Kolkata comes alive in its nuanced Calcutta avatar and Durga Puja becomes the climactic high point where events and emotions reach their nail-biting peak in Devapriya Roy’s new novel The Weight Loss Club (Rupa Publications, Rs 250). Set in a middle-class neighbourhood in an unfashionable part of town, the book follows the journeys of the residents of Nancy Housing Cooperative as they go about their ‘curious experiments’ in life, love and loss. Written with insight, compassion and wit, the interwoven stories in the book grow on you, tugging both your funny bone and your heartstrings, until you find yourself hooked to the end. For those who cannot resist 21st-century urban fairy tales, this one is a clincher.
Unlike Roy’s debut novel The Vague Woman’s Handbook (Harper Collins India, 2011) which centered on two women friends, there are multiple protagonists in The Weight Loss Club. There’s Apu (Aparajita Mukherjee), the accomplished PhD scholar and professor, who must submit to her mother’s overarching desire to see her married and lose a few kilos before a prospective NRI groom arrives from America to check her out. There’s her friend Meera Sahai who, after two little babies, is unable to handle her monster mother-in-law and indifferent husband any longer.
There’s Ananda Bose, the garrulous bachelor, neighbourhood philosopher and devoted son. There’s John and Treeza, the once-in-love couple now torn apart by clinical depression and intimate secrets. There’s Monalisa Das, super mom, super cook and super-driven manager of all things home, whose two young sons must bear the brunt of her super ambition. There’s Abeer, who is hopelessly in love with the sexy Mandy in his college music club but who must overcome the obstacles of his own chubby girth and her dandy suitor before he can make any progress.
And then there’s former rock star and cancer-survivor Sandhya, the Caribbean-born, East Indian guru of all things, who travels from England to India in a mystical turn of events and ends up setting up a ‘half-ashram’ in Nancy Housing Cooperative, healing broken hearts and mending wounded relationships.
Besides the people, the city too has a distinct role, with its Bengali quirks, chaos and cuisine. Calcutta comes alive with each dawn and changes its tune with every season, holding its own against a tableau of compelling tales from globalised India.
The book’s title is a tad misleading as the phrase only occurs for the first time halfway through the book and only a few kilos are lost (and by only one person) in the course of its 294 pages. Instead, the characters, sketched with a commendable balance of seriousness and humour, mostly go about their humdrum, everyday lives replete with drama and aplomb. As Durga Puja approaches, their stories get increasingly interlinked until a crescendo is reached, death underlines the festivities with dark humour, and a new life begins with its trademark wink of promise.
Roy writes with wisdom without moralising, poignancy without pathos. Currently pursuing her PhD at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi and travelling across India and the world, her own experiences no doubt play a role in her artful weaving of history, spirituality and political commentary while keeping up a chatty narrative. Racy, rich and calorie-free, The Weight Loss Club is feel-good food for thought.
First published on FriendsofBooks.com