AN AUDREY HEPBURN wanna-be, the unnamed narrator of Rajeev Balasubramanyam's first novel, In Beautiful Disguises, confides in the reader: "I saw Breakfast at Tiffany's four times, and by the third time I had almost become Holly Golightly." But alas, the narrator isn't a bejeweled debutante traipsing around Manhattan; she's a teenage girl stuck in a small town in southern India with a bullying drunk of a dad, a subservient mom, a couch-potato brother, and a sister who dutifully accepts her arranged marriage to a man the narrator secretly refers to—in true Ms. Golightly fashion—as "Quel Rat!"
IN BEAUTIFUL DISGUISES
by Rajeev Balasubramanyam (Bloomsbury, $14.95)
Film star aspirations already boiling in her brain, the narrator receives further incentive to leave home, where "everything and everyone moved with an unquestioning, slothful obedience to unwritten laws," when her sagelike grandfather-in-law weighs in with his advice that to discover truth, she must suffer. To become an actress, she needs experience. She must turn her dreams into reality. Unsurprisingly, it only takes her father's demand that she marry a repulsive, lascivious stranger to launch the 18-year-old dreamer out of her country crock-pot and into the cauldron of the city.
Like a postmodern Dickens, the Lancaster, U.K.-based Balasubramanyam adheres to literary conventions while simultaneously deconstructing those tried, true, but tired techniques. When the narrator arrives in Delhi, her descriptions of the city take on echoes of London from a typical Victorian novel: "Even though the air was so moist, there was none of the rain scent that hung in the breeze at home. The air had a sootiness to it; it smelt of petrol and hard, sun-dried excrement. Everything gleamed unnaturally, as though oppressed." In the tradition of the bildungsroman, she finds employment as a temporary maid and meets a bevy of characters whose personalities teach her the ways of the world. There's Mr. Aziz, the generous yet cowed Kashmiri head-of-household; his tyrannical French wife, Mrs. Marceau; Raju, a servant enraged over his social status; Maneka, the narrator's lusty coworker who voices the pleasures of doing "It"; and Armand, Mr. Aziz's handsome yet arrogant son.
Unfortunately, Balasubramanyam fails to unshackle many of his supporting characters from type. Mrs. Marceau can do no right in her exaggerated villainy, while Mr. Aziz's every action—including driving a car—is a step toward sainthood: "He granted other drivers the right of way with a noble flick of the wrist. He sped down narrow lanes and glided around roundabouts with a split- second precision, humbling the meek with his superhuman example."
ALL DREAMS END, and so must the narrator's. Rather than track her ascension to movie stardom, Balasubramanyam pulls the plug on his protagonist's marquee fantasy, subjecting her bright hopes to the harsh light of reality. She waits on a tableful of elitist expatriates who make comments like, "I have never really liked Indian people." Other than an uninspiring gig at a zoo, she never hears of any job opportunities. And when Armand whips out the champagne bottle—ࠬa David Laraby for Hepburn in Sabrina—the booze makes her sick. Unsure of her future, she despairs over the present: " . . . no movie had started . . . so far I hadn't succeeded in crawling out of the real world. In fact, it had got worse, more real and more oppressive, enfolding me in its acrid breath."
More charming than bleak, In Beautiful Disguises' most appealing feature is its narrator. Associating a protagonist with an icon like Hepburn could have easily backfired, and Balasubramanyam might have written a grating, second-rate imitation, flawed by the author's nostalgia for classic Hollywood and overshadowed by Hepburn's movie-star sheen. Instead, the author creates a character who's lovable, not because of her Golightly-like precociousness but because of her human cluelessness. Beneath the narrator's every precious insight lies a lesson she's overlooking.
With this winsome and wise debut, Balasubramanyam pays his tuition into the school of Indian-born novelists (Anita Desai, Akhil Sharma, Manil Suri, among others) who are spinning fictional gold out of India's soil, even though they're all residing in foreign lands and speaking with English tongues. In Beautiful Disguises is an ode to the Western literary and cinematic traditions, yet it's also a novel that is distinctly contemporary and—as becomes evident in the disconcerting finale of the novel, when Balasubramanyam provides a sharp twist to the bow that tied off so many 19th-century novels—inescapably grounding.