Friday, April 29, 2011

Where Have All The Myths Gone?

Abandoned children, scorned suitors, valiant women and men struggling against fate, shape-shifting tricksters, Pyrrhic victories and rites of passage. All this and more, one would imagine, is rich fodder for the novelist. However, mythology and its tropes -- "public dreams", as Joseph Campbell once called them -- seem to be all but absent from the contemporary novel. The rest of my Yahoo India column is here.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Balkan Beast

This appeared in today's The Indian Express.


You can erase national boundaries, but memories and myths will always prevail. Such recollections and legends run “like secret rivers” through Tea Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, set in the villages and cities of the Balkans. The upheavals that the area has witnessed may have redrawn the map, but, as this book exuberantly illustrates, storytelling has its own contours.

For a contemporary novel, Obreht’s tone of voice is both unusual and apt, being a blend of the real and the folkloric. On occasion, she draws from the well of magic realism that others such as Rushdie and Marquez have dipped into. The warp and weft of this sprawling tapestry comprise two interlinked narratives, the first concerning the narrator’s present circumstances, and the other, fables from her grandfather’s coming-of-age years. As such, it features a picaresque cast, also managing to touch upon faded Ottoman glory, Nazi depredations and later religious strife.

The Tiger’s Wife opens with Natalia, a 20-something clinician, travelling with a feisty colleague to deliver inoculations and other medication to an orphanage across the border. She learns of the death of her grandfather, a doctor and cancer patient, under somewhat mysterious circumstances; soon, she gets involved with an itinerant crew trying to find the buried corpse of a relative, convinced that it is responsible for their ill-fortune. The story proceeds by alternating between Natalia’s actions and reconstructions from her grandfather’s youth.

The centerpiece of the grandfather’s story is of his meetings with a “deathless man” and the wager he makes with him involving his favourite novel, Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Death, in fact, is a concern that shadows the book: characters fight it, overcome it, are haunted by it, make Faust-like pacts with it, rely on superstition to banish it, and, of course, succumb to it.

This is not to say that the book suffers from a surfeit of sorrow: there’s an undercurrent of humour, often black. At one point, a person who protests against the bombing of a cotton factory bears aloft a placard that reads: I Now Have No Clean Underwear.

Colour and incident aren’t qualities this novel is short of. The tiger of the title is one that has escaped from a city zoo after a bombardment and goes on to inhabit a forest at the outskirts of a remote village, creating panic amongst its occupants. Obreht takes us into the consciousness of this creature as he prowls in search of food and shelter, finding an ally in the battered deaf-mute wife of the village butcher. The tale of the butcher – once a sensitive, musically-inclined youth – is also revealed, as well as those of others, including a valiant blacksmith, an peripatetic bear-vanquisher and the local apothecary.

All of this is grounded by Obreht’s attention to detail, often rendered in the form of lists. The tiger, at one point, scents “the thick, woolly smell of sheep and goats; the smell of fire, tar, wax; the interesting reek of the outhouses; paper, iron, the individual smells of people; the savoury smells of stew and goulash, the grease of baking pies". A pasha’s palace-turned-museum comprises “portraiture halls with ornate hangings and brass lamps, court tapestries depicting feasts and battles, a small library annex where the young ladies could read, and a tearoom where the pasha's china and cookbooks and coffee cups were on display.”

The war and strife that have bedevilled the region are often referred to in terms of their effects: the shortages, the petty black marketeering, the implications and sense of nearby hostilities. As the narrator says at one point, "Conflict we didn't necessarily understand -- conflict we had raged over, regurgitated opinions on, seized as the reason for why we couldn't go anywhere, do anything, be anyone -- had been at the centre of everything." A little later there’s another reflection: “The war had altered everything. Once separate, the pieces that made up our old country no longer carried the same characteristics that had formerly represented parts of the whole. Previously shared things -- landmarks, writers, scientists, histories -- had to be doled out according to their new owners.” Putting the pieces together is one of the things that Obreht’s work sets out to do.

There’s a lot, then, that’s crammed into this novel, and certainly, there are times when one feels adrift on a sea of stories, with the links between them being tenuously articulated. However, it’s Obreht’s assured storytelling instincts that come to the rescue, making The Tiger’s Wife a saga that burns bright.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Unfinished, Not Unpublished

After what Amit Varma calls "the longest drinks break in history", the Yahoo India columns are back. And my piece on unfinished manuscripts that go on to become published novels -- by those such as Dickens, Scott Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Foster Wallace and more -- is here. Should be easy for you to finish reading it.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Hollywood's Bombay

This appeared in Saturday's The Indian Express

NIGHT IN BOMBAY Louis Bromfield

Louis Bromfield’s Night in Bombay isn’t a novel with a real city as its backdrop. It’s a novel that exaggerates and magnifies those aspects of the city that fit into Hollywood’s perceptions of it in the Thirties and Forties. Published in 1940 and now re-issued by Penguin, it’s the second of Bromfield’s novels to be set in India. The first, The Rains Came, was made into a film in 1939 starring Tyrone Powers and Myrna Loy, achieving a degree of success as well as an Academy Award for special effects. No doubt the author hoped that Night in Bombay would be filmed too, which accounts for the novel’s melodrama, exoticisation of locale and cast of colourful if one-dimensional characters.

The book, then, is anything but a precursor to what we’ve come to think of as the “Mumbai novel”. Titles in that category ought to reflect a quality of lived experience, a characteristic shared by novels as disparate as Anita Desai’s Baumgartner’s Bombay, Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey, parts of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Vikram Chandra’s mammoth cat-and-mouse saga, Sacred Games, among others.

There’s no such quality in Night in Bombay, whose flavour can be summed up in the musing of one of its characters early on. Gazing upon the city, he recalls "memories of parties, of drinking, of easy seductions, of extraordinary nights beneath a sky of blue velvet in which skies glittered like diamonds, of rides in gharries, down from some garden suspended on the side of Malabar Hill, to the Hotel Taj Mahal”. Casablanca, anyone? Later, another character looking around the race course thinks: “Nowhere but in Bombay did you find Maharajas and millionaires, Ranis and British governors, rich Americans and Arab horse dealers, visiting French and beautiful Indian women".

This, then, is the meretricious background against which Bromfield’s American characters collide like billiard balls. There’s Bill Wainwright, on an Asian tour to oversee his father’s business; Homer Merrill, a saintly social worker who toils for the uplift of India’s villages; and Carol Halma, a former Miss Minnesota and Bill’s divorced wife, who cavorts with princelings, but whose soul harbours hidden depths. Circling around these are some dissolute Europeans, each one with secrets and weaknesses to hide. They spend days and nights betting at the races, attending parties in royal mansions and drinking gin at the hotel bar. (The hotel itself is described as “having the air of a vast and dreary county jail”.) It’s when Bill and Homer both begin to nurse feelings for Carol that the actual plot kicks in. The Indians are primarily hotel staff, apart from one Mr Botlivala, a greasy social climber, and the implausibly-named and very upright Colonel Moti, head of an institute of tropical diseases.

All of this could well have been interesting to read in the present time, in the manner of a museum piece revelatory of the attitudes of an earlier era. However, Bromfield’s occasional attempts to “explain” India  give rise to generalities that range from the lazy to the comic. For example: "He knew suddenly why the Indian got beneath the skin of the stolid Englishmen, why it was that always the Indian won out. You could beat him or shout him down or even shoot him but still he knew all the answers and had a jump on you. That was the secret of Gandhi”. At other times, he makes you shift uncomfortably in your seat: “The automobile, it seemed, always produced an astounding effect upon coolies in the East; it intoxicated their downtrodden, starved beaten souls to feel beneath their bare souls an engine of great power, capable of immense speed, over which they held absolute power."

It’s also strange is that, given that this is the India of the late Thirties, there’s no mention of the turbulent political scenario, or even of the reactions of the British. Instead, Night in Bombay presents us with an insular hothouse environment in which the motivations and musings of the central characters are spelt out time and again. Even if it had been made into a movie, one suspects it would have been snubbed at the Academy Awards.