Before we begin this review, a small disclaimer. Given that Devika Rege’s debut novel, Quarterlife, was already being hailed as the “literary novel of the year” at the time of its publication, I decided to google the term “literary fiction” to understand what it meant. One of the top search results described it as fiction comprising “character-driven stories, social and political themes, irreverence for storytelling norms”, which sets it apart from other genres. It classified it into four distinct categories: contemporary (dealing with timely social issues or political moments); realistic (coming-of-age or biographical stories); experimental (challenges storytelling norms); and philosophical (investigates life’s big questions).
Quarterlife: A Novel
Fourth Estate India
After reading Quarterlife, I can say for sure that the author has indeed made an attempt to incorporate all the aforesaid elements into this book, thus tackling a task of Atlassian proportions that almost proves to be the novel’s undoing.
India of 2014
Even though it is never stated explicitly, Quarterlife is evidently set in the India of 2014. A divisive general election has seen the Bharat Party, led by a Hindu nationalist promising development and good governance, come to power with a thumping mandate. Naren Agashe, a 30-something Wall Street consultant, is disillusioned with his life in the US and decides to return to his home city of Mumbai for good. Despite having spent eight years in the US and even secured his Green Card, he senses opportunity and optimism in the political changes happening back home.
Naren’s brother, Rohit, is living his life in the fast lane, running a film studio in an upscale Mumbai neighbourhood with his friends Gyaan and Ifra. Admitting that he has no “claimable talents”, he gets by on sheer charm and the ability to be at the right place at the right time, capturing the zeitgeist of his generation.
Meanwhile, Amanda Martin, Naren’s former classmate at university, is eager to escape her small-town existence in the US and discover herself. She reconnects with Naren and travels along with him as part of a teaching fellowship, which would mean working with kids in Mumbai’s slums. While Naren joins the Indian outpost of his American consultancy firm, sparks fly between Amanda and Rohit, and they fall into what millennials call a “situationship”, with both refusing to label their relationship even as their conversations get longer and their bond stronger. One such conversation about their respective family origins leads Amanda to spur Rohit into undertaking a “roots tour” to his native village in coastal Maharashtra.
Even as Amanda is exposed to the brutal realities of the caste system through her work in India, Rohit’s rather underwhelming “roots tour” leads to a chance encounter with a brash young filmmaker named Omkar Khaire, whose idea of making a short film on Ganeshotsav (the festival celebrating Ganesha) impresses Rohit no end. He wishes to produce it, but Omkar’s ties with the radical Hindu outfit, Bharat Brotherhood, makes Rohit’s partners wary. In a bid to win their approval for the short film, Rohit invites Omkar to his house to meet his friends and family on Ganesh Chaturthi (the first day of the 10-day Ganeshotsav celebration).
“The plot events do not evolve organically from the characters’ actions. Rather, they are geared towards revealing different facets of contemporary India.”
It is here in the second act that the narrative embodies what Lenin once said about decades happening in a matter of weeks. In a remarkable drawing room conversation, friends are exposed for who they have become, with all their underlying apathies and duplicities. It all culminates in a climactic third act on the final day of Ganeshotsav, when inflamed passions lead to communal tensions in Mumbai, rupturing the continuum of existence of the book’s dramatis personae.
- Even though it is never stated explicitly, Quarterlife is evidently set in the India of 2014.
- Quarterlife is a novel of ideas, invested not so much with plot or characters as it is with concepts.
- Quarterlife drags through sizeable segments until the narrative finally changes gear.
- But Devika Rege’s novel is an assured debut and an admirable attempt to tell the truth of postmodern India.
Right off the bat: Quarterlife is a novel of ideas, invested not so much with plot or characters as it is with concepts. This despite the author employing a series of interconnected perspectives as a storytelling device, which takes us into the minds of not just the three protagonists but also into those of minor characters.
But plot events do not evolve organically from the characters’ actions. Rather, they are geared towards revealing different facets of contemporary India. One of the running themes is the “apolitical” stance of the upper middle class and the new elites, best exemplified by the Agashe brothers. While Naren might have been disenchanted with some of the behaviour and the tribal instincts of his American peers during his Wall Street stint, they are not enough to stop him from continuing to worship at the altar of market capitalism. When questions arise about the proto-fascist tendencies of the newly elected government, he is more than willing to look the other way and harp about “development” and “demographic dividend”—so long as there is money to be made riding on the government’s promises of being “pro-business.”
Rohit too shows little to no reluctance when it comes to associating with members of Hindu nationalist organisations for the sake of his proposed collaboration with Omkar, so enamoured is he by the prospect of reaching new audiences. Both brothers (as well as many other characters) do not seem to recognise the world of privilege—in terms of caste and class—they inhabit, and it takes an outsider (Amanda) to notice all the things they seem to take for granted.
The drawing room conversation mentioned earlier deserves praise, for it is where the political becomes personal and the novel begins to find its voice. It hits close to home for an entire generation that has witnessed first-hand how such polarised debates have driven a wedge between friends and family members.
There is a fair bit of reflection on both national and State politics (Maharashtra, in this case). Add to that a good number of subplots providing throwaway commentary on subjects such as the corporate-political nexus, the land and mining mafia, the state of the media, the use of cinema as propaganda, and communal tensions fuelled by misinformation, and the book becomes a summation of everything going wrong in India today.
But there can be too much of a good thing, and Quarterlife drags through sizeable segments until the narrative finally changes gear. Effervescent prose and philosophising can only get you so far in a novel, and at some point, storytelling needs to take precedence over everything else. There are also some experiments with form, including a personal essay by Rege at the end (which she claims is not an epilogue), that do not quite hit the mark.
That said, Devika Rege’s novel is an assured debut. Albert Camus said that fiction was “the lie through which we tell the truth”, and Quarterlife is an admirable attempt to tell the truth of postmodern India.