Dear Agony Aunt

Till about a month ago, my responses to those requiring a willing-shoulder-to-cry-on consisted mainly of a forceful ‘dump him/her’, whip him/her’, and ‘get another’. Irrespective of whether it was annoying partners or spouses, bratty kids or hard-to-like bosses; not necessarily in that order. But definitely with nary a thought to the repercussions, were those peeved, snivelling, murderous avatars of usually decent sorts to heed my thoughtless advice. Then, I read Dear Agony Aunt.

This is Aradhika Sharma’s second book after co-authoring the well-timed Sunita Williams: Astronaut Etraordinaire. The slim volume is the story of an online agony aunt, revealing how she has dealt severally, sometimes severely, with the agonised queries that have been hitting her inbox for many years. Ranging from the bizarre to the absolute mundane to rip-roaring funny to the outrageous, this agony aunt takes them all sagely head on. The responses are well thought out no matter how zany, sick, silly or perverse the questions. The problems are plenty: sexual in nature, identity and image issues, abuse in relationships (both real and virtual), medical and professional crises.

At times, the agony aunt does find herself precariously balanced on the horns of dilemma, unsure about which path to offer the plea-in-print. Oftentimes (I was glad to read) she has wished to offer advice similar to my own limited options listed above, but has displayed tremendous reserve when faced with the apparent helplessness of individuals unable to solve their predicament, howsoever trivial. The job of an agony aunt comes with an added sense of responsibility, shares the author, as more often than not the queries posed are genuine in nature and require due consideration.

The conversational narrative may temporarily lull the reader into believing this is an easy read. Also, regardless of the authenticity of the agonies, you will feel compelled to write some of them off as evidence of prankster imaginations. But however amusing they may appear from our comforting perch, they really are no laughing matter. They are, in effect, pleas for attention, the author avers, as she is dealing with real pain, abject helplessness, blissful ignorance, and in some instances, sheer stupidity. Dear Agony Aunt is not to be dismissed lightly as a collection of agonies that happen to other people, as most readers will easily identify with the issues raised therein.

Even the interspersed short stories are based on real-life situations, some of which may possibly have been experienced by the author herself. Long distance cyber relationships and the consequent disappointments are par for the course, as Malti’s character discovers for herself in You got ‘Male’. The Household Ogre holds up a mirror to marital rape and domestic abuse, topics that are now fetching national debate. Let’s ‘See’ highlights that pan-India bane of well-meaning parents arranging for their independent-minded girls to meet with not-so-evolved prospects. While sexual harassment at the workplace meets spiritual exploitation in another disillusioning tale, The Touch. These are agonies of People Like Us, up, close and personal and Dear Agony Aunt may well be the soothing balm.

NOTE: This review has appeared in The Tribune and on BBC.

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