Sunday, February 10, 2008

Present Tense

This appeared in today's edition of The Hindustan Times


One of the devices used by novelists attempting to ‘write back to the centre’ is to re-imagine characters from earlier works of fiction. Most tellingly employed by Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea, which told the story of the first Mrs Rochester from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, this ploy was also at the heart of Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, which presented the point of view of Magwitch, the transported convict from Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Now, in Neel Mukherjee’s debut novel, Past Continuous, we’re re-introduced to Miss Gilby and her relationship with Bimala and Nikhilesh – characters who first appeared in Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World. Past Continuous isn’t just about Miss Gilby, though. The author has bigger fish to fry, and he intercuts the tale of the English governess in India with that of another stranger in a strange land: that of Ritwik, who, in his early twenties, leaves Kolkata to study in London. Miss Gilby’s story, we come to realise, is actually being written by Ritwik while in London.

An enervating Kolkata in the Seventies and Eighties; a frenetic London in the Nineties; and a revolutionary Bengal at the turn of the last century: clearly, the author is in the grip of an overweening ambition which, though obviously not something to be discouraged, needs both talent and control to be successfully realised. Alas, not much of either is visible in Past Continuous.

Take Ritwik’s tale, for instance. The separate strands of his existence on display – maternal mistreatment, penurious childhood, parasitic relatives, convent school exploits, exhaustion with his hometown, relationships with fellow-students in London, cruising for gay sex in toilets and alleyways – remain just that, separate strands. One of the ways in which a novel is different from life is that in the former, one finds a clear flow of cause and effect, an accretion of parts to form a greater whole, and this is missing in the tale of this unfortunate youth. Ritwik’s story is, one supposes, meant to be organic and artless instead of plotted, but instead comes across as all too fragmentary. An unfortunate side-effect of this is a lack of empathy towards the character, barring the moments when we learn of his mistreatment as a child.

Miss Gilby’s tale is more focused and controlled but here too, there’s a wearying sense of ennui for neither of them possess the energy -- inwardly or outwardly directed – to bring about a change. In addition, the governess’ story doesn’t really cast Tagore’s novel in a new light, making one wonder what the point is.

Yet another strand of this novel is that of Ritwik’s aged English landlady, Anne Cameron, a link between Miss Gilby and the present. This is meant to be the novelist’s tap upon the tuning fork to make the two narrative prongs vibrate in sympathy; what we hear instead is a dull clunk.

The relationship between Ritwik and Anne is, however, one of the better things in Past Continuous, combining affection and unlikelihood in equal measure. Mukherjee goes too far, though, in introducing a puzzling strain of magic realism when rare birds mysteriously appear in Anne’s garden, a link to Miss Gilby’s interest in ornithology.

Almost two-thirds of the way into the book, Ritwik embarks upon a cash-for-sex relationship with Zafar, rich Saudi and possible arms dealer, a liaison that has the potential to focus his hitherto wayward life. Ah, one thinks, this novel’s coming to life at last. But no: things fizzle out soon enough.

Also aggravating is the affectation of the prose. Ritwik’s tale is narrated in a faux-Nabokovian manner, and the clashing of misjudged adjectives that sometimes ensues is alarming. (What, after all, are “tenuous relatives” or even a “deliciously slurpy peek”?) This, though, pales in front of the author’s nod to James Joyce in Anne Cameron’s stream-of-consciousness musings. “Murder your darlings,” one murmurs, turning the page. The sections dealing with Miss Gilby contain interesting period detail and are more straightforwardly written. But it’s when the author goes so far as to include advertisements promoting swadeshi as well as newspaper clippings on the partition of Bengal that things get out of hand.

Towards the end of Past Continuous, the always-solipsistic Ritwik muses, “All lives have an onward flow, a beginning leading to a middle leading to an end; only his seems to be a swirling eddy in someone else’s flow, destined to whirl round and round for a brief while till a change in current or wave pattern obliterates it.” It’s in making these swirls and eddies cohere and providing them with a historical resonance that Mukherjee’s book falls short.

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