Review: Equations by Shivani Sibal
Shivani Sibal’s accomplished debut novel Equations is evocative at many levels. It looks at life in New Delhi, a city of hopes and aspirations, privilege and power play, through two very differing perspectives.
Two boys, Aahan Sikand and Rajesh Kumar, grow up in a sprawling bungalow in a posh colony in the capital city. They are like family, but not quite. After all, they are divided by a thick wall built from wealth, power, class and opportunity. Aahan is the pampered heir of the Sikand family while Rajesh is born to the family chauffeur, Laxman. They grow up together in the 1980s but become more conscious of their respective stations with the flux of time, their assumed friendship eventually dissolving.
While Aahan is secure in all that life has given him, Rajesh has a fire in his belly, and a finely-honed instinct for survival. Aahan is educated abroad, inducted into a flourishing business and has a safety net to catch him when he falls. Rajesh has to go through life making himself invisible to the Sikand family while striving for, at most, a lower middle-class life. But destiny always has a way of balancing equations, and hence the apt title of this novel.
Shivani Sibal is unblinking and sharply observant as she records the everyday stories around us, many of which we do not register. She records the nature of privilege, especially of the brand that flourishes in the environs of Lutyens Delhi. But there is a new breed of players on the prowl, street smart, focused and ambitious, who take on the complacency of the status quo. There is an almost geometrical progression as Rajesh treads the ladder up through the politics of a transforming urban demographic, and Aahan finds himself on the backfoot. The thematic structure of the reversal of fortunes is a symmetrical one, shaped almost like an hourglass.
The parallel lives of Aahan and Rajesh provide interesting counterpoints. Delhi’s high society and its brittle aspirations are depicted with caustic humour yet pathos. There is no attempt to pass judgement on the characters or their compulsions. Aahan’s father gets a mistress, a formidable woman named Nooriya, but the author does not cast her as a vamp. Nor does she paint Aahan’s father as a villain or the first Mrs Sikand as victim. Then, there is the restless but well-meaning Sana — Rajesh’s wife — with her complex relationship with America and India. Rajesh’s own insecurities, resentments, and hurt are surprisingly channelled by him with ease into a political career. Nothing is black or white in Shivani Sibal’s world, just multiple shades of grey.
The numerous twists and turns in the narrative keep the reader hooked. Ultimately, one can either tell a good story or one can’t. No flowery prose or sophisticated vocabulary can substitute for the ability of an author to get you to turn the page. Shivani succeeds brilliantly in forcing one to turn the page.
At its core, this novel is an intelligently crafted family saga and a tale of class divide. It is a story about wealth, power, inequality, aspiration and change. But more importantly, it is a memorable portrayal of social dynamics — unsentimental, thoughtful yet compassionate. Examining the forces of change with insight and empathy, this is a compelling, pacey and satisfying read.
Ashwin Sanghi is an author of bestselling works of fiction.