Saturday, June 23, 2012

Anomie And Bonhomie

This appeared in the latest TimeOut Mumbai


In keeping with its title, Niven Govinden’s Black Bread White Beer traffics in opposites. This slim novel circles around the perceived differences between men and women, between the duties of husbands and wives, between parents and in-laws, between Christians and Hindus, between the city and the country – and, above all, between races.

The events that anchor the above musings have to do with a trip to Sussex by Amal and Claud, a London-based couple. Claud has just suffered a first trimester miscarriage, and they drive to her parents in the country who are as yet unaware of this mishap. The novel stays close to Amal’s thoughts throughout, as he obsesses over his ‘Indian gene’, his increasingly strained relationship with Claud and his fears and hopes for the future.

Thus, there are alliances between Black Bread White Beer and Ardisher Vakil’s One Day, which similarly deals with a day in the life of a London-based inter-racial couple in a fractious alliance. (In Vakil’s novel, though, it’s the woman who’s from India and the husband who’s British.)

Though Govinden’s prose has a thoughtful cadence, many of Amal’s thoughts come across as essentialist, if not outdated. (“Men do not have best friends the way women do. It…can overwhelm the basic masculine need for secrets and freedoms.”) One looks for elements of satire or irony, but there is little to be found. It’s not without moments of well-observed intensity, but the environment of the novel can be hermetic and airless, given Amal’s paranoid imaginings. Towards the close, there’s heavy-handed mention of a village square’s maypole, an evident symbol of fertility.

The title is an inversion of the name of an album by British band Scritti Pollitti, whose previous release was called Anomie and Bonhomie. There’s a lot of the former and just a late-stage glimmer of the latter in Govinden’s novel.

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