It's perhaps a cliché to write about an author's well-written debut by saying that it's hard to believe it's a first novel. In the case of Tania Malik's THREE BARGAINS, though, this is really true. The book is peopled with strong characters and filled with surprising, often shocking, scenes. It's a novel with ambition and one that Malik shows herself eminently capable of achieving. The confident storytelling and epic scope belie the author's newcomer status.
THREE BARGAINS opens when its protagonist, Madan, is still a young boy of 12. His father has been absent from the family, working what he's been saying is a factory job in the Indian town of Gorapur. As the novel opens, Madan, his mother and his younger sister have been brought to Gorapur to live with his father and grandfather. At first, this new life seems promising: Madan's mother finds a job working in the household of the town's most powerful man, factory owner Avtaar Singh, and Madan receives a promise from Avtaar Singh that he can go to school and continue to learn English.
"The book is peopled with strong characters and filled with surprising, often shocking, scenes. It's a novel with ambition and one that Malik shows herself eminently capable of achieving. The confident storytelling and epic scope belie the author's newcomer status."
Almost right away, however, the family's hopes dissolve. Madan's father drinks heavily and is involved in some pretty shifty business collecting on debts for Avtaar Singh, and he soon commits an unforgivable betrayal of Madan's young sister. Avtaar Singh, who has taken on the role of Madan's protector, helps Madan save his sister and take revenge on his father --- but at a heavy cost.
Over the next several years, Avtaar Singh comes to serve as a sort of replacement father figure for Madan in the absence of his own father. There are even rumors that Avtaar Singh, who has no son of his own, will give Madan the factory when Madan graduates from college. But Madan is asked to commit acts that he must keep secret not only from his own family but also from his first love, Neha, the beautiful daughter of another wealthy landowner. Neha, who spent time with the Young Communists when she was at school in the city, dreams of escaping with Madan to a place where their love can be open and free. But in reality, their cross-class love affair is forbidden, and Madan is once again placed in a position of having to beg Avtaar Singh for his help --- this time to ensure his own survival.
THREE BARGAINS is a very personal story about Madan's coming of age and the ethical ambiguities he encounters constantly, but it's also a broader story about how Madan's life unfolds in the midst of a very particular time in India's recent history. Avtaar Singh is essentially a feudal lord, and although he treats Madan like a son at times, neither one of them can ever truly forget that Madan is, in the end, a servant boy. As much promise and potential as Madan possesses, and as much as India's economy and social structures are evolving over the course of his youth and young adulthood, his life's possibilities are still circumscribed by the circumstances of his birth. Watching him continually come up against these boundaries and limitations offers a unique insight not only into this particular character, but also into the past, present and possible future for India.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 15, 2014
- Publication Date: August 11, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
- ISBN-10: 0393063402
- ISBN-13: 9780393063400