Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Nostalgist's Map Of Pakistan

This appeared in today's The Sunday Express


At the heart of Ali Sethi's debut novel is a tale of transgressive love in which the protagonist tries to help his cousin to win over the boy of her fantasies. On this slender peg Sethi hangs a series of portraits of people's lives over the years, centring on Lahore in the Eighties and Nineties. Though the author's skill in observation and ability to delineate a large cast of characters is evident, The Wish Maker is too much of a loose, baggy monster to be entirely satisfying.

The novel opens with the young Zaki Shirazi returning from a Massachusetts college to his Lahore home for the wedding of his cousin, Samar Api, a close childhood friend and ally. From here it moves back and forth in time to fill in the blanks in the lives of Zaki, Samar and their families and friends.

We learn of the journeys of the independent women whom Zaki has grown up with: these are, among others, his feisty mother, editor of a progressive Pakistani publication; his doughty grandmother, who’s lived through Partition and the travails of Pakistan; the spirited Nargis, his mother’s friend and an activist lawyer; and the pious Naseem, their household help. As is the case with many recent works by novelists from Pakistan writing in English, the country’s politics is very much part of the backdrop. Episodes such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s hanging, martial law, Benazir Bhutto’s dismissal and laws relating to the status of women are enacted offstage, and provoke animated debate and activism especially among Zaki’s mother and colleagues.

Details and anecdotes abound throughout, in step with a succession of effective set pieces. Sethi’s prose is full of quick, glancing observations even though the occasional choppiness of style becomes, after a while, more of an affectation than anything else.

It becomes clear soon enough that The Wish Maker is a nostalgist’s map of Pakistan. The book encompasses childhood pursuits and misdemeanours, the setting up of an independent magazine during a conservative time, the reaction of a family to the arrival of a satellite dish, sojourns at the house of uncles and aunts, the influence of Bollywood on impressionable minds, the schedule of a school that Zaki attends and a great deal more. Then again, there are other episodes, such as an account of a vacation in Spain or Zaki’s time in his American college, that – however ably narrated –seem merely tacked on and do little to expand the novel’s ambit.

The Wish Maker doesn’t restrict itself to portraying an upper middle class lifestyle; the cast of characters is carefully chosen to touch upon various shades, from the feudalism of the provinces to the upward striving of the middle class to the decadence and cynicism of the affluent. This all-encompassing approach may seem like a strength because of the ambitious, almost Tolstoyan, breadth of vision, but in this case turns out to be a weakness due to the dispersed and scattered centre of gravity that ensues.

Another quality that drains the novel of vitality is that Zaki, as a protagonist, is more acted upon than willing to act. Indeed, we have little sense of him as an independent agent, as his growing years are almost wholly defined by his relationships. Since many sections of the novel are told from his first-person point of view, the inevitable outcome of this submissiveness is a degree of narrative languor. Samar Api, the wish maker of the title, is a much more engaging character, and it’s a pity she isn’t present for a larger part of the novel.

Like the improvised time capsule that Zaki and his schoolmate bury in his backyard, The Wish Maker is chock-full of bits and pieces that are redolent of life in Pakistan. Had Sethi’s talent had been matched by greater control over his material, the novel would have been the more compelling for it.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Grilled Fish

This appeared in today's DNA.


At a time when some people are still getting over the fact that men and monkeys swing from the same family tree comes this work by Neil Shubin, asserting that many characteristics we think of as distinctively human are actually shared by fish, among other creatures. Clearly, Your Inner Fish is not to be read while dining at Mahesh Lunch Home.

It was the unearthing of a 350 million-year-old fossilized fish, an intermediate between land and water organisms, that’s the starting point of this book. For Shubin, paleontologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago, such ancient fish bones are more valuable than gold, which is why he spent years with his team turning over rocks in the snowy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, braving polar bears and ice storms. The abovementioned sea creature, dubbed Tiktaalik after an Inuit term for freshwater fish, had flippers to enable it to move on land and from a study of its skeleton, Shubin finds fascinating Darwinian connections with the way human beings themselves have evolved.

Be it a frog, bat, lizard or human, the deep similarities between bodies shows that they’re all variations on a theme, he writes. “Most of the major bones that humans use to walk, throw or grasp appeared in animals ten to millions of hundreds of years before.” The development of teeth, for example, initially used to bite, led to structures designed to protect - and the same developmental forces led to the creation of feathers, mammary glands and hair. In another instance, a segmented skeletal structure leads him to point out developmental similarities between the head of a shark and that of a human being (all human beings, not just real estate developers).

Shubin also illustrates how the shared genetic code of all living organisms reinforces his variations-on-a-theme thesis. We may not look much like sea anemones and jellyfish, but the recipe that builds us is a more intricate version of the one that builds them. Along the way, he points out the links between a mammalian ear and a shark's jaw, as well as the varying roles and development of visual and olfactory organs. Should you be so inclined, he even tells you how to extract DNA in your kitchen, using the simplest of equipment.

Shubin is clearly passionate about his subject, enthusiastic about communicating his theories, and possesses the ability to clarify abstruse concepts. All of which makes Your Inner Fish illuminating and interesting, aided by the occasional personal anecdote, from haggling with antique fossil dealers in China to visits with his son to New York’s Museum of Natural History. It ought to be said, however, that on occasion the level of simplification appears to be too much: perhaps this springs from the desire to communicate to as broad a readership as possible.

The point of it all, which is what Shubin sums up with, is that there’s a universal biological law: every living thing on the planet has parents - more specifically, parental genetic information – and therefore, all of us are modified descendants of those that came before. This, among other things, throws light on how our evolutionary past causes problems when it comes to our current lifestyle, from hiccups to hernias (the former, by the way, is derived from gill breathing in tadpoles).

The British biologist J.B.S. Haldane, who pointed out the evolutionary significance of Vishnu’s avatars from fish onwards, once said, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”. In identifying the links that bind us all together, Neil Shubin goes some way in making the living universe less mysterious.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Not So Striking

This appeared in today's Hindustan Times.

THE STRIKE Anand Mahadevan

Ah, the joys of coming of age in an Indian city in the Eighties. It was a time before easy Internet access, before malls and multiplexes, before the democratisation of airline travel and before the opening up of the economy. Instead, one developed a taste for kitsch at decaying single-screen theatres, implored relatives visiting from overseas to bring back the latest releases, discussed procreation in hushed tones, and prepared for long-distance train travel at the start of every summer holiday. It is with these ingredients that Anand Mahadevan fashions his winsome but structurally odd debut novel, The Strike.

In brisk, efficient prose, Mahadevan takes us into the world and extended family of Hari, a Nagpur-based pre-teen whose family is from south India. Through a series of vignettes, we learn of his experiments with eating fried fish at a neighbour’s house – something his devoutly vegetarian family would shudder at – his interactions with the same neighbour’s daughter as well as a classmate, a family journey to Benares with his grandmother’s ashes, his antics during Holi and his nascent erotic stirrings while at the movies, among other activities.

About halfway through, the novel moves away from this episodic pattern and segues into an account of another train journey that Hari and his mother undertake, this time to Chennai. This is the heart of the book and Mahadevan is at his most evocative here, touching upon aspects familiar to anyone who’s undertaken a similar trip: the food, the porters, a variety of chatty, inquisitive co-passengers, the stench of the toilets, the passing scenery and the hubbub of stations on the way. Hari’s fascination with two others on the train, a eunuch and an aspiring film star, leads to a private sexual awakening -- and later, to a series of mishaps when the train is halted near Ennore by protestors calling for a strike because of the death of their beloved hero MGR. It’s as though the piece of fish that Hari earlier consumed with so much gusto continues to blight his life with negative karmic ramifications.

At this point, Mahadevan again switches register; the novel moves away from a recounting of Hari’s actions and impressions, to dwell on those dealing with the fallout of the train mishap, among them his grandparents, railway officials , disgruntled factory workers and none other than Jayalalitha, in a cameo appearance. Though a chastened Hari does re-enter the scene later, the novel’s interrupted emotional momentum never gets back on track.

Mahadevan takes care to weave in markers of the era – the Indian Peace Keeping Force, the Bhopal gas tragedy and the vagaries of south Indian politics, for example – but since the book was first published in Canada a few years ago, he also takes pains to explain their meaning and significance to readers of that country, either though dialogue or narrative exposition. This, combined with structural inconsistencies, makes The Strike engaging but not very striking.