At a time when Indian society struggles to find ways to clamp down on rape, Shobhaa Dé’s new book Sethji opens with this crime. Sethji’s youngest son Suraj has raped a young girl. The wily old man finds a way to make Suraj disappear and his daughter-in-law Amrita deftly handles the media.
We are thus introduced to Sethji and his family that has been living in Delhi after gaining a political foothold in Uttar Pradesh. Sethji is the patriarch and everyone else is a dog. We first meet him near naked in all his oiled corpulence on the massage table. His wife Leelaji is dead. His two grownup sons Srichand and Suraj are worth less than the soles of Sethiji’s white rexine sandals and it is only the ravishing daughter-in-law Amrita in the low-cut choli who merits attention. In fact, too much attention. As it turns out, Sethji has more than a roving eye.
Dé does complete justice to her signature style of peppering the plots with chaska and masala. While the immediate disaster is averted, Sethji and Amrita are kidnapped in the aftermath of the rape and what unfolds is their fight to freedom. This drives the plot’s suspense that is laced with romance (plenty of salty language) and a power struggle. The uncompromising, ziddi (stubborn) relationship between the daughter-in-law and the father-in-law keeps the pages turning right to the end with other minor characters often popping in and out of the pages.
Pakistani readers, who already love Dé for gracing the Karachi Literature Festival, will perhaps find it refreshing to read the Hindi/Urdu words worked into the dialogue that make the story all the more real. “You know how women are — all women, no exceptions, not even you,” Sethji comforts Amrita. “They see a powerful, good-looking man and they have only one thought in their heads — how to phasao him.”
As with all her books, we sometimes wonder how much they are based on real life. While at the Karachi Literature Festival in 2012, she gave her adoring audience a sneak peak into what we now know was the book Sethji she was writing at the time: “It is about an oily, sleazy, despicable politician in Delhi,” she said. “I want my future novels to be even raunchier than the old ones.”
Three picks on power, patriarchs and pushing back
1. My Feudal Lord (1996)
By Tehmina Durrani
When it hit the literary scene everyone read it in Pakistan. We loved it because a beautiful, well-pedigreed and intelligent woman had decided to head butt the male order. This is the story of Durrani’s 14-year marriage to Mustafa Khar until she filed for divorce. A must-read for any woman trying to maintain a glamorous façade in an abusive relationship. Available at Liberty Books, Readings and Saeed Book Bank for about Rs545
2. Mafia Queens of Mumbai (2012)
By S Hussain Zaidi
Only a crime reporter of Zaidi’s talents could have brought us possibly the most exciting look at the women of Mumbai’s underworld who are uniquely placed to run drug networks. They slip in and out unnoticed in burqas but don’t be fooled, they are just as ruthless. Available for Rs676 at Liberty Books.
3. Daddy-Long-Legs (1912)
By Jean Webster
A young orphan’s life is changed when an anonymous benefactor offers to pay for her college provided she writes him letters — which he will not reply to. All she saw of him was his shadow, which was long, leading to the nickname she uses for her correspondence. Daddy-Long-Legs, which has since grown to become a classic, is the story of how she wins him over. Available free on Project Gutenberg
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 19th, 2013.
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