Monday, November 24, 2008

Girl, Interrupted

This appeared in yesterday's DNA.


The nationalistic fervour that preceded India’s partition isn’t a subject that one encounters often in English Indian fiction. R.K. Narayan’s Waiting for the Mahatma is, in fact, about the only title that comes readily to mind -- Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan dwelled more on the trauma of Partition itself. Now, there’s Bangalore-based Usha K.R.’s third novel, A Girl and a River, mainly set in a town in the princely state of Mysore in the 1930s, in which the actions and principles of Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose have a central influence on her characters.

This is a twin-track narrative that moves back and forth between the past and the near-present, in which the events of half a century ago and their impact on a single family are sought to be unravelled and understood. The girl of the title, and the river after which she is named, is Kaveri, daughter of Mylariah, the town’s lawyer, landowner and municipal councillor. Others who are a part of Kaveri’s growing years include her brother Setu and mother Rukmini.

The national cross-currents of that era as reflected in Kaveri’s town -- heady nationalism, incipient rebellion and conservative Anglophilia -- are brought to life through period detail, with an accent on the music, movies and books of the time. However, the author falls into the standard trap when it comes to historical fiction: there are excessive amounts of dialogue and exposition simply to establish context.

In time, Kaveri comes under the spell of Shyam, a well-meaning but reckless young rabble-rouser, and it is this attachment, along with the reactions of those close to the couple, that will lead to tragic consequences. The reverberations will be felt by Setu’s daughter, the unnamed narrator of the second tale set in the late 1980s, who attempts to find reasons for her parents’ joylessness and occasionally curious behaviour.

Though the prose throughout is more efficient than evocative, the author does ample justice to Kaveri’s character as she transforms from a bookish and impressionable young girl to a headstrong teenager. Also effective is the portrayal of the restrictions faced and courage displayed by the other two main female characters, Kaveri’s mother Rukmini, and the narrator in the present time. The men, however, fare less well; in particular, Setu’s animosity to Shyam isn’t ever fully explained.

More problematic is the switching between the 1930s and the 1980s, a device resorted to in order to show how past actions create ripples that spread through the decades. Quite simply, the predicament of Setu’s daughter, however well-portrayed, has much less impact than the events of Kaveri’s life. It thus emerges as no more than a frame, one that ought to have been more slender and less decorative.

Despite these weaknesses, A Girl and a River is a novel of scope and vitality. Its treatment of a fractious time in India’s past and the effects of the period on the central characters display a sensitivity and seriousness that’s more than occasionally pleasing.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Murder, He Wrote

This appeared in yesterday's The Sunday Express.


Move over, Frederick Forsyth. With The Bikini Murders, Farrukh Dhondy abandons his genteel Poona Company and Bombay Duck persona to produce a novel dealing with a half-Vietnamese, half-Indian serial killer, one who preys on tourists in South-east Asia, spends time in Tihar Jail before masterminding an escape, is apprehended in Goa and who, after serving his sentence, moves to France.

No cigar, then, for guessing that this is yet another recreation of the life of Charles Sobhraj – called Johnson Thhat in the novel. Dhondy begins with Thhat being apprehended in Kathmandu, largely due to the efforts of a retired inspector; the novel then moves into a racy first-person “confession”. Much of the narrative is based on the available facts of Sobhraj’s life, but there’s a new character or two, such as Ravina, Thhat’s accomplice in Thailand, and Chandrika, the intelligence officer who keeps an eye on him.

Dhondy’s prose is casual and brisk in its depiction of amorality, dealing with surfaces and not venturing within. At one point, he airily has Thhat speak of existential themes, linking his account with those of others such as Camus and Gide – and gilding the lily by going on to speak of the Gita’s maya. If this, indeed, is what the novel sets out to do, it’s implausible, not to mention ill-conceived.

Towards the end, The Bikini Murders places Thhat at the periphery of recent events, from the Kandahar hijack to 9/11 to Daniel Pearl to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. There are so many twists, turns and reversals by this point that one is reminded of a juggler with too many balls in the air desperately trying to keep his balance. Given that the novel’s jacket is a monument to garishness, you can judge this book by its cover.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wedding Wows

This is from the latest TimeOut Mumbai.

LOVE MARRIAGE V.V. Ganeshananthan

Some authors find their subjects in the ways in which marriages are contracted in the subcontinent. Yet others speak of political events and their impact on personal lives. In her debut novel, V.V. Ganeshananthan attempts a cocktail of both, with results that are often pleasing and sometimes disorienting.

The novel is narrated by Yalini, unmarried daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants in suburban America. Yalini and her parents move to Toronto to meet an ailing uncle and his daughter, who is soon to enter into an arranged marriage. However, this isn’t the story of Yalini alone; she tells us of the lives, loves and losses of her parents, maternal and paternal uncles and aunts, grandparents and cousins, much of which is set in Sri Lanka, but also in America, Germany, Australia, France and Canada. The point is driven home towards the end: “Reverse a family tree and branches of blood are whittled down to one person. I am composed of all the men and women who came before me. I am the result of many marriages”.

Yalini, we’re told more than once, was born in July 1983 – known to Sri Lankans as “Black July”, when systematic violence broke out against the Tamil community. Stray incidents of violence, mainly political, mark the narrative, each one an axe hacking at the family tree, but unable to destroy it.

There’s an attractive cadence to Ganeshananthan’s prose, undercut by her overdone tic of capitalizing Important Words -- among them Love and Heart. The fluency of the narrative is also marred by the fragmentary, episodic manner in which the stories are related and the sheer number of lives touched upon. Nevertheless, this investigation of roots is held together by an appealing sensibility that, on many occasions, makes up for its weaknesses.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

No Country For Young Women

This appeared in the latest Tehelka


To attempt a novel about an adulterous relationship in this day and age is to set oneself a formidable task. The history of the novel is, after all, studded with memorable heroines who have indulged in illicit liaisons: Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina and Isabel Archer, to name a few. Yet, this is the terrain that Shashi Deshpande sets out to explore in her ninth novel, In the Country of Deceit. Despite the singular flavour of a small town in south India in which it is set, the signposts are all too familiar.

This is the story of the single, 26-year-old Devayani living in the town of Rajnur, in a refurbished house that used to belong to her parents. (Symbolism alert.) She’s a bookish, innocuous English tutor, and her existence is a staid one, enlivened by meetings with her immediate family. One evening, at a dinner hosted by Rani, former Hindi movie heart-throb and new friend on the block, she meets the married, 40-something Ashok, the town’s district police superintendent. The affair between the two, initiated by the man in uniform, follows the predictable pattern of private trysts and secret agonising before the consequences catch up with them.

There’s an appealing artlessness to Devayani’s character, and to her discovery of the relationship’s passionate highs and lows. Since the novel is largely a first-person account of the affair, some amount of solipsism is inevitable, with much self-examination happening in the wee hours. To offset this, the author introduces letters from Devayani’s aunt, cousin and others – dismayingly enough, though, most of the letter-writers use a similar tone of voice.

The subplots deal with laying claims on others’ lives, either metaphorically or heavy-handedly. For example, there’s a property dispute in which Devayani is embroiled, involving lawyers and letters; and then there’s also the unstable back-story of Rani, whose circle Devayani becomes part of when helping her to script a comeback film. These, however, seem attached Lego-like to the spine of the novel – that is, the adulterous relationship -- and as such, serve to partition the plot, not thicken it

The book’s progress is stately for the most part, with Deshpande taking her time to advance the mood and milieu. Nevertheless, there are moments that jar. For example, Ashok falls for Devayani at their first meeting itself and after modest hesitation, Devayani matches his ardour. The foundation of their relationship thus seems less organic and more based on the need to progress the plot. Additionally, details of Ashok’s wife and daughter, which would have added more dynamic tension, are thin on the ground.

In the Country of Deceit, then, is not without a certain modest appeal. Clearly, among its strengths is the evocation of place and of the network of family relationships. Alas, when it comes to dealing with love and its discontents, as is the case with so many other such works, the road to banality is paved with good intentions.