Grappling Life and Loneliness

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A Pack of Lies by Urmilla Deshpande, book reviewIndian fiction has been going in many directions. Urmilla Deshpande’s novel is the story of a heroine who could belong in Jacqueline Susann’s pages, a girl who is thrown from one dysfunctional situation to another. If you analyse the situations they are the expected ones, a neglectful mother, an absent father, an abusive step father, a ‘wicked stepmother’, exploitative boyfriends, an abortion, a full term pregnancy, a brush with drugs, a shrink – everything that privileged children living on the edge could be expected to encounter.

The book opens with Ginny and her mother in Mumbai in the 1980’s – Ginny is hungry short of money and desperate for her mother’s attention, though we don’t quite realise why. She will do anything to attract that attention and her voice mirrors it in a spurt of four letter words. However, all her attempts to attract attention only serve to make her lonelier and more alienated from her sense of self.

Deshpande continues her narrative with slivers of events, men that she encounters, shifts of time and place that convey her heroine’s sense of loss and dysfunctionality with brutal honesty. In fact, while on the subject of honesty, it should be pointed out that her style is so direct that the title occasionally seems inappropriate. There is no real logic in the events that she shuffles together as arbitrarily as a pack of cards but the illogicality seems to work. The reader does not really miss a structured story.

A Pack of Lies should be read for its Jacqueline Susann character and for its language…”

Deshpande’s language is partly responsible for this – she manages to freshen her four letter words with strikingly poetic descriptions. Like for example when she is talking about a cabbage green swimsuit and she writes about ‘The smell of chlorine, french fries, the feel of a rubber bathing cap. The sense of rich people.” Or there is the sludge from a leaking battery that she describes as ‘alien’s blood’. Experience seems to inform a great many of her lines and the novel does have about it the underlying feel of an autobiography, which is the case with so many first novels.

If you were to sum up the book, you would say that it was about ‘sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’ – well sex and drugs certainly – with the expected career as a photographer cum model which reflects Deshpande’s own career. What the book seems to point towards is the kind of memoir that Emanuelle Arsan made popular, a woman’s exploration of self through the physical and the indications are that Deshpande would do well with that kind of genre. But of course, A Pack of Lies is not yet that. It is about a girl’s wading through the bodies of men to get to her mother and it is about loneliness and lust. Despite herself Ginny manages to be sympathetic, even though the real problem between herself and her mother is not dealt with. Rather, Deshpande pussyfoots around the subject and then resolves the issue in a fairly predictable fashion at the end of the book.

Still, A Pack of Lies should be read for its Jacqueline Susann character and for its language, though you may have to persevere to come to grips with it.

A Pack of Lies by Urmilla Deshpande
Published by Tranquebar in India, 2009
You can read an interview with Urmilla here.
You can find more about Urmilla at


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Pack of Lies, A
by Urmilla Deshpande

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Written by Anjana Basu