Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Rich Like Us" by Nayantara Sahgal

Year of first publication: 1983
Genre: novel
Country: India

“Rich Like Us” is the portrait of two families of the Indian elite at the time of the Emergency (1975-1977), the darkest period in modern Indian history, when Prime Minister India Gandhi suspended elections and civil liberties. The author, nonetheless, is Indira Gandhi’s first cousin and Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece. Nayantara Sahgal belongs in fact to the most powerful family of the country, yet she has always had a critical attitude towards the decisions of some of her relatives, her cousin in particular. This made her lose her job (she was about to be appointed India’s ambassador to Italy), which is an experience she recounts in this novel through the story of Sonali, also abruptly dismissed by the unnamed President in favour of her ex-fiancé Ravi Kachru.
“Rich Like Us” is partly narrated from the point of view of Sonali , who ives in a “joint family” with her sister Kiran and her brother-in-law. She’s friends with Rose, an English lady who unconvincingly tries to hide her Cockney accent from her high-born friends. Rose is nursing her Indian husband who has just had a stroke and cannot run his family business like he used to. Ram’s son, an indolent young man who has seriously been affected by the unusual double marriage of his father, is forging cheques to get his father’s money on his account. As time goes by, Rose learns that her rights as a woman and wife are deteriorating, so she turns to her friend Sonali for help.
The narration is told through flashbacks from the characters’ past: for instance how Rose came to marry Ram and how she accepted to be his second wife, living on the second floor while the first wife was downstairs with her children Dev and Nishi, and how Sonali got engaged with Ravi while in Oxford and then split up with him, only to see him married with the youngest daughter of the second cousin of the Prime Minister’s mother (Nishi).
On the background, the political upheaval, the vasectomies and the corruption of this horrible time in Indian history. Sonali’s father, who owns a shop, is sent to prison, apparently for no reason.
The title suggests that the book aims at criticizing the system that prevents richness to “trickle down” to poor people in India. Politics in Sahgal’s novel is of primary importance. In a 1959 flashback, for instance, Sonali discusses communism with Ravi, stating that she doesn’t want to stick to any doctrine. Her motivation is personal: being a woman she has lived too many restrictions to voluntarily have another one in her life. Sonali states ‘I don’t like dictatorships, not even of the proletariat, not even as a passing phase because who knows the phase might get stuck and never pass’ (p.112). That is basically the reason while they broke up: ‘the actual break had come because they couldn’t agree on step three and step four of the Marxist process, whatever that was, and especially what happened to artists and writers and thinkers at that point’ (ibid). The implied motivation, according to Sonali, is that Ravi is actually bossy, rigid and selfish and if she married him she’d have to agree with him all the time. Patriarchal power and arbitrary power are one of the main themes of the book, especially towards the end of the book when Rose has to face her limitations as a woman in Indian society.
Sahgal’s style is impeccable and she manages to portray the lifestyle of the ruling classes with cynicism and detachment. The narrative is almost entirely built through flashbacks, which freezes the story in a timeless reality. Only in the second half of the novel the story takes off, offering us strikes of genius, like the following:
“What is Divali?” Rose asked. “It’s the beginning of winter,” he replied. Why hadn’t he said it was the return and enthronement of Rama, a festival of rejoicing, of lights and feasting and gambling? The beginning of winter and another exile was what it had been for Sita” (p.244)
Mona, Ram’s first wife, is compared to Sita, the heroine and suffering wife of “The Ramayana”. It is not the only allusion to mythology. References to Draupadi and her five husbands abound, but it is the island of Cythera, where according to Greek mythology Aphrodite was born, that bears the most ironic relevant signification in the novel. Rose buys an old postcard of Cythera, after having heard her husband compare India to the island of love. In the end, Rose dead in the most horrible way, it stands for our disillusionment, because this India narrated by Sahgal is no island of love, but a country where patriarchal power wins over everything else, in spite of the refined manners of its ruling glass.


  1. è un libro che mi è piaciuto parecchio, per il suo intreccio vita-politica-famiglia.
    La struttura dei flashback, anche se è un po' dispersiva, mi ha molto affascinato.
    Peccato che da noi sia poco conosciuto...

  2. And I believe things are changing. Wasn't Indira Ghandi a woman? Were they no women in the general politics? Well, I guess most female-authored novels are about Patriarchal societies.

  3. @Silvia: d'accordo per quanto riguarda l'intreccio affascinante tra vita-politca- famiglia. La struttura dei flashback all'inizio mi confondeva, ma poi ho preso dimestichezza con i personaggi e sono andata più veloce. In Italia è poco conosciuto. Io infatti non l'ho mai visto, nè nessun altro libro di questa autrice, né in biblioteca né tra gli scaffali delle librerie! E' un peccato perché scrive molto meglio delle varie Anita Nair o Divakaruni...

    @Nana: Yes, Indira Gandhi was a woman, but one or two women of the elite family in Indian politics are not enough! There needs to be a more widespread division of powers. However, here the critique is more of inheritance and widow's rights rather than a critique of women in quality jobs.
    I think women write about patriarchal societies because it is what they know best. I guess that writers tend to do that all the time. It's difficult to write about a topic you don't relate to.

  4. Must be an enjoyable read Rich Like Us by Nayantara Sahgal. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.