Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Ground Beneath Her Feet

This review, and the one that follows, appeared in the April 18 issue of TimeOut Mumbai.


Michael Frayn once said, tongue somewhere near his cheek, that his advice to writers would be “to write the same thing over and over again, changing things very slightly and going on delivering it until people accept it.”

With the publication of her third book, Unaccustomed Earth, the time has come to ask the question: is Jhumpa Lahiri simply writing the same thing over and over again?

The elements of this meta-story, simply put, would be: academically-oriented Bengali parents who have immigrated from Kolkata to the northeastern United States, caught up in the unfamiliar ways of the new world, yet unwilling to renounce their earlier lives; their offspring, more confident and Americanised, yet, as their relationships show, more confused; and a pervasive strain of melancholy because of relinquishing old ties and coming to terms with new ones.

Lahiri herself defined her concerns as a writer in an article for Newsweek magazine two years ago, stating that “the immigrant's journey, no matter how ultimately rewarding, is founded on departure and deprivation, but it secures for the subsequent generation a sense of arrival and advantage.”

Most of the eight stories of her new collection adhere to this template. Yet, all of them, to varying degrees, convey a richness of experience, a universality of sentiment and an investigation of emotion that makes reading them a pleasure.

Here, among others, a 38-year-old daughter apprehensive about how the death of her mother will affect her relationship with her father learns truths about her needs and wants; another daughter unravels the story of how her mother fell in love with a family friend; a sister finds out the hard way about the limits of responsibility and discipline when it comes to her alcoholic brother; and a married couple’s mis-steps while attending a wedding give them another chance at togetherness.

If the ground is familiar, what, then, accounts for the impact of the narratives? Consider, to begin with, Lahiri’s mastery of the well-chosen detail. Henry James famously informed us that a writer ought to be one on whom “nothing is lost”, and Lahiri unearths dime-sized maroon bindis, useful safety pins attached to bangles, hotel room wallpaper with squiggly grey lines, biscuits with the faint taste of coconut, Tiffany candlesticks as wedding presents, a professor looking like a smaller version of Ringo Starr, a chain link fence matted with forsythia and the figure of a man spotted swimming in a lake during a grey drizzle. All of these and more are worked seamlessly into the narrative, and such verisimilitude is to be prized.

Contrasts in food, too, are always present and nicely judged as competing markers of identity: creamy pasta and plates of prime rib with asparagus and potatoes vie with curried mackerel, chorchori and homemade mishti.

Lahiri’s prose, as before, is sensitive and nuanced, progressing for the most part in a fine-tuned series of minor chords. Emotions creep up unannounced and the word “evocative”, so often bandied about to describe pieces of fiction, is singularly apt here. Relationships are largely pastel-shaded – as one of the characters, musing on her parents’ life together, thinks: “It was neither happy nor unhappy, and the lack of emotion in either extreme was what upset Sudha most. She would have understood quarrels, she believed. She would even have understood divorce. She always hoped some sign of love would manifest itself…” One of Raymond Carver’s later poems was titled “No Heroics, Please” and this is the expression that comes to mind. No heroics, but as Lahiri so amply demonstrates, merely the quiet heroism of dealing with life’s vicissitudes.

Interestingly, however, it is when the author narrates a story from a different point of view that the results are not as impressive – as in the one which speaks of the fascination of Paul, a American doctoral student, with the bewitching Sangeeta, one of his roommates, who is in the snares of a tempestuous relationship with Farouk, a caddish Egyptian.

The three concluding stories all deal with the fates of Hema and Kaushik, who meet as children because their parents are family friends, going on to trace their separate lives until, approaching middle age, they bump into each other in Italy. The denouement is something of a let-down, with its uncustomary strain of melodrama and dire coincidence, but the first two stories are compelling, imbued with the grief that the loss of a parent brings about. In fact, the ageing of, and distance from, one’s parents is another recurring theme in this volume.

Faulkner had his Yoknapatawpha county; Narayan his Malgudi town; Cheever his suburb of Westchester. With Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri lays claim again to her own metaphorical patch of ground, and shows us the treasures buried within.

Utterly Monkey

GORILLA Shobasakti

Playful and sardonic aren’t words that you’d use to describe depictions of the bloody ethnic unrest that has characterized Sri Lanka in recent times. Yet, that’s the overarching mood of this slim novel by Shobasakthi, a former LTTE child soldier and currently a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee in France.

The structure itself is unusually inventive. Gorilla starts out with a long petition written by one Anthony Thasan seeking asylum in France, detailing the travails he’s undergone as one suspected of having terrorist links and throwing himself at the mercy of the French authorities. Then follows a long middle section dealing with the exploits of the young Rocky Raj: his fractious relationship with his father, the thuggish Gorilla, and his induction into “the Movement” as a child soldier. (The chilling footnotes here describing the deaths of the characters we encounter are an ingenious device.) Finally, there’s a concluding first-person section told by a Tamil refugee in France which re-introduces us to Anthony’s life. Clearing up confusion over the identities of the characters in the novel, this section, ending in an act of shocking violence, asks disturbing questions about whether one is capable of entirely shedding one’s past. All of which is thrown into sharp relief when you realise that Sobasakthi’s real name is, in fact, Anthony Jesuthasan.

Originally written in Tamil and felicitously translated by Anushiya Sivanarayanan (who also provides an informative, context-setting introduction), Gorilla has an impact greater than the sum of its parts and is far removed from the genteel alienation of a Romesh Gunasekhara or Shyam Selvadurai. How much of it is made-up, and how much real-life is for the author to know; all one can do is to call it mock fictional – with equal stress on both of those words.

Monday, April 14, 2008

How To Write About Authors In The Indian Media

Worried that a lack of knowledge or an unbiased attitude will get you nowhere in the exciting world of journalism? Don't fret. Follow these simple steps and you, too, could get your byline in respected weekly magazines, making the rich and famous quiver at your approach. Let us take as our model, Sanjay Suri's piece in the latest issue of Outlook, "Sir Talk-A-Lot", which purports to be an analysis of the literary status of Salman Rushdie on the publication of his The Enchantress of Florence. (All the extracts that follow are from this piece.)

# 1. Ignore facts. They only get in the way.

Trumpet this ignorance right at the start, by proclaiming that the title is "Salman Rushdie's ninth book...." In fact, it's his tenth novel and 14th book, but don't let that bother you.

# 2. Fire over someone else's shoulder.

Say there's one specific publication that's published a bad review of the book. Use this to inform your entire argument that of "all the novels he has written, there isn't another whose readability has been challenged quite as rigorously as this one." In Suri's case, he lavishly quotes from Peter Kemp's review in The Times: " a long chalk, the worst thing he has ever written." (In passing: Kemp is certainly entitled to his opinion, more so because he's actually read and quoted from the book -- something that you, following Suri, should give no indication of.)

In order to appear even-handed, you should also quote from other reviews that are more favourable, such as the one in The Guardian -- but indicate for no reason that this isn't because of the book's content, but because it "will have takers for the subject alone". (In such ways, you can also cast aspersions on the Guardian's rave review, by one Ms Ursula Le Guin. Ursula who? Calm down, it doesn't matter if you haven't heard of her.)

To show you've done your homework, throw in some more phrases from other reviews, stressing the negative and grudgingly acknowledging the favourable points the reviewers have made. See, you're nothing if not fair. In fact, speak to people who share your views and quote them -- it helps if one such person (Alok Rai) also reviews regularly for Outlook. Also throw in a (suspiciously-unnamed) "fellow Indian writer" who says, "Rushdie's recent books have been long and awful and this new novel doesn't sound any good." (See this chap hasn't read the book, too. You're on the right track, after all.)

# 3. If you can't impress, baffle.

This is when you really come into your own. Throw in words such as "style" and then proceed to demonstrate your point of view in ornate sentences. Such as: "...more than the subject the style is intended for, it's come to say only that this is a place that Rushdie wants for himself, a place where the signboard he has put up announces universality of reach, oneness of civilisations, and the power of the narrator to remind you of it." (When talking of matters such as style, don't get into quicksand by being specific. Far better to be vague.) Be generous with generalisations: "[Rushdie] thrives now on the loyalty of a band with a sense of the progressive, almost a brand now of intellectual acceptance than a great read....For too long now, a declared admiration of Rushdie has been our forged passport to literary standing."

# 4. End with an ungrammatical outburst.

"The Rushdie talk is now into its new round. And between this book and the next we will have no doubt another Rushdie affair to keep us going." See? How knowledgeable and world-weary and impressive that sounds. Simple, when you know how.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Self Help

This is from the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai.


Shape-shifters, continent-crossers and murky identities are only to be expected in Peter Carey’s novels, and so it is with his latest, His Illegal Self. Set in the early Seventies, it deals with the fate of the seven-year-old Che Selkirk, living with his grandmother on privileged Park Avenue when the novel opens.

It turns out that Che’s parents – whom he’s never lived with -- are radical Ivy Leaguers, wanted by the authorities for their violent socialist protests. Che’s imagination is fuelled by thought of a parental reunion, so when a woman calling herself Dial (short for “dialectic”) arrives to accompany them on an outing, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that she’s his mother.

Circumstances lead Dial to abscond with Che, and after some nights in strangers’ houses and flea-bag motels, they fly to a commune in Queensland, Australia. As his relationship with Dial flourishes and deepens, Che comes to understand the truth about his parents and Dial’s involvement in the affair.

The novel is written in short, interlocking chapters, occasionally alternating between Che and Dial’s points of view. When this works, it works very well, making the narrative proceed in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back manner. The prose is jagged, with the excess wrung from it, yet enlivened by the occasional appropriate metaphor.

It’s also clear that Carey writes with first-hand knowledge of the Australian interior, dwelling on the nature of vegetation, the properties of lumber and the difficulties of agriculture.

Though the novel is very good when it comes to capturing the mystifications of childhood and the relationship between Dial and Che, it’s let down by some narrative inconsistencies: the flight to Australia, for a start, and Dial’s continuing motivation, for another. His Illegal Self is certainly not a mis-step, but neither is it as sure-footed as some of Carey’s other novels.