Harjinder or Hari-Jan, has stuff to do. She works at the supermarket her parents run, is sprinting headlong towards A-Levels and wants nothing more than to work out what’s going on with her friend, Gazzy and her sudden hard left turn towards the pious. But then there’s VT, who doesn’t like her for no real reason Harjinder can see and Suresh.
Suresh is the real problem.
Well, along with the article about the beauty pageant she’s just been goaded into writing…
Randhawa’s Dynamite anthology is a vastly energetic collection of funny, personal, perceptive stories about people on the turn from adolescent to adult. In Beauty and the Beast she fuses that with some very gently applied tropes from the original fairytale, a little Jane Austen and a lot of brilliant, acerbic humour.
All of which revolves around Hari-Jan, the lead. She’s a force of nature, her Doc Martens of justice pounding down the pages as she belligerently refuses to let anyone get away with any crap, least of all herself. Very clever, completely driven and pathologically incapable of backing down from a fight, we see the novel and the world through her eyes. That means everything is shot through with Hari-Jan’s verbal shorthand and also means we see what she doesn’t want us to; the truth. Hari-Jan sidles up to her attraction to Suresh with a combination of belligerence and coyness that’s exasperating for Suresh but incredibly endearing for us. She’s one of the best drawn teen characters I’ve ever encountered, absolutely her own worst enemy and utterly incapable of admitting that even as she steps on her own feet. Again. She’s the embodiment of that Bowie, and Breakfast Club, quote:
“… And these children
that you spit on
as they try to change their worlds
are immune to your consultations.
They’re quite aware
of what they’re going through…”
Hari-Jan is endlessly self aware, except for when she decides not to be and that pathologically contrarian response drives most of the book. Randhawa uses it throw the other characters into different lights too. Gazzy, Hari-Jan’s best friend, starts off as something of an enigma. The girls are drifting apart and neither seem entirely happy about it, plus, Gazzy’s got religion in a big way and that bothers Hari-Jan immensely. Gazzy’s all about forgiveness and inner strength, where Hari-Jan continues to believe that if you shout at a problem long enough it’ll either go away or give up so you’ll be quiet. The way the two girls interact, and the truth behind Gazzy’s actions, is the other big dramatic core of the book and it’s as surprising as it is poignant. Like Hari-Jan, Gazzy does a fair few things very wrong but, like her best friend, she has very good (Arguably even better) reasons for it.
Then there’s Suresh who’s arrogant, driven and absolutely convinced he’s right all the time. He and Hari-Jan can’t stand each other. Except for when they can’t get enough of not standing each other. This is where the book really shines on two different levels. Firstly the relationship they have accretes rather than just appears fully formed. There’s a gentle, very sweet sense of neither of them quite looking it in the eye that’s both realistic and somehow manages to nod at Bollywood, Austen and Shakespeare all at once. They fence as much because they like to as because of their attraction and that sense of two strong, independent personalities clashing strikes sparks off a lot of the book’s best scenes.
Then there’s the fact that Suresh is also, fundamentally, an asshole. He’s Mr Darcy with a good car, a young man absolutely convinced he’s in the right, especially when he isn’t. Of all the characters in the book, Suresh comes closest to doing actual villainous things and Randhawa never lets him go there but never quite lets him off the hook either. If the first half of the book is about Hari-Jan growing up, then the second is definitely about her dragging Suresh along with her.
But the book is also defined by the beauty pageant that Hari-Jan agrees to cover. Specifically, what the pageant is expected to be and what it actually is. When it finally surfaces you’re as convinced as Hari-Jan is that it’ll be a swimsuit and bimbo fest but the reality couldn’t be more different. The contest, set up by local business leaders, is intended to be the climax of a multi week program to help disadvantaged local women find work. It is, in short, everything Hari-Jan didn’t dare believe it could be and that gap between reality and perception is where many of the third act’s best scenes land. It’s also where Suresh magnificently screws up, assuming that Hari-Jan is seeing one of the organizers. That’s where Randhawa plays one of her trump cards; that Hari-Jan is now more together, more mature, than Suresh. It’s a smart move, rolled out so subtly she doesn’t even notice but it changes the power dynamic at the exact point it needs to change. It also leads to Suresh finally being knocked off his high horse and standing revealed, not as the ideal man, but as someone just as flawed as everyone else.
But Randhawa, like her heroine, doesn’t let anyone get out for free. The pageant is disrupted, not terminally, in a way that reminds everyone just how tenuous their lives are. In doing so, Randhawa drives home not just how necessary the pageant turns out to be but brings every extreme of both cultures into the book. Randhawa’s work is fascinated by the hinterland where cultures mix and this is no exception; there’s no hint of assimilation, no sense of this being all or nothing. Rather, it’s a story about a community evolving and a group of people learning they can be whatever they want while still not losing sight of their pasts. And, in Hari-Jan’s case, her Doc Martens.
Beauty and the Beast is as joyous, clever and funny as its lead character. Like Hari-Jan it takes a clear eyed look at both the communities its set in and doesn’t hesitate to point out where they fall down. Endlessly funny, inventive and far sweeter than it wants to admit, it’s out now.