Remaining Faithful to Individual Truth and Cultural Perspectives in Fear and Lovely by Anjana Appach
By Eleanor Bowskill, Victoria Bromley, Lily Baldanza and Daisy Ward
Anjana Appachana’s latest novel proves another literary victory for Verve Books, a dynamic publisher inspired by their love for diverse, page-turning fiction. Fear and Lovely is a tender, character-driven account of a young woman growing up in New Delhi, that reveals some poignant truths about the expectations held against Indian adolescents in past decades.
Fear and Lovely presents a narrative that unfolds from the perspectives of protagonist Mallika and her closest friends and family members. Mallika is raised by her mother and aunt and is close to her two male friends, Arnav and Randhir, but believes her feelings towards them will not be reciprocated. Following a traumatic incident at age nineteen, Mallika loses three days of her memory. This ordeal leads her to turn from a mild-mannered girl to one unable to speak, eat or sleep. In response, her mother seeks out a psychiatrist who helps her to recover and, in time, to pursue scholarships to an American University.
Our conversation with Appachana began on the stigma that surrounds discussions of mental illness in India. Although not as “devastating as it was in the seventies,” disorders such as depression are still seen as a “weakness” to be concealed. Thus, conflicted about how to respond to her diagnosis, Mallika’s mother disguised her mental health condition as TB. Appachana clarified that this desperate act wasn’t to “save face,” but to “protect” Mallika through recovery. The public knowledge of mental illness can impose a “life sentence” as a “mental” person, which is often crueller than the depression itself.
The discussion of love and marriage throughout Fear and Lovely outlined a number of political intricacies associated with romantic relationships and marital partnerships in India, as opposed to those in the West. In the novel, cultural restrictions surrounding inter-religious marriages within Indian culture led Akhil, Randhir’s brother, to be disowned by his family after eloping with a Muslim girl. Marriages between Hindus and Muslims were especially “frowned upon” and “the taboo is even stronger today.” Throughout the book, arranged marriages were considered sensible arrangements and love was deemed frivolous. However, for Appachana, healthy partnerships cannot rest on “the notion of marriage as a practical institution” or “romantic love” but on “mutual respect” between the two parties.
As with cultural and generational differences, Appachana expressed how “truth” can be a matter of individual interpretation. She explained, “all of the characters have their own truth and each truth has its own legitimacy.” Even silence should constitute a justifiable response when someone “knows no other way” or there “is no other way.” As we shift between narrators, these truths are seen from different angles. This was one of the aspects Appachana loved the most about the writing process; she could acknowledge those angles that might be unflattering or difficult to understand. Perhaps even when we are honest with ourselves, specific details might still be left out or exaggerated due to our self-perception. However, Appachana maintains that her characters were “faithful” to each other in their depictions.
The story follows a colony of middle-class Indians who, although well-educated, have little wealth compared to modern standards. Therefore, it felt “natural” for Appachana to write about Mallika’s financial struggles, because these restrictions were bound to make life “tougher” and responsibilities “heavier.” This was prevalent when Mallika needed to visit the dentist in India rather than America because it was cheaper. However, Appachana had no intention of calling attention to the reader’s privileges, in fact, she “wasn’t thinking of the reader at all” only of her characters and their various dilemmas.
Neither was there an objective to highlight specific themes, in which the lives and relationships of her characters were most important to Appachana. Yet the subject of independence was prominent, with particular focus placed on the idea of being as you are as opposed to rising to others’ expectations. For Appachana, this predicament is symptomatic of belonging to “a close-knit, intimate network” where “neighbours and acquaintances” feel they have a right to have a say in your life. However, the pressure to conform still exists in the West, but this derives from wider society rather than immediate familial networks.
To conclude, we discussed Appachana’s experience throughout the publishing process. She praised the “superb” team at Verve for their communication and willingness to listen to her concerns. In particular, her editor Jenna Gordon was described as having “the keenest eye” ever encountered as she provided insightful feedback that was both “true and solid” with “instrumental” suggestions for the first major revision of the novel. Not geared towards marketability, these edits allowed the book to come into “itself.” In this sense, Appachana described her novel as having undergone a lifespan, during which we can choose to “become more of who we truly are” instead of the person others expect us to be.