Book Review: Cloud 9 Minus One by Sangeeta Mall

Title: Cloud 9 Minus One
Author: Sangeeta Mall
Year of Publication: 2009
Series: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 2.9
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 1


Plot Description: The protagonist receives an invitation to the ten year reunion of her post-graduate batch from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, and finds that she doesn’t want anything to do with it.

Shruthi Narayan still carries emotional baggage from her days at IIMB, and decides to forego the invitation. Or at least, she attempts to do so, until her husband finds out about the invitation and overrules her decision. Her husband is, needless to say, one of those delightful and loving people who nonetheless appear to have great difficulty grasping the notion of respecting their spouse’s opinion regarding matters in her own life (rather than just doing whatever the hell he feels like doing).

Shruthi claims her husband and their daughter are the ‘decision makers’ in the family, which herself and their son meekly following their lead. This is a fancy way of saying her husband decides everything, because Shruthi’s daughter is six. Or eight.

Shruthi had been looking forward to a holiday in Spain, which they’d been saving up for, until her husband was invited to speak at something or the other in India. In trying to get his daughter on his side as far as the India vs. Spain question is concerned, Mr. Narayan tells his daughter (an “Avid swimmer”) that she can go swimming in India.

[Spoiler Alert: You know where else you can go swimming? Spain. And the rest of the freakin’ world.]

Cloud 9 has a few obvious problems right from the start, not least of which is the language. A recent trend of popular English books have all featured terrible language construction. This is partially due to an attempt by authors to write in colloquial English as spoken in large swathes of urban and semi-rural India. But it’s equally clear that some of these authors don’t, at times, understand how English works as a language. Regardless of reason, it’s incredibly off putting to read a badly written book.

The narration is in the first person, and the story alternates between present day and flashbacks of Shruthi’s life in college.

What can be said in favour of this book is that it portrays a realistic picture of an incredibly narrow slice of life. If you belong to a certain substratum of the Indian middle class, are female, and have attended one of the more prestigious colleges in India, chances are, you’d relate to portions of this book. For example, parents who are reluctant to send their daughter to college for fear of compromising her “moral integrity” and “reputation” are a norm in India.

By that standard, the portrayal of Shruthi’s batch is bound to be fairly accurate, especially when you consider that the flashbacks in the book are set in or around 1999. Even today, IIMs all over the country have a problem with female representation in their student populations, and consequently reserve a percentage of their seats for women. Similarly, the brand of misogyny and arrogant male privilege seen in Shruthi’s (overwhelmingly male) classmates continues to be seen in today’s generation of Indian college students at both the undergrad as well as the post grad levels.

The novel centres, for the most part, around Shruthi, Priya, who was one of Shruthi’s best friends in college and the unfortunately nicknamed ‘Jaggu’, who is Shruthi’s ex-boyfriend and whose real name completely  escapes me.

Priya is a cartoonish version of 1999’s radical feminist college student – or at least, that’s how it seems to me. She represents an extremely one sided outsider’s impression of a woman who plays the field, gets stoned a lot and still tops classes (ten years before it was cool to do so). Viewed from Shruthi’s conservative lens, Priya is a chain smoking, man eating, binge drinking party girl. And despite her own conflicted opinions about Priya, Shruthi consistently (if somewhat inefficiently) stands up for her friend.

There’s plenty of opportunity for Shruthi to do so, because the rest of their (overwhelmingly male) batch hates Priya with a passion. The professed reason for their hate (when anyone does bother to profess it) is the fact that she has been breaking a lot of male hearts and doesn’t really seem to care. Slut shaming takes centre-stage every time Priya is mentioned in conversation. And Priya’s only available defender is woefully and singularly unsuitable for the role.

Shruthi Narayan is nothing if not loyal, and it is this loyalty which drives her to defend Priya. She responds to the tone and hostility of the insults, and not to the actual words. Her conservative background and perspective are a considerable handicap when it comes to the tortured process of reasoning out the concept of slut shaming. Shruthi’s complete inability to figure out why slut shaming sounds bad to her becomes apparent when, near the end of their course, Priya becomes embroiled in a scandal over her affair with a married professor.

Criticizing someone for having too many sexual partners is by itself weak, and often necessitates the construction of ridiculously elaborate excuses as a foundation. [Many astute people get rid of this inconvenience by giving adages the power of axioms – i.e. stating something to be inherently true and not subject to dispute.]

This is why slut shamers, when given the opportunity, delightedly pounce on better arguments that strengthen their claims of “I always knew she was a bad egg, always said so, didn’t I?” And an affair with a professor (unprofessional, could be doing it for better grades) who was married (homewrecker, insult to the sacrosanct institution of marriage) firmly fits into that category of strengthening argument.

If Priya, who was facing possible suspension or expulsion, was expecting support from her friend, she didn’t get it. (Knowing Priya, it is unlikely that she was expecting any such thing anyway). Shruthi blows up at her friend, says things she cannot possibly take back, and storms away. She then proceeds to feel guilty about this whole thing for the next ten years.

Shruthi’s ex, Jaggu, represents the opposite end of the spectrum to Priya. He is every slut shaming, patriarchal male nursing his injured ego in the story, all rolled into one. He constantly resents Shruthi’s friendship with Priya, and criticizes her habit of standing up for what he sees as Priya’s increasingly indefensible actions.

Jaggu represents a particular class of human beings (who I do not pretend to understand) who falls deeply in love with the first other human being who pays them any attention. This used to be how dating life was structured back in middle and high school, and every adult alive has had plenty of opportunity to grow out of it. (Opportunity, yes. Circumstance? Perhaps not, and this is what Jaggu and his ilk represent in India).

Needless to say, Jaggu falls deeply in love with Shruthi, gets extremely jealous when she hangs out alone with any other guy, and is shattered when Shruthi eventually breaks up with him. By the end of college, she saw no reason to prolong a relationship that she had always known didn’t mean much to her. (Stringing a man along in this fashion, is for some reason, almost as big a crime in Priya’s book as stringing multiple men along for considerably shorter periods of time was in Jaggu’s book, but I’ll get the ‘The Book’s Message’ in a bit).

It can’t be said that Jaggu changed much in the ten intervening years between the flashbacks and present day. They run into each other at the airport, accompanied by their respective  families, and Jaggu immediately envelops Shruthi in a hug. The rest of their interaction runs along in the same vein. He bugs her into meeting him for a walk alone until she grudgingly gives in. Then he kisses her, because agreeing to take a walk with just him for company is obviously an invitation to cheat on their respective spouses. Then he decides she still likes him because – duh – she kissed him.

To make matters worse, throughout all of this, Shruthi seems to be going through the motions of what she thinks is expected of her as a woman. And this is why, of all the troubled characterizations in this book, Shruthi’s bothers me the most.

I mean, sure, it’s made pretty clear at the outset that Shruthi is a pushover. Nothing wrong with that. (Husbands and ex boyfriends and other people who take advantage of a pushover on the other hand…) But she really doesn’t question a thing. It’s like she memorized the Manual on Things You’re Expected to Do as a Woman a long time ago, and is very by the book about it.

She doesn’t question the fact that she hasn’t actually told her husband why she doesn’t want to go for the reunion, choosing to hide behind flimsy excuses and subterfuge because that’s what is usually done. She doesn’t question the fact that she’s supposed to feel giddy and nostalgic when she sees her ex-boyfriend for the first time in ten years – she just does. She doesn’t ask herself whether she actually wanted to kiss him, she just takes it for granted that the kiss happened because he made it happen. Nor does she question her ensuing guilt about the kiss, and falls right into someone else’s half-assed blackmail plot on the basis of it.

Yes, I’m talking about flimsy and contrived Plot Devices that require a certain level of suspension of disbelief on the reader’s part. In Cloud 9, the reader’s ability to suspend said disbelief is challenged further by the fact that the protagonist herself has already done the job for you. It’s a big part of what makes the book so awful.

The final piece of confusion in the chaos that is the plot and themes of this book is present day Priya. While neither Jaggu, nor Shruthi can be said to have changed very much, Priya is completely transformed. She goes from the party girl and scantily dressed slut preserved in Shruthi’s memory to a staid, saree clad professional and single mother who sort of regrets her actions in college. And indeed, the word “mother” can singlehandedly be used to describe the new Priya. To round out the mutilation of what had started out a pretty decent character, the final portion of the plot is devoted to ‘completing’ Priya by finding her a guy to get married to.

The Book’s Message: Cloud 9 Minus One doesn’t have many pretensions towards an actual message – until you actually start reading it. On the surface, it’s just a slice of life, perspective based work of fiction (which possibly has an autobiographical tint to it, because we write what we know) that caters to a very niche market. But when the pages start turning, the messages start firing themselves at you. And it’s really difficult to tell which characters you’re supposed to listen to, and which you’re supposed to disobey. For one thing, black and white and the shades of grey keep switching places. Jaggu, Priya and Shruthi represent the opposite ends of the moral debate and its middle ground respectively. And yet they are all weak characters, flawed, incoherent, and – worst of all – inconsistent.

A nicer way to put it would be to say that each character carries with them their own finely shaded moral code and feels themselves completely justified in their own actions, despite the amount of criticism their actions leave them open to. And yet, despite the very different messages being conveyed simultaneously, the more problematic ones are never addressed, or if addressed, are never criticized. And even when these are criticized, it is invariably for the wrong reasons.

In addition to the examples I’ve already cited, you also get statements like “A child needs both a father and a mother,” or “guys don’t want entanglement, they just want to have fun”, that are either wholeheartedly agreed upon or passed by without contradiction. This makes Cloud 9 Minus One a repeat offender when it comes to perpetuating tired cliches and gendered stereotypes. I’m not sure why this book didn’t end up on my DNF pile – having a physical copy might have something to do with that – but I sure as hell wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

Next: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury


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