These Foolish Things
By Deborah Moggach
Vintage; New Ed edition, 2005
288 pages, £8.99
Reviewed by Jayeeta Ghorai
Have you ever picked up a novel that had already been made into a film and mid-way, was forced to acknowledge that it is another story altogether, refreshingly different?
When a book has been turned into a Hollywood movie, so successful that it has spawned a sequel, you approach the original dismissively. The choice is laced with the danger that the book would never live up to the script or else follow it like a resigned pet, have nothing original to offer.
From the first few pages, Deborah Moggach’s These Foolish Things springs at the reader with its distinct shape. While one waits to be led along a familiar path, or be given something to grumble about for not living up to expectations, there is a moment when the pages begin to get turned for the love of the words and the personae. The narration comes of its own with such fierce life force that one is no longer looking for celluloid shadows.
The triumph of a book is in its ability to outshine its famous screen sibling (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”).
The anchors are all there, the characters bear familiar names, the basic premise of outsourcing old age offshores remains. But the quirks and backdrops have been swapped and a melange of new faces makes up the multi-pixilated canvas. Many younger characters, children and confrères, are made noticeable. The predicaments of Evelyn, Douglas, Jean, Norman, Muriel, Madge are not quite the same. Sonny is no longer the young man fighting to find his place within his successful business clan. Norman is desperate for an affirmation of his vitality. Graham isn’t looking for his lost love in India, nor the one who meets his maker there. Muriel is hunting for her lost son. Dorothy is searching for her lost home. The scene of their shenanigans is not Jaipur, but Bangalore.
A bunch of Britons, each for a personal reason, winds up in a retirement home in India. In self-imposed exile in their old colony, they come to terms with a way of life lost for ever and reconcile their fates in a new land and age. Many of them have lived through World War era Britain and cannot adjust to the present day fast-moving nation whose common values have dispersed. India too, has changed much since its colonial past. How do people survive who have hung on while their roots have floated away?
Thrown together in an alien condition with people they would have had nothing in common with back ‘home’, alliances are forged and secrets bartered. For some like Evelyn and Muriel, the transcontinental flight is an unthinkable adventure; that first safety net thrown away sets them on many more explorations, some outside the walls of the retirement home.
Moggach takes a dig at stereotypes as well as the incessant political correctness of modern existence. There is a doctor of Indian origin who has run away because he was “suffocated”, and again a retired English TV producer who is searching for her Indian beginnings. The third world’s scramble out of poverty is described as better than a first world citizen living on state benefits – that was a heartening insight.
The book’s greatest delight is the characters, each standing out from the other in the melee. As many as nineteen residents, with several of their relatives and associates prominently in the frame, yet not once does a reader confuse between them. Moggach painstakingly paints each in minute brush strokes, mingling them among other sub-players, like a vivid group portrait with background bokeh.
The whimsies of human nature are undying, possessiveness and jealousy play out till the end. There is a feral cat who gets many names and several saucers of milk laid out for him by different residents through the day, each assured in the faithfulness of his affection.
In Ulysses Tennyson proclaimed “Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;/…’T is not too late to seek a newer world.” Moggach’s players unwittingly draw inspiration from this philosophy. Some by their own orchestration, and some because of Life’s mysterious design, undergo drastic changes. Marigold Hotel becomes the metaphoric waiting room, where the old, and young, meet to negotiate the next steps in their journey.
The book ends with the photographer, Vinod, lovingly touching up the wedding photos of an octogenarian bride and groom. Here is an assertion of life, and love, that is never-ending, that has a mysterious way of dogging one’s path till the very last.