Preparing for the A levels in Bombay (now Mumbai), I learned one of my classmates was dating one of the teachers. He was trim, handsome, smart, 17; she was lovely, vivacious, talented, 34. I envied his luck, as did the other boys, as did the teachers. Even the headmaster fumed at one point: “What does she see in that boy?!!” I never learned the nature of their association, but there was a great deal of smoke, and like the others I imagined a conflagration underneath.
Many years later, after I had made my home in Chicago, after I had published my first novel and was casting for ideas for new books, I recalled an image of the two, walking side by side. There was no handholding, no yearning gazes. What impressed me was the confidence with which this boy walked. In his place I would have fidgeted, bounced on my feet, cast sidelong glances to make sure I wasn’t dreaming—but this boy, taking fortune for granted, walked as if they were peers. That impression stayed, but recalling the image I no longer envied him. Instead, I asked a variation of the headmaster’s question: what might have happened to make her initiate such an affair? Whatever his appeal, he was half her age. The answer to the question led to a new novel, A Woman Madly in Love, published for distribution only in India in 2004.
It received excellent reviews, some of which I have blurbed on my website (bomandesai.com). The low threshold of recognition I enjoy in India may have sprung from the India Today review (India’s equivalent of Time down to the red border framing its cover). Having trouble once with my computer, calling Dell Help, I was shunted to Chennai (Madras). Giving them my name, I was asked if I were Boman Desai—the novelist! It made my day and I’m still feasting off that tidbit. The novel received a second printing, but I grew unhappy with the story. It ended well for Farida Cooper (my protagonist), but she remained essentially narcissistic, and I didn’t know how to resolve that until my experience with Wilma Steffes, an old woman living in my building.
I was working then on my longest book, TRIO (a novel biography of the Schumanns and Brahms), the first draft of which ran to 1,800 pages. I had quit my job to research and write the book. Wilma lived on the 5th floor, we befriended each other on the elevator, she invited me to coffee and cake, I went. She told me the story of her life, I told her mine. Turning 18, she had eloped from Springfield with Hank who played honkytonk piano and drove a jalopy. I wrote books.
A couple of years later she survived a heart attack. Doctors gave her 3 weeks unless she underwent surgery. She didn’t want surgery, she’d lived long enough, but was too weak to collect her newspaper and mail from the lobby—and groceries. I became her errand boy. She gave me the key to her apartment.
Her 3 weeks bled into 3 months and more. I lost count of the number of heart attacks she endured, some lasting moments, one up to 4 hours. There was little I could do except hand her syringes of morphine and hold her hand while she moaned, sweated, and sank into her sofa.
It was an extraordinary experience, at once prurient and profound—but after a year of sitting with her daily for 20 minutes I began to resent the time away from my book. She sensed it and apologized—only to have me recognize there was nothing I could do better than just what I was doing, both of us blessed by our daily ritual.
I completed TRIO after she died—and, later, weaving my experience into the fabric of Woman, I realized that in raiding her life for my book I had also raided my own. I understood better Flaubert’s bon mot: Madame Bovary? C’est moi! Farida comes from a long line of heroines stretching from Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Isabel Archer to Edna Pontellier and Lily Bart, women too pleased with themselves for their own good and paying the price—as did I for the swollen head of my youth.
The novel opens with 53-year-old Farida Cooper, born to wealth and celebrity in Bombay, reduced to insolvency in Chicago. The story shuttles between Chicago and Bombay, from the WWII years to the Reagan decade, explicating themes of love and marriage, feminism and friendship, art and academia through Farida’s relations with Horace Fisch (a university professor whom she marries), Darius Katrak (her student who becomes her lover), and Percy Faber (with whom she finally finds a measure of stability). I fractured the chronology so the climax of the marriage runs directly into the climax of the affair making the last quarter of the book read like a thriller.
Running the course of her life, I discovered a phalanx of supporting characters: Rohini Gupta (her best friend); Ratan Cooper (her spoiled cousin who wishes to marry her); Ginger Cassidy (a Chicago socialite, her husband’s first wife); the Dhun Katraks (Darius Katrak’s parents, who wish their son’s association with Farida to raise their social status); Nariman and Persis (Farida’s parents, an adulterer and his worse half); Kaki (her mother more than her mother); Sashi (her faithful servant); Alma Hall (her neighbor, who brings out the best in Farida); and Greta Frumpkin (an academic who doggedly obstructs Farida from obtaining her Master’s degree). Ideal readers would be women of the babyboom generation, younger women who take for granted the rights for which their mothers struggled, and men sympathetic to the cause of women’s rights. To paraphrase one succinct reviewer: It’s the tale of a charming, sexy, and genuinely flawed protagonist blossoming into a woman in full in her 50s.