Winter 2005
Got You Under My Skin
A review
by Anjana Basu
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by Boman Desai
Roli Books. Rs. 350

What is amazing is the way that a man can get under the skin of a woman. Women, on the other hand, are not so perceptive about the feelings and impulses of men. That could be because women, on the whole, are creatures of greater depth. However, a man writing about a woman as a woman, or even a woman writing under a male pseudonym, has never occasioned comment. Daniel Defoe kicked off the trend in the novel with Moll Flanders, followed by Richardson with his wilting Pamelas and Clarissas. No one even raised an eyebrow when Mary Anne Evans burst into print as George Eliot. 

Boman Desai’s A Woman Madly in Love follows in the footsteps of all the men-writing-as-women trend. Farida Cooper is a bright, we assume beautiful, and talented woman who flits between Bombay and Chicago haunted by an MA degree that she is trying to extract from her American marriage, the memory of her father and her husband Horace. If you were to judge this book by its cover, the first thing you would see was the Amrita Shergill self-portrait, fleshy and luscious. Farida stays pinned down in our minds as that Shergil clone. 

The similarity grows even closer when we discover that apart from being able to write, Farida can also paint and hold down a mean Beatles’ number in a night-club. Just when we feel that Farida’s talents are getting a little too good to be true, she starts giving the seventeen-year-old Darius drawing lessons in the cloistered intimacy of her bedroom in Bombay, with very obvious results. Farida, at this point in her life, is thirty-four, and the question 'why?' nags at us. Boman Desai, however, is not forthcoming with any easy answers as to why a woman so bountifully blessed and talented should start an affair with a boy almost young enough to be her son. We follow Farida from encounter to encounter and flashback to flashback before the answer is given to us. 

At six she is a child condemned to live upstairs with her Kaki because her mother is fed up with living with Farida’s father. He is, we are told, a shameless philanderer and totally selfish. However her mother proves in the end to be more selfish. Farida’s Kaki stays determinedly and, given the emotional chaos all around, perhaps wisely single. 

Whether she is in Chicago or in Bombay, Farida is never far from the Parsee community to which she and Desai belong. All her men have Parsee links, almost as if she cannot stray too far from the conservativeness of her roots, no matter how many miles she crosses in geographical distance. The Cooper’s wealth, power and influence return as a constant leitmotif, reminding us of Farida’s bloodlines. Like her father, Farida has an arythmic heart which makes her prone to convenient fainting fits, a heart more talked of than seen in action. 

Apart from Farida’s talents, Desai describes her to us in terms of her shapely legs, her bosom and the short skits she wears in Mumbai. Perversely, in Chicago, she drapes herself in saris. He seems most comfortable inhabiting her in terms of her physical attributes. Certainly it is unfair to compare his portrayal of a woman’s character with Defoe’s because, in the beginning, Farida appears purely superficial. Emotionally she is blessed with an aptitude for falling in and out of love and an ability to endure, Four miscarriages and several blind cravings for children later, she aborts a fifth almost full-term pregnancy out of grief and anger, the kind of Greek tragedy act we find in Shergill-like lives, or even in Sidney Sheldon lives. Whether the act is true of Farida Cooper or not, is another matter altogether. Perhaps fewer mis- carriages before the abortion might have been wise. 

There is a reason, of course, for the excesses of Farida’s behaviour, a reason that again goes back to her family tree. Her father’s daughter, she is cursed to fall for men like her father, or at least for one man like her father. Having learnt to live again after her marriage she moves back to Chicago, to a new understanding husband and, it is implied, to a successful career as a novelist. The painting and the young men have been abandoned.

Parsee mores, Parsee vocabulary and Parsee networking dominate the novel, occasionally with unrealistic effect. So do quotations from Henry James, Doris Lessing, John Updike, Gloria Steinem, Oscar Wilde and others which are used to skew the reader’s viewpoint. The book ends with Oscar Wilde and The Importance of Being Earnest. "The good end happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means". And Farida moves on from inhabiting her past to, we hope, going forward happily ever after.

(Anjana Basu's novel Curses in Ivory was published by HarperCollins India in January 2003. She is also the author of The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories [Orient Longman], and her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her work has appeared  in Wolfhead Quarterly, Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)