Waheeda Rela finds her life in politics (in a fictional district in Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in the late 1990s) decided by a chit drawn from a bowl. Fundraising and campaigning have her run into Monish, a rich industrialist playboy. What begins to happen between the two makes a dangerous story.
In Manual For A Decent Life, Kavita Jindal delves into the interior life of a politician, or more exactly, the interior life of a woman candidate, fascinating in her vulnerability to love, and caught up among forces that pull the strings from behind the scenes.
Monish, single and younger, belongs to the powerful Delhi elite; Waheeda, older, is a wife and a mother but also, in a way, single for her husband lives a reclusive life elsewhere. Waheeda’s budding political career, which she finds herself saying yes to (because the alternative is “nothing”) stands between them: it would be a scandal that her opponents could use to rip her apart. It is obvious that the two will meet a tragic end but, until that happens, it remains an interesting love story until that end.
The third person narrative focuses on both the characters almost equally: these characters’ minds and motives are open with an intimacy more often possible in first person narratives. Waheeda, for instance
dug out her appointments diary and casually flicked through it. When next? When could she see him again? Neutralise your face, not too much soaring could be allowed. It didn’t fit in the scheme of things. Because it would have to be wouldn’t it that just as she emerged from her introverted state to create a public face, that’s when she would meet a man she could be with. Contradictory directions. That’s what life was like. Offering her a public vocation and a bond that could only be hidden. Hello life, when will you become less complicated?
The size of the novel (450 pages and counting) provides enough scope to let readers make sense of love, politics and everything in between through these two characters. Jindal maintains a balance: while Waheeda juggles the campaigning with her time with Monish, he too is seen in a space of his own:
It took a moment or two for him to realise the effect he was having. The fresh sheen on Waheeda’s face. When he realised he’d caused this reaction, he felt a sudden euphoria. He’d struck upon the idea of giving her a ticket to the concert. And wondered at himself. What insanity was this to try to date a guest of his parents? But she was here. Her presence made him feel boyish. Excited. After the concert, he’d like to take her to his flat. He wanted to squeeze those delicate wrists in his hands. Preferably as he lay on top.
The visibility of such a space saves the novel from becoming merely a vehicle for anr explicit critique of Indian politics. There are observations about how these things work but they are subtle and do not overpower the narrative:
But if one day she was an MP, and if one day Shakeel was, to, then there would be two Relas in Parliament. Waheeda grinned at the flying grit outside. This is how dynasties start, how they become entrenched, how they cease to think of other possibilities.
“The personal is the political” was a formula used for quite some time to describe the form and content of the postcolonial novel, especially the Indian English novel. Reading Manual for a Decent Life helps one see it differently. If political personalities were characters treated the same as anyone else without the baggage of a lofty superimposition of the nation-state, they would turn out like Waheeda and Monish. They remain human in their feelings of lust and longing.
Perhaps because such a treatment is very unlike usual personal/political narratives and it comes with “manual” in the title,the need was felt to add “A Novel” on the title page as a reminder that this really is fiction.
An interesting work of fiction at that.