Sometimes, telling a tale of childhood can also be an exorcism of sorts.
The pulling down of the covering veil is not a gentle gesture here; it is a brutal act of ripping. Yet, when the reader reaches the end of this coming-of-age novel, autobio masquerading as fiction, the utter imperative behind it does not fail to impress. Deshpande has a story to tell and she tells it, consequences be damned.
It is the improbably named Virginia who comes of age in the early 1980s here. The girl was never the shy, retiring sort to begin with; add a strange, preoccupied mother who swings between languid condemnation and an equally languid neglect all through, throw in generous pinches of dope, drink, men, women, modelling contracts, unsavoury relationships and the occasional bout of introspection, and you get a very readable account of a young life lived to the hilt.
Of course, it is anything but a pack of lies. The novel deals with truths, mostly unpalatable. Virginia a.k.a Ginny, named after the doomed Woolf is ironically enough, not much of a Woolf fan. She tires early of trying to live up to her moody mother's unpronounced expectations and decides to go her own way. That particular road involves the jettisoning of any remnants of inhibitions, taking up with a glamorous woman mentor, an unsavoury boss who quickly become Ginny's live-in partner, and sundry other quick gropings and one-night sessions with attractive men who come her way. There is a career of sorts in photography that is slowly coming together, there is the occasional reunion with her separately re-married father and mother and their new families. There is the immediate bonding with her sister who lives with her father and his awful new wife, as well as the small stepsister born to her mother late in life. Tumult but not all bad, either.
It's the old cliché come alive: Ginny isn't really short of money, she even has her own apartment in Mumbai. What she lacks desperately and seeks hungrily, is unconditional love and acceptance, mainly from her parents. Ginny's mother, the distant writer with longings both the girl and the reader can only guess at, as well as a predilection later on for drink, tends to steal several scenes from the young girl throughout the narrative and is someone who leaves quite an impact.
What shines through is the truth (again, masquerading as distinct possibility) that Ginny's story is a true one. Love, lust and life, the three strands inform the narrative in a clear-eyed manner. The story is written in a no-frills, direct style, and the reader warms to the heroine despite the best efforts of the writer to create a no-sympathy-needed character. That ultimately is the book's winning formula.
A Pack of Lies, Urmilla Deshpande, Tranquebar, Rs. 295.