Reviewed by Bhaswati Ghosh
Title: Louisiana Catch
Author: Sweta Srivastava Vikram
Publisher: Modern History Press
Sweta Srivastava Vikram couldn’t have written Louisiana Catch at a better time. Across the world, women’s resistance is marching on a stronger footing than ever before. To rephrase the title of an Indian poet’s recent collection, more and more girls are coming out of the cages – self-erected or societal – to make themselves heard on sexual exploitation. Social media networks have provided grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter, the women’s march to Washington and the recent Me too campaign the potency of exponential outreach. Ahana Chopra, the young protagonist of Vikram’s novel lends a credible face to this epoch of evolution in the women’s movement with her story of survival and comeback.
For Ahana, the stakes are high from the get go. As if her recent divorce from a decade-long abusive marriage weren’t enough, her mettle would be further tested with her mother’s sudden death. This double whammy notwithstanding, she must carry on – with life and with No Excuse, her passion project that gets accepted as the main theme for an annual women’s conference in New Orleans. No Excuse also serves as the fulcrum around which Vikram pivots her novel. The aim of the campaign is as straightforward as its name – to make sexual abuse unacceptable, no matter the excuse.
On a personal level – and this is the parallel track on which Louisiana Catch runs – Ahana joins an online therapy group to cope with the grief of her mother’s loss. The group brings her closer to people dealing with emotional trauma. One of them is Jay Dubois from New Orleans, who is also grieving his mother’s death. Ahana and Jay strike an immediate bond, brought closer by their loss and also their mutual admiration for J.D. Salinger.
In a world where real life intersects with the virtual in some way or the other, Vikram brings you not only to the intersection but leads you into the inner, unlit alleys of the online universe. There’s the therapy group and its workings, of course, but a large part of No Excuse relies on using the power of the social media to engage with a wider audience. This part of her work brings Ahana in contact with a man with whom she has to develop a close professional association. Rohan Brady happens to be her work partner in the US. Ahana’s initial reading of both Jay and Rohan provides an interesting insight into how social media works and can be made to work. What you see isn’t always what you get because what you see is likely what one wants you to see. This is a success of the book in the way Vikram, through Ahana, keeps chiselling at the rock of the virtual sphere presented to her until she uncovers its true face.
Through all of Ahana’s movements in the real and the virtual planes, her inner battles challenge her inexorably. She struggles to get past the memories of sexual abuse inflicted by Dev, her estranged sex maniac husband even as she fumbles to find her feet in a world devoid of her mother, the pillar of her strength. Ahana’s vulnerability evokes sympathy even as it exhausts. There are points when you find yourself frustrated with her one step forward, two steps back emotional hop scotching. And yet this vulnerability, and particularly the way it plays out between Ahana’s private and public personas, is also the novel’s tour de force and an act of sincerity on Vikram’s part.
As the title would suggest, Louisiana Catch is as much about places as it is about people. Of the three cities Ahana straddles – New Delhi, New York City and New Orleans, the last one delights the most with Vikram’s luscious descriptions of the place and its electric vibrancy. Equally noticeable is the contrast Ahana registers between New Delhi and her work city, New York. Where the Indian capital suffocates her with its male gaze and judgmental society, the big apple helps her find release with its pulsating air of freedom. This contrast, as experienced by an urban woman, is an essential if peripheral element of this feminist story.
Even as the book grips you with its well-paced plot, some of the descriptions tend to get repetitive. The crisp dialogues more than make up for this and truly bring the characters – Naina, Ahana’s spunky cousin; Rohan, the charming work partner; even Jay, the dubious online friend – to life. That said, the writer could have pared down the use of the F-word by a reasonable fraction without losing any of the impact.
In the end, Ahana finds both success and love, but not without crossing the many hurdles that confront her in both. No Excuse is executed to wide acclaim and Ahana overcomes her harrowing past and learns to love a man. But the ultimate victory of Louisiana Catch is in Ahana’s maturing so she can love herself through all her faltering and mistrust.
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Her website is bhaswatighosh.com.