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had Prem pinned down from the start,” says banker-turned-author Abha Dawesar, on writing the character of celebrated Indian writer Prem Rustum for her novel That Summer in Paris. “I wanted to explore what the life of an older writer could or would be.” The result is an engaging contemplation on friendship and love between writers and how art informs their relationships and work.

That Summer in Paris is the latest offering from a rising young author who has received rave reviews from the likes of The Washington Post and Entertainment Weekly. In fact, after her second novel, Babyji, hit the shelves, Dawesar was named by Time Out New York as one of 25 “New Yorkers who will make their mark in 2005.” But instead of basking in the glory of Babyji‘s accolades, Dawesar turned quickly to her latest endeavor: Paris.

Book Review: That Summer in Paris

Dawesar has created the consummate writer in Prem Rustum. The author of more than 30 books, the 75-year-old Nobel Laureate contacts a young woman through an online dating site. Maya Stevenson, a 25-year-old budding writer whose profile proudly proclaims her admiration for Prem Rustum, is the object of Prem’s desire. The two meet and discover that they are both leaving for a summer in Paris soon—she for a writing fellowship, and he ostensibly to visit a friend.

Paris is an important character in the book, enchanting its characters with its many scenic neighborhoods and artistic and cultural offerings. Maya and Prem spend time together visiting museums where the art triggers profound emotions for both of them, often in the form of reflections on past loves for Prem. This method of flashback is used well throughout the book to introduce readers to Prem’s life story, in particular his love affairs. The taboos broken in his past encounters with women, which include an adulterous affair with a friend’s wife, an affair with two French teenagers when he was 65, and his incestuous relationship with his sister, echo the socially forbidden nature of the intimate relationships found in Dawesar’s first two novels.

After septuagenarian author Rustum contacts aspiring 20-something writer Maya online and meets her in person, he decides to travel to Paris for the summer upon learning that she will be there for a writing fellowship. Most of the novel is set in that city, where Rustum also visits his longtime friend Pascal Boutin, himself an older esteemed writer, and continues to see Maya.

Abha Dawesar's Summer in Paris
Abha Dawesar’s That Summer in Paris.
Paris as Person

“Paris itself is an important character in my novel. My real love affair is with this city, so I wanted it as the backdrop to have my characters explore their own relationship but also that of their writing with their lives,” says Dawesar. Her characters are also enchanted with Paris as featured in the backdrop painted by Dawesar, one that includes its tempting bakeries, beautiful parks, intense cheese-tastings, and, of course, its renowned art museums.

“When I’m in Paris, I like to spend time with friends and go to museums, many of which are housed in spectacular hôtel particuliers,” she explains. But visiting Paris museums was not purely for pleasure this time—Dawesar was actually researching the novel. “I made several trips to the museums, photographed extensively took notes, and read some turn of the century art criticism by Zola and Théophile Gautier.”

Given all the time she spends in Paris and her love for “most things French,” it’s reasonable to wonder if Dawesar plans to live there permanently. “I am a New Yorker who goes to where my writing takes me, and because of the nature of some of my current projects that has meant a lot of Paris and sometimes also India,” she says.

Abha Dawesar's Babyji
Abha Dawesar’s Babyji.

India, and specifically New Delhi, the city where Dawesar was born and grew up, was the setting for her previous novel, Babyji, the story of 16-year-old Anamika Sharma, a cerebral “physics geek” from a middle class New Delhi Brahmin family who views the world and personal relationships, including her affairs with three different women, through the filter of physics.

Personal is Political

It seems that Dawesar instinctively returns to her characters’ environments to propel their stories, as evidenced by Babyji. In that work, Dawesar was “trying to unite what’s happening in the social fabric of the country and what’s happening with this girl’s life within a single narrative that’s quite tight.” The events following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, including the infamous attacks against Sikhs in Delhi, are part of the historical backdrop of Babyji, and they clearly made a significant impression on a young Abha, too.

In 1984, I was only 10 years old, but I remember it so clearly. Delhi was burning. Sikhs were being killed everywhere. That was probably the most significant event, politically, of my life. I’ll never get over it.

“I knew when I started writing Babyji that I really wanted to write about that time period in India and about the politics of that particular moment because I think that was a turning point. Ever since then, Indian politics has been much more caste-oriented and that’s when it really sort of began … Something changed. Something shifted. In 1984, I was only 10 years old, but I remember it so clearly. Delhi was burning. Sikhs were being killed everywhere. In my own neighborhood there were lots of Sikh houses and they were all gutted. Completely burned. You couldn’t recognize anything. Twelve days later when the curfew was lifted you could go out again. That was probably the most significant event I think, politically, of my life. I mean, I’m never going to get over it.”

It is that passion that earned Babyji the favor of critics everywhere. It’s likely That Summer in Paris will receive similar acclaim, but Dawesar isn’t waiting to find out. She is already at work on her fourth novel “about a young boy and his extended family. It’s set in an unnamed place that bears resemblance to India.” Readers may also have a chance to see her artwork up close. Dawesar, who has been painting for 10 years and showed her art this past summer in New York, is currently “working on sketches that go hand in hand with a future novel.” n

Pavani Yalamanchili lives in San Francisco.
Published on September 1, 2006.
Photography: Courtesy of Abha Dawesar.
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