All that could have been by Mahesh Bhatt with Suhrita Sengupta: an old-fashioned love story
      -        Sheila Kumar
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Genre: Fiction
Extent: 142 pp
Price: Rs 195

The fact that this story is the base for the soon to be released film Hamaari Adhuri Kahaani casts its own  shadow, as does the fact that this is supposed to be the love story of Mahesh Bhatt`s parents. Come to think of it, the fact that one part of the duo which has authored this book is the voluble, articulate and undoubtedly creative film-maker Mahesh Bhatt, casts its own shadow, too. Be that as it may, we need to look at the book as a standalone piece of fiction.

Given its slim volume, it is easy to cut to the chase here. The heroine, Vasudha Prasad, is a woman of substance and more importantly for the story, a woman of rock-solid morals and principles. That she is comely, intelligent, unfazed by people and circumstances, as well as possessed of a lively sense of humour, are all attributes that add to her appeal. Vasudha is willy-nilly a single mother, raising her young son Saanjh as best as she can, working as a florist in a plush hotel in downtown Mumbai. Her absentee husband, Hari, the reader quickly realizes, is better absent than around; quite an unsavoury character, he is abusive, drinks heavily, beats up Vasudha regularly and when his mother tries to intervene, pushes her around, too.

Hari is a driver who has taken some American tourists to Orissa and has been gone a longish time when the story opens, and his mother is in an old-age home, of her own choice. Enter Aarav Ruparel, the billionaire youngish owner of the hotel where  Vasudha works. He is immediately smitten by the hotel`s `flower girl.` The attraction is mutual and Vasudha, as quickly as Aarav, finds herself drawn to this sardonic, sexy man, and as quickly, tries hard to fight the attraction.

Aarav, of course, is a man who knows what he wants, and implausibly soon, gets Vasudha transferred to his Dubai hotel, seeing to it that Saanjh gets admitted to a school in Singapore. The Singapore angle is extremely sketchy and we never quite get if it`s an on- the- spot decision by Vasudha or something she has always dreamed of, sending her bright young boy to school in Singapore.

Love blossoms as love must, but it’s a chaste sort of love. The undercurrents are always simmering but Vasudha`s status as a married woman acts as effective deterrent. Aarav has the ideal aide, Apoorva Kapoor, and Apoorva, quickly realizing the lay of the land, is attempting to procure a divorce for Vasudha.

Meanwhile,  Vasudha is busy greening the sandy environs of the Dubai hotel grounds, watched by an entranced Aarav. He takes her back to south India, to meet his mother, a woman he loves but also has been angry with, for a large part of his growing years. Rohini had taken to dancing in a seedy hotel bar, in order to see that her son was fed, clothed and schooled. Today the wealthy and powerful Aarav is on the verge of buying up that very property, a supreme act of revenge, of course.

And then fate intervenes. Hari returns, as unpleasant as ever, and flies into a rage when Vasudha tells him she wishes to be free of him. To complicate matters, he had taken the tourists to Bastar, where some of them had been killed;  he is a murder suspect now, and actually fleeing the law.

Then the story turns convoluted. Marital values are put to the test, as is an unquenchable love. What will win, who will win?

Vasudha is a fully fleshed-out character in the book, a somewhat prissy woman who compels respect from the readers even if not a full understanding of what drives her to do the things she does. Aarav remains a shadowy figure, pursued by his own ghosts and in pursuit of redemption, interesting and enigmatic. The rest are like Bollywood characters, they come and go without much effort expended in character development, though a couple of Vasudha`s ditzy friends, Maddy  in Mumbai and Naila in Dubai, are quite likeable.  The rundown neighbourhood and rowdy- infested lanes of Mumbai (`a city that didn’t care too much for appearances` ) soon get swapped for sweltering but sexy Dubai.

As a story,  it is wafer- thin but it does contain possibilities. The basic premise is that sometimes, our happiness lies in squalid places. Alas, those possibilities die off, killed by the most banal style of story-telling. One wonders which of the duo, Bhatt or Sengupta,  is to blame for the uneven use of language, the awkward phrases (more on that anon), bloopers like Aarav dismissing the importance of a hotel restaurant getting Michelin stars, the volte- face of the bad mother (Mrs Ruparel senior) suddenly becoming a caring good mother. When Aarav finally makes love to Vasudha,  he does so with the care of `gardener treating a seedling`!  There is a  faint of air of carelessness about the book, like it received absolutely no editing spit and polish. There is also a resemblance to a pulp novel with distinctly filmy parts, like when a police inspector looks at Vasudha and sees a long line of warrior women like Razia Sultana and  Rani Lakshmibhai in her, as well as in what happens eventually to Hari.

Parts of the book read like it was thought of in another language and then transcribed into English. That`s no crime really but it does make for jagged language. Saanjh nuzzles into Vasudha; she tries putting her side to it instead of explaining her side of it; someone mutters `the potatoes can go buy oil,` whatever that means; the hotel staff tries to make order; the word urbanity is used for effrontery; don’t throw your airs and graces at me, Hari shouts at his wife; her mother`s blessings are at her back…suchlike quaint terms pepper every other page.

Maybe the screenplay is better developed, and doesn`t need finely-tuned language. Maybe competent actors like Vidya Balan and Emraan Hashmi will breathe poignant life into it. But then, that is a film,  soon to be released. This is a book under review. 

Ad copywriter turned journalist turned writer Sheila Kumar is the author of Kith and Kin (Rupa Publications). Her short stories have appeared in several anthologies. She edits manuscripts and copy for a set of technical magazines, and reviews books regularly for periodicals as well as on her books blog. 

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