Monday, August 3, 2009

Lush Prose, Bleak Vision

This appeared in the latest issue of Tehelka

RUPTURE Sampurna Chattarji

Pick up a debut novel from the Indian fiction section of your local bookstore, and chances are you’ll find a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale told in plain, simple English. It’s a relief, then, to find that Sampurna Chattarji’s Rupture is anything but that. For a start, this novel is intricately layered, not confining itself to a specific character, background or mode. The language, too, is coiled and charged – as befits, one supposes, a poet writing in prose.

It turns out that these very qualities make Rupture initially daunting since, on the face of it, the narrative follows nine characters in five cities over 24 hours. However, there are pleasures awaiting those who persist with the book. Chattarji probes the actions and psyche of a cast of introspective misfits across social strata and, at her best, throws a searing light upon the inner feelings triggered by the pressures of the outside world. This is narration in slow motion, kept buoyant by the richness of the prose.

We’re introduced to the insular, film-crazy Partho, exiled to Kanpur; the clairvoyant Tennyson, diviner of lost things, suddenly summoned to Mumbai; the indolent Nazrul on the verge of leaving Baruipur for Germany; and the lonely, wandering Biswajit, staying with his daughter in Mumbai but incessantly looking backwards to his native Kolkata.. Not to mention the others waiting on the margins for their chance to step forward and let us hear their voices. Above them all is the disturbed, dreaming Jonaki who creates and then tries to contain the rest within the crucible of her imagination.

Some of these characters find themselves linked in ways they could not have conceived of; others plough a parallel furrow. The rupture is threefold: it exists in the narrative, in the psyche of the characters and in the blood-dark catastrophe their world is hurtling towards.

To be sure, there are dangers in such an approach, and Chattarji doesn’t entirely sidestep them. Page after page of solipsistic musing can be wearying, more so when many of the characters share the same alienated qualities. Haunted by the past, they make their way through the world responding to questions of existence with answers of the imagination. As one of them ponders, if the past is something self-created by our own memories, we should rearrange and embroider instead of bemoaning it.

To break away from such a register, Chattarji also includes a section of lengthy journal excerpts, which don’t quite work: the entries themselves seem jejune, allied to coincidences in the diarist’s relationships. The mock-mythic tone that Chattarji essays later on -- as with descriptions of Tennyson’s past – is pulled off more successfully.

This unevenness apart, the novel is suffused by a bleakness of vision that sometimes rests uneasily with the lushness of prose. Reading Rupture is not always a pleasant experience, but that’s the price to pay when the attempt is -- as Kafka said -- to fashion a novel that serves as an ax for the frozen sea inside us all.

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