Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Radhika Jha - Smell

Leela Patel, the heroine of this sensual and exotic novel, is sent to Paris to live with relatives when her father is killed by terrorists in Kenya, and her mother takes her brothers to England. At first working in her uncle's Indian grocery, she flees the claustrophobia of the insulated Indian community to embrace the sights, sounds, and sophistication of Paris. 
From her position as au pair and mistress to a powerful and rich man, to her rise as a television celebrity on a cooking show, Leela embarks on a quest for survival." "Smell is the metaphor through which the author weaves her themes: from the smell of Indian spices which Leela so magically combines, to the stench of the underground Metro. Through smell she becomes intimate with a series of men with whom she forms unequal relationships in love and in work; and through the pungent smell of the Paris subway she gets in touch with the primitive forces which fuel her alienation. Her life begins to change when she meets a man who teaches her to love and be loved, and a stranger who reveals the truth about the mysterious smell she fears.

Comment: I brought this book from the library, for it would fit one topic in a literary challenge I'm doing. I had to choose something somehow related to spices and this book is about an Indian heroine with a strong sense of smell and I feel it has enough references to fit the bill. As for having enjoyed reading it... it was so-so.

In this novel by Indian author Radhika Jha, heroine Leela Patel is living with her family in Kenya when the problems begin and her father is killed. The sale of their shop isn't as profitable as her mother would need and she feels like splitting the family is the best option. Her mother goes to London with Leela's two younger siblings and Leela goes to live in Paris with her uncle and aunt. Leela develops her sense of smell even more, which can sometimes feel too weird but Leela does adapt, first in her uncle's shop and later on on her own when she leaves their house. As the days go by and Leela meets new people, her notion of smell sometimes makes her look different enough to catch the attention of others but will her life choices truly make her find happiness?

I confess I was looking for to something a bit more cliché here: Indian heroine with strong sense of smell would grow up and find the meaning of her life around food and smells and, perhaps, becoming a chef or something similar, where the spices so appreciated in Indian cuisine would shine under her ability. When she starts working in her uncle's shop, despite being seen as a favor they were doing to her mother, I thought she would become better at her skills and that would help her have a better life, while tradition and novelty would balance her talent.

Well, it was a cute idea in my head but not the actual plot and while at first I wasn't too worried, for Leela was clearly an underdog trying to stay afloat among so much she couldn't control, I soon became disappointed over her life choices. I don't think the way the author developed Leela's character was that interesting. I think Leela could have gone through issues and doubts by going a different direction in her life path than the one she embarks on, which I felt diminished her character arc.

The book is divided into five parts, each one focused in one moment of Leela's life, but all while she is still young in Paris. I feel this was so... lacking, the possibilities for character growth were there but I feel the author misused everything to make this a story about Leela's insecurities and need to make (bad) decisions as a learning process? Well, who knows, but I'd have preferred something simpler, more linear and appealing, even if not leading to romance expectations.

Leela starts spending time with different people when she leaves her uncle's house and, of course, one issue she must deal with is to find a job. She becomes an au-pair to a couple, recommended by a new friend. I know life isn't just happy things and easy and cute movie moments, but did Leela have to start expanding her idea of self and of what smell is like for her and how it affects her by choosing to do the things she does while working for that couple? I was disappointed but still felt hopeful Leela would learn a lesson and move on to something better.

Sadly for me, it wasn't so. It's true I liked some passages and some reflections (on racism, intolerance, cultural differences, etc.) which are inevitable related to Leela's experience in Paris, but this isn't the focus of the novel, and it added interesting layers. But the rest! I was frustrated that Leela wasn't more clever in picking the right people to be close to or that she preferred to follow her notion of sense in ways I think led nowhere. In fact, that was the most disappointing element of all: when the story is ending, after so many silly situations when different choices might have had wonderful results, does Leela finally get on the right track? She simply decides she must and the book ends.

I feel the majority of the novel was lot on pointless stuff which had no actual meaning and when it was necessary for something conclusive to happen, there were no more pages. I really feel this was a terrible case of wasting an opportunity.
Grade: 5/10

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