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Vandana Singh-Lal’s debut novel is a critique of Delhi’s apathetic ways and an indictment of the Indian middle class

Urvashi Bahuguna | Updated on July 10, 2020 Published on July 10, 2020

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An arresting debut, So All Is Peace delves into a mystery charged with questions of gender, trauma and mental health

* The premise is borrowed from the real-life tragedy of two sisters found starving similarly in 2011 in Noida

* Many women in Delhi, young and old, will identify with this sense of distrust

Vandana Singh-Lal’s debut novel So All Is Peace opens with the line: “I can see your future”. Set predominantly in a gated community in contemporary Delhi where upper middle class families reside, the novel revolves around the downfall of one family. Twin sisters Layla and Tanya, aged 15, travel to Paris with their father during an unusually warm summer that causes fatalities around the city. In the Louvre Museum, they chance upon Théodore Chassériau’s painting The Two Sisters (1843), which shows two Caucasian sisters, seemingly close in age, dressed in gowns with shawls draped over their shoulders, locking arms and gazing directly ahead with expressions that suggest their world is impenetrable. Eleven years after their visit to Paris, the twins are discovered starving in their family apartment when a young neighbour knocks incessantly on their door to alert them that a firecracker he set off has landed in their balcony.

The premise is borrowed from the real-life tragedy of two sisters found starving similarly in 2011 in Noida. The question changes from how this could have happened to why neither of them attempted to seek help. The twins are rescued by neighbours and police and admitted to a hospital, and the media and the public become obsessed with this inexplicable mystery. A lauded investigative journalist, Raman, is asked by the publication he works for to write a short human-interest piece on the women. Initially reluctant since the sensationalist coverage of the story holds uncomfortable similarities to the coverage of the real-life murder of 13-year-old Aarushi Talwar in 2008, Raman changes his mind when Tanya chooses to speak to him.

So All Is Peace; Vandana Singh-Lal; Penguin; Fiction; ₹499

 

The novel can be read as a critique of Delhi’s apathetic ways or as an indictment of the Indian middle class, whose comforts have multiplied but whose community ties remain weak or downright oppressive. One of the first insights the reader receives into the twins is that they’re weary of modern life, weary of the city, of people other than themselves. The world that is shocked by their plight is also the one whose systems have so far failed them.

Many women in Delhi, young and old, will identify with this sense of distrust. The foreboding that undercuts the text at most turns is difficult to quantify. It is as if the opening line — “I can see your future” — is a warning in disguise. There is no path most women can take without encountering danger and manipulation. The opaqueness of their story in the first half of the novel is frightening and, at times, confusing.

The painting they saw 11 years ago becomes less a clue into their lives and more an indication that Raman may never understand why the sisters starved. Chassériau’s painting returns a few times in the course of the story to remind the reader about who these women are — educated, travelled, interested in literature and art. They make for unexpected victims, and though that piques people’s interest, it also unsettles them. Surely a woman who quotes Italian poetry has been insulated by socio-economic security? Surely she will not waste away unnoticed by society?

Part-social commentary and part-mystery, the questions that drive the narrative are manifold. How do people in populous, seemingly diverse and modernised places become invisible? Whose role is it to watch out for those that are unwell, under-resourced or otherwise marginalised? The neighbours and security guards are easy targets in the investigation. Should they not have noticed? The novel is an uncomfortable reminder that communal responsibility is a characteristic missing from modern life. It is easy to not notice when someone (even someone affluent and upper class) disappears. The disquieting corollary: It is easy for any one of us, given the right combination of the wrong circumstances, to disappear too.

Singh-Lal’s story picks up pace midway through the text as the reclusive sisters’ lives are revealed with increasing complexity. Raman is drawn to Tanya for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious. His attention is even a little frustrating because it suggests empathy and interest need have romantic undercurrents. But their equation is a small part of the story, and it is the police and the pieces of information unearthed from Tanya’s rambling that move the story forward. The other characters include hospital staff such as nurses, emergency room doctors, and a psychologist, all of whom lend the story an additional level of intrigue. In the course of their day, the twins are an unusual case that brings with it pressure and scrutiny, but it is not the only case. Their cameos are an essential reminder that the world moves on while time in the hospital room appears to stand still, and that the mystery is both social and medical.

Written in straightforward prose, So All Is Peace is an unusual addition to Indian literature. I found that the novel’s effect on me grew as time passed and the more I thought about the women. I couldn’t recall another text in India where a real-life case was adapted in fiction in a manner that paid attention to the social conditions that enable disasters. Barring some conveniently neat corners, the novel is an absorbing read that delves into single womanhood, isolation and gender.

Urvashi Bahuguna is the author of Terrarium

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Published on July 10, 2020
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