Review of Sonia Bahl’s The Spectacular Miss (India: Fingerprint! L!te, 2016)
by Soham Patel
We all fail. But as Samuel Beckett famously offers in Westward Ho, we can fail better. We can miss the mark, but we can also thereby move it to create new imaginaries.
Calcutta-born, Singapore-based writer Sonia Bahl’s debut novel is now out from Fingerprint! L!te, a newish imprint of Prakash Books India Pvt. Ltd. The Spectacular Miss follows Nira from girlhood to age 28 as she shuttles back and forth between India and the UK. The young-adult novel chronicles momentous moves and dog-ears moments of failure and triumph. The plot unfolds in 51 quick episodic chapters with titles that are heartfelt, playful, and sometimes smirk-out-loud funny. Nira’s story moves impressively through transnational cultural spaces. Gloria Steinem, The Spice Girls, Thelma and Louise, the Windsor queens, fried onion pakoras, and extra spicy aloochat all appear, yes deliciously, across the pages of the novel.
In Chapter 1, titled “It’s a Boy!,” our heroine Nira openly announces: “At eight, I had just one overpowering, all-consuming, won’t-back-down wish.” This wish is to pee standing up. Nira is a tomboy. She calls her own behaviour: odd, endearing, even bragworthy. And it is. She’s got bravado, no doubt—often performed through her own sartorial confections and fuck-all attitude. Gearing up for “The Big Fat Sad Wedding” (Chapter 11), she ponders:
My emotional unwellness was exacerbated by the complicated logistics related to the approaching three-day wedding celebrations—I had absolutely nothing to wear. I know this sounds like a cutesy universal-sisterhood-bonding problem to have. Only there is nothing remotely sisterhoody about the situation. How many girls do you know who’d kill to wear ill-fitting button fly navy blue pants and an oversized white shirt to a wedding? My point exactly; Ma didn’t see it.
Ma eventually outfits her daughter for the ceremony, but it is Nira’s recognition of her own otherness by way of this glib questioning that shows us what she is all about: she’s fierce and she’s got a swagger-strut. But we also learn that Nira’s a tender romantic and we see her in many awkward, candid, and vulnerable moments too.
The beginning of the novel hinges on not just a wish but a whole wish list. The wishes are Nira’s but Bir writes the list in his leather-bound diary with his expensive pen. Bir Narayan, “the whistle beneath her wings,” as Nira describes him. Bir who will make you swoon. Bir with his charisma. Bir with his charm. After one of Nira’s momentous failures as a nine-year-old (her worst day ever), Bir gallantly arrives to cheer her up. In the quiet of his car, lit only by a flashlight, Bir and Nira record her “Do-or-Die” bucket list. This is a list of the ten things she wants more than anything in the world, for instance, to wake up as a boy, drive a car, be with Bir every single day. Of course, the list is the bellwether mark that dictates the rest of the novel. Although The Spectacular Miss focuses on Nira’s love for Bir, “the one person who is always too old, too far, too married to be hers,” a cast of compelling characters also appears in Nira’s adventures—Ma, Dad, a brother called Ra, Bir’s “unsettlingly hot” stepmother, Lucy the roommate in London, and many many more.
Bahl attends to the diasporic condition not only through her zappy plot and zany characters but also through her syntax—which can open up like a zipper to make you laugh and cry. The novel is full of transcontinental departures and arrivals, none more significant than Nira’s own first departure from Calcutta to London for med school. In “A Royal Buggering Off” (Chapter 22), she reflects on the “grand Indian send-off” her family has arranged:
Ma hadn’t stopped cooking and packing food for weeks. Rotis that would stay in the fridge for at least two months, masala that would give me a reprieve from the blandness of English food, dishes that could be frozen and dishes that couldn’t, and of course, high cholesterol, angiogram-inviting Indian snacks. Everything pointed to the fact that I might be stuck on Noah’s Ark for the foreseeable future.
The phrase “foreseeable future” conveys subtly the paradoxical feelings that surround a send off: so excited yet so scared. Food may survive time and distance, but will Nira? A planned displacement could take a lifetime to prepare for, and here Bahl swiftly shows us what Ma can do in just a few weeks. Ma, according to Nira, is “the best fast cook in the world” and she’s sending her daughter off to the unknown in London. And her daughter is about to find out in biblical proportions the price of foreign blandness and of home-cooked comfort—the price of uncertainty.
Cut to Nira’s new home, the college dorm room. This is the halfway point of the novel and from here onwards The Spectacular Miss moves quickly in an entertaining fashion through Nira’s med-school years in London. Bir returns into Nira’s life in many lovely serendipitous ways. The entertainment is, however, accompanied by a series of melancholic changes in Nira. At med school, not only does she learn about the human body, she also comes to understand her own emotional frailties—her desire for Bir, and beer, her longing for Calcutta, and when she is back in Calcutta, her longing for the UK. Her growth, and her recognition of it, is a nice result of Bahl’s format. The quick episodes make for an exciting pace. They also make space for reflection. Nira often asks the reader to remember something she said or did a few short chapters back and the reader will. Bahl’s narrative construction is part of what makes the novel so riveting.
A good instance of Nira’s new maturity can be found in “Rugs and Shags” (Chapter 36). Her voice is still as wisecracking as before, but it is now colored by disappointment. On a cold and windy night, she and her new friend Omer are standing on an empty train platform. Omer offers Nira a hug and she is not sure whether Omer “wants to get into [her] knickers or just keep [her] warm. Or both.” Omer senses this hesitation and swiftly declares, “Don’t worry, I don’t want to shag you.” Then the point of view shifts into Nira’s head.
No? Why? Just for the record, I was deeply relieved nobody wanted to shag me. However, at this point my disappointment far exceeded my relief. Every cell in my head was screaming for a shag, and quite frankly, I was surprised Omer couldn’t hear my litany: Choose me, shag me, choose me shag me, choose me…okay just say you want to shag me, dammit.
They end up hugging. We see Nira’s ego bruised as she takes herself seriously but not too seriously, and this bruising manifests beautifully by way of Bahl’s dexterously delivered description and internal monologue.
For a book whose protagonist begins as a defiant tomboy, the novel’s treatment of gender is curious. Nira’s transgressions against gender conventions are played for comic relief. “Biology can be a bummer,” she lets us know on page one. But if she had wanted to, Nira could, even at the age of 28, easily pee standing up, with the help of practice and technology. The novel does not explore this possibility or wish. Instead, in accordance with a tired mainstream perspective, she grows out of it.
When do we grow into conformity? Do we have to? What happens when we “come-of-age” – what is lost and what is gained? I would have liked to see the novel pay more critical attention to these questions, and to the misogyny and cultural phobias that pepper the novel. Bahl misses a chance for imagining a better world. In that ideal world, “Unmarried Aunt,” who dutifully helps Nira settle in in London, has a name. “Spinster aunt” and “Squat Aunt” get names too. In that world, Nira understands that salt-and-pepper hair can be “a sexy accessory” not only for men but also for all genders. In that better world, Nira comes to know us in the sisterhood who kill it when we wear ill-fitting button fly navy blue pants and an oversized white shirt to a wedding.
I look forward to seeing The Spectacular Miss adapted for the film screen or as a web series. The spirited plot and zestful characters are well-suited for this. Bahl is herself an experienced screenwriter. I also look forward to reading the sequel. Perhaps in the screen adaptation or in the novel’s sequel, Bir and Nira could engage with one another and with the world in ways that dismantle commonly accepted gender roles in order to help viewers and readers imagine new alternatives to the oppressive hierarchies established by rigid traditions. Despite a few reservations, Sonia Bahl’s The Spectacular Miss is a hit. The book is handsomely produced by Fingerprint!. The novel is also available as an ebook.
Soham Patel is a Kundiman fellow, the author of three chapbooks, and serves as a Poetry Editor at Fence. Her forthcoming first full-length collection, to afar from afar, will be available from the Civil Coping Mechanisms imprint of Writ Large Press in 2018.