Just another middle-class housewife’s story?
It is so refreshing to see Indian commercial fiction breaking away from the stereotypical rosy romance and happily ever afters to explore the grey areas and multiple layers of human emotions, along with their manifestation in relationships. That’s exactly the space A Cage of Desires by Shuchi Singh Kalra fits into.
The book, set in a middle-class environment in Lucknow, traces the story of Renu, a middle-age woman caught in a loveless marriage and the mundane routines of domesticated life. Married to Dev for a decade-and-a-half, Renu craves love, romance and an emotional connection with her husband, who seems inept at understanding her needs, let alone fulfilling them. Even when he makes love to her, he is mechanical in his approach – as if tending to mere biological instinct. This stirs an unbridled restlessness in Renu, making her explore her sexuality and vent her desires in ways considered taboo in her conventional, middle-class world.
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But no, she has a secret!
And here enters her alter ego Maya, a writer best known for her erotic novels, all of which are bestsellers. While people love to indulge in her books clandestinely, they are equally outspoken about their disdain for her outrageousness.
In so many ways, Maya, the liberated, outlandish writer is an antithesis to Renu, a housewife grappling with perennial dissatisfaction. Or is she? After spending her days as a dutiful mother and daughter-in-law, Renu tends to the bruises of her heart at night, churning out her burning desire for passion in the form of words. Words that strike a chord, words that create bestsellers.
She also uses the cloak of darkness and her time with herself to discover her own sexuality and placate the needs of her body. Renu is shown toying with her breasts and pleasuring herself till her body is spent of all desire. This side of Renu’s personality portrays just the kind of uncomfortable dimension of desires and fulfilment that break away from the stereotype of a ‘sanskari’ Indian housewife, lending the protagonist’s character grey undertones.
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Then enters this handsome young man
The plot takes a dramatic turn with the arrival of Arjun, a handsome young man of 25 who rents a room in Renu’s house. From her first encounter with Arjun, Renu can sense an electric vibe between them and knows she is going to fall in love with him. The temptation of the forbidden fruit, the excitement of crossing over the boundaries of a dead marriage and her nagging sense of loneliness leads her to Arjun, like a moth drawn to fire. She seeks love and pleasure and Arjun is happy to provide it to her. Thus begins a precarious web of desires, love and deceit.
Renu’s unapologetic pursuit of an illicit love once again challenges the accepted norms of right and wrong in our society. A Cage of Desires strikes that fine balance of exposing the humane flaws of its protagonist without infusing the plot with over-the-top obscenity. As a reader, you may agree or disagree with Renu’s life choices, but you never loathe her, because she is not a shade of white or black, she is a character thriving in the grey space, exploring somewhat hitherto uncharted territory.
As a reader, you may agree or disagree with Renu’s life choices, but you never loathe her, because she is not a shade of white or black, she is a character thriving in the grey space, exploring somewhat hitherto uncharted territory.
A story about destruction and reinvention
Her desires, her pursuit of love outside marriage, her alter ego are all elements of self-destruction and Renu plays with fire with absolute élan. In the process, we see her transform into a needy, broken woman before she can muster the courage to take that life-altering decision to rise from the ashes and liberate herself from the pain.
A Cage of Desires is all about the raw, relatable emotions that Renu grapples with and Maya expresses that strike a chord and make a lasting impact. The characters are flawed to an extent that they seem real, the plot hinges on grey areas instead of on venturing into the absolutes of white and black, right and wrong. It is the story of Renu, but it could well be the story of you and me, and that’s why A Cage of Desires is a book that seeps into your mind space.