It’s summer 2017 and Siya Sharma travels to Delhi to check up on her sister Maya, who has withdrawn from life after their mother’s death. Siya’s life is unravelling too; her relationship in London has ended, and she has just lost her job. The two sisters haven’t spoken in years, and relations remain strained until they come across a box of Ma’s papers, discovering a letter that reads: I saw last night as a meeting between old friends. That you considered my conduct overfamiliar fills me with endless regret.
The sisters take the letter to their aunt, who reveals that Ma set up a magazine that ran into funding problems. Siya and Maya are transfixed by the idea of their mother’s failed magazine, seeing in it a chance to find a new purpose. They hire a motley crew of ex-journalists, and the magazine slowly gains traction, but after a fire destroys its equipment, Siya turns to angel investor Raja Singh for help. He knew Ma when she was alive and utters a curious line: That her magazine never raised funding fills me with endless regret. It emerges that Singh offered Ma funding before sexually assaulting her. When Ma resisted, he cut his funding and had her blacklisted, ending her career. The girls' headline their next issue with Ma’s story. Raja Singh isn’t named, but as media coverage spreads, he sues them for defamation. As all seems lost, a whole host of female reporters emerge with their own stories of assault. The magazine’s name spreads, vigils are held across India and Ma’s forgotten struggle is finally heard. Civil Lines is both a family saga that explores belonging as well as an ode to the struggles women face in the workplace. Through Ma’s battles, it echoes the MeToo movements that have been at the forefront of so many nations’ consciousness of late. It also explores the relationships of the protagonists, the comic as well as the tragic, the professional and the romantic, and the destinies of the staff they employ. Poignant and ultimately uplifting, Civil Lines is a touching hymn to empowerment, hope and persistence.
Radhika Swarup was longlisted for the Best First Novel Award of the Author’s Club for Where the River Parts (Sandstone Press, 2016). She studied at Cambridge University and worked in finance before turning to writing. Radhika lives in London with her husband and two children but travels frequently to India. She is at work on her next novel.