Review of Rupa Gulab’s The Great Depression of the 40s; toyboys, mid-life crisis and happy endings – bring on the 40s!
By Anjana Basu
“At forty-three,” says the blurb, “Mantra decides to quit her job to experience the pleasure of retirement while she’s still able to walk without a nursing attendant in tow. But to her horror, she has to smooth the wrinkles in her marriage before she can get to work on the ones on her face.” The great depression that Rupa Gulab, author of The Great Depression of the 40s is referring to is that famous midlife crisis which seems to strike at any point that you designate midlife. In this case, it’s the 40s.
What emerges is the tale of two couples, the story of Vir and Mantra’s apparently stagnating marriage and that of Vir’s sister Anjali and her too-perfect husband Karan. On the fringe is the tale of Samira, the domestically abused once celeb who is dying to make it to Page 3 somewhere.
In all these stories, Mantra is the catalyst and for a 40 something Mumbaikar, she is indeed unusual. Apart from a habit of swearing in Latin, she feels compelled to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; what’s worse, such compulsions strike her at the most unfortunate moments as for example, at a dinner thrown by her husband’s Big Boss.
The book opens with Mantra losing her job as a journo because she reviews a restaurant in cutting rhyme: “While the spaghetti was a bit of okay/The meatballs stubbornly bounced/They’re only fit to be served at squash courts/And deserve to be severely trounced”.The result of course is to leave Mantra with nothing much to do beyond speculate on the state of her marriage, deal with her mother in law’s ghost (to be found in the guest bathroom) and try to sort out everyone else’s problems, while fielding her duties as corporate wife. Her driver Makarand is a Marathi Manoos with political connections and the cook Reshmi insists on plain dull food which is good for Mantra’s figure but bad for her morale.
Gulab has her finger on the pulse of 40 somethings living in upper echelon Mumbai, with its unending discussions of what’s more tony, the Atkins or the South Beach diet, the nuances of acquiring limited edition pornographic DVDs and whether one should have a toy boy. “Acquiring a toy boy is the height of your ambition?’ Mantra squawked. ‘How crappy is that? How on earth would you explain him to your house help? As a long lost shipwrecked son who’s scared to sleep alone in the dark?”
It’s a world of gamesmanship, one upmanship and who can put up the best front, including calling in the office canteen boy to masquerade as a butler at the CEO’s dinner. There are some witty turns of phrase such as “She seriously believed that drinking wine was a cultural accomplishment, on par with playing Mozart on the violin” and a use of words like ‘luverly’ and ‘curmudgeon’ that add a charming old world flavour to the text.
What the book does require is some depth in the relationships – Vir’s silence and the chemistry between the two remain grey areas, as does Anjali’s marriage, though that is perhaps more comprehensible, and the happy ending seems slightly rushed – perhaps the book needed some more time before coming to an end.
Publisher: Penguin India
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