns a Master’s degree. Simrn grows up, meets Kabir at Cornell, and the cycle of love starts again, albeit in the American setting with the patriarchy smashed by a young woman who has absorbed her mother’s agency.
Mangla told me that Bowled didn’t quite fit into the Harlequin or Mills & Boon template. For one thing, except for Colonel Bhatia, there are no alpha males (and even the colonel is more of a supportive husband and father than an Army autocrat). More importantly, Bowled’s protagonist is not the submissive sort; unlike the Mills & Boon heroines of yore who passively submitted to their dreamy and steamy heroes, Saru makes her own way in the world. She is a spunky multi-dimensional character who evokes two thumbs up from this hard-hearted reader.
Actually, I don’t have a heart of stone; that’s not my idea of a well-lived life. I just believe that as a reviewer, it is my duty to offer India Currents’ readers my honest assessment of a book. I’d rather be encouraging of authors whose books might (dare I say “should”) find a wider readership.
Despite having occasional challenges with the craft of writing (tense, setting, anachronistic similes, a few typos, and the unnecessary privileging of non-Indian readers by over-explaining Indian culture), Ruchira Khanna’s belief in Saru’s story shines on every page, giving me hope that Bowled, but NOT OUT scores its author many centuries of readers, perhaps adding up to all of the runs credited to cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar.
Dr. Raj Oza has written Globalization, Diaspora, and Work Transformation, Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas, and P.S., Papa’s Stories. His foray into fiction — Double Play – has so far yielded 16 rejections. He can be reached at satyalogue.com or amazon.com/author/rajoza.