Sunday, February 19, 2012


This appeared in yesterday's The Indian Express


Na├»ve young men and women. A bespoiled Eden. And lost innocence. That’s what Romesh Gunesekera’s first novel, Reef, was made of. With The Prisoner of Paradise, he returns to the same elements, this time with middling results.

The novel is set in the Mauritius of 1825, less than two decades after the French ceded the island to the British. On this land arrives the orphaned 19-year-old Lucy Gladwell, wanting “much more from the world than could be found within England's pebbly shores”. She’s to stay with her aunt and uncle, the latter being a Colonel Blimp-ish colonial administrator, very much a stock character.  (Lucy’s circumstances are thus markedly different from those of Deeti, who, in Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, also arrives in Mauritius in the early decades of the 19th century to start a new life.)

With her secluded, poetry-steeped upbringing – Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh being a favourite – Lucy is initially charmed by “this sunny southern island bursting with colour and full of the sounds of singing and buzzing, gurgling and rustling, whistling and whispering…” Must have been difficult to sleep at night.

Soon, she meets and is attracted to the Darcy-like Don Lambodar, a suave, saturnine translator at the service of a rebellious princeling from Sri Lanka. But this is an island -- peopled by those from India, England, France, Mozambique and Sri Lanka, among others -- that, in the words of Lambodar, “the French emancipation failed to reach and the English abolitionists have yet to discover”. Soon, there are rumblings in paradise: disaffection spreads amongst the indentured plantation workers and others over the construction of a temple, as well as their overall circumstances. Natural and man-made storms will ensue, and lives will be overturned.

There’s certain obviousness to much of the material – Wide Sargasso Sea, this isn’t -- and many of the events occur offstage, being subsequently recounted by witnesses in the form of long conversations. This isn’t helped by stilted dialogue, even if you take into account the attempt to mirror earlier speech patterns. The prose, too, can veer towards the overheated: “He thought he was conducting a conversation, but discovered it had turned into a quarrel of silence with pauses and peripeteia of peculiar proportions”. A little later, flowers are revealed to be "sucking the morning sun into their dewy delicate tubes and releasing faint undulating vapours..."

What does come through, however, is Gunesekera’s earnestness in unfolding the narrative, as well as the sincerity with which he conveys the depth of feeling between Don and Lucy. Other than that, Prisoner of Paradise is too shackled to satisfy.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Posters For #flashreads

Some rough-and-ready posters for use on February 14: e-mail, display, put up on your blog or print and wrap fish in them. For the initiative itself, see this.

(Update: Have added two new posters. These are the last ones, I promise.)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Ravan And Eddie Redux

This appeared in the current issue of Tehelka.

THE EXTRAS Kiran Nagarkar

Like the city in which it is set, Kiran Nagarkar’s The Extras is bursting at the seams, with a crumbling infrastructure. This is a high-spirited follow-up to his 1975 Ravan and Eddie, and features the eponymous duo bobbing and tumbling like corks in the slipstream of Mumbai in the 1960s.

The narrative follows the two, now young men, as they set out to make something of their lives. As before, there are descriptions of lives across communities in the Central Works Department chawl in Mazgaon, segueing into a series of rambunctious episodes in which they encounter policemen, film folk, underworld dons and more.

From working in a speakeasy – a so-called ‘Aunty’s Bar’ --  to playing in wedding bands to driving taxis and ultimately hoping for success as extras in Bollywood, Nagarkar intertwines their lives, even though they begin to interact only in the book’s latter half.  As Eddie’s girlfriend puts it: “You seem to know each other's moves and you play off each other. There's some kind of rivalry and edge, and yet there's respect and you never cross the line”. We learn of Ravan and Eddie’s varying passions for physical fitness, music and acting – all of which will come to their aid towards the end – and the women in their lives. In this manner, the tale moves all over Mumbai and its environs, from Bhendi Bazar to Bandra, from Karjat to Colaba.

As with Ravan and Eddie, the narrative is interspersed with mini-essays on Mumbai life, this time on subjects such as the “brass bandwallahs”, taxi-drivers, Prohibition and a modest proposal to replace the system of education with private coaching classes. For the most part, these are entertaining little  riffs, although in some cases, such as when Nagarkar dwells on the rise of Mumtaz and Rajnikanth, the facts are so well-known that one wonders what the point is. (Perhaps one ought to heed the advice offered at the start of one of these ruminations:  “No extra charge if you jump to the main story a few pages later”.) A little later in The Extras, the narrative is also interspersed by lengthy song lyrics and letters, making it more self-indulgent than necessary.

With trademark irreverence, Nagarkar also takes potshots at established pieties. There’s a Maiboli Sangh, for example, trying to whip up Maharashtrian passions; elsewhere, Ravan muses that national integration can be truly seen on Falkland Road, the city’s red light district, as there were women from all states to be found there.

With its surfeit of highs and lows and occasionally too-convenient succession of entrances and exits, the continuing adventures of Ravan Pawar and Edward Coutinho turn out to be sometimes bawdy, sometimes implausible and almost always engaging.  As with a series of dishes on a long buffet table, it’s enjoyable to make your way through, but can also leave you too sated for comfort.