Thursday, February 21, 2008

Great Yates

I read -- and marvelled at -- Richard Yates' classic, Revolutionary Road, for the first time only late last year, and resolved to get my hands on his other books as well -- a resolve forgotten until I spotted his moving, disturbing novella, Cold Spring Harbour, in a bookshop last week. Why, I asked myself after putting it down, isn't this writer better known? In a pleasing coincidence, The Guardian's Nick Fraser asks the same question in this excellent piece that sums up Yates' themes, his life, his obscure fame and probable revival. James Wood is quoted as saying: "He is a reader's writer, always lucid, elegant and frequently poignant", which is good enough reason to now seek out his short stories.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Another Jodha Akbar

The lastest issue of the New Yorker --- and how fortunate we are that it's all available online -- carries a piece by Salman Rushdie, clearly an extract from his forthcoming The Enchantress of Florence, featuring Emperor Akbar and his queen, Jodhabai who, in Rushdie's hands, is an imaginary character: "Queens floated within his palaces like ghosts, Rajput and Turkish sultanas playing catch-me-if-you-can. One of these royal personages did not really exist. She was an imaginary wife, dreamed up by Akbar in the way that lonely children dream up imaginary friends, and in spite of the presence of many living, if floating, consorts, the Emperor was of the opinion that it was the real queens who were the phantoms and the nonexistent beloved who was real. He gave her a name, Jodha, and no man dared gainsay him."

Should have thought of that, Mr Gowarikar.

Here Come The Clones

This appeared in the February 18th issue of Tehelka.

GENERATION 14 Priya Sarukkai Chabria

Literary dystopias usually feature faceless, totalitarian regimes that crush dissent and redefine what it means to be human. As such, they’re perfect cautionary tales for writers to pose their Big Questions: What are the mechanics of power? (Orwell’s 1984, Zamyatin’s We). What are the perils of creating an ‘ideal’ society? (Huxley’s Brave New World). How is feminism subverted? (Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale).

It’s into this category that Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s Generation 14 falls. Though there are several digressive sections in this novel that could more properly be termed speculative or fantastical, the framework is clearly science fiction. The necessary questions the author raises – at times too conspicuously -- revolve around the meaning of a shared humanity and the necessity of plurality of expression.

Set primarily in the 24th century, the novel concerns the fate of a clone in a manner quite different from Ishiguro’s poignant Never Let Me Go. Here, we encounter Clone 14/54/G, the fourteenth copy of an “Original” who begins to mutate by recollecting memories – having “visitations”, as she puts it – of incidents in times past. As a member of a sanitised and stratified Global Community comprising Originals, Superior Zombies, Firehearts and other Clones, she’s viewed with suspicion by the reigning powers until they realise that this may help clear up a long-standing mystery. It turns out that her Original, an iconoclastic anthropologist, was killed during her speech at a great celebration just before she was to reveal an important secret. Her clone, by channeling the Original’s sense and memory impressions, may stumble upon this secret too, and the regime starts to coddle her in various ingenious ways. As is common in such novels, there’s underground resistance towards the supreme power, and members of this movement contact the clone, winning her over to their side.

So far, so ingenious. Sarukkai-Chabria has clearly immersed herself in this new world’s features as well as in the behaviour and treatment of its citizens. The section after this build-up contains the Original’s own musings, which end just before the address she is to make. This serves to deepen our understanding of the Clone’s predicament.

At this point, though, Generation 14 takes a dismaying structural turn, with several long, anecdotal reports of the “visitations” themselves. Drawn from India’s past, these are first-person accounts by, among others, a parrot in a nawabi Lucknow household, a meditative fish caught up in a Kashi flood, a bereaved mother after Ashoka’s Kalinga war, and a wolf-dog journeying southward with his master to vanquish local tribes. Most are linked by unexpected and violent acts and the penalties to be paid. The intention, of course, is to demonstrate plurality, but though the author displays considerable chutzpah in writing these narratives, they serve as an extended and annoyingly lengthy digression from the Clone’s fate.

Sarukkai-Chabria is also a poet, and this is evident from the prose she employs, which is resonant and allusive. At times, this rises to an exalted, almost Vedic, pitch and this, it must be said, becomes hard to digest when extended for too long.

As for the novel’s climax, this is less vividly realised than the rest of the book: there is an overtness, a spelling out of themes, that jars. Take this sentence, for example, uttered by one of the clone’s chief allies: “What if there is, again, the possibility of plurality of expression and belief? And justice? If there could be acceptance of difference, Clone, what boundlessness then…what creativity!”

There is much imaginative depth and richness to be found in Generation 14; equally, there’s an eagerness to over-extend the ambit as well as overstate the case, which makes it less compelling than it could have been.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Present Tense

This appeared in today's edition of The Hindustan Times


One of the devices used by novelists attempting to ‘write back to the centre’ is to re-imagine characters from earlier works of fiction. Most tellingly employed by Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea, which told the story of the first Mrs Rochester from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, this ploy was also at the heart of Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs, which presented the point of view of Magwitch, the transported convict from Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Now, in Neel Mukherjee’s debut novel, Past Continuous, we’re re-introduced to Miss Gilby and her relationship with Bimala and Nikhilesh – characters who first appeared in Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World. Past Continuous isn’t just about Miss Gilby, though. The author has bigger fish to fry, and he intercuts the tale of the English governess in India with that of another stranger in a strange land: that of Ritwik, who, in his early twenties, leaves Kolkata to study in London. Miss Gilby’s story, we come to realise, is actually being written by Ritwik while in London.

An enervating Kolkata in the Seventies and Eighties; a frenetic London in the Nineties; and a revolutionary Bengal at the turn of the last century: clearly, the author is in the grip of an overweening ambition which, though obviously not something to be discouraged, needs both talent and control to be successfully realised. Alas, not much of either is visible in Past Continuous.

Take Ritwik’s tale, for instance. The separate strands of his existence on display – maternal mistreatment, penurious childhood, parasitic relatives, convent school exploits, exhaustion with his hometown, relationships with fellow-students in London, cruising for gay sex in toilets and alleyways – remain just that, separate strands. One of the ways in which a novel is different from life is that in the former, one finds a clear flow of cause and effect, an accretion of parts to form a greater whole, and this is missing in the tale of this unfortunate youth. Ritwik’s story is, one supposes, meant to be organic and artless instead of plotted, but instead comes across as all too fragmentary. An unfortunate side-effect of this is a lack of empathy towards the character, barring the moments when we learn of his mistreatment as a child.

Miss Gilby’s tale is more focused and controlled but here too, there’s a wearying sense of ennui for neither of them possess the energy -- inwardly or outwardly directed – to bring about a change. In addition, the governess’ story doesn’t really cast Tagore’s novel in a new light, making one wonder what the point is.

Yet another strand of this novel is that of Ritwik’s aged English landlady, Anne Cameron, a link between Miss Gilby and the present. This is meant to be the novelist’s tap upon the tuning fork to make the two narrative prongs vibrate in sympathy; what we hear instead is a dull clunk.

The relationship between Ritwik and Anne is, however, one of the better things in Past Continuous, combining affection and unlikelihood in equal measure. Mukherjee goes too far, though, in introducing a puzzling strain of magic realism when rare birds mysteriously appear in Anne’s garden, a link to Miss Gilby’s interest in ornithology.

Almost two-thirds of the way into the book, Ritwik embarks upon a cash-for-sex relationship with Zafar, rich Saudi and possible arms dealer, a liaison that has the potential to focus his hitherto wayward life. Ah, one thinks, this novel’s coming to life at last. But no: things fizzle out soon enough.

Also aggravating is the affectation of the prose. Ritwik’s tale is narrated in a faux-Nabokovian manner, and the clashing of misjudged adjectives that sometimes ensues is alarming. (What, after all, are “tenuous relatives” or even a “deliciously slurpy peek”?) This, though, pales in front of the author’s nod to James Joyce in Anne Cameron’s stream-of-consciousness musings. “Murder your darlings,” one murmurs, turning the page. The sections dealing with Miss Gilby contain interesting period detail and are more straightforwardly written. But it’s when the author goes so far as to include advertisements promoting swadeshi as well as newspaper clippings on the partition of Bengal that things get out of hand.

Towards the end of Past Continuous, the always-solipsistic Ritwik muses, “All lives have an onward flow, a beginning leading to a middle leading to an end; only his seems to be a swirling eddy in someone else’s flow, destined to whirl round and round for a brief while till a change in current or wave pattern obliterates it.” It’s in making these swirls and eddies cohere and providing them with a historical resonance that Mukherjee’s book falls short.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Myth Making

This is from the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai.


In his The Elephanta Suite, Paul Theroux had some uncomplimentary things to say about Indian novelists who wrote family sagas, implying that they were out of touch with the nation’s everyday realities. Well, he’s not going to like Manil Suri’s The Age of Shiva very much. This is the story of Meera Sawhney, which begins in Delhi on Republic Day 1955 when she meets the man she will marry. It continues through her married life in Delhi to her move to Bombay with her husband, till the present day, when she gains a deeper understanding of what to do with the rest of her life.

The form of the novel is that of Meera narrating her tale to her son, Ashvin, and Suri is remarkably candid about the powerful yet rocky relationship between the two, not shying away from erotic overtones. Ashvin apart, Meera’s tale has to do with her efforts to gain independence from the men who try to take charge of her life: her secular, erudite, yet controlling father; her weak, philandering husband who squanders his life in dreams of becoming a playback singer in Bombay; and her rapacious brother-in-law, who rises to become a senior official of a right-wing nationalist party.

As with the earlier The Death of Vishnu, Suri’s prose is quiet and plain, yet imbued with telling, quotidian detail that bring characters and situations to life. His evocations of the Shiva-Parvati-Ganesh myths and their linkages with the present are also effective.

It must be added, though, that in parts the book is too elaborately plotted -- in particular, some attempts to yoke the events of contemporary Indian history to Meera’s life are forced. Leading one to conclude that had the book pivoted more on the mythological than the historical, it would have emerged the stronger for it.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Mum's The Word

This appeared in today's The Sunday Express


Film directors who write are a comparatively rare species. Offhand, one can think of Neil Jordan, whose The Crying Game and Mona Lisa on celluloid are matched by novels such as The Dream of a Beast and Sunrise with Seamonster. Then, of course, there was Satyajit Ray, whose Feluda and Professor Shanku characters remain popular. To this short list, you can add the name of Saeed Akhtar Mirza, whose last feature film, Naseem, appeared over a decade ago. Mirza’s book, Ammi: Letter to a Democratic Mother, isn’t strictly classifiable as a novel, being a series of vignettes comprising Sufi fables, childhood memories, re-imaginings and a short film script to boot. As he himself writes, it can be categorised as “miniatures set in a mural: a kind of reflective, personal journey set in a background of ideas, politics and history”.

The danger of such a text resembling a diaristic ragbag is always present, but Ammi does have the virtue of being loosely held together in the form of long, rambling addresses to Mirza’s deceased mother. Another problem, however, is that Mirza wears his politics on his sleeve, overloading the text with polemic. Thus, liberal, anti-materialistic and anti-communal values are openly espoused, with several asides dealing with the glories of the Ottoman Empire in its heyday as opposed to today’s free-market West. It’s not that one has a bone to pick with such attitudes; it’s just that open proselytizing weakens the spine of any book if it’s not seamlessly integrated into the narrative.

That having been said, it’s undeniable that there’s an endearing charm to much of Mirza’s unaffected prose. In particular, his imagined tale of the love story of Nusrat Beg and Jahanara, set in the Thirties and Forties, is winsome and beguiling. Also readable are some of his childhood memories, along with passages that describe his ideological awakening and his days at FTII. And his recreation of the gentle, calm Bombay that his parents arrived in to create a future for themselves is certainly evocative. At these times, one finds oneself wishing that Mirza had planned the entire volume in the form of a memoir, rather than casting his net so wide and far.

Less pleasing are the author’s many ruminations on the crassness of today’s capitalist times and the little homilies on communal tensions, particularly relating to the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the riots and subsequent bomb blasts in Mumbai. One has no quarrel with his humanistic sentiments, but his editorialising contains nothing that one hasn’t come across before in column after newspaper column.

The latter portion of the book again reveals the looseness of the structure: here, one finds pen-portraits of some of the marginal and dispossessed Indians that Mirza has encountered during his travels across the country. These are illuminating, yes, but seem to belong in quite another volume. The film script that Mirza appends to the book by way of epilogue, dealing with the plight of an Afghan refugee in the United States shortly before and after the strike on the Twin Towers, is notable for the economy with which it creates characters – but is weakened by breaking the show-don’t-tell rule in its final scenes.

In his preface, Mirza candidly confesses that his wife, Jennifer, “liked the book in many parts but somehow felt that as a whole it seemed disjointed and lacked cohesion”. Despite the revisions the author made because of this comment, it still rings true.