Book: Once Upon a Curfew
Author: Srishti Chaudhary
Nothing entices a book-lover more than a book about books. And then there are books about a building full of books, a library! And if it’s set in an intriguing time-period, it’s a book-lover’s happily-ever-after.
For all those reasons I began Once Upon a Curfew with great expectations.
When Indu’s grandmother passes away she wills her house to her two granddaughters, Indu and Amita. Struck by the large collection of books in the house, she (Indu) is struck by the idea of turning it into a library for women.
Her father and brother-in-law have other plans for the house, but strong-willed Indu prevails.
Meanwhile she meets Rana, a young man who pitches in to lend her a hand. The two are drawn to each other despite their constant back and forth banter. Just as the library takes off, a state of emergency is declared and Indu finds herself embroiled in the ensuing political turmoil.
What I loved
This was a book I picked up with a great sense of anticipation since I hadn’t read anything about the 1975-77 emergency.
I utterly loved the idea of a library for women. As Indu visualised it, this was a place where women could come together to read and talk and learn. There would be debates and discussions and workshops. Here was a haven for women, away from home and all its cares.
As it turned out, that was the single redeeming factor on the strength of which the entire book piggybacked.
I liked Indu’s resolute character. The high-handed way her father and brother-in-law decide that the space would be used for their office without giving a thought to the fact that she and her sister might also want to have a say, was so typical of men of those times. I loved that Indu stuck to her guns and that she puts up a fight for the space.
I also liked the 70s nostalgic feel of the book. The allusions to slow pace of life, the suits and saris, the age of Campa Cola and Rajesh Khanna. All of it took me back to my childhood.
What could have been better
Within the first few pages there’s mention of a boy ‘begging for an anna’. Annas were done away with way back in the 50’s so that was the first jarring note.
Then followed a number of things that compromised the authenticity of the time period. They were little things but they nagged me throughout the book.
At one point Indu is getting water from a local grocery store, while bottled water hadn’t come into the Indian markets that early. And Vada Pao being sold on Delhi streets in the 70s just sounded odd.
The other big problem was that the book had too many plot lines. About 75 percent of the book deals with the library, the romance and a bunch of women’s issues. The last 25 percent turns into a political drama, and a not-too-well written drama at that.
There were a bit too many characters — Runjhun, Sunita, Esha, Pammi, Sangeeta, Kamla and so on. That in itself wouldn’t have been a problem. Authors like Fredrik Backman juggle their characters beautifully. And it would have been fine here too had the author stuck to the idea of the library and how it affected the lives of women. But the characters remained half-baked and were abandoned before the end of the book.
On the other hand, the whole political drama would have been fine too had that been the focus. I would have liked to know more about Indu’s views of the emergency, her disillusionment with her idol and what she does about it.
These could have been two separate books. Mixing them up messed the entire reading experience.
Also, the book could have done with tighter editing, fewer dialogues, a shorter length. And I wanted more books, more references to books, more discussions on books.
On the plus side, Once Upon a Curfew has whetted my appetite for reading fiction set during the emergency era. I’d love recommendations.
Last thought: Å book that tries to do too much and ends up doing too little.