In the line at a train station ticket counter, Renuka Sharma meets Vineet Seghal, a thirty-year-old hotel manager who lives with his mother. They see each other several times a week on the station platform until they eventually strike up a friendship.
He had walked up to me at the station on Wednesday and asked me if I would like to go with him for a short outing on his motorbike, which had just come back from the workshop. See, I was not born yesterday. I know what it can mean, I know how it can feel, to ride behind a man on a two-wheeler. I know how the man could slowly lean back into the woman sitting behind him until his body is pressing into her chest, while the woman’s hands could move from the handlebar behind her to the man’s waist and then finally rest on his thighs as she leans forward against him. But I also know that this can only happen if a woman allows it to happen, which, obviously, I would never ever do.
If Vineet had asked Renuka Sharma any question about herself, he would’ve discovered that she’s thirty-seven-years-old and married with a fifteen-year-old son, Bobby. They live in a flat in Dehli with her parents-in-law, a flat they moved into when her husband, Dheeraj, a physiotherapist, went to work in Dubai.
Renuka works as a receptionist for ‘Dr Raghubir Singh…a world-famous gynaecologist and obstetrician’, a job that she took after her mother became ill and her father spent all his money on medical bills, suffering two heart attacks as a consequence. Her ambition is to ‘start a training academy for Office Management, Computer Proficiency, Personality Development and Grooming, Business English, everything.’ She is fastidious, making the cleaner at the clinic ‘use sellotape to pull off any fallen hairs on the carpet in the waiting room’. Very clear of her duties, the reason Dheeraj has been in Dubai working tax-free and sharing a flat with four other men for eighteen months is because they need the money.
Sometimes I want to ask these people, these people who go on and on with their pity, who make me seen like I am some stone-hearted witch, sometimes I want to ask them one question, just one simple question. When my inlaws’ medical bills grow into lakhs of rupees, when my son has to do his further studies, who will save us? Will love and romance save us?
She’s adamant that Bobby will do an MBA even though he wants to be a chef and becomes almost obsessive about buying him a suit.
The book is a character study, Renuka’s narrative moving between her meetings with Vineet and telling the reader about her life, her thoughts and feelings. Soon it becomes clear she’s not quite as prim and proper as she initially comes across. She tells us about the times she and her husband turned the washing machine on in their flat so Bobby wouldn’t hear them having sex.
And from time to time I touch myself and there is nothing wrong with that. A long time ago I read in one of the magazines at the clinic that masturbation, even for women, is normal and healthy, and a doctor wrote that magazine article…And, actually, many women masturbate. They are just too ashamed to say that they do. I know all about sex. I have been married a long time. I even know about porn…And I know how men think, I know what they want. At the clinic, for example, day after day men come in with their wives and take small, little plastic cups into the toilet to collect their semen. I think that some of those men think about me when they are inside the toilet. I see how they look at me.
The novel’s structured like a corkscrew: tightly wound, seemingly returning in circles to the same ideas – her husband’s absence, her need for her son to study for an MBA and wear a suit, her desire to start her own business – whilst swirling ever deeper and darker. The veneer which Mrs Sharma paints at the beginning of the book wears thin as it progresses and her private life, that which she contains within herself, is revealed.
I think this book’s as close to perfect as it gets. The repetition of thoughts and ideas while the action moves forward, the precision of the language, the slow cracking of Mrs Sharma, is all brilliantly done. The character and the atmosphere of the book reminded me of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs although The Private Life of Mrs Sharma is more restrained in its delivery. All the literary editors who called in people’s books of the year choices weeks ago should be kicking themselves, The Private Life of Mrs Sharma deserves to be on every list.
Thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.