The disaster in Bhopal in 1984, and its protracted aftermath in Delhi, is the tapestry against which the lives of Anjali Deshpande’s characters play out. Avidha, a journalist like the author and the lead protagonist in a long dramatis personae, is part Elizabeth Bennett and part Bridget Jones. Avidha and her motley crew of lawyer, NGO-worker and academician friends are committed to helping Bhopal’s victims, cheated many times over get justice. Her heart, consigned to an uncaring married man, frequently tests her allegiance and she finds herself wallowing in misery, as her friends grapple with adultery, power struggles within relationships or simply living in the stuffy Delhi of the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Deshpande accurately captures the alacrity as well as listlessness of the capital’s occasional do-gooders and for-hire bleeding hearts. She slits open the anatomy of a protest campaign, with its internecine troubles and the odd minor triumph. Her treatment of her characters, alternating between quixotic and noble, is clear-eyed: Deshpande even implicates journalists such as herself for whom Bhopal proved to be professionally expedient.
The novelist is at her best when she employs her reportorial skills to delineate the skin, bone and muscle of the scene of disaster in excruciating detail, or when arguing the case for adequate compensation from multiple angles. She is at her least engaging when using the multiple-perspective format to describe the interior lives and lengthy back stories of even tertiary characters, some of whom are established just a few pages shy of the conclusion. These painstakingly detailed, but superfluous, detours not only dent the novel’s internal coherence, they are disorienting and distracting for the reader.
Some may even find the final part of the novel rushed, but Deshpande ensures there is no cathartic, comfortable resolution waiting at the end. “It was cold and beyond that small pool of light the world was dark,” reads the novel’s bleak, concluding line – and the reader, just like the protagonists and the victims of Bhopal, is left to contemplate the shadows.
By Karanjeet Kaur on June 08 2012 11.31am