Monday, September 29, 2008

Rat Race

This appeared in yesterday's DNA.


It was the 18th century philosopher Joseph Priestley who once said, “Like its politicians and its wars, society has the teenagers it deserves.” Well, anyone observing the teenagers of mofussil Bihar in the Seventies would know exactly what sort of society they were a part of: hidebound, repressed, anarchic and casually violent. This, then, is the subject of Avijit Ghosh’s debut novel, Bandicoots in the Moonlight.

The book tells of the exploits of young teenager Anirban Das, who appears to be a thinly-disguised stand-in for the author himself. Anirban’s father, a police officer in charge of containing the Naxalites in the area, is transferred from Wilsonganj to Ganeshnagar and it is in this latter town that Anirban attends the ironically-named Holy Child School. Here, we encounter Anirban’s friends: landlord’s sons, school bullies, overage pupils, incipient politicians and more. Others introduced into the narrative are his father’s driver as well as some colourful neighbourhood characters.

The structure of the novel is episodic, with each chapter describing a separate incident. And though the town of Ganeshnagar is fictional, the milieu is all too real. Ghosh speaks of the pleasures and passions of street cricket; of listening to Binaca Geet Mala on the radio; of surreptitiously scanning outrĂ© film magazines; of discovering and devouring pornographic publications; of attending ramshackle movie halls to watch the latest releases; of devising ingenious ways to cheat during school exams; and of finding willing and unwilling prospects to expend one’s libido on. On a more sombre note, he writes of the teenagers’ awakening to caste affiliations, of honour killings, of female infanticide and of the palpable presence of the Naxalites and their depredations.

The prose style is breezy, unassuming and cheerfully amoral, with the unfortunate inclusion of solecisms such as “booby” in place of “busty” and “lusty” instead of “lustful”. One would think that much of the material would lend itself to a satirical or even a trenchant tone; instead, Ghosh indulges in nostalgic asides as well as banal generalisations such as: “What you don’t know, you don’t crave,” and “Sometimes, we enjoy overestimating dread”. The author’s attempt, then, is simply to impose a structure on and relive Anirban’s wonder years.

The ending seems to be not of a piece with the rest, unexpectedly detailing Anirban’s present circumstances and introducing a character or two at the very last minute for inexplicable reasons. As such, the novel on many occasions resembles nothing more than a collection of diary entries, making the whole unpretentious and pleasant, but also unremarkable.


Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Unknown said...

Thanks -- I guess!