The Young and the Restless

Acclaimed academic Ruth Vanita’s sophomore novel, A Slight Angle, shows she has a capable hand at fiction as well. Set in the ’20s, politics is part of its characters’ lives, but so is art, family, friendship, love, animosity. And it all begins in Delhi…
Bombay Velvet, Anurag Kashyap’s film on Mumbai jazz and gangsters for representation purposes only
Bombay Velvet, Anurag Kashyap’s film on Mumbai jazz and gangsters for representation purposes only

Ruth Vanita is a well-known academic in the context of queer writing and cultures of India. She is also a lauded translator working between Hindi and English. What is less-known perhaps is the fact that she is quite a capable writer of fiction as well. Her debut, Memory of Light (2020), had laid claim to this assertion and her sophomore novel, A Slight Angle (2024), has only cemented it.

Both books are historical fiction. While the former is largely set in the 18th century in the world of courtesans and court poets, the latter is set in the 1920s and shifts across cities. It follows multiple characters, most from similar socio-economic backgrounds, as they come into their own, charting their way in a changing India.

In case it was not obvious, Vanita’s central characters are young men and women. The upward mobility in their lives seems to mirror that of the country heading inexorably towards independence although it wouldn’t be a reality for two more decades in the novel’s timeline.

Author Ruth Vanita
Author Ruth Vanita

Vanita agrees that some of her characters are clearly on a quest for modernity: “Robin, a jazz musician, thinks that he and his brother-in-law Sharad, who designs jewellery, are forging their own paths and creating a modern India. Sharad becomes upwardly mobile but that is not his aim.

He is simply drawn to beauty, whether old or new, Indian or English. I do not see India, the world, or life as divided into old and new, modern and pre-modern. Everything, in any era, is always changing but India also retains an indelible identity where past, present and future are simultaneous.” The past then is a present construction.

Mumbai’s David Sassoon library, which inspires Sharad, a lead character
Mumbai’s David Sassoon library, which inspires Sharad, a lead character

Politics in the everyday

While the national movement and the freedom struggle are significant to the narrative, they are not at the forefront and the novel does not revolve around them. That does not mean that it is apolitical, just that its political engagement occurs in other ways.

Vanita comments: “Each character takes a different view of the British and of freedom fighters, from Gandhi to Bhagat Singh to Swami Shraddhanand. They discuss politics, among other things. One major character, Sheela, dedicates her life to educating low-income children. She spends time at Sabarmati Ashram, and is both inspired by and critical of Gandhi.

Politics is not a backdrop; it is inextricable from the characters’ lives, but so are many other things, such as art, work, books, family, friendship, love, animosity.” Setting is intrinsic to how the characters develop their worldviews as individuals over the course of the novel.

Known names, faces

One can spot some familiar names on these pages too. Beyond fictional characters, A Slight Angle also makes use of actual historical figures. Vanita states: “I incorporated real-life Urdu poets Insha and Rangin into my first novel Memory of Light. In this, I have Mahadevi Verma and [Pandey Bechan Sharma] Ugra as friends of my characters. Both writers are alive in my imagination as I have translated their works. To write introductions to my translations, I studied both their remarkable lives.”

Ugra belongs to Sharad’s small circle of queer friends in Allahabad and he later moves to Mumbai where coincidentally Sharad also starts spending most of his time. Mahadevi, on the other hand, is a friend and collegemate of Hemlata who is a peripheral character within the novel. Their presence, cursory and restricted by the facts of their lives, lends a certain degree of realness by virtue of which the fictional combines with the historical and the other characters stand out in relief.

A Waterman’s fountain pen from the 1920s, an important motif .in the novel
A Waterman’s fountain pen from the 1920s, an important motif .in the novel

Moving in and out

As opportunities open up, so does mobility and migration. The novel begins in Delhi but by the end, all central characters have either left Delhi entirely or live between multiple cities as they pursue education and job prospects. When asked what it means in the context of the history of a city that is India’s political and administrative centre, Vanita says: “I grew up in Delhi so it’s the city I know best, but I have never felt that it’s the spiritual centre of India nor, I think, do most Indians feel that it is. In Memory of Light, Nafis sees Delhi as soaked in centuries of bloodshed, and so does Sharad in A Slight Angle.

Delhi became the political centre of the whole country under the British; before that, there were many centres. In A Slight Angle, everyone’s family comes to Delhi from elsewhere; I imagine that the younger people may end up with homes in more than one place.”

Restlessness marks the individuals who people these pages, a desire to rise above the station assigned to them and move beyond social strictures. They may be young, but they are wise beyond their age and not forced into silent complacency by the passing of years. Living at a slight angle to all that is considered good and respectable, they constantly chart new ways of being within the world. Love buoys then all – successful and unsuccessful, victorious and thwarted, accepted and rebuffed.

Vanita’s lyrical prose lifts the narrative even further, making for a compelling and evocative historical fiction novel.

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The New Indian Express