Shweta Bachchan-Nanda’s debut novel tells a simple story that readers can relate to, if not relish
Shweta Bachchan-Nanda’s Paradise Towers stands the risk of being written off as yet another literary offering by a ‘well-known personality’ that lacks an emotional punch. The real measure of Bachchan-Nanda’s success as a debut novelist comes in her ability to plunge readers into the lives of people who inhabit a world that is irrefutably real.
A cursory glance at the introductory blurb for the book builds expectations of a memorable journey that is steered through the eccentricities of the residents of Paradise Towers, a fictitious apartment building in central Mumbai. Thrilled at the prospect of exploring the stories and secrets of its tenants, readers may anticipate a narrative that provides a comfortable distraction from the mundane.
Some of them may be in for a rude awakening within the first four pages where the author painstakingly describes the façade of the building and draws attention to its luxurious garden and wide driveway. While this description may come across as an ill-disguised advertisement for a fictitious apartment complex in a "leafy Mumbai suburb", it creates the impression that Paradise Towers is a character, not just a locale, in the book. Fortunately, Bachchan-Nanda reins in the description and shifts the focus towards the characters - albeit through a tedious trope. "Nothing dramatic ever happened at Paradise Towers… or so you might think," she writes. "Of course, appearances can be deceptive."
The pull of this novel is its evocation of characters that are caught in the throes of urban life and its demanding routine. Bachchan-Nanda appears to soak up all opportunities to generate hype about the everyday struggles of her characters. What follows in the next 172 pages - 20 chapters to be precise - is a searing portrait of the seemingly ordinary lives of the residents of Paradise Towers that appears to have been needlessly glorified as extraordinary.
Mrs Kapoor has a long conversation with her mother over the telephone while Dinesh, her trusted man Friday, accepts a hot case of gajar ka halwa from Lata, "the liquid-eyed enchantress" who works for Mrs Aly Khan. A new family moves into the apartment complex, raising suspicion among its more inquisitive tenants.
As the residents exchange pleasantries during brief interactions in the corridors, they strive constantly to keep up appearances and conceal aspects of their lives that could set the rumour mills churning. "The handsome structure" of Paradise Towers bears witness to dilemmas, troublesome pasts and secrets of its inhabitants. Like a voyeuristic bystander, it is always watching as they navigate their way through the terrors and complexities of their shared world. In many respects, Paradise Towers unites them during their pains and triumphs, offering consolation through the cacophony of familiar voices that helps them connect with their neighbourhood.
Through its refreshing insights on a social milieu that is typical of most urban settings, Paradise Towers cements Bachchan-Nanda’s reputation as a writer who can spot ironies and observe subtleties of human relationships. This is a difficult feat for a debut novelist to achieve. Bachchan-Nanda however, manages it with aplomb.
Despite its drama-choked world of secrets and betrayal, Paradise Towers tends to adopt an overpowering narrative voice that often seizes the story from its characters and inhibits their voices from reaching fruition. The long descriptions and character sketches that surface throughout the novel may disappoint some readers who are accustomed to a more dialogue-driven approach to storytelling.
It is easy to make allowances for her technique since the story is told in a compelling manner and without any noticeable slip-ups. But this literary device does tend to compromise on characterisation. While Bachchan-Nanda assembles a satisfying cast of characters and vividly brings most of their trajectories to the fore, some of the characters struggle to dance off the page and take on a life of their own.
Another problem that emerges through this stylistic choice is that the story appears somewhat simplistic and quickly loses it sheen. This can be inferred from the fact that the plot tends to gather momentum and then fall into an abrupt lull at several points in the novel. Since Paradise Towers captures moments of joy and sadness in the lives of ordinary people so well, a simple and effective story adds to the novel’s realistic depiction of a routine urban existence.
Written with flair and an eye for detail, Shweta Bachchan-Nanda’s debut novel tells a simple story that readers can relate to, if not relish.
Author: Shweta Bachchan-Nanda
Publisher: HarperCollins India