Ruining the Daal

Thomas Jones

  • One Day by Ardashir Vakil
    Hamish Hamilton, 292 pp, £12.99, February 2003, ISBN 0 241 14132 X

Towards the end of this, Ardashir Vakil’s second novel, a successful Anglo-Indian novelist is quizzed by a group of friends in a North London kitchen about the way he writes, and about the subject of his next book. He discusses with a barrister the benefits of revision – he rewrites everything three or four times – and concision. When writing submissions, the lawyer says, ‘you have to condense a story into the space of a page, and tell it well, while making sure that all the points of law are included … The French call it zéro style’ [sic]. Jehan, the novelist, says he wants ‘to try and see if I can go in that direction in my next book’. He’s less willing to be drawn on the question of what the novel will be ‘about’. Eventually, his wife, a ‘beautiful psychotherapist’, announces to the room that ‘it’s about masturbation.’ It isn’t clear how literally she means this; she may be making a wry comment on her husband’s profession – the writing of novels could be seen as a self-indulgent and sterile occupation. Developing, if unconsciously, the metaphorical potential of the theme, another character, Jocelyn, says later that what she ‘can’t be doing with are novels about the trials and tribulations of middle-class North London couples. We’ve had enough of those to last us fifty years. Whingeing double-income liberal parents, please let us have no more of their banal utterances.’

At the centre of One Day are a married couple, Priya Patnaik and Ben Tennyson. He is a schoolteacher and cookery writer; she works in radio. They live together in North London, in a flat just off the Holloway Road, with their son, Arjun Tennyson Patnaik, or Whacka, as he is more usually known, after the way he mispronounces ‘Frère Jacques’, which he asks Ben to sing to him almost every night. ‘But it fitted with everything he was . . . Whacka was a kicker, a screamer, a street-fighter, a spear-carrier, a banshee all rolled into one.’ The day in question is Monday, 15 March 1999, the Ides of March, and Whacka’s third birthday. The novel opens soon after midnight: Priya and Ben are in bed. He is propped up on his orthopaedic pillow reading The Inner Game of Tennis; she, lying next to him, ‘knees bent, thighs fanned out, soles of her feet meeting like an Indian dancer’s, a diamond shape in the bedclothes between her naked legs’, is masturbating. Vakil is nothing if not self-aware.

And this self-awareness is one of the things that ensures One Day isn’t an instance of the navel-gazing which Jocelyn can’t stand. A marriage is condensed into 24 hours, the space not quite of a page, but of 24 intense chapters; and Vakil tells his story well. If one of the purposes of fiction is to make readers feel sympathy for people they otherwise wouldn’t, ‘whingeing double-income liberal parents’ are as good a subject as any. We are admitted, unprejudicially, to the minutiae of Ben and Priya’s lives, internal and external. They are represented as neither more nor less than they are, neither sneered at nor admired, and it is greatly to Vakil’s credit that this is so. Though Jocelyn’s taste isn’t to be entirely trusted – her favourite book is a piece of historical nonsense called The Lions of Albion – her instincts with regard to novels about Islington’s middle-classes are, generally, sound. Ben and Priya aren’t easy people to write about; the task is all the harder for appearing to be straightforward, and having been done badly so often.

Their relationship is clearly in difficulty. The difference in temperament between them, once (and perhaps still) a source of attraction, has come increasingly to cause friction. This difference is first illustrated in their opposing approaches to money. His way has always been to live within his means: ‘That’s how he had been brought up.’ She has several bank accounts, and is permanently in the red in some of them while saving in others, occasionally drawing on her savings to shore up an ever increasing overdraft. ‘She accused him of being petty, he accused her of being wasteful.’ He’s tidy, she’s messy; he’s buttoned-up, she’s effusive and impulsive. She has been unfaithful to him; he fancies and fantasises about a colleague, Helen, who appears to reciprocate his desires, but they have never acted on them. Priya isn’t blind to Ben’s infatuation, and tells him during an argument that he might as well have slept with Helen, asking him (rhetorically) what the difference is ‘between my infidelity and your days and nights of head-fucking’. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that she is capable of self-restraint, as he is of violent outbursts and histrionic gestures. The apparent differences between them dissolve, and new similarities and differences are precipitated, as it emerges that what is essential to their relationship, and to each of them, is what they share. This manages not to be as sentimental as it sounds, because there is real emotional violence here – as much hate as love, and they aren’t always easy to distinguish – expressed in caustically effective language.

The writing doesn’t work so well when it moves too far from style zéro; on the rare occasions that it drifts away from Ben and Priya, it has a tendency to waft into lyrical flights of abstraction. Ungrounded in specificity, it can become portentous:

It is good for any city, as it is for any man, to empty itself, to return to its bed, to contemplate its dark places, what it was that brought it – a huddle of wood and stone dwellings in a bend of the Thames – flickering into consciousness. How vast have been its accumulations, its consuming fires and how wide the arc of influence, the reach and return of its rippling waters, redirected, and swollen with corporeal detritus.

This feels too much like talent for its own sake. An acknowledgment that London, and indeed the world, is somewhat bigger than Ben and Priya’s marriage – a sense of perspective, in other words – is vital to their story; that they are, in the grand scheme of things, insignificant makes them easier to like. It’s also a reminder that perspective is a matter of, well, perspective: their problems look as big to them as anyone else’s do to anyone else. But you get a better impression of them constituting only a tiny part of a big city from the accounts of their separate, working lives, before ‘like mirror images husband and wife return home’: the children in one of Ben’s English classes, working on autobiographical writing; the other people in a Tube carriage with Priya; the programme she is making about the Southall Black Sisters.

Ben’s second book, an ‘East/West cookbook . . . a blend of recipes, history, sociology and anecdote’, is in a rut. He has been working on it, or not, for two years, during which time the idea of fusion cooking has become increasingly widespread and stale: ‘the more he read about it and the more he tasted it the more depressed he became about his own enthusiasm for the subject.’ It may be tempting to see this as representing Vakil’s own difficulty with writing his second book – it’s six years since the publication of his first, Beach Boy, ‘about’ a boy growing up in Bombay, in which food figures prominently – but, more important, it’s symbolic of Ben and Priya’s blocked East/ West marriage. They go to a therapist together, but both of them hold things back. The trauma apparently at the root of their difficulty occurred 11 months previously: Ben found out about Priya’s second infidelity – with one of their closest friends, Leo, nine months before Whacka was born. (That the child’s doubtful, or rather not so doubtful parentage makes Ben love Whacka all the more fiercely is both convincing and touching.)

We get to learn of these events because days do not exist in isolation; to understand what happens on Whacka’s birthday, we have to know what has gone before. Besides which, we are privy to everything that Ben and Priya think, and they think a lot about the past, forever retelling stories to themselves about how their marriage has gone wrong. ‘One day’ doesn’t just mean 24 hours, it’s also a way of beginning a story, what we now say instead of ‘once upon a time’. But as Ben and Priya hunt, consciously or otherwise, for a traumatic moment they can begin to work through, it proves to be elusive, a chimera slipping ever further into the past. Perhaps the turning point wasn’t Ben’s discovery that Priya had slept with Leo and that Whacka might not be his son, but the sex itself. Or what about Priya’s first infidelity, with her colleague Marcus, thought of by Ben as ‘the Camberwell giant’, which caused Ben to throw Priya out of the flat and tidy all her things away? And then there was the time they tried to cook together, ‘one of their first and last joint enterprises in the kitchen’. ‘Priya had finished cooking her daal and was out of the kitchen. Ben sneaked a spoon in her slop and couldn’t help being surprised at how subtle the flavours were. But she had forgotten to add salt. Impulsively, he chucked in a spoonful and ruined the daal’ – and their marriage?

They also fall into the nostalgia trap, remembering the 11 perfect days they spent together when they first met at Oxford: ‘No day after had ever offered more promise.’ Except perhaps for the day before Whacka was born, walking on Primrose Hill with Leo and Jocelyn (Leo’s mother; Priya had lived with them in Camden Town when she first came to London as a student): ‘Inside her, the demon baby was finally still, his head locked in her pelvis. After all those months of kicking and bumping, he was refusing to budge, tucked in for the fight. A person whom she had already started to love and whom she was aching to see. How could there be a happier time of waiting?’

Psychoanalysis is more clearly, and less satisfactorily, evident in the novel’s interest in dreams. Whacka, asleep, is well described: he ‘yelps his name . . . grumbles and snorts, rubs his nose with the backs of his fingers, makes slurping sounds on an imaginary teat and returns to his frothy breathing.’ His dreams are ‘impenetrable, unreadable, untellable’. His parents’, by contrast, though they are suitably surreal in their details, are all too tellable, their narratives too implausibly coherent. They read as if they have been preinterpreted, or constructed in order to make a point, which isn’t quite how dreams work, even if we’d often like them to. This is a bigger problem with Ben’s dream – about a cooking competition between two Indian brothers, whose names are Anil and Sunil, which takes place on a tennis court and culminates in one of them making a grotesquely elaborate suicide attempt – than with Priya’s more straightforward nightmare about losing Whacka.

As the Ides of March, and the novel, are brought expertly to their catastrophe, Priya and Ben at last, in fury, come to tell each other the truth, or at least some truths about how they feel. Ben hastily packs a bag and prepares to leave. The scene, like the novel as a whole, is so well constructed that I not only had no idea whether he would stay or go, but cared very much that he should do the right thing. By the time midnight strikes, a resolution of sorts has been reached, but we should by now be wary of seeing it as final, of the idea that this one day was when everything changed. ‘One day’ can also signify an unspecified time in the future, a day that is always yet to come: one day, everything will be resolved. In the meantime, we make do by making stories.