Saturday, May 28, 2011

Reader, Interrupted

One of the aims of the novelist, writes John Gardner in his The Art of Fiction, is to create for the reader “a vivid and continuous dream”. Well, these days, I find that dream to be full of interruptions.

I’m not referring to doorbells, phone calls and mysterious thumps from next door. Rather, it’s the distraction caused by having access to the Internet. The lurking sense that there are e-mails to be checked, tweets to be followed, status updates to be noted, headlines to be scanned or new videos of Rebecca Black to be made fun of.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ganesh's Book

This appeared in yesterday's The Indian Express

LEELA'S BOOK Alice Albinia

In The Great Indian Novel, Shashi Tharoor came up with the sterling premise of grafting The Mahabharata onto the post-1947 Indian political scenario. Though it suffered somewhat in execution, it remains his best work. While it’s a pity that more Indian authors writing in English haven’t examined the possibilities of re-imagining and subverting the country’s epics and myths, there’s consolation to be found in Alice Albinia’s first novel, Leela’s Book.

This, too, takes as its starting point the interweaving of some of The Mahabharata’s tales with contemporary India – specifically the epic’s origin and mode of transmission -- and it does so with skill and verve. Albinia’s first book, a work of non-fiction about following the Indus to its source, was notable for its empathy, insight and linking of past and present. One finds the same qualities in her novel.

It features a bustling cast, comprising members of various families brought together on the occasion of a wedding. Each one is impelled by his or her particular desires, and many episodes are handled with a touch of Austenesque mischievousness that occasionally brings to mind Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.

The Leela of the title, when we first meet her, is returning to India with her husband after two decades in New York to attend the nuptials of Sunita and Ash in New Delhi. The former is her husband’s niece, betrothed to the son of Shiva Prasad, senior functionary of a right-wing party and a “guardian of the national identity, saviour of pure India”. The oily Shiva is at loggerheads with the crafty Ved Vyasa Chaturvedi, Ash’s father, a louche Sanskrit scholar, for the way in which he interprets Indian mythology. Leela is connected to Vyasa, too: she’s the adopted sister of his wife, killed in a road accident years ago, and there are deeper secrets that they share.

Some of the others who clack against each other like billiard balls against the city’s shifting surface include Aisha, a demure maidservant; Humayun, a chauffeur  driven by impulse; the bohemian, London-returned Bharati, Vyasa’s daughter; Pablo, a journalist attracted by Bharati who uncovers a generation-old concealment; and Ram, Bharati’s brother, who has a fling with Ash. As though these weren’t enough, there’s also Linda, young British academic and friend of Bharati’s, whose role, it must be said, comes across as a tad contrived.

Given all of these people and their separate arcs, it would have been wise to include a list of characters at the beginning of the novel; fortunately, Albinia is deft in plotting their appearances and re-appearances.

Over and above all this is the benign presence of Lord Ganesh, who, as he himself reveals to the reader, has created and then set all these characters in motion to rectify his centuries-old dispute with Vyasa over the manner in which the latter composed his saga. (There’s even a section featuring Leela’s varying avatars over different periods of Indian history.) The elephant-headed one now attempts to write his way back into the epic and discredit the “Vyasa Propaganda Machine”.

As such, references to The Mahabharata are everywhere, some explicit, others to be inferred. Leela, like Ganga, refuses to tell her husband anything about her past. She and her sister are compared to Amba and Ambalika, and at one point, Bharati declares that she wouldn’t mind having five boyfriends at the same time. There’s also a parallel to Ganesh and Vyasa when Shiva Prasad narrates his memoirs to a scribe.

Characters aren’t the only thing Leela’s Book is teeming with. In these pages are to be found rape, fire, police brutality, elopement, surprise revelations and furtive coupling underneath a food-laden table at a wedding venue. In the midst of all this, it also records the changes in New Delhi, be it of attitudes of rich and poor or the composition of its neighbourhoods. Though the capital is clearly the backdrop against which the characters’ stories unspool, the book also segues into London, New York, Mumbai, Kolkata and Santiniketan
Ultimately, as Ganesh informs us, he succeeds in his efforts to “reunite siblings, to bring together mothers and daughters – to remove from my characters’ lives the obstacles that impinge on their happiness – and to expose Vyasa’s wrongdoing”. It’s been said often enough that what is not in The Mahabharata does not exist elsewhere. By imagining and then bringing to life aspects that are not in the epic as we know it, Albinia has created a charming and capacious work of fiction.   

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Walk Of Life

A slightly different version of this appeared in today's DNA.


A young man walks the streets of New York City. He talks to strangers, meets friends, gets mugged and muses on incidents from his childhood. He visits Brussels and returns to New York, where he resumes his rambles, observing changes and drawing associations.

Those don’t sound like ingredients for an especially remarkable novel. Yet, debutant Teju Cole’s digressive Open City is noteworthy for its portrayal of pauses in life’s frenetic rhythms and for the links it forges in the midst of disparity. Opportunely, it also takes forward the form of the novel in the manner of W.G. Sebald.

The narrator, working in a hospital on a psychiatry fellowship, is not as much self-aware as he is aware of the people and places around him. His rambles across the city, from Wall Street to Harlem, from the 92nd Street Y to Tower Records, are matched by rambles within, and the connections he makes give the novel its unique flavour. This is a narrator whose mind is more well-stocked than most. He spots a woman wearing black on the subway, and this puts him in mind of paintings by Velasquez; later, the architecture of another subway station in lower Manhattan evokes the interior of Winchester Cathedral.

He’s also fascinated by the living city as a palimpsest, recording forgotten aspects of its Dutch heritage as well as the rise and fall of small and big businesses. He ponders on subjects as diverse as changes in the way we read to icons from Vito Corleone and Cannonball Adderley. At other times, he obsesses over the quotidian, be it the persistence of bedbugs or forgotten ATM pin codes.

Cole’s sentences are graceful and lucid, with loping rhythms that match the flâneur-like mood. Of his meditative sojourns, he writes: “…I was one of those people, the overinterpreters. This was part of my suspicion that there was a mood in the society that pushed people more towards snap judgments and unexamined opinions, an antiscientific mood; to the old problem of mass innumeracy, it seemed to me, was being added a more general inability to assess evidence.”

As the narrative progresses, a central concern becomes apparent: that of assimilation and the differences that remain when one immigrates. The narrator, born of a Nigerian father and German mother – like the author himself -- comes across others from Africa, Haiti and the Caribbean: illegal immigrants, cab drivers, museum attendants, bootblacks. Some of their stories merge into the narrative through the expedient of doing away with quotation marks. This concern with the Other, with blurred identities, is also brought out in a long novelistic detour, when the narrator visits Brussels as a counterpoint to New York. Here, among other things, he engages in theoretical yet fascinating conversations with an autodidactic Internet café manager with a “seething intelligence”.

We learn a little about the narrator’s upbringing in Lagos, in particular his stint at a military training school and relationship with his parents. Despite mentioning an estranged girlfriend, picnics with friends in Central Park and visits to an ailing former professor, he remains something of an enigma. The reason for this is made clear towards the end, when a disturbing revelation disturbs the book’s languid surface. This makes one reassess all that has come before: his obsessive wandering, musings on the mind’s blind spots or even the choice of psychiatry as a profession.

The form of Cole’s novel emerges organically from its content; it would be a mistake to look for conventional structure and incident here. These observations are held together by an incisive, mediating consciousness, and much of the pleasure of reading Open City arises from simply following it in operation.  

Saturday, May 14, 2011

When Authors Borrow Characters

Daniel Defoe died three centuries ago. Yet, in December 2003, at a Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, the world listened to him musing on Robinson Crusoe's later career. The voice and imagination were those of J.M. Coetzee, who co-opted the earlier author and his creation for his enigmatic acceptance speech. Read the rest of my Yahoo column here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tweedledee, Tedium

This appeared in the latest issue of Tehelka.

THE PALE KING David Foster Wallace

Towards the middle of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous, unfinished The Pale King, a character identified as “David Wallace” pops up to assure the reader that he’s the author of the novel, asserting that it’s a true story, a “vocation-based memoir” about “negotiating boredom as one would a terrain, its levels and forests and endless wastes”.  If his earlier Infinite Jest, then, was about the ways we distract ourselves with entertainment, this one was planned as a counterweight, the ability to deal with tedium.

It’s evident that this  is a work in progress; Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, points out in his introduction that he sifted through a morass of material to assemble “the best version” he could find, despite there being no “outline or other indication of what order David intended for these chapters”. As such, fully realized pieces co-exist with fragments, repetitions and narrative strands that aren’t fleshed out.

Despite this, there is ample evidence of Wallace’s trademark, prodigious talent. That means plenty of hyperkinetic sentences, arcane knowledge, meditations on the changing shape of American culture, sly, occasionally bawdy, humour, sections with footnotes and acute visual observations. (A paperback has “a bookmark's tongue”, car seat headrests possess “the dull shine of unwashed hair”, and the knot of a man's tie is “as tight as a knuckle”.)

The plot, such as it is, comprises the coming together of a disparate set of characters at the American revenue services’ Regional Examination Centre in Peoria, Illinois, and reactions to the monotony of life there. As such, there is much taxation jargon – surely intended to make the reader work though some of the boredom himself – such as, “RA ’78 revised the expansionist tendencies of the ’76 provisions by removing both long-term capital gains deduction and excess itemized deductions from the index of relevant preferences”. Phew.

Of note are evocative set pieces, some of which have been published earlier. There’s an account of the growing years of David Wallace before he came to join “the Service”, for example, as well as the tale of a boy whose aim was “to press his lips to every square inch of his own body”.

Overall, the novel works towards the merits of transcending boredom and Sisyphean tasks, “to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex”. As he’s mentioned in one of his notes: “Central Deal: Realism, monotony. Plot a series of set-ups for stuff happening, but nothing actually happens.” That, intentionally or not, is what The Pale King in its current form lives up to.

Those new to David Foster Wallace may wonder what the fuss is all about. For the devotee, there’s much to mull over here. Yet, the best way to remember the man would be to return to his earlier essays, short stories and novels -- the ones he finished, that is.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Border Ballads

This appeared in today's Mint Lounge.


It was Kipling who was largely responsible for the myth-making about the clans of what was known as the North-west Frontier. His tales and poems of men who would be kings, Pashtun traders and barrack-room ballads spread the legend of time-trapped tribes who were noble and fierce, enmeshed in a matrix of honour that they were prepared to defend to the bitter end.

Echoes of this are to be found in 78-year-old Jamil Ahmad’s debut novel, The Wandering Falcon. The setting of his book, identified on the first page, is largely the “tangle of crumbling, weather-beaten and broken hills, where the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet”. The novel comprises a series of episodes dealing with the tribulations of nomadic tribes who inhabit this inhospitable terrain, covering a period after the departure of colonial powers and before the rise of the Taliban.

Nominally, this is the story of the coming of age of Tor Baz, the wandering falcon of the title. He appears, sometimes in little more than a walk-on part, in almost every one of these nine tales: first, as abandoned infant, then as a boy passing from tribe to tribe, as a witness and observer, and finally as an informer and guide to the region.

The circumstances of his birth are narrated in the brutal, somewhat over-determined events of the first story. The child of an alliance brutally torn apart by an honour killing, he is almost left to the mercy of the elements. As he comes to manhood, however, he adapts and thrives in a hostile environment. He’s something of a cipher, though; there’s little, barring revelations of shrewdness and cheerful amorality towards the end, of Tor Baz’s own feelings. His character, then, is something of a peg to hold the individual episodes together.

The other characters who inhabit The Wandering Falcon range from cataract-afflicted tribal leaders to peripatetic, tricky mullahs to women losing control over their fates in an environment in which they are little more than chattel. The author’s aim is not to vilify or to defend, but simply to portray, although there is clear sympathy in his depiction of tribes forced to abandon their grazing grounds because of passport controls and border checkposts. The old, however settled, gives way to the new and Ahmad contrasts “settled life as opposed to nomadic life, and the writ of the state as opposed to nomadic discipline”.

The prose is bleached-bone clean, sometimes rising to the level of stark poetry: “Where the fields end, the convolutions and whorls of bare, cruel rock once again resume their march across the land – occasionally throwing up spires and lances of granite into the sky”. (Some of these  passages, in fact, make the book sound like a blanched, distant cousin of Cormac McCarthy’s novels of ranchers and cowboys adrift on American borders, grimly facing bleak landscapes and changing times.) The dialogue, though, can sometimes be arch and folksy: “Wailing in a man is like honey in a pot. As honey attracts flies, so does wailing attract trouble”. More echoes of Kipling to be discerned there.

Clearly, Ahmad has spent time in close quarters with the people he writes about. There are knowledgeable details of daily life, customs and terrain, in all their cruel as well as hospitable aspects. Once in a while, there’s bitterness at an acknowledgement of the outside world: “No politician risked imprisonment: they would continue to talk of the rights of the individual, the dignity of man, the exploitation of the poor, but they would not expose the wrong being done outside their front door”. That sounds familiar.

“To live outside the law,” Bob Dylan famously sang in Absolutely Sweet Marie, “you must be honest”. The Wandering Falcon relates, with honesty and grace, chronicles of those who live outside national laws, gazing upon the twilight of their anachronistic codes of conduct.

Up In The Air

This appeared in today's Hindustan Times.


At one point in Aamer Hussein’s The Cloud Messenger, the central character writes a letter mentioning “Kalidasa's poem about the cloud messenger, carrying love messages back from a man in exile to the city he'd left behind...letters of infinite longing." A little later, he realises that “one day he would have to be a messenger to himself, carrying stories from the places of his past to his present place, and back again from present to past”. This, then, is the shape of the novel: a mélange of memories held together by a elegiac sensibility.

The Cloud Messenger tells of the peripatetic life and longings of the bookish, sensitive Mehran, whose story switches between first and third person in the telling. We follow Mehran from youth to middle age: he’s brought up in Karachi, spends long sojourns with maternal relatives in Indore, studies and works in London and travels often to Italy, among other places.

Specifically, the novel revolves around Mehran’s interactions with the three people who most affect his life: Marco, his flighty fellow-student; Riccarda, the magnetic older woman with whom he has a short-lived affair; and the damaged, charismatic Marvi, with whom he embarks upon a choppy romance. Mehran’s life segues between meetings with these three in different parts of the world, and the novel details the ups and downs of their relationships with the passage of time.

Mehran and others are deeply influenced by Urdu and Persian language and poetry, often discussing and introspecting on its practitioners, especially the Sufi mystic Shah Abdul Latif as well as others such as Khusro and Faiz. The treatment of the novel, thus, is suffused by an intense, almost pained, romanticism and though there are evocative moments, this distilled sensitivity occasionally comes close to effete posturing.

There’s often a touch of haziness, too, as we skim along the events of Mehran’s life. Some passages appear overly diaristic, and at other times, he appears a distant, indolent figure. "If there was any excess at all, it was not of verbiage but of emotion,” he writes at one point, and the danger of drawing a map of the emotions is that the topography can become quite indistinct.

There’s no question, though, that it’s a deeply-felt piece of work. In particular, some moments between Mehran and Marvi are moving, and at other times, the mood of melancholia is deftly handled. Hussein has produced notable short fiction in the past, and from the evidence of such episodes in The Cloud Messenger, that appears to be where his particular strengths lie.