Arti is an educated girl. In case you had any doubts, she is at pains to point out that she reads Flaubert on planes, and she’s not afraid of using big words like “cantankerous”. Men, of course, especially her commitment-phobic lover, Low Life, are both intrigued and intimidated by her brain. “He confessed that he’d never read P.G. Wodehouse before, because it was only available in Penguin, and he’d always assumed that books with a Penguin logo were terminally boring classic types like Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea or something.”
Penguin India must have the Low Lifes of this world in mind in launching Rupa Gulab to head their new ‘Shobhaa De Collection’ series of pocket-sized, tradey ‘B’ format paperbacks. But it takes more than packaging to make good chicklit, and Gulab’s offering is, frankly, more pulp than fiction.
The fiction, such as it is, concerns the trials and tribulations of Arti, a young woman out to make her mark in the world of advertising, and on the look-out for a suitable boy to bed and wed (strictly in that order). So far, so predictable. But where Swati Kaushal’s heroine in A Piece of Cake is a charmingly mixed-up ditzy and delightful character, Arti comes across as snobbish, pretentious, irrational and downright unpleasant. Her spoilt little rich-girl wannabe persona comes surging to the fore when one prospective lover parks the car along Mumbai’s Marine Drive. “I mean,” she exclaims “… this is the sort of place where cash-strapped maids and drivers woo each other and make out. People like us don’t neck there.”
The book is populated with characters called Silicone Sheela, New Guy, Super-Bitch Boss, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Bimbo Dogess – funny enough the first time round, but enormously irritating thereafter. Like a teenager in her first high-heels, Gulab strives for worldly chic, but keeps tripping up. The addition of the words “or something” on every other page is neither clever nor casual: it’s simply a case of sloppy writing: “if he’d held my hand I probably wouldn’t have washed it for weeks or something”, “I had to keep [my thighs] in pristine condition in case I got lucky only after I was 100 years old or something”; “We made them feel like they were old-fashioned or something”; “She looked like she was going to an MTV awards function do or something”. You get the picture.
Occasionally – very occasionally – she manages a bon mot. Arti’s friends in Mumbai introduce her to the joys of alcohol and she took to it “like a Bombay Duck to water”. All chick-lit heroines have to have a vice, whether it’s smoking, binge-eating or alcohol, or in Bridget Jones’ case all three. It signals to the reader that they are not “good girls”, and we can identify with their flawed, needy, all-too-human side. Arti’s tipple of choice is cough syrup. Not unlike her prose, it has a numbing effect on the brain. Give me Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (or something), any day.