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There’s never a dull moment in ‘When Padma Bani Paula’, Anupama Jain’s debut novel. A coming of age story of our troubled heroine, sidestepping but not always missing the puddles in her way.
Little Padma is a lovely young girl, raised in the protective environs of her middle-class home characterised by much love, a strong work ethic, and the desire to see children well-settled. Grown up now, Padma leaves home for the first time to go to a hostel for a postgraduate course. Yearning to be free, yet loathe to cut the umbilical cord.
A lot of readers will identify with her twin emotions of elation and terror. Imagine the freedom that is to be tasted without parental supervision. Of course, just like Padma, many of us realised that with freedom comes responsibility as well.
A heartbreak, and work-filled semesters later Padma joins the corporate world.
“These were terribly exciting times to be for a newbie testing the nascent waters of employment and Padma plunged neck-deep into work. The interactions with so many differently talented people added many shades, many layers to her persona. She became a girl about town who was aware, about almost everything around her, edgy and fearless, at the same time adding depth to her character.”
I can almost envision many bobbing heads agreeing in unison with the author! Padma rises steadily in her career, but parental pressure to get married mounts on her. Padma, having faced heartbreak again, this time at work, agrees to get married.
Unfortunately, the stories about her personal life make her anything but the docile, virginal wife material society expects, and things go awry for her. Here the author, brings out quite well Indian society’s obsession for women to be everything – superb career woman, efficient, unblemished, beautiful, and with zero previous relationships.
Padma, like any Indian girl, is caught between wanting the approval of her parents, and her new found independence and freedom to choose. She is also hurt by the many character accusations she has to face, from nosy relatives and community members. Her parents too end up putting the blame at Padma’s door. Isolated and alone, Padma refuses to buckle under pressure, and she transforms into Paula, her tough as a nut new persona.
The absence of a suitable groom due to Padma’s focus on her career tells us, the reader, that sadly things have not changed too much since Jane Austen’s heroines’ times. Unmarried women after a certain age are treated like items whose expiration dates are long past, once rich with promise, but now simply unusable. But all dark tunnels have light at the end, and things start to look up for Padma and Paula.
The author’s fast paced narrative, along with the thought narratives of the characters make it an engrossing read. Our heroine oscillates between being Padma – the well-raised child of her Amma, and Paula – the ambitious young woman on the rise who everyone wants but are quick to raise fingers at for not being ‘womanly’ enough.
The writing style is breezy and very conversational. The women characters get no special concessions from the male ones. It’s a rough and tumble world for women, be it in corporate circles or at home, the author seems to indicate. There are expectations in both areas. The plot has many twists and turns, but our heroine’s voice comes through clearly, and it is her own.
So often we have read stories from the male perspective, with regards to pursuing a college education and the challenges faced at the workplace. It is refreshing to hear it from a woman’s perspective. This book can be quite inspirational to young women setting out to pursue their careers or higher education. It lets them know that several challenges await them and all of them need to be handled. For those of us who have been on that road, we chuckle in agreement with the author.
My only quibble with the book is the use of rather florid language and an indomitable image of the heroine in places that made me feel breathless. For instance, “Padma quickly rose in the ranks, becoming the favourite of her superiors as she was a quick learner. She was like a sponge who absorbed everything needed to grow. She knew exactly the right people to tap, the right places to go and the right methods to push and always had the right things to say. She became good at remembering faces and placing the correct names to the faces. She always had a favour to dispense and always had many debts to collect. The debtors were more than happy to do so, quickly and elegantly”. Uff!
Anupama Jain knows how to entertain her reader with her writing. In her easy breezy style she dispenses many a bitter pill in the garb of social chatter and banter. In it we see her observant eye not missing the politics that governs offices, homes and neighbours. Her character development will have us rooting for some characters and wishing that lightning struck some others. Without ever being judgemental she lays bare the many societal pressures that a woman has to face, and is careful to not forget the ones men face too.
At the end of the book we feel proud of the confident woman the little girl has become, and we revel in both her Padma and Paula moments. One can hope to expect more from Anupama Jain who is never shy to call a spade a spade. ‘When Padma Bani Paula’ reminds the reader of the iconic Virginia Slim’s tagline, “You’ve come a long way baby!”
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Top image via Anupama Jain and book cover via Amazon
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Sheeba is the co-founder and editor at Little Kulture, a website dedicated to discovering
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