'Equations' book review: A compelling gaze
Urban planners use eight categories to segment Delhi—A to H—as though this neat classifying system could contain the wild energies of the city into some sort of regimentation. Using this as a map, if we take a bird’s eye view of the address-conscious city, we shall quickly realise that ‘Category A’ places, atop the hierarchy, of course, are the most sylvan: they are beautifully laid out, with creamy mansions overlooking little gardens; the streets are leafy with barely any potholes; there are parks galore and tidy little markets, stocking imported cheese in freezers. Even when these places are geographically located out of the posh Lutyens area, they carry with them a whiff of its salubrious environs. (No points for guessing what Categories F, G and H look like.)
There is, however, a curious space near the rear-ends and back-alleys of these Category A kothis, that are closer in spirit to the rest of the city, pulsating with energy. These are the servant quarters that stand in narrow blocks, where working-class people (and a writer or two) stash their lives and dreams, oscillating between relief—that they don’t have to bear the daily privations of life that their friends and relatives dwelling in category F, G and H neighbourhoods must—and humiliation, that acute dagger in the side that live-in staff often bear.
Expectedly, Aahan took on the mantle of the family business; unexpectedly, Rajesh opted out of domestic servitude and joined a new political party that derived its power from the working men and women of the city, and began to advance rapidly within its ranks. Going back and forth from the past to the future, in brisk prose, we learn of the arcs of their lives, ever-entwined and ever-divergent.
In fact, the structure is one of the things that is entirely successful about the novel. Beginning in the present, it brings the past alive organically, through the points of view of multiple—often antagonistic—characters, moving dexterously from one to the other person, now Aahan’s mother, now her husband’s mistress Nooriya, now his ayah Babita and now her daughter-in-law-with-an-American-passport, Sana. It moves from the factory floor of the Sikand unit, tucked away in a dusty industrial area of Delhi, to the party office where Rajesh and his proteges dabble in intrigue; from Jagdambika Camp, where Rajesh spent much of his childhood, to the wild parties at the clubs of Delhi, where Aahan met his future wife; from the ashram of a cultic guru, Maha-Maharajji to the cremation grounds where a spectacular climax unfolds. You read and you wince and you read and you wince, until you realise you’ve read it all at one go!
Indeed, it is Sibal’s unflinching gaze on her characters, all drawn in shades of grey, that reveals not only their inner selves and hungers, but also the many familiar-yet-unfamiliar worlds of Delhi. Reminiscent of how Candace Bushnell created a memorable world of unlikeable yet alarmingly real New Yorkers—warts and all—in her novels, Shivani Sibal’s promising debut joins the list of must-read Delhi books, the city itself emerging as the novel’s most compelling character.
Is this book a product of the pandemic?
On the contrary, this book got finished despite the pandemic. I was already far into it when the lockdown began. The closure of schools meant a huge change in routine, in that my children were always at home, and my older daughter needed more time and attention with learning shifting online. I used to write early in the morning, around 5 am, while everyone else was asleep.
How difficult was creating Lutyens’ Delhi of the 1980s?
Even though I was a young child then, I have vivid memories of the time. Any research material that I read came alive easily in my mind’s eye because of that.
Are the characters from real life?
Most fiction is, somewhere, drawn from our life experiences. But none of the characters in this book are modelled on anyone specific. It would have been an easier process to write about the people I’ve met, but it might have been a tad bit lazy and unfair.
The story is about change. How relatable is it today?
We are all part of and witness to change, in one form or the other. I hope that the reader will be able to instantly relate to many things that I’ve written about. Delhi, specifically, has completely transformed in my lifetime, and that transition is one of the themes that I explore.
Between Aahan Sikand and Rajesh Kumar, who was more difficult to flesh out?
Both. My father died when I was very young, and I don’t have a brother. I have grown up largely surrounded by very headstrong and determined women. Writing from the perspective of a man was very challenging.
The story talks about how relationships evolve and change with time. Isn’t that the reality?
The age and change of That relationship—some more gracefully than others—is a timeless fact. We can only hope that each one leaves us more enriched, whatever the circumstances.
The character of Maha-Maharajji is intriguing. Tell us more.
I have never followed any guru, seer or godman, and never visited any ashram run by one. Yet, the character of Maha-Maharajji came to me, fully formed, down to the last detail. Must be a miracle!
If you could choose a book character to be for a day...
The last book you read.
I’m currently reading the graphic novel version of Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari with my nine-year-old daughter.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
All the time, especially during the pandemic.
What is your favourite childhood book?
The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton.
What’s your favourite under-appreciated novel?
Those Days by Sunil Gangopadhyay.