100 Shades of White by Preethi Nair

When I visited my undergraduate college this summer, one of my ex-professors highly recommended Preethi Nair’s 100 Shades of White. Her area of interest for research is British Indian authors, and so Preethi Nair is right up her alley. My best friend had also liked the book when she read it a few years ago, so I decided to read it while I was in India. Now, I’d rather buy a book from a store than from a website. I like to feel and hold a book before I buy it (yes, you don’t need to tell me it’s weird). And since so many people had already read it in India, I figured it would be easily available in stores. I searched for it in the Crossword at Hiranandani. No luck. The attendant at the store looked it up for me, but it was only available at one store in all of Mumbai. I tried at the Reliance Time Out bookstore in Koram Mall in Thane. It wasn’t available there either! I mean, what the…? So I gave up and ordered it from Flipkart, which is a blessing of a site, by the way.

100 Shades of White turned out to be a good read, and I am generally pretty hard on Indian writers, so Nair may count her blessings. The story is about Nalini, a woman born in Kerala, who comes to Mumbai after marriage. Her husband Raul is a successful man (doing exactly what, I’m still not sure) who leaves town often to come back bearing gifts. Raul’s trips to other countries become so frequent that he finally asks Nalini to come live with him in England with their two children Satchin (that’s how it’s spelled) and Maya. Reluctantly, Nalini bids her mother goodbye and leaves for England. But things are not rosy in this country. Maya and Nalini take turns in being the narrators, so although Maya and Satchin find it difficult to adjust to the new country, they like the opulence and the grandeur. On a day back from school, Nalini tells Maya and Satchin that their father has died in an accident. The children are devastated, but we know that Nalini is hiding something from her children. When the narrative shifts to Nalini’s point of view we find out about Raul’s betrayal and Nalini’s struggle to fend for her family in an alien country. The story spans a few decades and takes us to Spain, then Mumbai, then Kerala and back to England. We see the same incidents from the point of view of the mother and the daughter and things are revealed differently to us.

The writing at the beginning was quite trite; but as Maya got older, apparently so did the writer’s style. It matured with the maturing narrators. There were moments that were suddenly light and funny, which were very welcome. Although Maya can come across as quite impulsive and shallow at times, she is likable and you empathize with her being a “lost” girl. You are annoyed by her, but you can’t get angry at her. The idea of food cleansing and changing moods is done to death to an extent, but again, you let it go. The writing in general is quite good, and moreover the story moves at such a fast pace that you don’t pay attention to the small creases that might come in the way of a slow paced novel.

100 Shades might be a little contrived in the way all the loose threads are tied back and there’s a ooh-la-la happy ending waiting for you. You can see the ending from a few miles away. But if you buy it, I think the writer has done her job well. A part of us Indian readers has been so conditioned by the Bollywood-style happy endings that we don’t really mind it. And 100 Shades is typically Indian by that definition. It’s not the most intellectually challenging novels, but it isn’t frivolous by any means either. I’d say it’s a great bridge if you want to move on to heavier, more serious works by Indian writers.

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