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the Complete Review
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In Beautiful Disguises

Rajeev Balasubramanyam

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Title: In Beautiful Disguises
Author: Rajeev Balasubramanyam
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000
Length: 246 pages
Availability: In Beautiful Disguises - US
In Beautiful Disguises - UK
In Beautiful Disguises - Canada
Et le guerrier dansait ... - France
  • Winner of a Betty Trask Award in 1999

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Our Assessment:

B : odd tale of an Indian teen, appealingly bizarre

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A 22/7/2000 Andrew Biswell
The Guardian . 1/7/2000 Lisa Darnell
TLS D 22/9/2000 Navtej Sarna

  Note: in Lisa Darnell's review in The Guardian she writes, for example, of the book's heroine (and narrator): "The lazy days of Arjuna's south Indian childhood are spent dreaming of becoming a film star." Oh dear ! Ms. Darnell apparently did not read the book closely. Or at all. The narrator remains nameless throughout the book. Arjuna is, in fact, a male character -- the man the narrator eventually winds up marrying.
  This isn't an easy mistake to make. Balasubramanyam has his narrator clearly state, for example: "He said I had a beautiful name, though very unusual. His name was nice too, Arjuna, my favourite Pandava."
  (Note also that Arjuna's dreams are of a decidedly different nature.)
  Ms. Darnell also writes: "Luckily, her brother-in law's father is on hand" (to help the narrator out) -- but in fact it is brother-in-law Vijay Kumar's grandfather that does the helping.

  Reviewers who don't read the books they review are, of course, common, but it is still bad form. Darnell's review is only nine sentences long but her reading of the book was so cursory that she managed to get two facts wrong. Something to keep in mind .....

  From the Reviews:
  • "The narrative leaves the reader to notice the disjunction between the central character's lofty ideals and the reality that surrounds her. (...) This delightful novel (...) is a confident and memorable performance." - Andrew Biswell, Daily Telegraph

  • "Colourful, spirited and crackling with charm: it's easy to see why Balasubramanyam has already won a Betty Trask prize." - Lisa Darnell, The Guardian

  • "Repeated allusions to Breakfast at Tiffany's, Pygmalion and the Mahabharata fail to lend the plot or characters any significant meaning. Balasubramanyam's language, gushing and gimmicky, doesn't help (.....) Perhaps a stronger editorial hand should have been there to help craft a more focused first novel. In the event, regrettably, In Beautiful Disguises must remain an unlikely tale, ordinarily told." - Navtej Sarna, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The third of three children in her family, the unnamed narrator of In Beautiful Disguises finds fulfilment and escape mainly at the movies, specifically the Majick Movie House. She dreams of becoming an actress, and admires Audrey Hepburn above all -- as Holly Golightly, especially, and sometimes Sabrina. Her south Indian family is mildly dysfunctional: the father drinks too much and beats the mother. Elder brother Ravi was traumatized by a robbery at his office and watches cable television all day long. Her sister has made good her own escape, marrying and quickly getting pregnant.
       The seventeen year old narrator is to be married off too, in an arranged affair. She refuses to marry her intended -- a wise choice, as it turns out -- and runs away from home, to the big city. Or: "The City" as it is called here -- a big northern Indian metropolis. Delhi, one imagines.
       The narrator has an unusual ally and benefactor -- her sister's husband's grandfather. The friendly old man is the only one who seems to understand her (though she is not always sure he understands him), and he helps her make good her escape, finding her a position, helping her to get some "experience of life".
       In The City the narrator goes to work as a maid for Mr.Aziz and his shrewish foreign wife, Mrs. Marceau. She makes friends with the other workers there, as well as the browbeaten Mr. Aziz. She goes to the zoo. She befriends the son of the household, Oxonian Armand.
       The narrator remains oddly true to herself. For an aspiring actress she is barely willing to take on any new role. She is by and large truthful in a world (or at least a household) in which one can ultimately only get by with lies. Despite her various familial and other difficulties she remains surprisingly carefree and upbeat, taking whatever comes as it comes. She stumbles into experience, without seeming to learn from it.
       Eventually -- sooner rather than later -- she returns down south again. Things have changed: Ravi, for example, has moved elsewhere, choosing a different life. Her sister is enjoying an idyllic domestic life. The father stews even more in his misery.
       Another marriage is arranged for her, a solution that nearly satisfies everyone -- though it proves to be a not entirely ideal pairing. Her future remains completely open.

       In Beautiful Disguises is an odd, open-ended book. The narrator describes events and conversations, but she remains mystified by most of what goes on around her. She lets herself be carried along, come what may. Only with the first arranged marriage does she put her foot down, refusing to accept what others have decided for her. (Given what is later learned about her intended it proves to be a very wise choice, though she gets little credit for that.)
       The narrator experiences life almost by happenstance. Guileless, she is also peculiarly empty. Her longings are unclear, and rarely does she act purposefully or with much determination. Her first attempt to run away is feeble, and only when everything is done for her (by the kindly grandfather) is there any hope of at least short-lived success. Even becoming an actress seems only a hazy dream, not a true ambition.
       The tone of the novel is also an odd one, as she recounts almost whatever seems to come to mind. Ultimately, however, it does ring true as the voice of this peculiar character.
       In Beautiful Disguises also presents an odd picture of India. It is, in part, satire. The overbearing Mrs. Marceau is almost entirely a caricature, while some of the other characters are finely drawn and sympathetic. Some of the things that happen are too exaggerated, but by and large Balasubramanyam can get away with them. Still, In Beautiful Disguises seems largely the work of someone not intimately familiar with India -- a book by an outsider, with only a selective experience of it. Which actually doesn't work all that badly, given the narrator, who also is not quite grounded in the reality of that particular (or any) world.
       Author Balasubramanyam was born and raised in Lancashire. His marvelous south Indian name is about as close as the book comes to presenting an authentic aspect Indian life, but as long as that is not what one demands of the book it isn't really a problem. In Beautiful Disguises is a curious and an oddly winning fiction, frustrating at times -- especially in its aimlessness (culminating in a wide open ending) -- but seen simply as a novel (and not, say, specifically as a commentary on life in India) it is an interesting effort.

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In Beautiful Disguises: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       English author Rajeev Balasubramanyam was born in Lancashire in 1974.

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© 2001-2010 the complete review

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