Title: One and a Half Wife
Author: Meghna Pant
Publisher: Westland Publishers
‘One & a half wife’ is the story of Amara, a young Indian girl from Shimla who, along with her parents Biji and Baba, moves to the USA in search of the “American Dream”. The book follows Amara’s life as she grows from a shy girl to a young lady thrust into a marriage. Being a wife is all Amara is trained for, despite a degree in accounting and smart enough to (secretly) run a company with an American friend, Stacy. The marriage, to Harvard-educated millionaire Prashant Roy is doomed from the start. Within a few months, Amara is back at her parents home and to her shock, is shunned by them. Divorce is a four-letter word in the Malhotra household and the local community. With broken hearts, they return to Shimla where life takes an unexpected turn.
Meghna Pant’s debut novel weaves its way through scenarios that a lot of Indians are familiar with. Given the story line, I was expecting clichés – and there are plenty of potential cliché-worthy sub-plots unfolding on every page. Amara’s life on the periphery of American society, the struggle of her parents to vanish into suburban American life, her loveless marriage, her husband’s devotion to his mother and the reactions of the community are so typically Indian. It’s a page from our own lives, etched into our stories and in our soap-operas.
The title comes from an incident in the beginning of the book where an astrologer and his quirky parrot predict that Amara will be a ‘one and a half wife’. Her divorce makes her feel like the astrologer was right – she is no longer part of a couple, neither does she feel complete by herself.
The magic really begins to happen with Amara’s return to Shimla. Here, she finally comes into her own. Divorced, she needs to “redeem” herself in her own eyes and society’s rules and restrictions become slowly redundant. The pace picks up towards the end and the action is Bollywood-worthy. Amara would make a fine heroine with her existential quest for balance between the old and the new, between her family and her own life, between love and tradition.
Amara’s perceived helplessness as her marriage crumbles irritated me a little. She can’t imagine a life without being married and she begs Prashant not to divorce her. She is whiny and desperate. To me, women today have more choices than that. I also know, though, that it isn’t easy to walk away from a marriage, however short. Amara, a small-town girl has not grown up with many choices; marriage is all that she is trained for. In that context, her bewilderment at being abandoned is understandable. I was saddened by her parents reaction to her failing marriage. It underlined once again how millions of Indian girls become pariahs once they marry.
‘One and a half wife’ is a fast read and familiar environs and situations make the narrative believable for most part. I enjoyed the book most towards the end, when Amara transforms into a feisty young woman and takes on challenges that would have been unthinkable to her a few years ago. I like feisty Indian heroines – we need more of them!
Meghna Pant’s debut effort is commendable and the book has been nominated for several awards. I look forward to reading more from her.