By Divya Dubey
The Anatomy of Choice by Harshali Singh is the story of Bhavya Sharma, the second offspring of the Sharma family that inhabits a large historical haveli near Chandni Chowk in Delhi, with its mysterious mausoleum. This is Singh’s second novel in the ‘Haveli series’ – a series of seven books published by Readomania, the first being A Window to Her Dreams,the story of Aruna, Bhavya’s elder sister.
Bhavya chooses a live-in relationship with her partner, Tenzin Jamyang, in Paris, against the wishes of her largely conventional middle-class Indian family. Over a period, as the couple begins to miss the initial spark in their relationship, it decides upon a bold experiment in an attempt to rekindle it. Kabir happens to be the happy or unhappy accident, who changes the entire equation between them. However, their plan backfires and both Bhavya and Tenzin realize, in their solitude, that their actions have long-term consequences that must be dealt with, whether they’re prepared for it or not. The novel is thus built around a love-triangle involving Bhavya (or Bee), Tenzin and Kabir, except that it’s quite an unusual triangle.
In spite of its rawness and the rough-hewn structure the novel is appealing because of its realistic and relatable characters. Bhavya comes across as a strong young woman: confused but determined, vulnerable but capable, flawed but charming. Her acute self awareness at every juncture, and a tigress-like will to defend her space and her right to make her own choices, regardless of her situation, make her an enigmatic protagonist.
Another thread runs parallel to Bhavya’s story in the novel – the first-person account of Noorie, a royal courtesan from the sixteenth century – told through a journal. The daughter of ‘a small Hindu military analyser in the Mughal court of Baz Bahadur’ at Malwa, she is raped by the prince and his men at the age of sixteen. Simultaneously she falls in love with Hamad Bahadur Khan, a soldier at the royal court, a married man himself. Hamad Khan gets Chaand Raat constructed for her. Her journal says: ‘What has now become my mausoleum was once a haven that my love built for me.’ It is therefore the same mausoleum that forms a part of the haveli the present-day Sharmas occupy and, by sheer chance, Bhavya’s father, Arun, stumbles upon this personal diary.
As the story progresses the journal lands in Bhavya’s hands and the reader begins to view Noorie as Bhavya’s alter ego. Though they are separated by centuries, and stuck in entirely different social milieux, their gender binds them together. Both women have to pay a price for their choices, for owning and asserting their strong female identity. In fact, Noorie’s story sometimes outweighs Bhavya’s due to greater depth and substance.
Another interesting factor is the ‘Haveli’ as a separate narrative voice, apart from the omniscient narrator. However, one wishes this device had been used to its maximum potential.
Singh’s strength lies in creating a fascinating plot where she captures the internal and external conflicts of her two protagonists, Bhavya and Noorie, very well. She also explores complex subjects such as polyamory and amorality, and normalizes them. The themes of love, separation, loss of honour, rebellion, sacrifice, sorrow, and catharsis lend themselves better to a literary work, and this novel might have worked better if written for that genre. To give the author credit, this book lays no false claims to literary merit. Her work reads somewhat like a slow-paced Maduri Banerjee novel. The language is simple and straightforward, devoid of any frills.
One does wish the technical aspects and elements had been smoother, better fleshed out, and wiped clear of clichés. Slightly greater editorial intervention might have helped the author achieve an even better impact.
Divya Dubey is a freelance Book Editor (www.authorzcoracle.com). She has reviewed fiction and non-fiction for several well-known Indian and international publications, including India Today magazine, Hindustan Times, Livemint, Wasafiri, the New York Journal of Books, etc.