Simone de Beauvoir, in her 1954 novel Les Mandarins, wrote: “Because we are separated, everything separates us, even our efforts to join each other.” A sentence that rings true at so many levels: the physical, the emotional, the political, the social. Distances, no matter how cynical that might sound, are far too often incapable of being bridged, despite the best efforts. Efforts that are in vain because of human frailty, misunderstandings, the very basic fact of distance.
Saskya Jain’s debut novel, Fire Under Ash, is primarily a coming-of-age story, but woven into the narrative is this theme of distances, gaps that, seemingly, cannot be bridged.
Ashwin Mehta, nearly 19 years old, fresh out of The Commonwealth School (‘Ticks’ as its alumni refer to it), is at his own farewell party, just before he’s supposed to leave Delhi for Columbia University. The party is typical wealthy Delhi society: glitter, glamour, noise, much booze, a live band. The band’s singer, Mallika, a year older than Ashwin, is—as Ashwin discovers during a brief conversation with her—studying at Azad College.
And, just like that, Ashwin, infatuated with Mallika, decides he isn’t going to Columbia. He will go to Azad College instead. Fireworks ensue; his parents, his sister Meera (who lives in New York and is visiting, along with her fiancé Vinny), and their circle of friends are shocked at his decision. There is fury, too, and anxiety. What will Ashwin make of himself?
Simultaneously, halfway across the country, we meet the other protagonist of Fire Under Ash: Lallan, 22 years old, gets on the train from Patna to Delhi. Lallan has been promised—for a price—a professorship in a Patna college. To pay the price, he has taken recourse to dowry: a quick engagement to the submissive and colourless Swapna, part of the dowry received in advance (and given over as a deposit for that job)—and Lallan is off, heading back to Azad College, to complete his MA.
So the three meet, Ashwin, Mallika and Lallan, at Azad College. It takes very little for Lallan to fall in love with Mallika, making the quintessential love triangle. There are, too, irritants, especially in the form of Chetan, an old school friend of Ashwin, who cannot stomach Lallan and his small town ways.
And it goes on: Lallan, trying to fit in. Ashwin and Mallika, trying to find their own way in life, yet without hurting Lallan. Until one day, at a party out in some picturesque ruins at Jhajjar, things fall apart, pushing people even further apart, throwing up barriers higher than before. Some illusions are shattered; some misunderstandings arise. The lives of some of these people will never be the same again. Distances.
Playing out simultaneously with this two-thirds of the story set in Delhi is the one-third set in New York: the story of Ashwin’s sister, Meera. Meera, living in with Vinny, but coming to the realization that for Vinny his work comes before her. Distances, again.
Fire Under Ash is well-written, but it can take a reader time to warm to its characters. Everybody seemed too alien to me; neither Ashwin and his filthy rich friends appealed to me, nor did Lallan, in whose characterization I caught a whiff of condescension (a small town man who doesn’t even flush a toilet after using it? Is that not stereotypical?). But as the book progressed, shifting easily between Delhi and New York, between Meera’s inner struggles and Ashwin-Mallika-Lallan’s uneasy relationships, I got sucked in.
This is accomplished storytelling. It is compelling, and it holds up a mirror to the hypocrisy, the double standards, the cruelty of life. Not always delicately, but it does.
There are flaws. For instance, the odd detail (Azad College is an ‘undergraduate institution’, but Lallan is doing his MA there?). The at-times unrealistically philosophical dialogue (a case in point: Mallika and Ashwin’s first meeting, which does not sound much like a conversation between a 19- and a 20-year old). The unsatisfying ‘resolution’ of one relationship. And the odd sense I got that, though the bulk of the story is set in Delhi, the author is really more familiar with New York than Delhi.
Despite that, a good book, and a worthy debut.