After Hermann Hesse, it's the first novel I have read that does not rely strongly on a contrived plot. If plots is what you want, I happily recommend Dan Brown, or that old master, PG Wodehouse.
The plot is so simple I can lay it bare here without acting the spoiler. Indeed it's on the cover, anyway. Five individuals meet at a Mahabaleshwar bungalow, to tell stories, foremost to themselves. The writing isn't clever; I recommend Terry Pratchett for that. It does not make grand political or social commentary of the kind that gets the writer the Booker Prize. But if you want a novel entirely about human beings, Raksha Bharadia is good at human beings.
Like a surgeon she can lay them open, cutting right through to the raw, insecure soul. And you can see yourself in the mirror she holds. Not just shades of grey; but like you, a complete tapestry of every colour imaginable. Pastel shades go hand in hand with the darker, brooding colours, sometimes melding harmoniously, sometimes jarring. Yet an art critique might spend happy hours unravelling them layer by layer.
The author's skill isn't so much in painting the pictures of the main characters – the all-suffering-until-she-can-take-it-no-more Tina, the tormented-by-guilt-and-doubt Kriya, the smiling-in-spite-of-pain-for-the-sake-of-family-honour Upasna, the Bohemian-but-frustrated-in-love Manas and the has-everything-and-yet-nothing Poorvi. Hmm, you might say; characters you've seen elsewhere. The kind of characters that K. Balachander and Ritwik Ghatak would revel in.
But this is a novel that you need to read a second time. At first level, it seems very straightforward – five characters face up to their broken lives, and figure ways to fix them. But it is the other set of characters who actually do the telling. To this reviewer, the five agonists are simply the author's tools to tell those many little stories. She tells a story by hardly telling it at all.
Like Aditya. Tina's career-chasing husband, who is ruined twice. Once by an adventuress, and one by the woman who made it her mission to make him 'forget' the past. And thus in trying to become a nurse, she made him remember his torments. Driving him, and so innocently, till he could not come back anymore. In the novel it is Tina who attempts suicide, and yet it is Aditya who seems to have been killed by it.
Or Soumitra, the stereotypical jhola-wallah Bengali professor of literature, whom Poorvi thinks she loves. His spartan, perhaps idealogically-driven lifestyle makes you revolt at the sight. It is hard to believe that he'd let his father lay dying on a government hospital bed (college professors aren't that poorly paid after all). But the revulsion is there to set the context – that while money would not solve all problems, it does solve so many, there is no running away from it.
Or Gayatri, the girl from South Indian origins who ultimately spurns Manas. Could she really reject him for the same reasons that she seemed to have loved him? One might claim true love with a sentimental, disorganised man. But one's logical mind and 'proper' upbringing might ultimately tilt in favour the stability of the well-earning though boring husband that Gayatri ultimately chose.
Or Antara. Or Kriya's father. Or, well, there are so many ors. This isn't so much a novel as a preamble. To a whole number of novels yet unwritten. Gayatri's novel, Soumitra's novel, Aditya's novel.
Or perhaps those novels are already in there. Just read this novel again, try and imagine a conference (perhaps in Antara's well-appointed flat) going on just as Tina, Poorvi, Manas, Upasna and Kriya are holding theirs. Secondary characters are rarely so well-fleshed out, but in All And Nothing you cannot complain.
There are a few complaints, though. It's hard to imagine nothing happened between 'Prats', Aditya's not-too-old uncle and Tina. I wonder why an author, who does relationships so beautifully, glossed over this. The other complaint is about the ending. While all characters get closure – an open but clear path to the future – she leaves Aditya adrift. (For some reason he's the character I hung on to in my readings; perhaps he's a mirror to me. What I am, and what I want to be.)
It's not good reading for a commuting journey, and certainly not holiday reading. You want to clear your calendar of all appointments and give yourself time to read this novel. Twice. The first time is for the superfluous layer. (That's the layer that shakes your soul.) Then read it again, from cover to cover. Between the lines. (That's the layer that rearranges your soul.) Perhaps read it a third time, for you may detect a layer I haven't found (I haven't read it a third time yet). This is so rich in layers.
It's among the few novels you'll read with your soul, not your eyes.