Note: this sinfully indulgent and long post fails every test of being spoiler-free. If you were planning on reading either or both of these books, it would probably be a good idea to hold off reading this until you’re done.
I had the fortune of reading two highly engaging love stories in one go. And I’m going to do something different and slightly bizarre in this post: I’m going to do two reviews in one go and attempt a comparative review of these stories.
Some readers may look at me askance, thinking that one book is anything but in the league of the other, but my comparison isn’t based on literary worthiness or geographic proximity. It’s based on what makes them uniquely literary worthy to me and the way I read them and saw them as a testament to the state of love in strange times.
The premise of this comparative review is the following quote from Lori Gottlieb’s Marry Him:
It used to be that lovers knew they wanted to be together but couldn’t. Now it’s that lovers can be together but aren’t sure they want to.
This line is something that needs to be unraveled, that needs to be meditated on through several more dimensions outside of this piece. But for now, I will explore it in terms of these books. Because you see, Bhagat’s story is a funny and delightful interlude into the good old times when people were actually sure they wanted to get married. Nicholl’s beautiful work, on the other hand, is a study of two friends who make the choice of getting together an exquisitely drawn-out work of art that spans a decade.
So let us begin.
2 States–apparently a a fictionalized memoir of how the author met his wife–is a throwback to the former good old times of lovers whose struggles lay in external obstacles rather than internal ones. But it’s a throwback with a clever, modern, twist, a climax that makes a literature major want to shoot herself in the head, and the eventual warm, fuzzy feeling of a happy end.
The protagonist, Krish, is a smart alecky but strangely endearing Punjabi fellow from Delhi. His girlfriend, Ananya (who, notably, I did not find as endearing) is a South Indian Brahmin Tamil girl from Chennai. They’re both in what appears to be a healthy, loving, mature relationship, but alas, come the Romeo-and-Julietesque wrist-to-forehead conflict: their families don’t want to marry outside their states and resent each each other. Through arduous struggle that included accepting a job placement in Chennai (which might as well have been China), Krish jumps hoop after hoop in a series of hilarious and heart-warming endeavours with his eye always on the prize: the hand of his beloved Ananya with their respective families’ love, support, and approval.
As the numerical use of the word “two” in the title demonstrates, this book seemed to have gone through next to no publishing process. (I wouldn’t be surprised if it went straight from Bhagat’s laptop to the press. Yeah. That bad.) There are gaping holes that put it at the very bottom rung of notable literary endeavours: the settings are poorly described, characterizations–including that of Ananya’s–play heavily on stereotypes, and the climax of the book was quintessentially Bollywoodesque: predictable, hackneyed, groan-worthy, and, well, unbelievable to the point of being laughable.
With that out of the way, I will now go on to what makes this book wonderful. 2 States isn’t just a love story. It’s an examination of how two extremely disparate cultures can exist within a single nation. It’s not just about overcoming odds to gain approval, it’s about why that validation is important and how it ties in to living in societies whose culture fabric consists of closely-knit family and community ties.
And, dear me, the book is funny. For someone getting into the flow of grad school and needing a break from mind-numbingly dry reading material, it was a relief to have this book’s company on the subway, to have bits of respite before moving on to the real world. It’s entertaining, charming, amusing, and clever, and I was sad when it ended.
That said, it’s time to turn the tables again: I wonder how relevant this story is to the condition of lovers in today’s age. It’s hard to grapple with the idea that a couple managed to live together and spent all their hours–asleep and awake–together, without apparently having any friends, and not having killed each other. And as someone of my generation it is difficult to not be cynical about this book, about the ability for people to put up with anything to be together. We’re living in a time where people look for excuses to bolt rather than fight external obstacles to say.
People like Emma and Dexter in One Day.
These two are self-absorbed and confused. They may mean well, but the luxury of choice, of being able to wait before settling, plays out in its full form in the way they fumble about in their lives.
If someone would ask me what One Day is about, I’d find myself paralyzed with emotion, yet finding that I have nothing to say. Nothing happens in this book, in the story per say. But life happens. Two lives, to be specific. Two people have a relationship that in some way or another touches upon every possible way a man and a woman can relate to one another. This happens while they grow up, while they suffer their respective crises, while they’re there or not there for each other. No longer was I in a world where there was some solid reassurance to base everything else on, which, in the case of 2 States, was the desire to get married. This is a story that pulled the ground out from under me, that had me think of what happens when there are no absolutes, when two people develop as they wish and how the process is not nearly as liberating as it might seen.
Nicholls does something cruel, terribly cruel, in his killing of Emma that took me a long time to recover from. When I finally emerged on the other end, blinking in what felt like a blindingly bright light after the darkness of the deep abyss I was thrown into, I found myself not hating Nicholls for pulling what one heartbroken reader calls a Nicholas Sparkesque stunt, but realizing this: this book is godless.
Apart from pondering over how God has created people to be so incredibly complex that they need to grow, that circumstances need to gain a fine balance in order to finally be able to execute something they have wanted all along, there is nothing in this book that made me think of divinity. There’s occasional brushes of what seem like hopeful possibilities, but for the most part, things go wrong. For the most part, it’s chaos. And the fact that Dexter and Emma finally get together for what seems like too short a while is not a cause for a celebration for how life leads us to the right things as much as a kind of grand coincidence that for a brief amount of time everything intersected to make this work.
I loved experiencing the tragedy, the vicissitudes and different shades of longing and resentment, and the complexity of the barely-platonic relationship Emma and Dexter have for most of the book. I didn’t need some grand, blissful ending like a white wedding with confetti and lace. I thought the way they finally got together—which was almost a kind of resignation—was incredibly romantic in its own way. For the realist side of my being, it was blissful to see the complexities that unfolded during the course of their relationship, to see them grow older and imperfect and irritable.
But Emma dying still makes no sense. Given where this book was coming from, I was happy to go through her pain of not having Dexter, of Dexter’s pain of losing his mother. I was happy to wait until they got together. I wouldn’t have minded so much if they broke things off at the end. What I resented, however, was going through was Dexter’s state of being on the first anniversary of Emma’s death. It has no meaning. It’s needlessly tragic. Hence: a godless book.
There’s an interesting inverse comparison that emerges between the two stories. 2 States was terribly written, but as the memory of the bad writing fades, the memory of the overall story becomes warmer. One Day was the opposite. The writing, especially in terms of dialogues, character descriptions, and settings, was blissful to read. But when I think back to the literal story in terms of plot, I find myself wondering what all the fuss is about. It’s of little surprise that–at least according to what I’ve heard–the film adaptation was so unsuccessful. The story is about the journey rather than the destination. It’s about the process of growing in love, while Bhagat’s story is about how love triumphs over everything.
What does all this mean? Does it mean that divine stories inherently lend themselves to happy endings, giving us the reassurance that all of this means something, that there is a God after all? Do bumblingly tragic stories that deliberately push all conventions of human existence have no hope of offering a faith-based reading? I can’t say. I’d be curious to see whether other stories of this nature give me the same experience that these ones did.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking about books I have incredibly strong feelings about, but I also have trouble fully loving or fully hating. For books that didn’t have any particular lessons to teach me that I didn’t know before, I probably devoted more space to them than they warranted.
For several Muslims, such stories cannot be related to firsthand, only lived through vicariously. And I feel that by reading these two books, that’s what I’ve done. I’m strangely grateful to have been able to be a part of these worlds, to step out of my context and laugh and cry over these lovers’ stupidities, obstacles, triumphs, and failings. Perhaps Allah, in His infinite Wisdom, has some reason in keeping me from having to go through it myself. But He is gracious enough to give me a glimpse of this dimension of existence in the form of these books.