ANJANA APPACHANA’S TWO novels Listening Now (1998) and Fear and Lovely (2023) share a similar heft and scope. Both are close to 500 pages, both chronicle the ups and downs of female protagonists living in Delhi. Though separated by 25 years, the same characters dwell in both books. Fear and Lovely (Hamish Hamilton; 477 pages; ₹699) is Appachana’s first novel in the last two-plus decades. When her debut anthology released in 1992, Incantations and Other Stories, she was hailed as “an important new young voice from India”. Listening Now, which wove the tapestry of upper-middle-class urban Indian women, cemented that reputation. It has been a long period of silence, but through it all Appachana has stayed hard at work. Away from the limelight, and ensconced at her home in Arizona, US, she has lived with these same characters for decades, and now has a magnum opus to show for it.
When we speak over Zoom (she has requested no camera), she admits that this is only the third Zoom call of her life. Appachana is warm and affable, her answers measured, her silences long. Halfway through, she adds, “A little silence is because I’m thinking.” Silences colour her answers and her novels. Fear and Lovely is told through the eyes of eight characters in 37 elliptical chapters. Events do not unfold chronologically, instead as readers we piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle, until the picture starts to emerge. But this is never a static picture. Seeing the same event through different eyes, we glimpse both the slippery nature of truth and reality.
The child Mallika who was asking her two “mothers” (her mother and her aunt) to tell her stories (in Listening Now) is now a college-going student who is taking tuitions for the neighbourhood children. She is surrounded by a kinship of women (aunties, neighbours, friends) who warm her. The two men in her life Randhir and Arnav are both chaperons and companions. But despite the comfort of community, all is not well. The opening lines of the novel state, “In 1976, four years before I left New Delhi for America, I had a concussion and lost a few days of my memory, and not long after that I lost most of my mind.”
Fear and Lovely pivots around the incident that caused Mallika to lose her memory and slip into depression. What happened and how it happened we learn only midway through the novel. While being a very Delhi book of the 1970s, this is also a book about mental health and the slickness of wellbeing. One day you are well, and the next day you are not. Mallika’s mothers (Padma and Shanta) decide that the only way to protect her is not to tell society, they declare that she has tuberculosis, and this keeps everyone at bay. The silences and stories only grow and morph, till they loom large over each character. As Mallika says early in the novel, “Yet, for all the love we bore each other, we had no idea of each other’s silences. We didn’t even understand our own.”
Fear and Lovely has been both long and hard in the making. Appachana recounts that over the last 20 years she had little time to write and initially chose to tell the story entirely through Mallika’s point of view. That book seemed too weighty and never took off. In 2017, she put the manuscript aside and started from scratch. She realised she couldn’t look at the older version. To lift herself from despair, she started on an experiment, where she would write a few pages from the perspective of different characters; Padma and Shanta (Mallika’s mothers), Mallika’s three childhood friends (Gauri, Prabha and Mahima) Mallika’s male friends (Arnav and Randhir) in order to “get the creative juices flowing”. With Mallika as the only first-person voice, she also gets the most real estate in the book. What started as an experiment five-and-a-half years ago became this newly released book.
While Appachana calls writing her “meditation,” bringing Fear and Lovely to life has not been without its challenges. “I almost gave up,” she says, “I gave up about 100 times, because I couldn’t do it. To be frank, my mind doesn’t work very well mathematically!” It was exacting to figure out timings of events, and the overlap of incidents, over 30-plus chapters. She finished the first draft only to realise that she needed to put in three more chapters. She then had to figure out its placement and rework the entire book, through a repetitive back-and-forth process. She wrote the prologue only after finishing the book. She adds, “Sometimes I would just get up and go for a walk. And think, ‘OK, this is it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.’ And then I’d go back and do it. But the joy of being with the characters was greater than the difficulty.”
In the writing and the rewriting, the characters changed as well, says Appachana. Mallika from an all too serious girl now developed a more impulsive streak, a trait that would send her rushing to help others without a care for her own wellbeing. Appachana adds, “In creating Mallika I had to figure out how to explore some really serious concerns. But without excluding the joys of life. Including different laughs. And to laugh without malice, not to laugh at them, but with them. How did I get to know Mallika? Very slowly, incrementally and then also through the other characters who look at her in different ways.”
Many authors reinvent themselves with every novel, abandoning the content and form of the previous works. What is it like then to persist with the same characters over decades? Appachana says, “It’s like living with friends and relatives whom you love deeply, but whom you never will know completely, however much you love them. Because everybody’s hiding something.” Just as we can never fully know our friends or family, she never knows her characters fully. She can get to them only “slowly, in the process of writing”.
We really were the ‘fair and lovely’ generation, where fairness was such a commodity. And then there is a great deal of fear in the book for every character, in terms of the silences and in terms of what they’re hiding. But it isn’t all that. I feel there is a lot of richness in the relationships and a great deal of very true love,” says Anjana Appachana, author
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THIS IS A BOOK about both feminism and intergenerational trauma, but it belabours neither of these. To summarise its themes as such is to reduce the sensitivity and elan of the novel, which always sticks to the personal and seldom veers into the political. Mallika’s mother Padma chooses silence as a way to deal with a troubled past, while Mallika and her friends “deal with” the present in a comparatively more head-on way. The women here are each other’s bulwark of support, whether they are friends or relatives or neighbours. Appachana says the strength of female relationships arises from loyalty and integrity, but more importantly, through “the ear”, through talking to each other and listening to each other. She adds, “In order to survive—especially things you cannot speak of—you have to draw on a tremendous amount of strength, certainly from friends, but also from within. So, I think, within them they all have tremendous strength.”
Fear and Lovely evocatively recreates Delhi of the ’70s. Mallika is studying at Lady Shri Ram College, Randhir is at St Stephen’s College, Arnav is in his final year at IIT, and Prabha has left Delhi to study medicine in Poona. It is a time when college students are exposed to sex, but know little about it. Homosexuality is never named, instead it is just pushed aside under the name “pervert”. DTC buses are venues of harassment, and girls carry safety pins and little knives to keep themselves safe. Burnol is the ointment for all ailments. Cutex and Charmis are the brands of choice. Ice cream at India Gate is the favoured outing. It is also the time of Emergency, when the roads are barren at night, when the cops wield all power. How did she recreate Delhi of the ’70s, while residing in Arizona of today? Appachana replies, “When I write about it, I’m right there. I’m actually in that meditative state of writing. It’s like two hours have passed and I come out of it and I know I’ve been in India of the 70s. Arizona disappears completely.”
In order to survive—especially things you cannot speak of—you have to draw on a tremendous amount of strength, certainly from friends, but also from within, says Anjana Appachana
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Now in her late 60s, Appachana says that she has become “very, very possessive” about her time and is “not willing to give it to anyone.” She works every day from 9 AM to 5 PM, stopping only for food and exercise breaks. As the book is heavy with dialogue, she read those parts aloud to get the tone and tenor right. She attends to emails, phone calls and friends and family only after 6 PM. It is a life of great discipline and some urgency. “Because at this point in your life, you feel you have to do the things you want to. You’re no longer in your 20s or 30s or 40s, so you need to do it.” She wrote this book entirely for herself, free from the pressures of an agent or publishers, and found this “liberating” as she could write in her own way and for only her own enjoyment.
While living in the US, Appachana has found that her readership remains mainly Indian. The title of the book is a nod to the beauty cream ‘Fair and Lovely’ and will immediately resonate with Indian readers. A Western audience is unlikely to get the reference. She landed on the title only towards the end of writing the book, after her daughter and friend had rejected dozens of “horrible” titles. She explains its aptness, “We really were the ‘fair and lovely’ generation, where fairness was such a commodity. And then there is a great deal of fear in the book for every character, in terms of the silences and in terms of what they’re hiding. But it isn’t all that. I feel there is a lot of richness in the relationships and a great deal of very true love.”
If there is fear and love in this novel, there is anger too. Anger at how people must constrain their personal freedom and choices to suit certain social demands. All that the girls in the novel want is to live “without fear”. They want to be able to eat samosas at the nearby dhaba without fearing groping hands and eyes. They want to travel far and wide to study and work. They want to know intimacy before having intercourse. The young men want to live free of the control of their parents and to pursue “useless” English degrees. They want to be able to express their sexuality and follow their desires. Appachanna admits she has written this novel from a place of anger. She says, “Fate deals you with various afflictions in your life. There’s nothing you can do about that. But there are a lot of afflictions in your life, which don’t have to be there. That’s the affliction of daily harassment on the roads. It’s the affliction of not being able to be open about your sexuality.” These injustices upset her and as a result of this anger she finds herself writing fiction with these themes. Through Listening Now and Fear and Lovely, she finds a way out of fear and a path towards love.