Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Sejal Badani - The Storyteller's Secret

Nothing prepares Jaya, a New York journalist, for the heartbreak of her third miscarriage and the slow unraveling of her marriage in its wake. Desperate to assuage her deep anguish, she decides to go to India to uncover answers to her family’s past.
Intoxicated by the sights, smells, and sounds she experiences, Jaya becomes an eager student of the culture. But it is Ravi—her grandmother’s former servant and trusted confidant—who reveals the resilience, struggles, secret love, and tragic fall of Jaya’s pioneering grandmother during the British occupation. Through her courageous grandmother’s arrestingly romantic and heart-wrenching story, Jaya discovers the legacy bequeathed to her and a strength that, until now, she never knew was possible.

Comment: This was an impulsive choice at the library. I had no plans to read it - didn't even knew about its existence - but saw it in display in my local library and it seemed intriguing enough so I've decided to take a chance on it.

This is the story of Jaya, a journalist in New York, an only child and a heartbroken woman since she hasn't yet managed to carry a pregnancy to term. Her relationship with her husband is fragile and when the last attempt also doesn't go well, they separate for a while and Jaya decides to use this opportunity to change airs and experiment different things by traveling to India, to her mother's childhood house and learn more about her family. However, her mother doesn't wish her to go and Jaya feels it is only another example of how different they both have always been, therefore she is determined to see for herself and she finds people there who tell her the story of her grandmother, a woman ahead of her time in mind, but stuck to a very traditional culture. Will what she learns help Jaya have perspective of her own life?

I think the idea of this book is many times better than the actual story. The blurb makes one think this will be an immersive experience for Jaya, as she discovers India and her roots at the same time she learns about her grandmother's life but I must say I was not marveled by what I've read. It's true the words and scenes are present and evocative but the writing itself does not help to achieve this. I think having read other things and watched movies is what made me link the words here to the effect the author looked for.

This is a story focused on two main characters, Jaya in the present as we follow her and learn at the same time she does, and the story of her grandmother Amisha, sometimes told by Ravi, the dalit who worked for her during the British occupation and who is even now taking care of the house despite being an old man. I didn't find the switch of narrators complicated (it's indicated when it's Jaya or Ravi) because of the time in which each part of the story happens. However, I certainly thought we would get a lot more about India's Culture than what happened...

Jaya is contemporary woman and we know she is heartbroken she can't have children and she hasn't had a good relationship with her mother. We keep having snippets or scenes Jaya shares to let us know how she got to this point in her life and while I can sympathize, I must confess I didn't find Jaya a memorable heroine. In part I think it's the writing, but all the situations Jaya goes through and the kind of "epiphanies" she gains just because she is visiting India seemed a bit cliché.

I did think we would have more on India's culture and contemporary way of life, so that when Amisha's story is told, we could compare. The author has Indian roots and I assume this would be a win-win situation, where we would get to benefit from knowledge and the richness of experiences but I an't say this actually was done well because the story felt easy to read, true, but also very common, including some situations I can't help but think were a bit embellished for storytelling and others were not realistic.

I liked Amisha as a character, a young woman who is starting her life in her new husband's house and all the expectations that go along with it.... sure, we can discuss some ideas on tradition, feminism, sexism, gender unbalance and so many other things which sound weird and unfair to our western minds, but while the story lacks some real depth - I do think the writing style is to be at fault here - there is also some unlikely content, which left me a little disappointed because I can't truly accept some of those things were possible to have happened at the time Amisha would have been alive.

When the story is reaching its end, some dramatic things happen to Amisha, which I assume is to let us think about the ephemeral state of life, we never know when or how something might happen. I feel the emotion and depth could have been used better by the author. In relation to Jaya's "legacy" and how this will help her in the future, I think the idea is good but the execution...  I mean, I've read the story easily and quickly, which can be good, but the content wasn't really that special in the end.

All in all, a readable story but not one I think will stay with me that long...
Grade: 6/10

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