The title, Happiness is a Butterfly, refers to the ephemeral nature of love. In this case quite literally, that between men and women. It is this attempt to canvas all aspects of ‘love’ ranging from the physical to the spiritual that perhaps bogs the book down. The story revealed in the form of diary entries is a complicated love quadrangle involving AIDS patients, their doctor and the common love interest. The murder with which the book begins, feels like an obvious way to tie threads. It also makes the novel seem farcical. The novel cashes in on the contemporary global concern for the prevention of AIDS. The book deals with dominant prejudices in the traditionally conservative Tamil society, which could have been a bold act by the author, but the portrayals are wanting. The setting of the book is high society, which is a double edged sword as it exposes the fragile morality of the upper classes and also seems to locate the disease within a particular lifestyle and set of people. The religious swami, the officer from the administrative services and the young boy also call upon the clichés of the campaign against AIDS.
There is an excess of temptation, seduction and promiscuity which detract rather than contribute to a sympathetic acceptance or even empathy and identification on the part of the reader. The detailing of the deterioration of the patients in physical and medical terms is obviously well researched and convincingly portrayed but the characters’ emotional angst is far less engaging.
The preface to the book quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne: ‘Happiness is a butterfly which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp but which, if you will sit quietly, may alight upon you’ The characters in the book, individually and collectively, embody this. Each character’s story underscores the stated quote. Therefore, the way they are etched is thematically appropriate, yet the communal catharsis comes from only one sentiment and consequently feels forced and far fetched. Also, in many relationships one cannot feel the tugs of the couples’ emotional upheavals at all. Despite the promising prefatory note, there is no sublimation. The characters feel like cardboard cut-outs and the exchanges and portrayals are two dimensional and lacking in depth. That ‘love conquers all …’ is what the novel returns to. Sex is conflated with love and the moral of the story is conventional. True love according to the novel equals no AIDS.
Robert, the hero of the piece, has been fleshed with care. His diary serves as the trope and device through which the story is principally structured and unveiled. The portrait of adolescence and his first brush with romance is rendered in an engaging manner. His coming of age and coming to terms with his disease and his relationship to the world around him are the most readable portions of the novel. He is the common man’s hero—humble background, orphaned and the centre of all the drama. Loved by a high society girl Prema and befriended by the rich Sanjay, he feels his life take an upward swing, only to be let down cruelly. A similar pathos is felt in retired IAS officer Shankar’s dying days, when all alone he realizes his life has been a waste. The nurse’s last visit to him is a touching moment in the novel. Prema, however, is depicted as devoted but oddly passive, showing little existence beyond the male counterparts in her life: her father, Robert, her fiancé and then her husband. She passively follows their diktats, exercising her volition only to choose the next director of her life/actions. The most unsympathetic portrayal in the novel is reserved for Sanjay. Somewhere the subtext of the novel does not exonerate but instead blames his homosexuality for the problems. The jokes about the Father in the college being a homosexual mirror prejudice against homosexuals but also relocate the specifics in a setting where there is little sympathy or acceptance of alternate sexuality. The minor characters that are shown to throng the political circles in the book are far more real and penned with relish. Their affairs and liaisons have a more authentic ring.
The novel is primarily set in Tamil political circles and families. To a person clued in to regional politics the resemblance to real life people and parties will serve as teasers, however the pleasure the author has imminently drawn while writing, may not be as engaging for a larger audience. The book’s biggest drawback is its locatedness. The characterization is also such that one does not feel part of or drawn to the specifically Tamilian community he draws. The book is conceived for a niche audience back home which is clearly evident from the fact that there are references to typical and colloquial mannerisms and events. Based on local politics, it also contains some genial and some disputable regional biases. ‘Spectre thin Malyali nurses…’ ‘…they were Punjabi Hindus…. Nothing like bagging an IAS officer without a dowry…’ ‘…In a highly amoral city like Delhi it was easy for him to spend at least three nights a week in bed with three different women…’ are but a few of the stereotypes encountered in the book. The author takes this further by relegating some motivations of characters to their lineage all of which merely adds to the parochiality of the novel rather than providing insight into the characters’ psyche.
Attitude to religion is also an element that decides the fate and personalities of the characters. The atheist IAS officer Shankar is the most promiscuous and dies lonely and unfulfilled, delusional that he has found true love in the form of his treating nurse. Robert dies a murderer, though his spiritual immaturity is not judged that harshly. He saves his girlfriend’s life, unites Dr. Vikram to his love and kills the story’s villain. At the same time the book also proposes to expose the irrational basis of religious thinking. The Swami infected with AIDS is thus painted in a noble light. His fall from grace, due to the seduction by the Malyali Mallika, is forgiven: by the mission head, his apprentice Sister Aparna and by the author because he is willing to embrace Mallika and their unborn child, admits his mistakes and lives out the stoicism that religion proffers to all sufferers. While it was bold to show a man well versed with Vedanta infected with the disease, it is compensated in his characterization.
The book’s structural need is to send us on a voyage of self-discovery but it carries little sunshine. Indeed the reader finishes the volume with the suspicion that it was a rushed and cursory project turned out quickly in an effort to catch the attention of those engaged with the AIDS movement. Adding to that the pat ending of the book, only makes it feel like a piece of melodrama, and yet not doing justice to the genre of melodrama per se. One is left wondering, what might have been, had some obvious stereotyping been avoided. As in the words of the author, ‘What might have been are the saddest words of pen and tongue.’
Anandana Kapur a film maker and voice artist, is a gold medalist from the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Milia Islamia. Besides working on film and video, she has also worked on community radio projects and gender sensitization workshops for undergraduates. Anandana is involved with a Cultural Diversity initiative and Communication programmes at the middle school and University level. Her personal interests include modern-art in India and disability rights. Her current professional engagement involves media programming for pedagogical outreach.