Sunday, February 21, 2010

Going, Going, Gone

This appeared in today's DNA.

WAY TO GO Upamanyu Chatterjee

“To a man with a hammer,” wrote Mark Twain, “the world is a nail”. And to an uncompromising moralist, the world is full of people and events that need correction. That is at the core of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s new novel, Way to Go, which re-introduces us to some of the characters from his The Last Burden.

As with his earlier work, satire is Chatterjee’s tool of choice to dissect the pettiness and emptiness of our current state. The novel opens with a bravura first chapter in which Jamun, now in his mid-40s and as aimless as ever, arrives at a police station to report the disappearance of his father, the 85-year-old, half-paralysed Shyamanand. Here, officialdom is gleefully and hilariously skewered.

The lampooning becomes darker and bleaker as the novel progresses. We’re drawn into the world of Jamun, his brother Burfi, and others in their ken including their cook, Budi Kadombini, the oleaginous builder Monga, and neighbour Neha Khanna.

Others characters appear and then vanish from the pages for no discernible reason, such as Madhumati, Jamun’s tenant, or Kasturi, his former lover and mother of his child, now creator of an “epic blockbuster Hindi TV soap” titled Cheers Zindagi featuring a character modeled on Jamun himself.

The real-life Jamun broods over “the dispirited and fidgety ghosts of his past”. Old mementoes may be set ablaze in the Holi bonfire organised by Monga, but old memories continually surface in his consciousness, and in the narrative. Jamun reflects on the various ways in which he's failed himself and others in his life, often contemplating suicide in the manner of a man wondering whether to make a withdrawal from a depleted bank account.

Apart from Chatterjee’s gaze becoming decidedly more acidulous, his prose too is jagged and not always easy to navigate, not least because of the inordinate number of dashes that populate his sentences. Any form of behaviour is fair game – from the goings-on at a butcher’s shop to the antics at a prostitute’s den -- and is observed and dissected with something approaching cruelty. Then, there are the metaphors: a mangrove swamp is “nature's lush pubic hair”; gravy resembles “the outcome of a child's indigestion”, and a pair of lips on a policewoman's face shift “like rosy buttocks squirming for comfort”.

The book is structured around the dead and the disappeared, and though -- especially towards the end -- events may seem to swivel haphazardly, they’re actually part of a scheme that is quite deftly explained. However, when you’re being mordantly comic -- and skating on the fringes of farce -- a late shift of register towards the compassionate is not only surprising, it's also unconvincing. One may expect laughter from the abyss, yes, but not tenderness.

Describing the relationship between Jamun and Kasturi, Chatterjee writes, “With them, all was convolution”. It’s a statement that could well be applied to this disturbing novel of overlapping coils.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The World's First D-I-Y Book Review

There seems to be, these days, much fuss over book reviews. As a service to men and women of letters everywhere, therefore, here's the world's first do-it-yourself book review. The next time you're faced with a review deadline, simply take this template and insert the appropriate phrases from the tables below. Voila: your review is ready.

This novel is _______1._________ dealing with _______2.________. It’s set in ____3._______ with characters that __________4._____________illuminating its overall theme of ______5._________.

Written in a style that is ______6.________ it is a _________7.__________, one that manages to _______8.________ in true ______9._________.

_____10.________ in the telling, it’s a cross between _______11._______, with the plot, such as it is, being ________12._________.

Add to this the novel’s ______13.________ and you’re reminded of the immortal Henry James’ famous dictum that _______14.___________. The moment you reach the last page, you’ll find yourself wanting to ______15.___________


a. A deft and assured tale

b. An affected and uninspiring saga

c. A comedy of modern manners


a. A young man’s loss of innocence.

b. The redemptive powers of love

c. The aftermath of 9/11 on a sensitive soul


a. A teeming metropolis

b. A one-horse town

c. IIT Kharagpur


a. Will remain in memory

b. Are little more than cardboard cut-outs

c. Are human, all too human.


a. Hope in the face of disaster

b. Disaster in the face of hope

c. Disastrous facelifts


a. Spare and unvarnished

b. Gripping and evocative

c. Clearly inspired by Faulkner


a. Tour de force

b. Trenchant look at life’s underbelly

c. Tissue of lies


a. Keep you turning the pages

b. Make you want to throw it across the room

c. Make you sob


a. Post-modern fashion

b. Social realist fashion

c. Coco Chanel fashion


a. Gripping

b. Unflinching

c. Jaw-clenching


a. The DaVinci Code and The Waste Land

b. The Odyssey and Who Moved My Cheese?

c. Harry Potter and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo


a. One with too many twists, turns and vampires

b. Turgid in the extreme.

c. Non-existent


a. Daring take on relationships

b. Innovative structure

c. Remembrance of things past


a. “It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature”.

b. “You must live all you can – it’s a mistake not to”.

c. “Ideas are, in truth, force”.


a. Stop reading

b. Start it all over again

c. Forget all about it.

A Room Of Her Own

This appeared in Saturday's The Indian Express


At the very beginning of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, the novel’s heroine says, “The point is, as far as I can see, everything is cracking up”. It’s a sentiment that would have been wholly subscribed to by the woman at the centre of Atiq Rahimi’s The Patience Stone. Rahimi’s novel is completely dissimilar to Lessing’s; nevertheless, he, too, aims to capture female experience, one from a totally different world than that of London in the Fifties.

The action of The Patience Stone takes place largely in one room of a small house in a village in faction-ridden Afghanistan. It centres on the monologue the woman has with her wounded, comatose husband. (In this sense, it is more like a one-act play.) The man remains motionless, lacking the awareness and will to even brush a fly away from his face; the woman goes through the repetitive routines of counting prayer beads, washing him, adjusting his drip bag and applying eye drops to his still, staring eyes.

The space between them is filled with words: words that she’s lacked the confidence to utter before, but now pour out undistorted. As she says, “We've been married ten years. Ten years! And it's only these last three weeks that I'm sharing something with you.”

She starts to tell her immobile auditor what she really thinks about their relationship, her views on the Mullah outside, her hopes and her childhood memories. Halfway through, it occurs to her that her husband is now a version of the mythical patience stone, an object an object you “tell all your problems to, all your struggles, all your woe, all your pain….And the stone listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes.” With this in mind, she continues: 'I am going to tell you everything, my sang-e-sabur. Everything. Until I set myself free from my pain and my suffering”. And on she speaks, revealing ill-treatment, slights, wounds – and finally, secrets that she has kept from him so far.

Interspersed with the woman’s words are frequent reminders of the word outside: gunshots, explosions and jihadists who enter, seeking to impose their will. This juxtaposition is handled very well: as readers, we remain in that small room for most of the time, but we’re made only too aware of its location and context.

Rahimi’s prose – translated from the French by Polly McLean – is unvarnished and spare, yet occasionally becomes choppy, as though mimicking the action of the husband’s intakes of breath. When repeated too often, this comes across as an affectation.

The novelist’s anger at the state of subjugated women in Afghanistan is evident in the contempt he makes his protagonist feel for the men in her life. Importantly, she is not a stereotypical character, but has her flesh-and-blood, passive-aggressive quirks, desires and frailties. This saves the book from becoming merely a polemical rant, rendering it scathing in its indictment of fundamentalisms and “the mad world of men with notions of honour, pride and a woman's place.”