Review | Anjana Appachana’s growing-up tale, ‘Fear and Lovely’

Terror, anxiety, and the importance of the examined life lie at the heart of Anjana Appachana’s Fear and Lovely

April 14, 2023 11:30 am | Updated 06:25 pm IST

The power of stories has always been at the heart of Anjana Appachana’s writing

The power of stories has always been at the heart of Anjana Appachana’s writing | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“In 1976, four years before I left New Delhi for America, I had a concussion and lost a few days of my memory, and not long after I lost most of my mind.” With these words, Mallika begins her narration of her life before and after those three days of her life. Roughly 19 years old at the time of the memory loss and then, soon after, the trauma that tips her over to a “major depressive disorder”  — her account of these years is fortified by recollections of years past by seven family members and friends, who are among the handful of significant people in her life.

There are Mallika’s “mothers” Padma and (Padma’s sister) Shanta, who along with their mother had rendered the absence of her father — till he discovered her existence and entered her life under some subterfuge when she was 12 — irrelevant. There are her three close girl friends, Gauri, Prabha and Mahima, together the “quadruplets”; the neighbourhood “aunties”, who along with the “mothers” are skilled at weaving stories to keep questions and judgments of their middle-class Delhi colony at bay; her neighbour Randhir, who appears to understand her better than anyone else, and is unspokenly expected by family and wider circle to eventually marry her; and his close friends, Vineet and Arnav.

The stories we tell

The power of stories has been at the heart of Anjana Appachana’s writing — and in Fear and Lovely too, she conveys the individually fortifying and morally bracing power of storytelling: she suggests that the stories we tell and those we don’t, the stories we make up and those that we share even at considerable personal cost determine the moral compass within. As Mallika (in the first person) and the seven others (in the third) go back and forth in time till her August 1980 departure for graduate studies in Pennsylvania, their accounts of events, the secrets they keep and the stories they construct speak of the importance of the examined life.

This is a novel that spins around the terror of those three mysterious days and the difficult process of healing not just for Mallika, but for most of her intimate circle. In the end, however, there is just one person who has a substantial measure of what it is that happened, and even he must still work out how to prep Mallika to hear of it — how to bear responsibility himself, and how to tell that story so that it does not throw her out of step with the life she has wrested back.

Fear and Lovely
Anjana Appachana
Hamish Hamilton

This is a growing-up tale driven by dialogue, spoken and interior. A whole colony comes to life; the Delhi of the mid-late 1970s is mapped. The Emergency brings political awareness about the need for democratic freedoms; the continuing caste, religion and gender prejudices show themselves. Mothers listen in on their children’s phone conversations; friends tells shy Mallika how to conduct conversations with boys (“if they were JNU boys, then I could talk about Marx, Lenin and Trotsky” but “one began with small talk”); and being of their time, they listen to “In The Groove” on AIR and buy handlooms from the city’s state emporiums.

This is a growing-up tale driven by dialogue, spoken and interior

This is a growing-up tale driven by dialogue, spoken and interior | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Is knowledge always power?

The characters and plot-lines of Fear and Lovely hark back to Appachana’s first and only other novel, Listening Now, published in 1998 and inexplicably difficult to find in bookstores. Yet, it can be read on its own. In the end, as Mallika jets off to the United States, her luggage bursting with a year’s supply of medication prescribed by her psychiatrist, Vicks, toothpicks, Shanta’s most precious shawl, and Arnav in the adjoining seat, a silence remains.

When will Mallika know what happened during those three days? We the readers know now, and continue to recoil in anxiety from what we think the knowledge may do to her, and yet sense the importance of full awareness. Will she ever know? And if the one person who does know chooses to remain silent, will that be okay? Appachana leaves us all-knowing readers with many questions, and that surely is what she set out to.

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