Sunday, February 21, 2010

Going, Going, Gone

This appeared in today's DNA.

WAY TO GO Upamanyu Chatterjee

“To a man with a hammer,” wrote Mark Twain, “the world is a nail”. And to an uncompromising moralist, the world is full of people and events that need correction. That is at the core of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s new novel, Way to Go, which re-introduces us to some of the characters from his The Last Burden.

As with his earlier work, satire is Chatterjee’s tool of choice to dissect the pettiness and emptiness of our current state. The novel opens with a bravura first chapter in which Jamun, now in his mid-40s and as aimless as ever, arrives at a police station to report the disappearance of his father, the 85-year-old, half-paralysed Shyamanand. Here, officialdom is gleefully and hilariously skewered.

The lampooning becomes darker and bleaker as the novel progresses. We’re drawn into the world of Jamun, his brother Burfi, and others in their ken including their cook, Budi Kadombini, the oleaginous builder Monga, and neighbour Neha Khanna.

Others characters appear and then vanish from the pages for no discernible reason, such as Madhumati, Jamun’s tenant, or Kasturi, his former lover and mother of his child, now creator of an “epic blockbuster Hindi TV soap” titled Cheers Zindagi featuring a character modeled on Jamun himself.

The real-life Jamun broods over “the dispirited and fidgety ghosts of his past”. Old mementoes may be set ablaze in the Holi bonfire organised by Monga, but old memories continually surface in his consciousness, and in the narrative. Jamun reflects on the various ways in which he's failed himself and others in his life, often contemplating suicide in the manner of a man wondering whether to make a withdrawal from a depleted bank account.

Apart from Chatterjee’s gaze becoming decidedly more acidulous, his prose too is jagged and not always easy to navigate, not least because of the inordinate number of dashes that populate his sentences. Any form of behaviour is fair game – from the goings-on at a butcher’s shop to the antics at a prostitute’s den -- and is observed and dissected with something approaching cruelty. Then, there are the metaphors: a mangrove swamp is “nature's lush pubic hair”; gravy resembles “the outcome of a child's indigestion”, and a pair of lips on a policewoman's face shift “like rosy buttocks squirming for comfort”.

The book is structured around the dead and the disappeared, and though -- especially towards the end -- events may seem to swivel haphazardly, they’re actually part of a scheme that is quite deftly explained. However, when you’re being mordantly comic -- and skating on the fringes of farce -- a late shift of register towards the compassionate is not only surprising, it's also unconvincing. One may expect laughter from the abyss, yes, but not tenderness.

Describing the relationship between Jamun and Kasturi, Chatterjee writes, “With them, all was convolution”. It’s a statement that could well be applied to this disturbing novel of overlapping coils.


sabupaul said...

I thought it was Maslow who said, “If you only have a hammer, you see every problem as a nail.”

Unknown said...

It's been attributed to both, actually - check footnote 5: