Auckland in the time of Covid, and the lockdowns have made work even more precarious than usual for Vishal and Kavita. Vishal has been driving taxis since he lost his marketing job a few years back, he works evening-into-night shifts so he can be with their two young children, Aarani and Bhavan, while Kavita works as an accounts clerk. Ashwin, their friend of many years, is an engineer in a company riding the boom of post-earthquake building assessments, but he is not fulfilled in his job, due to systemic, casual, racism.
All three are working below their capabilities and are feeling despondent, being subjected daily to disrespect. Vishal having to put up with abuse from fares. Kavita having to deal with lazy executives trying to claim what they are not due. Ashwin knowing a less-experienced, trendy white guy will soon overtake him in the office hierarchy. Vishal and Kavita see each other in passing, and, as Kavita takes on most of the childcare and all the cooking and cleaning, their relationship is deteriorating. Kavita has started privately communicating with Ashwin, whom she has had a crush on for years.
When Ashwin suggests Kavita join him for a break on Waiheke Island, she is very tempted. Vishal will be on his days off, so can mind the kids, and if she is away longer than that, he can make other childcare arrangements. Kavita and Ashwin find that prejudice is as at home on Waiheke as in Auckland, they are used to it, but it still irks. Ashwin has booked the accommodation under the more neutral sounding Ash. Kavita finds it hard to keep quiet during an ersatz yoga class: “Repeat after me, ‘Ommmmmm’.” At a restaurant they end up sparring about the layers upon layers of discrimination that exist: “Our second chance is built on an opportunity that was taken from someone else.”
“How she was putting everything at risk, just for a few days” – Slow down, you’re here could be the not-unusual story of a woman taking a brief time to reflect on her choices and their consequences. It is a nuanced piece. The story told in turns from the points of view of Kavita and Ashwin. You read of their insecurities, their hopes, their misunderstandings. Kavita has a nightmare where her body is being reconstructed from other bodies, “they only had an old white woman for the thighs.” Ashwin monitors his comments so as not to come across as overbearing. They both try to reproduce what their relationship would have been like had it happened many years ago.
But meanwhile, while Kavita and Ashwin are making choices and wondering if they are the right ones, there is a situation evolving back in Auckland, where those Kavita has left behind have few choices, and where events are overtaking them: “Why was everyone disappearing?” asks Aarani. Things are being pared back to the basics – eating, shitting, sleeping. An illegal visit from a landlord evokes a complex flourish of emotions in the reader. You want to intervene and help in the story. These sections are a worrying read. In this review I have only discussed the elements of the story that appear in the back-cover blurb, as the incredible apprehension the book excites is from having no idea what is going to happen.
There are those who make choices that have consequences, and there are those with virtually no agency who do the very, very best they can. As the novel comes to an end, the reader is repeatedly unsure whether Kavita will go home or not, and either way wonders what the rest of her life will be like. On so many levels an exceptional novel.