Book Review: ‘I Owed You One’ By Madhu Vajpayee


Image source: Amazon.

This was a very hectic week, in which I had to travel a lot, both by bus and train, taking long breaks in between. It was an official trip and exhausted me completely. Today all affairs have completed, and tomorrow would be my last day in Ahmedabad. All along this one week duration, my constant companion was a recently published novel ‘I Owed You One’ by Madhu Vajpayee. I had received this book from BlogAdda for review. Before I start making my comments on the literary aspect of this work, I would like to stress that books like this one are the reason why printed books will never go extinct. The publishing work of this book is outstanding, and being an artist, I could immediately appreciate and admire the piece of art that the publisher has come up with. Yes, it is true, I immediately fell in love with the design of the book, and the quality of pages and print. My only reservation with the book cover is the presence of the aeroplane in the cover image. It seems as if the artist is trying to reveal far more details of the story which should rather not be disclosed. It was not required. Otherwise the front cover and the back cover are modest enough. I also want to note that in several and appropriate places, it is mentioned that this is the writer’s second novel. But if I have not missed anything, then the name of her first novel appears only once, in italics, at the back cover. That could have been given more publicity. Anyway, that is the writer’s concern and preference.

Similarly, stories are writers’ own creation and property, and nobody can dictate them what the story should have been; that would be nonsense. They are their stories, and we as audience, have to just listen and react to those stories. But the way a story is told, is what makes any story a literary work. And that is where this novel fails, though the damage is not irreversible.

Let me first give you some background. Hindu boy, muslim girl, romance, rest you can imagine. Family objection, they had to marry elsewhere, but continued with their old romance, the man neglecting his own married family life. When his only child, a son, comes to know of his affair, he is filled with disgust, hatred and indifference towards him, and develops more concern for his mother. In the first 25 pages or so, this novel keeps reminding you of every other TV serial. But at the same time, something in it stops you from putting down the book. And you are rewarded for your patience. By the time you have reached page number 50, you are trapped in the net of emotional vacuum in the life of that family. By the time you turn page 100, the writer has already left the narrow streets of common human problems and emotions, and taken the Yamuna Expressway of a thrilling and adventurous experience. No, she never pushes you ahead. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting the story to develop in this way. And it is neither out of the world, nor a routine everyday affair. The writer deserves applause to be able to think of such a story.

I haven’t told you the whole storyline of the novel. Even if I tell you the whole story, it would not ruin the experience of reading this book. But critics have to follow certain ethics, and I also abide by them.

The writer has done some experiments with writing style, for which I do congratulate her. It is very rare in contemporary Indian English writing to find writers taking any risks or experimenting with any new style. This aspect of the novel has already been highlighted by other critics. The writer, a woman, has told the story in narrative form, with the protagonist being a man. This attempt of crossing the gender barrier is not new. It is very common in literature. In fact, in one of my stories, I had followed the same style. But yes, the writer takes the reader by surprise when she tells the gender of the protagonist — that too in a very clever way. After reading the sentence, you are shocked, embarrassed, turn head, and see the writer giggling a mischievous laughter, saying: ‘So, how was it?’ And you just smile back. This is an easy trick with Bengali language, and with some minor playing around with pronouns can be achieved in English also. But with other Indian languages, like Hindi, the writer would have been at a disadvantage.

Another experiment that the writer has attempted is the play with time i.e., narrating the present developments using present tense. This is not easy and the writer does stumble at few places, but overall I would call this experiment as successful.

Praise and accolades end here. That is all I congratulate the writer for. Now the negative aspects of the novel, which are so many, and so serious, that they have the potential to permanently turn off her readers. I cannot say if I would have continued reading the book beyond page number 10 had I not received this book for review. The text is full of mistakes, grammatical errors and punctuation mistakes. No, they are not typographical errors, or a lapse in publishing. Except a few minor instances, there are no typographical errors in the book. But the mistakes are in the writing itself, and that cannot be forgiven. Several paragraphs have to be read at least twice to ‘guess’ what the writer ‘might be’ trying to convey. One example:

No one is going to bother me if I don’t want to be unlike in Delhi where everyone’s life is every other person’s business. (sic) (page 2)

OK, so you have understood. Another example:

Having a degree in from England helped him . . . (sic) (page 8)

And tell me, have you ever talked with anyone, spoken with anyone, with a parenthesis in your speech? Characters in this novel do. Commas have been placed in the most inappropriate places, and removed from their rightful places, almost always disturbing the natural flow of the story and affecting the comprehension of the text. The same thing  happens with semi-colon.

There are so many mistakes, but I am resisting myself from mentioning all of them here, fearing copyright violation. Otherwise, I was reading the book with a pencil in my hand, marking every such instance. But after page 25, I gave up circling such errors.

Another style that the writer has utilized in at least two places is to start every sentence in a paragraph with a pronoun, the very same pronoun! Ah, it sends you down the memory lane to your school days when you were writing essays on your father, mother, cow, tree and so on. One example:

He looked . . . He had never . . . He thought . . . He never liked . . . (page 17)

Yes sir, all these four sentences make up the paragraph. Another instance:

‘She is . . . She lives . . . She is my . . .  She studied . . . (page 21)

Next comes the turn of spelling mistakes. Every book, especially fiction, needs to be free of such errors for a pleasant and smooth reading experience. In fact, this being an exciting story, the writer should have taken extra care to make the narrative free of all types of errors. This problem is much more serious than those I mentioned previously and needs immediate addressing.

Fortunately, all these errors and mistakes can be rectified by giving another couple of rounds of thorough editing and minutely done proofreading. There is no excuse, the writer should definitely make this effort.

Now the technical aspects. The story need not, and should not have ended so abruptly. In the case of every literary work, you would observe that the main story ends much earlier than the physical end of the text. After the story of any novel has ended, some ripples are created, some emotional waves are generated, and it is the duty of the writer to help the reader appreciate those intricate emotional aspects of the story. There was plenty of scope for a much better ending of this novel. In fact, what I have just mentioned is the difference between just any other story and a literary work. Besides the main storyline, there are several other aspects that need to be taken care of, e.g., the description — of setting, of characters, of emotions. In this novel, the writer has either completely ignored them, or simply got over them cursorily. This was her biggest mistake. There was plenty of opportunity in this book to turn this great story into a work of art that the readers would have cherished for several years. Of course, it would have increased the size of the book, but I do not think the readers would have minded it.

It is not that the writer is incapable of painting with colours. In fact, the way she depicts the gap and the vacuum in the father – son relationship is absolutely flawless. Honestly speaking, and you may abuse me for saying this, it is indeed surprising that the writer, a woman, understands the relation between two men in a family — father and son — so well. The often repeated phrase ‘I wanted to say _____ but preferred to remain silent’ could have been told in different ways, to avoid monotone.

The price of the book is a bit high. And considering the innumerable flaws in writing, the price is in fact too high. I would be happy if revised editions of the book appear in the market.

If you ask my opinion about this book, to tell it in straight words, it is a wonderful story, nicely told, but badly written. As a reader, you should definitely read it, because you deserve great stories. And my message to the author, you should definitely invest more rounds of editing of the text, simply because your readers deserve a good story.

Title: I Owed You One.
Author: Madhu Vajpayee
Format: Paperback
Price: Rs. 275

This review is a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. Participate now to get free books!

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