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SEX AND PHYSICS. Babyji is Abha Dawesar’s second novel. The author is pictured at right. (Photo/Jerry Bauer)

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #15 (April 11, 2006), page 13.

A licentious element


By Abha Dawesar

Anchor Books, 2005

Paperback, 356 pages, $13.00

By Josephine Bridges

My knowledge of the facts of life was based entirely on books, and clean ones at that. I read nineteenth-century classics by George Eliot and Emily Brontë. These books never went into any details. To remedy this I decided to read Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra. I had to do this while standing in the scooter garage, which had been converted into a storeroom. I would sneak out with a flashlight after my parents had gone to sleep." Anamika, the brilliant and saucy sixteen-year-old girl who narrates this novel set in Delhi, India, is positively irresistible, as is Babyji.

Sex and physics compete for Anamika’s attention, and the author deftly combines the two, to the reader’s blushing and sometimes puzzled surprise. In a chapter titled "The Physics of Fun," Anamika asks, "If modern science accepted duality and measured uncertainties, what difference did it make whether I was Rock Hudson chasing beautiful boys or the village brahmin in love with the shudra’s daughter? Science had told us this century that nothing was certain."

In addition to Anamika, her parents, and the three objects of her passionate attentions — a girl in her class at school and two older women, one with a five-year-old son and the other with an abusive husband — Babyji is populated by a bevy of marvelous minor characters, including a chemistry teacher nicknamed Hydrogen Sulfide; Anamika’s best friend’s father, who pursues our protagonist as relentlessly as she pursues her trio of lovers; and the class troublemaker, for whom Anamika risks her position as Head Prefect of her school, and of whom she says, "I would perish or flourish with Chakra Dev or not at all."

Even Humbert Humbert makes a cameo appearance as Anamika reads Lolita and imagines herself on "a drive across the United States with a dirty old man who understood me. A man I understood equally well. We were both made of the same element in the periodic table, a licentious element."

An exploration of India’s complex and troubling caste politics makes Babyji not just a light-hearted romp, but also a serious novel. When the government decides to "implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission and increase the number of reserved seats for scheduled castes in schools and colleges," the decision provokes not only heated discussion, but also tragedy. "The self-immolations seemed like a forest fire, spreading rapidly and recklessly," Anamika reports. "I sat in front of the TV and yelled out to my mother to join. The boy had done it in front of news cameras, with the policemen unable to stop him. He had screamed ‘I’m a brahmin’ over and over again as he burnt." Still, Anamika can’t help being thrilled by the closure of schools in the aftermath.

Abha Dawesar, who was chosen by Time Out New York as one of 25 New Yorkers to watch out for in 2005, was born in New Delhi, India and graduated with honors from Harvard University. Like her protagonist, the author is clearly no slouch. Perhaps the most startling aspect of this novel that manages to startle the reader at least once a chapter is that it’s told in first person. Geniuses and philanderers are often described by others with awe or derision, but it’s a rare thing to read what it’s like to be not just one but both of these, and a sixteen-year-old girl to boot.

Babyji is Abha Dawesar’s second novel. The author was born in 1974, so she ought to have plenty of time to write lots and lots more, which will be just fine with this reviewer.

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