THE LAST CHAPTER of Buku Sarkar’s novel Not Quite a Disaster After All is the one which lends its name to the book. In this chapter, a highly successful designer, Anjali Ray, arrives in New York City—where she had once lived, before migrating to the UK—for the launch of her book. As Anjali hurries about, trying to get everything perfect for the launch party at a restaurant, one flaw keeps bothering her: a bunch of ugly wires hanging in plain sight. Anjali does all she can to hide those wires, to make everything look perfect. The solution she finally arrives at is hardly a solution, slapdash and apt to give way, but she makes do.
Hiding the truth is one of the main elements of Not Quite a Disaster After All. Sometimes, like those bunches of black wires marring the background, the truth is actually ugly. At other times, it’s just uncomfortable, something to be brushed under the carpet. Something like the many white lies with which we pepper our lives to make it easier to be part of society. To be easier with ourselves, too.
This subtle reflection on human nature is a thread that runs right through the six vignettes that form this novel. It begins with Anjali as a child in Calcutta, growing up in a wealthy family, privileged but careful to hide that privilege in front of school friends or poorer relatives. The first two chapters, the first two vignettes, are narrated in first person, seen through the eyes of Anjali as a girl; when the third vignette begins, not only does the novel shift from first person to third, it also shifts perspective. The story is now many years into the future, and told from the point of view of Anita, mother to a young child and wife to a struggling writer. Anita, who is Anjali’s old friend, and whose story bisects with that of Anjali’s as they meet, catch up, argue, reconcile. Still hiding things, from each other and perhaps from themselves too.
Anjali—as child, young woman, and older, more mature woman—dominates the story, but Anita, seemingly so unlike Anjali, also plays a significant role. She and Anjali may appear very different: Anjali is used to privilege, and comes with the arrogance that is often a corollary to that privilege, while Anita is quieter, more accommodating, more willing to make do. But there is, between these seeming opposites, a similarity: a deep-down instinct that helps both women find their own way in life, make of themselves what they, ultimately, wish.
Not Quite a Disaster After All is how Anjali’s book launch ends up, despite the hiccups. But it could be more too: it could mean the sum total of Anjali’s relationships, with her parents as well as the man who had been her lover and more for several years. It could mean Anita’s life, her search for fulfilment beyond the domesticity prescribed by society. It could mean life for any of us, as we make our way through heartbreak, through shame and secrets to be kept under wraps, through disappointment and compromise and much more.
This is an interesting story, and fascinating in the deeply detailed, raw insights it offers (no punches pulled, no holds barred) into the lives of its two protagonists. There is insight, yes, but there’s also hope, and inspiration: the chance that, given time and patience, things will sort themselves out.
Buku Sarkar makes an impressive debut with Not Quite a Disaster After All: this novel isn’t just not quite a disaster, it’s quite a success.
Madhulika Liddle is the author of a series of books featuring a 17th-century Mughal detective, Muzaffar Jang. She is now writing The Delhi Quartet, spanning 800 years of Delhi’s history; the first novel in this series is the recently released The Garden of Heaven