As a child, I had never been an avid reader, and am not one even now. However, there was a point in my life, a few years ago, when I would sit in corners of bookstores for hours together and read portions of books picked randomly from the Indian Fiction section. The ‘Indian Fiction’ somehow stuck and once the ‘country going gaga over Chetan Bhagat’ period was over, I began taking a fancy to those racks. Having read R. K. Narayan, Amitav Ghosh, Ruskin Bond, Rohinton Mistry, Tarun Tejpal (not necessarily in that order) and a series of others, I came across a Bangladeshi author, Roopa Farooki’s debut novel – Bitter Sweets. Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Farooki was brought up in London before she graduated from New College, Oxford in 1995. After a short stint in advertising, she turned to write fiction, with her debut Novel having been nominated for the 2007 Orange New Writers Award.
The story begins with business deal, disguised as a marriage, between a Bangladeshi shopkeeper’s daughter and the son of a wealthy Indian Muslim family. Heena Rub, the wayward teenager pretending to be as worldly as Rashid Karim, holding a tennis racket and seemingly engrossed in English verse. Ricky, as Rashid liked to call himself, suddenly realized how his dream had been shattered, on the marriage night itself when Heena was not the wife he had imagined her to be, but a lazy, illiterate, shopkeeper’s daughter – the first lie of the series that was going on to be defining characteristic of the marriage and family tradition. And, it was only then that Heena realizes what she had gotten herself into.
The next part of the story incorporates the relationship of Shona, the naïve daughter and Parvez – the bounder from Pakistan who convinces her to run away to London with him, with the hope of living the perfect life. Shona easily succumbs to the plan, dreaming of living the British life that her father so often referred to, considering it was the “location of all his happy memories and interminable university stories.” However, as she reaches London, she realizes that it had not been anything as she had imagined it to be, considering living above a South London sweet shop, in the sub-continental suburb of Tooting, was not exactly a party, that she was so aptly clad for. With a certain sense of wit and flair that the author weaves so perfectly into the story, she also proves a point that she could write about any kind of people – and not just Pakistanis or Bangladeshis.
A little later into the story, Verity Trueman enters the life of Ricky-Rashid, as Farooki likes to call him, and creates certain disillusionment in his life full of lies and a somewhat failed marriage with Heena Rub. In the process of this, Rashid realizes his attraction towards Verity was mainly because of the fact that she was as worldly as him and suited his ‘oh-so-British’ tastes. In this situation, he is caught between the time when he is being Ricky at times and Rashid at times, trying to maintain two marriages, functioning from two continents. On the other hand, Shona and Parvez realize the hap-hazardness that their relationship had been experiencing and the naivety of running away to a foreign land, but not before giving birth a set of twins who are handsome enough, such that they decide to add movie-star like middle names and are aptly named Omar and Sharif.
Though the book indulges into various intelligent twists and turns, the author proves to be a very talented writer and does not end the book of family lies and deception, with angry revelations, but on a subdued note. The book reflects the personal life of the author at parts, but keeping that aside, the roller coaster ride of cross cultural love and generations following a tradition of deception and lies, hoping for a better turnout, only to realize how unstructured and genetic the trait had come to be. No matter how bitter or sweet this novel may get, it will leave you smiling and wiping your tears off at the same time.
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