Warning: Mild spoilers ahead
At the risk of making an extraordinarily sweeping generalization, I think it would not be amiss to hazard that most of us would know what I am talking about when I mention an entertaining but horrible B-grade Bollywood production. It's the kind of movie which we instinctively perceive to have the worst of plots, stories, acting/hamming, the most outrageous plot-points, all the clichés — and yet it is entertaining and fascinating in a morbid sort of way. We squirm in our seats with embarrassment and shake our heads in horror, yet we watch such a movie because we perceive it as a comedy of sorts. What makes such a movie comic is the feeling and knowledge that all the while the director/producer intended in all earnestness, to create a serious film.
If you're among those who every now and then (okay, once in a long while) don't mind watching and being entertained by such a movie, you might appreciate Faraaz Kazi's Truly, Madly, Deeply — a story of teenage “love that grew beyond proportions, transcended boundaries and resided in an enigmatic heart which had no words to describe what it felt to be throttled with love.” When you come across such a description in the author's note to the readers, you know it is going to be one of those books where you approach what is to follow with some amount of apprehension. Like B-grade Bollywood fare, Truly, Madly, Deeply is extremely sincere in intent and in all seriousness it borrows from, and includes a number of tropes and ideas that you would find in Bollywood love stories. The only way however to get through it all is to look for bits and pieces, sentences and passages that are intended to be grave and brimming with emotion and feeling and yet their luridness of detail and the floridity of style make them funny.
In all fairness, there will be many readers who would perceive Kazi's book as a roller-coaster tale of the love of a school-going Rahul for (to borrow a phrase from the book's blurb) his “beautiful female equivalent,” Seema. There will be quite a few, I am sure, who will feel that the book (again to borrow from the blurb) “depicts the emotion in its raw, confusing form.” Rahul is the proverbial “hero” that you encounter in Bollywood — the Dude. Rahul is a high-achiever in his school: house-captain, great at all sorts of sports including cricket, great at essay-writing, quiz, debating, great at organizing school events like science exhibitions and fairs, great dancer, great artist — he can sketch, he can effortlessly write and compose songs and sing them too. In academics he is a school-topper and committed to win (when the second-placed student scores 10% below the Dude who scores 92%, Rahul thinks it is time to hit books early for the next year) and above all he is well-built, good-looking, handsome and is fearless and extremely confident. His “female equivalent,” is a year junior to him, is all (or nearly all) that Rahul is in the body of the beautiful Seema: dainty features, small slender wrists, delicate shoulders, skin like peach-tinted cream, perfectly oval face and a voice that sounded like a melody. Like Rahul, she tops the school (and like Rahul, when the second placed student scores 10% below Seema, who also scores 92%, she thinks it is time to hit books early for the next year). Unlike Rahul (and you get the feeling that like in our movies and in our clichéd notions of what's appropriate in girls) Seema is however a bit shy and reticent. Like all Bollywood “heroines,” she is extremely “girly” and later in the novel she usually has a tear in one of her eyes.
So you know that the Dude and Seema are bound to get together what with being so equivalent that they can be soul mates (about the only way in which they are not “equivalent” is that they represent different school houses). This happens fairly quickly (in a single day) over a visit to the Nehru Science Centre for a “Meet the Scientists” program (where the Dude impresses Seema by asking a question that stumps the scientists and by winning the "Best Question" award), followed by some time with each other on the rocks outside the Haji Ali Dargah, a quick lunch at McDonald's and then a bus ride back to the school.
However, I have jumped the gun in outlining some of the story and the protagonists. Like the Bollywood movies, it is so deeply influenced by, Rahul's and Seema's love story is narrated to us in flashbacks. When we begin the novel, in the chronological “now,” Rahul has already lost Seema, is extremely heart-broken, and has exiled himself off to a school in the US. Here he spends his days being the mostly mute, sometimes gruff, anti-social, reclusive hero nursing a deep grief and musing on his beloved, and contemplating the nature of love, life, and fate: “Fate, they say, fate — the clay that moulds the events of your life, and it was this same fate, which had thrown the stone of her heart on the building of his expectations. But then wasn't it his fault that he had constructed the building of glass? Hadn't he failed to cement the bricks of his love with trust and colour them with security?”
From that, we go back in time to a day before the “Meet the Scientists" program when Rahul meets Seema for the first time to the next day when they two actually find some time to enjoy each other's company. Throughout the day, the two catch each other's eyes now and again while in the midst of their schoolmates: “It was as if their minds were attuned to each other to stare into the depth of each other's eyes at the same time.”
It was when I encountered these lines that I have quoted that I knew that come what may, I’d be able to get through this book. A turn of a page from the above lines and the two are still trying to catch the other's eye: “Twice they caught each other's eye looking at each other's faces, the third time they held their gaze. Words unspoken, emotions unfurled. Silence has its own language and in that silence he found words within himself; words for her, words for him and words for them. The words percolated in his heart and stayed there.” On their way back, “As the bus swayed on the unkempt roads, the soft brush of her skin against his deliberately angled elbow seeped all the way into his chest.” Later, Rahul gets to hold Seema's hand: “I held her hand for a long time today and it was almost electric . . . She's a 640 volt talking-walking, mind-fucking beauty.” The touch makes him almost poetic and Rahul muses over it (and over his immense dude-ness): “. . . but I guess that's the way love is supposed to be—from what I have heard, turns even the dumbest of people into poets and I am too good to be dumb, so I would make a nice poet, I guess.” These electric touches abound in the book: “I offered her my hand. She took it lightly. Her fingers gave out a current of 640 volts and literally shook me but I held on.”
Turn a few pages more and Kazi underscores the source of inspiration for many incidents in his book: “If she has anything for you Mr. Rahul Kapur, she will turn back,” my heart forecasted its belief from the charts of a popular movie while I was still in a dreamy state.
“Palat. . .Palat. . .Palat. . .” I kept murmuring to myself while clenching my fists and hoping that my heart would be right as she quickly neared her building. They say that the heart is never wrong and today I realized it.”
Rahul's and Seema's love story proceeds through a litany of such clichéd incidents and soon everybody in the school knows that the schools best students have got together and have a thing going on between them. Indulgent teachers and the school principal do their bit and more to keep two of their favorites together. And some of their rivals, either academic or just the plain jealous types, think of this as an opportunity to undermine the success of the two. Rahul, who we have already noted, is a dude, wants to flaunt his love and his Seema, like a trophy. Seema who comes from a conservative joint family and is shy and reserved wants to keep the relationship under wraps. Their varied expectations and notions chafe against each other and over many a school competition, their egos and personalities clash. Soon all is not well with both of them. After much sighing and raging, Rahul on the school's annual day decides to make another effort to win back Seema. With the encouragement of the school's principal, with half an hour left for the event to begin, he composes a song and sets it to a score. Seema meanwhile has been asked by the teacher to look for Rahul. She searches for him through the school's auditorium and then as the lights dim and as she was: “. . .just about to move out of the auditorium to search the lower level, when the twang of a guitar made her stop in her tracks. What followed was a soul stirring build up to something she would remember for years to come. The music stopped as she turned. Standing near the microphone — with an acoustic guitar in his hand — was Rahul, looking like a rock star with the confidence he exuded on stage but he was not on stage to rock anyone but one.”
And does he rock her! With lyrics like: “My stupid heart is besotted,/ Taken . . .taken by your beauty/ But how can I blame it? For that's . . . that's its duty." He then strums the guitar and murmurs softly: "Oh, it knows . . ./ It very well does, / What it did was wrong, / But you still make it beat as wild as King Kong. . .”
The annual day concludes with a ballroom dance (hastily sneaked in by the Principal as a part of “Christmas celebrations.”) The two are a couple again post that. But their rivals have scented blood. Two weeks later while practicing for a dance competition, Rahul is “seduced” by Farha (who the novelist tells us is the second-most good looking girl in the school after Seema, and who resents Rahul's “female equivalent” for that) in a scene which would have done many of our movies extremely proud of these ninth and 10th grade students. Among other things, it includes Farha pouring water on her neck and down “the opening of her dress” which of course, clings “even more tightly to her body.” Soon she pays no heed to a reluctant Rahul and guides “his hands all over her body and let out a soft cry as they cupped what they were holding in their palms.” Some other rival of Rahul has meanwhile clicked photographs of this event which are then passed on to Seema and when she disbelievingly decides to ask Rahul about it, only finds Farha (of course Rahul is reluctant and has been forced) “sitting on his lap, her legs eagle-spread and her bosom fastened to his chest.”
Rahul tries to find many opportunities to explain to Seema but she is unwilling (and constantly teary-eyed). Rahul does badly in his board exams, turns into a “road-side Romeo” for Seema for a little while before his parents pack him off to the US where he mopes around in a school in Philadelphia. Seema meanwhile is engaged to a distant cousin but finds the truth one day when Farha, whose conscience is acting up, confesses the truth to her. So she mopes for Rahul in India. Do those two get together again?
Actually after jumping from one groan-inducing cliché to another and from one intense (and groan-inducing) dramatic incident (like the annual day song) to another (Farha's seduction of Rahul, Rahul's final speech to Seema, etc.) you don't really give a damn. Rahul comes across as insufferable and highly irritating (oh, by the way, Rahul also wins a Cricket match for his school house when he gets 72 runs off five overs including hitting the last two balls for sixes. Later he also rescues the most good looking girl in his school in Philadelphia when he beats up the thugs who are about to rape her). Seema is every Bollywood cliché of a girl come true. Do remember these are 9th and 10th grade school students. You feel like giving them a good shake just for getting themselves written into such a story. A love story, to mouth a cliché, works because of its protagonists. At no point do we see Rahul's and Seema's relationship evolve beyond the standard (and many) 640-volt touches and the quick gazes into each others' eyes.
Inevitably, there's plenty of reflection on love and the nature of love, and the pain it causes. All of it is however of the “stone-heart and glass building” variety. Kazi also sprinkles Truly, Madly, Deeply liberally with the best of Elizabethan love sonnets and Victorian love poetry. However, the gravity and depth of the quoted works is at heads with Kazi's florid prose. Along with all the cliché-ridden scenes from many a Bollywood movie, Kazi's lurid writing overpowers the book's lofty intentions. Truly, Madly, Deeply actually never attains the heights that its author is striving for. From the very beginning, it embarrasses and settles into the kind of book of which readers morbidly turn pages, fascinated by the comic clichés and overblown writing that Kazi ladles in generous helpings.
Much like the love between Rahul “The Dude” Kapur and his “female equivalent” Seema “Girly and Weepy” Tandon, where something so shallow causes so much of pain and heartache, you marvel at how a writer with nothing more than a thesaurus, a book of romantic poetry, and a DVD collection of all SRK movies ever made, inflates something so trifling and flat into a 300-page novel.
And finds a publisher.
Note: Thanks to Faraaz Kazi for a review copy of Truly, Madly, Deeply.
Note: Thanks to Faraaz Kazi for a review copy of Truly, Madly, Deeply.