Saturday, May 29, 2010

American Pie

This appeared in today's The Indian Express

It’s an irony of history that an aristocrat from France was one of those one who provided Americans -- and the world -- with a theoretical underpinning of their brand of democracy. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, accompanied by his companion, Gustave de Beaumont, travelled to America to study their penal system. De Tocqueville found its people sufficiently fascinating to compose an entire book on their system of government and its implications titled, of course, Democracy in America.

This journey is the focal point of Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America. His improvised de Tocqueville is Olivier, an aristocrat-turned-Versailles lawyer; Beaumont is transformed into Parrot, a former printer’s devil from Devon, Olivier’s secretary and scribe.

This being a work by Peter Carey, one naturally expects doubles, shape-shifters, separate voices and wily inventiveness -- and all of these qualities are to be found in abundance. The narrative proceeds in alternating chapters told by Olivier and Parrot, the former high-flown, the latter demotic.

Parrot and Olivier in America teems with incident from the start, as Carey narrates with brio the events of the duo’s childhoods -- from Olivier's return to Paris with his family after the revolution, to Parrot’s mishaps at the house of a currency forger.

The two set sail for the New World, initially not getting along very well: Parrot refers to Olivier as “Lord Migraine” and the other returns the compliment by calling him “the retching varlet”. In time, there’s a grudging acceptance of each other qualities, which deepens into friendship. It is on the ship itself that Olivier formulates his plan to write about the country he is sailing to. As he writes,” the future of France will be found in their experiment and when the wave of democracy breaks over our heads, it will be best we know how to bend it to our ends rather than be broken by its weight”.

Upon disembarking, the two are plunged into a series of comic adventures as they travel across New York, Connecticut, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Discovering America through its citizens, they make alliances and alienate them; they fall in love and out of it; they decide to settle down and change their minds.

The account is studded with Olivier’s observations, some of which Carey states he’s cadged from Tocqueville’s book itself. The myopic aristocrat comes across as admiring democracy’s virtues, yet snobbishly alert to its flaws. He’s overwhelmed by the “feverish enthusiasm”: “they are ceaselessly tormented by the vague fear that they have failed to choose the shortest route (to prosperity)”. He wonders whether an absence of class boundaries would lead to upwardly-mobile posturing and also whether standards of art would suffer. Moreover, “the American habit of changing oneself from one thing to another…seems to be the national occupation”.

Though the core of the book is the relationship between Parrot and Olivier, there are patches during which this focus falters, such as Parrot’s account of his misadventures when deported to Australia. Perhaps this is what Carey hints at when he tells us right at the beginning of Olivier’s boyhood fascination with a tandem, a bicycle for two, which suffered from a lack of steering.

Fittingly, it is Parrot who takes more readily to America, with his garrulous voice drowning out Olivier, as is made clear in the dedication at the end. Parrot and Olivier in America, then, is a rambunctious, energetic novel, and even on the occasions that it seems over-inflated, it is Carey’s panache that keeps you reading.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Medical Mystery Tour

This appeared in the March/April issue of Biblio


Plagues have always attracted writers. The word itself occurs no less than 113 times in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, the most memorable use being, of course, when it was employed by Mercutio to damn the houses of Capulet and Montagu in Romeo and Juliet. Going back a few centuries from here, one can still sense the horror and wonderment that arose in the mind of Giovanni Boccaccio from his description of the Black Plague at the beginning of The Decameron. There are echoes of this in Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year, an account of a character’s experiences while sojourning through London during the Great Plague of 1665. To turn to the 20th century, it was Albert Camus who made use of the affliction for allegorical purposes. In his 1947 The Plague, the city of Oran in Algiers is struck by a pestilence, one that ravages the city because the people are slow to act when it first makes an appearance. The obvious parallel is with the Nazi occupation of France.

The duo of Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan, writing as Kalpish Ratna, are similarly influenced in their latest work, The Quarantine Papers. This capacious novel delineates the lives of characters during two difficult times in Mumbai’s history, in the late 19th century and in December 1992. The first was when an outbreak of plague struck the city and the second, of course, was when it was stained by riots in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

The book opens with bite-sized, intriguing accounts of a variety of as-yet-unknown characters and their doings. In one sense, all that follows is a filling in of the blanks and an explication. It is December 6, 1992, the very day the masjid crumbled, and we’re introduced to Ratan Oak, 36, a freelance microbiologist living with his ailing father and coming to terms with the end of his relationship with his wife. As shock and anger sweep the city, Ratan finds himself discovering the body of a woman who was protesting against the razing of an outhouse on the grounds of the Sir J.J. School of Art, once owned by none other than Lockwood Kipling, father of the man who wrote about the white man’s burden.

Ratan falls prey to mysterious visions and what one could call the opposite of clairvoyance: he realises soon enough that this other world he inhabits is that of Ramratan Oak, his great-grandfather, who was active during the city’s late 19th-century plague years. The present, then, is transformed into a mirror that reflects the events of the past, showing that not much – especially the nature of human beings – has changed. The book see-saws between the two periods, detailing a breathtaking succession of events that involve riots, Hindu-Muslim marriages, fundamentalist ire, attempts to get hold of a crude biological weapon, missing persons, sudden deaths and the fates of the families of four friends who make a covenant to “defeat hate”. Slow-moving is certainly not an adjective that can be applied to The Quarantine Papers.

Breezy and quick in pace though it may be, there is evidence of much research that underpins the novel, most of which is drawn from the state archives. Details of the period apart, these emerge in the form of old letters, statements, petitions, medical reports and the like. These, woven into the narrative, thicken and lend it greater verisimilitude. In addition, there are several occasions when the authors’ medical knowledge comes to the fore, such as in details of autopsies, injuries and effects of bacilli; here, one is put in mind of the medical prose employed by another doctor, Abraham Verghese, in his recent novel, Cutting for Stone.

Though there is dexterity in the manner in which the novel switches back and forth between the two ages it deals with, there’s no denying that the prose can sometimes turn purple. Take this passage, an account of a book of watercolours:

“Red opened its flower. From its vermilion frill to its cerise heart through a swirl of reds – cardinal, carnation, carnelian, carmine, crimson. Satin unfurled, shiny and dense, a slither on the skin that made him gasp. Then further agape, a silken billow, a swell of red blown thin, left glistening in the air to harden, a glass bubble though which the sun came in and inked the sun pink. When he blinked, it splintered and scattered in pink shards. Pink petals, turned vermeil at the edges, enameled jewels.”

Goodness. However, almost as though to offset these, there are other passages with resonant metaphors (the sea on one occasion is described as “a shed snakeskin in the sun”), and the sections describing the buildings and general milieu of the city’s inner streets are particularly effective. Take this one, for example:

“A road run berserk, traffic snarls matted and choked in exhalations of their own filth. Broad-backed gutters, their oily scum a glacial glint in the sun. Tidal waves of garbage washed up against buildings like end moraines. Buildings erupting past the hairline, breakaways from the grid of roads, lanes, parks, pavements, lunging into the traffic. Peopled long before they were plastered or painted, numbered of named….Walls like slow bruises changing colour after seasons of abuse as old Bollywood posters peeled off, and returning finally to their natural pigments of earth and excrement. Pavements spilling over with lives that began faraway and were headed elsewhere.”

(The clear fondness for contrasts and alliterations in prose can be discerned from the title of the duo’s earlier work, during the researching of which much material must have turned up for this one. It was called Uncertain Life and Sure Death: Medicine and Mahamaari in Maritime Mumbai.)

Though the strengths of The Quarantine Papers are not inconsiderable, it must be said that on many occasions, the abundance of characters and the speed of events cause the narrative thread to become needlessly coiled and intricate. Some more pauses for breath, some paring down of the number of people and their back-stories, would have made it much more effective.

The structure of the book uses the present to scrutinize the past; in doing so, it’s the present itself that comes under scrutiny. Towards the end, Ratan finds that “with hate coming to a boil, every man could stand accused. A mosque is destroyed, hate breaks free, memory becomes weapon.” That sentiment, unfortunately, is all too true given the headlines that one encounters virtually every morning in the papers and on TV. It is to Shakespeare again that one must turn, and recall the line he puts in the mouth of King Lear’s hapless Gloucester: “ ’Tis the times’ plague, when madmen lead the blind.”

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Beastly Tale

This appeared in Saturday's The Hindustan Times

There’s no getting away from it: Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil is an ungainly, at times unsavoury, book. Like his earlier Life of Pi, this one features talking animals, in this case a donkey and a howler monkey who take their names from characters in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In that epic, Beatrice is the poet’s guide through Heaven while Virgil accompanies Dante through Hell; here, they’re creatures in a play written by one of Martel’s characters.

The disjointed plot revolves around the travails of Henry, an author much like Martel in that he’s based in Canada and has written a hugely successful second novel featuring animals. That, after all, is the easy way of being postmodern nowadays: centre your novel on a character much like yourself to keep the reader tantalized for no good reason.

Be that as it may, Henry finds his latest manuscript met with bewilderment and even hostility by his publishers. It’s a half-fiction half-essay exploration of the Holocaust; what he’s trying to do is “….take a vast sprawling tragedy….find its heart….and represent it in a nonliteral and compact way”. Of course, there have been others who have written about the Holocaust on their own fictional terms, and in Beatrice and Virgil, they receive a token mention: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and David Grossman’s See Under: Love, among others.

This rejection brings about an acute case of writer’s block. Henry and his wife move to another, unnamed city where he occupies himself by learning music and performing with an amateur dramatic troupe. Here, he comes across a taxidermist who wants his opinion of a play he’s written and, almost against his will, Henry finds himself drawn to this beastly fellow. He meets him regularly to get a crash course in stuffing animals as well as to discuss the play.

Much of Beatrice and Virgil is given over to extracts from this work, clearly inspired by Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. When we first meet them, the animals converse about the taste of fruit, the nature of faith and the naming of days, going on to talk of life’s pleasures, pains and essential meaninglessness. The going gets heavy and the plot comes to a standstill while Martel tries to impress upon us the portent and weight of what he’s trying to achieve, namely, create allegorical correspondences between the plight of the animals and the victims of the Holocaust.

The writing throughout is uncomplicated, sometimes facile. It may make sense to settle on a faux-naif style to offset the heaviness of the subject matter, but many times, this comes across as affected, crossing the line between simple and simplistic. Take, for instance, the animals referring to a certain “Aukitz”, or the naming of events that have befallen them as “the Horrors”. In addition, the supposedly philosophical puzzles that appear at the end are banal, causing exasperation more than anything else.

Early on, we’re told that one of the reactions to Henry’s work of fiction is that “…the novel was tedious, the plot feeble, the characters unconvincing….” Unfortunately, those words could well be applied to Beatrice and Virgil as a whole.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Friday, May 14, 2010

Delta Force

This appeared in last week's Mint Lounge


A parlour game that’s sometimes been played is to list the members of the cricket team the subcontinent would have had if it had not been partitioned. When it comes to novels in English, too, the roster would be impressive. Till some years ago, one would have been hard-pressed to include a name from Bangladesh in such a catalogue. That, however, may soon change. Even if you exclude Monica Ali’s 2003 Brick Lane on the grounds that it was based on an expatriate experience, there’s Tahmima Anam’s 2007 The Golden Age, set during the bloody days that led up to Bangladeshi independence; Shazia Omar’s 2009 Like a Diamond in the Sky; and now, asking for inclusion is Mahmud Rahman with Killing the Water, a debut collection of short stories.

Competent and readable, this assortment of twelve tales was written over a period of ten years, and it shows, both in terms of subjects and quality. Half of them are set in Bangladesh, and the rest in locations in America, ranging from Boston to San Francisco’s Bay Area.

The stories set in Rahman’s homeland range from the 1930s to the present-day, and most deal with characters that have left or are about to leave for greener pastures. Haunted by an underprivileged past, they are more than slightly defensive about their actions, leading to sometimes unreasonable behaviour towards siblings and parents. There’s a well-known Philip Larkin poem that starts with the lines, “If I were called in / To construct a religion / I should make use of water”; in Rahman’s stories of Bangladesh, the devotions and travails of those who live on the water’s edge emerge time and again.

In the stories set in the US, the author loosens his collar in a manner of speaking: here, there is racism, attempts to integrate and relationships both fraying and coming into being. Most of these characters are loners in large cities, wanting acceptance and love but dragging behind them the weight of a past and of attitudes from a different land.

Again, perhaps because of the period of time over which the stories were composed, there are various devices and modes of narration on display, from the slow-motion present intercut with the past (‘Smoke Signals’) to straight-up front-to-back narration (‘City Shoes in the Village’), to well-observed character studies (the title story).

A story that clearly stands out is the sensitive ‘Before the Monsoons Come’, dealing with the plight of a teenage boy who, along with his mother, takes refuge on a tiny island just as his country is coming into being. Some, such as the dreamlike ‘Runa’s Journey’, concerning a cancer patient’s trip home and the parable-like ‘Kerosene’ are effective, while others are less impressive, such as such as ‘Postcards from a Stranger’, which comes across as a tricked-out travelogue. ‘Blue Mondays at the Gearshift Lounge’, dealing with the incipient relationship between a blues singer and an embittered immigrant, has scope and ambition, yet is let down by trite dialogue and a plot that pivots on coincidence.

Overall, the prose is efficient and unadorned, gently probing characters’ mental states and actions – though, at times, not above slipping into lazy metaphors such as, “the view was stunning, like a photograph”.

So, if there was an English Literary XI from an unpartitioned subcontinent, would Mahmud Rahman be on it? Well, yes, but only as a hard-working replacement all-rounder, not necessarily a match-winning one.