Dina Mehta’s Mila in Love is a “cute” novel that wants to be more than a cute novel. Result: A novel with an identity crisis. This novel is an M&B romance, but meant not so much for the inexperienced teenybopper, as for the Femina woman of substance. Written in prose that is clever, crisp, and, at places, witty, it has a been-there-done-that kind of tone—much like the narrator-protagonist, who isn’t easily impressed by anything or anyone except for a tall, dark, handsome Prince Charming—“a Punjabi-Parsi hunk”—who also happens to be in love with her mother. This novel sets out to be a bildungsroman—tracing the growing up into adulthood of an elite, upper class Mumbai teenager—but it falls short. For some strange reason. Mehta shies away from exploring the deep, dark seas that lie beyond the shallow waters of a predictable kind of psychological realism. While this does not adversely affect the narrative, it makes this novel feel strangely light.
A thirteen-year old girl has a crush on a handsome, sophisticated young man much older than her. The young man goes away to become a famous writer. In the meantime, the girl grows up, all the time fantasizing about the man. She too, goes away for a while, to California. Then she comes back as an attractive young woman. He too comes back—as a famous writer and a mature specimen of sophisticated manhood. Eye candy meets arm-candy. And this man—from whom she hasn’t heard at all for several years—takes her in his arms—and she finds that her dream love has abruptly come true. She finds her Mr. Right, with whom she can walk into the sunset.
To Mehta’s credit, it must be said that all the major characters are well fleshed out. Mila, her mentally ill mother, the morally punctilious father who cannot live up to his own extraordinary moral standards, his scheming secretary-cum-mistress, Mila’s idealist-cynic uncle, her quiet Aunt Roma, and, not to forget, her Big Crush—Rayhaan—are all well-rounded, living characters. But the presumably central element of the novel—Mila’s love—is actually a marginal factor in the whole story. Indeed, right from the beginning, till the last page, Mila’s love never amounts to anything more than an intense crush—a deep infatuation—and for this reason—the conclusion seems forced and rather unconvincing.
The novel touches upon themes of women as both the oppressed, as well as the oppressor, as victims as well as victimizers. But the pivot of the entire narrative—Mila’s mother—is not allowed to fulfil her role in the story. Her insanity squats there in the narrative like a misplaced roundabout, causing emotive divergences and convergences, but without serving any defined artistic function. It hangs over the novel like a torn piece of curtain, obscuring part of the view, and framing what is open to view. While the father enjoys an illicit affair, the mother is merely the recipient of illicit attentions, and before it can turn into anything substantial, her lunacy comes to the rescue—and she kills herself. One gets the impression that Mehta kills her off to get on with the plot.
One sees the same regressive strain in Mila’s own story. She instinctively rebels against the path laid out for her by society’s patriarchal norms: “…what is the male of the species that I need him so? And on every nuptial occasion I feel a distinct and revolting desire to embrace the destiny for which I was genetically programmed: to be, until my dying day, man’s obedient servant–ha!” Though Mila finds this “desire” “revolting”, she nevertheless surrenders to it gladly, shortly after having attended a friend’s wedding (perhaps influenced by the experience) because, “what can be more damaging to a single girl’s ego than her girlfriend’s wedding day?” Ultimately, what saves the book from being run-of-the-mill is undoubtedly Mehta’s prose – always smooth, eminently readable, and frequently entertaining.
G. Sampath writes freelance and lives in Delhi.