Sunday, March 23, 2008

Love And Longing In Bombay

This appeared in today's Hindustan Times. It's the third book I've read in a row by Indians writing in English that suffers from overstatement. (The first two being Saeed Mirza's Ammi and Priya Sarukkai Chabria's Generation 14.) It's not that these three books are bad, but they would have been so much better with a little more Hemingwayesque restraint. On quite another note, I finally managed to stop myself from using the word "quotidian" in a review.


Salman Rushdie’s Saleem Sinai grew up in the privileged vicinity of Breach Candy; Anita Desai’s Hugo Baumgartner met his fate in seedy Colaba bylanes; and Vikram Chandra’s Inspector Sartaj and Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram traipsed through slums, dance bars and other gangland haunts. Now, in Murzban Shroff’s debut collection of short stories, we’re shown yet another aspect of Mumbai: the lives of its marginalised and migrant citizens, “their conflicts, their betrayals, their realisation and their redemption”.

This, among others, is a collection of low-lifes, itinerant service providers, ne’er-do-wells, scroungers, and, inevitably, good-hearted diamonds in the rough, all battling yet attracted to Bombay’s malign, magnetic lure. That may sound Dickensian, but Shroff’s brand of didactic social realism is closer to that of Upton Sinclair.

Many tales here have a similar pattern: a present occupation inter-cut with a past preoccupation. Thus, a dhobi delivering a load on a Churchgate-bound local train wonders whether his livelihood has a future; a Chowpatty masseur servicing a customer muses on the fate of his wife left behind in the village; a taxi-driver carrying a passenger from Nariman Point to the airport reflects on the vagaries of his profession; a film production assistant navigating rush-hour traffic ponders on the fall-out of a messy relationship; and a horse-and-carriage driver taking an Arab family for a ride down Marine Drive speculates on how to provide for those he’s responsible for.

Other stories deal with lives of the Parsi community, such as the moving ‘The Great Divide’, where an aged couple faces “a national failure to dissolve differences”. Also poignant is ‘Babu Barrah Takka’ featuring an upright public-sector employee at the crossroads.

Shroff has clearly done his homework, which shows in his use of everyday detail. His prose is straightforward and unadorned, though not above the occasional act of legerdemain -- such as the long opening sentence of ‘This House of Mine’. He’s also confident enough not to provide neat, well-rounded endings. However, what offsets these sterling qualities is the didacticism referred to earlier: the epiphanies are too pronounced and in story after story Shroff spells out realisations that have already been made clear by the narrative itself.

After a while, these overstatements take on a moralising tone, which robs many stories of the power they would otherwise have had. Take the title story, dealing with a wedding party hosted by a rags-to-riches businessman, which is among the weakest because the author’s ill-concealed disdain for bourgeois social-climbing overshadows everything else. As a mode, satire, not realism, is better suited to such sentiments.

That having been said, Shroff’s writing gives off an air of earnestness and sincerity that is endearing, and his dedication to his subject matter is apparent. This isn’t exactly a debut to leave you breathless, because it wears its liberal pieties too overtly on its sleeve; nevertheless, Breathless in Bombay deserves attention because of its unflinching focus on the lives of those who are often overlooked in Mumbai’s heedless rush towards modernisation.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Will, No Grace

This appeared in yesterday's DNA.


Some years ago, Matt Beaumont came to the attention of the reading public with his wry, inventive novel, e, which updated Richardson’s Clarissa in providing us with a take on the goings-on in an advertising agency, told entirely in the form of e-mail exchanges. Since then he’s reverted to more traditional ways of storytelling, and this is the case as well with Where There’s a Will, his fifth book.

It’s clear from the beginning that Beaumont is partial to narrative in which his authorial presence makes itself felt in a number of ironic descriptions and asides. Because there are many of these, and because none of them are especially droll, Where There’s a Will emerges as more than occasionally irritating to read.

This is the tale of Alvin Lee, the forty-something “learning mentor” of a group of deviant teenagers in a school on the fringes of London. Like Voltaire’s Candide, Lee is an incurable optimist as well as do-gooder, and this embroils him in hopeless misunderstandings with not just his students and staff but also his extended family comprising partner Karen and four children of varying ages.

After visiting one of his former students who’s now working in a massage parlour, Lee happens to save an octogenarian heiress from being mugged by another one of his wards, and this causes the rich old lady to name him as sole beneficiary in her will. Her subsequent death leads to a farrago of complications during which Alvin’s fidelity, his health and his reputation suffer serious injury.

Through a series of twists, turns, zigs and zags – as well as some jaw-dropping coincidences – all ends well, with Lee reinstated as a paragon of virtue, as various characters discover their penchant for Christianity, rock-n-roll, astronomy and more. When ironic reversals appear – and there are more than a few in this book – you’re past being affected because by then your credibility hasn’t just been stretched, it’s passed breaking point.

With its mannered facetiousness and paper-thin characters, about the only thing Where There’s a Will has going for it is that it moves at a breathless pace. Recommended for those who find Nick Hornby too taxing.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Looking London, Going Tokyo

This appeared in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai


The title story in Kunal Basu’s collection, The Japanese Wife, is a quirky tale of an introverted teacher in rural West Bengal and his marriage to a Japanese woman he’s never met, only corresponded with. Not only is it poignantly rendered, it’s often portrayed in strikingly visual terms.

When it comes to the rest, however, the devices that make the title story work seem flat and forced. In ‘Long Live Imelda Marcos’, an account of an Indian couple’s relationship with their Filipina maid in Hong Kong, the story’s delicacy and insight is marred by the trick ending. The same occurs in ‘Father Tito’s Onion Rings’, dwelling on the predicament of a Yugoslavian priest in Calcutta. And the finale of ‘Lotus Dragon’, dealing with an Indian couple in Tiananmen Square in 1989, is frankly manipulative.

Many stories revolve, as above, on the plight of people out of place. In ‘Grateful Ganga’, a recently-widowed American arriving in India to immerse her husband’s ashes finds herself attracted to a strapping Punjabi in Delhi; in ‘Miss Annie’, a Russian harlot in Calcutta forges a relationship with three incendiary revolutionaries. There aren’t really any clash-of-culture insights: the tales are predicament-driven rather than character-led.

Where trick devices are dispensed with, there’s the absence of narrative charge, as in ‘The Last Dalang’ or the odd ‘Lenin’s CafĂ©’. Then, there’s ‘The Accountant’, which has a promising premise – a middle-aged accountant believing that he’s the reincarnation of one of the Taj Mahal’s architects – but ends all too neatly. It’s almost as though Basu, having come up with interesting characters, doesn’t trust them to evolve organically. In one of the stories, he states “In life, as in a work of art, it’s the accident that reveals more than the plan”. More accidents and fewer plans would have made these stories better.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Modernism And Its Discontents

This appeared in the January-February 2007 issue of Biblio.


Finding myself with a little time to spare during a recent visit to London, I embarked upon a quick stroll around Bloomsbury Square hoping to come across the former residence of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, as well as those of her contemporaries, Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington. Of course, I didn’t bump into even one: what I realised later was that their houses are, instead, located in Gordon Square, a few minutes’ walk away.

Those hunting for the presence of Modernism nowadays seem fated to meet with similar frustration. That age of avant-garde experimentation, the desire to “make it new” and the obsessive urge to break with traditional forms has been replaced by a time when art is an investment opportunity, literary magazines and independent bookstores are dwindling and serious composers and conductors cater to a meagre few. These are the fragments we shore among our ruin.

To look back on the Modernists, then, may seem an exercise in fruitless nostalgia. But, as cultural theorist Peter Gay’s sweeping new book reminds us, their accomplishments can be counted as among the foremost aesthetic achievements in art, music, architecture and writing, with an influence that ripples out till today. Rather than an exhaustive study, he says, “I have looked for what Modernists had in common, and the social conditions that would foster or dishearten them”, with selective choices to exemplify his arguments, based on the fact that “the one thing that all modernists had indisputably in common was the conviction that the untried is markedly superior to the familiar, the rare to the ordinary, the experimental to the routine”.

For Gay, Modernism starts with Baudelaire in the mid-1800s and terminates around the time that Andy Warhol displayed his infamous Brillo Box in New York in 1964. This latter event, he says, brought about “the death of art” by forcing people to confront uncomfortable questions: “What is a work of art? How do you distinguish between one of them and the rest of creation?”

For the bulk of the book, Gay focuses on the disciplines of painting, sculpture, fiction, poetry, music, architecture, design and film, discussing the life and work of those such as Joyce, Woolf, Proust, Munch, Cezanne, Picasso, Stravinsky, Griffith, Eisenstein, Welles, Chaplin, Le Corbusier and Van der Rohe – to name only a few. To go through the roster of such names – and muse on their determination to flaunt convention allied with principled self-scrutiny -- is to realise once again that nowadays, there may be many good works of art, but there are no great ones.

The virtue of Gay’s book lies not in provocative theses or bold new assessments, but in being a study of the movement across disciplines, shedding light on commonalities and unifying themes. (Notably, the art of photography is excluded; but, as Gay has pointed out elsewhere, one of the reasons for this is that he was unable to provide adequate linkages from this form to the others.)

Gay is, of course, an arch, unabashed Freudian, as he reminds us again in his preface. His desired perspective, then, is to look at the causal forces operating on the Modernists’ minds, the activity of the unconscious and the interplay between libido and aggression. Which is a vaulting ambition he sometimes loses sight of in attempting to capture Modernism and its discontents, with all its nuances and vagaries.

One of the criticisms the work of the avant-garde has always had to face is that its techniques and modes are alienating for the man on the street and, as such, such artists were nothing more than a bunch of effete snobs. As a comment, this is singularly ill-judged: today’s baffling modern mode is often tomorrow’s commonplace. Stockhausen may have had limited appeal to the general public but his compositions inspired the Beatles and Pink Floyd; not many outside the classroom read Joyce’s Ulysses nowadays, but the stream-of-consciousness technique that he streamlined finds echoes in the pulpiest airport thriller; the first reaction to Picasso’s affair with cubes was one of dismayed incomprehension, but drawing rooms of today’s nouveau riche are filled with pallid imitations. This is even more apt when it comes to the art of cinema: to take just one example, techniques such as depth-of-field and extreme close-up are visible on the screens of every multiplex today, yet, when Orson Welles pioneered them in Citizen Kane, they were seen as radical departures from convention.

This argument, of course, is linked to the receptivity of audiences over time, and Gay refers more than once to what he calls the “three publics”: the “barbarian” masses; those superior to the multitudes but reluctant to spend time and effort to understand the avant-garde; and finally, a small group that’s open to innovation. In this context, it’s illuminating to read Gay’s account of the commerce between art dealers, critics, museum administrators and the champions of art for art’s sake: “Businessmen of culture offered and sold artistic products, whether dramas, drawings or volumes of poetry, and with the same gesture advanced the aesthetic cultivation of the buying public”.

The Modernists’ battle with the smugness of the bourgeoisie is almost the stuff of legend now – but Gay also vividly brings out how the social and economic conditions of the time favoured the rise of the experimental. It was, after all, a time of unprecedented prosperity, increasing urbanisation, growing literacy and the questioning of hitherto unchallenged percepts of Christianity.

Gay’s admiration for the Modernists isn’t unblinking; he does devote space to those he terms the “anti-modern modernists”, by which he means those who were drawn to anti-Semitism (Eliot), Italian fascism (Pound), anti-feminism (Strindberg) and Hitler’s Nazis (Hamsun), among others. But, instead of speculating on whether Modernism, in its resolute hunt for new styles, could be psychologically allied to forms of political absolutism, he concludes: “The question of why so many modernists were drawn to regimes that were sick parodies of the modernist quest for transcendence and absolutes is unanswerable”.

My ill-mapped jaunt around Bloomsbury was unsuccessful in discovering some of Modernism’s landmarks; Gay’s visit to Bilbao, Spain, in the autumn of 2000, however, provided him with a pointer to Modernism’s continuing influence. “In a word, I was overwhelmed,” he writes, talking of his visit to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum. “I was not awed into silence but took pleasure from the first from the wealth and elegance of the forms that rose up around me” Gehry apart, Gay also holds up Marquez as an exemplar of late-stage Modernism, with particular reference to his use of magical realism and ambiguity in One Hundred Years of Solitude. This, however, comes across as a trifle disingenuous. No-one is decrying the merits of Marquez, but there are many others who have been as significantly iconoclastic. Take Cortazar. Take Borges. Take Saramago.

Be that as it may, many feel that Modernism’s achievements seem at present too close to us to form any reasonable, objective judgment about their aims and continuing influence. A pointer to this is the response to the exhibition titled ‘Designing a New World 1914 - 1939’ at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in early 2006. This brought forth strong reactions for and against the movement -- as well as record crowds in attendance. “They were the neo-cons of 20th century art,” fumed Simon Jenkins at the time, while Terence Conran was more complimentary: “Modernism is the most exciting exhibition I have ever seen in London. It means a huge amount to me personally”.

As for the future, it could well be that the rising ride of nationalism – often couched in religious terms – and the shifting of the world’s axis towards Asian nations will give rise to a new form of Romanticism in the arts, conceivably an exalted version of medievalism. It’s only from the ashes of this second Romantic Movement that a subsequent Modernism will be permitted to arise.

Then again, perhaps we’re all mistaken in looking for Modernist attitudes nowadays in books, on canvases, in marble and in metal. In this age of information, the heirs to that fin de siecle artistic revolution could well be among those writing software codes, directing music videos, devising computer games and – heaven help us – composing mobile phone novels.