Saturday, October 31, 2015

Carrying A Mirror Down Istanbul's Roads


This appeared in today's The Indian Express

In a scene from Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel, The Museum of Innocence, the narrator, in his Istanbul home on winter nights, hears a boza seller ringing his bell as he passes the door and is overcome by an urge for the vendor’s beverage, a fermented grain drink popular from the time of the Ottomans. In Pamuk’s new novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, it’s the boza seller who takes centrestage.

A Strangeness in My Mind – the title is from Wordsworth’s The Prelude -- is the saga of Mevlut Karatas, who accompanies his father to Istanbul from the provinces and spends the rest of his life there, coming to realise that his vocation lies in selling boza to the city’s thirsty and sometimes nostalgic residents. In this way, the book is yet another representation of Istanbul by Pamuk, this time describing not the privileged of the city, as with The Museum of Innocence, but its underclass, those who migrate in search of a better life and find work as itinerant pedlars, waiters, maids, cooks, mechanics and the like. The unemployed, the underskilled, and the poorly educated, as sociologist Elijah Anderson has described them.

Another way in which A Strangeness in My Mind complements The Museum of Innocence is that at the heart of both is a long-lived love story. Mevlut’s wooing of, and subsequent relationship with, his wife Rahiya  provide some of the book’s most touching as well as light-hearted moments, from the case of mistaken identity with which their wedlock commences to the deepening of ties over the years.

Pamuk has elsewhere written of his admiration for Stendhal, of the latter’s brand of psychological realism, and in this novel, that influence is in full flower. He carries a Stendhalian mirror down Istanbul’s roads, allowing it to reflect the milieu, morals and manners of Mevlut, his family and his friends. In keeping with the mischievous modernist manner of his other works, Pamuk also makes this novel polyphonic: the third person saga of Mevlut  is shot through with first-person voices from others in his ken. (One of these characters even alludes puckishly to the writer’s own predicament: “I could write a book about all the men I’ve known, and then I would also end up on trial for insulting Turkishness.”)

The somewhat naïve and always sincere Mevlut’s “strangeness” is referred to time and again.“Mevlut wasn’t sure whether the strangeness was in his mind or in the world,” we’re told at the beginning, and then again, referring to the perfect match between Mevlut and Istanbul: “In a city, you can be alone in a crowd, and in fact what makes the city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in our mind inside its teeming multitudes.”  For over four decades, from student to husband to father, and during various occupations, he finds satisfaction as a seller of the emblematic boza on Istanbul’s streets, with his cry “reminding us of centuries past, and the good old days that have come and gone”.

Overall, there’s an even-toned quality to the narration, in Ekin Oklap’s English translation. Personal triumphs and tragedies (births, deaths, employment, unemployment, friendships, fallings-out, reunions) are rendered in the same register as urban progress and setbacks (earthquakes, military coups, elections, slum razing, expansion), with the whole bracketed by an index of characters, chronology and family tree. In addition, because of the span of time covered, many sections inevitably contain more summary than incident. At times, all of this can flatten the novel’s landscape.

One of its considerable strengths, though, is the way it makes the universal aspects of rural-urban migration spring to life. One member of a family leaves home for a better life; others from his immediate family follow; shantytowns with informal, collaborative networks of people spring up on the outskirts, and, in time, integrate into the city’s fabric: to these bare bones, Pamuk adds flesh and blood, and heart. (Migrant workers, casual bribery, overcrowded footpaths, land grabs, electricity thefts, bloodshed over beliefs, packs of stray dogs, run-down movie theatres: change some details and locations, and Pamuk could well be writing about an Indian city.)

At one point years after he’s come to Istanbul, Mevlut reflects that “it was sad to see the old face of the city as he had come to know it disappear before his eyes, erased by new roads, demolitions, buildings, billboards, shops, tunnel and flyovers, but it was also gratifying to feel that someone out there was working to improve the city for his benefit.” These changes and more, and the reactions of those affected by them, are precisely and compendiously captured here, creating an affectionate, nostalgic portrait of inner-city Istanbul by one who knows it intimately.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

New Lives In A New Country

This review of Sunjeev Sahota's Booker long-listed The Year of the Runaways appeared in  today's The Indian Express.

Asserting the universality of immigrant fiction, Jhumpa Lahiri once said: “From the beginnings of literature, poets and writers have based their narratives on crossing borders, on wandering, on exile, on encounters beyond the familiar...The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme.” It’s this theme that animates Sunjeev Sahota’s rich, rewarding second novel, The Year of the Runaways.

Sahota’s debut, Ours are the Streets – on the basis of which he was anointed one of Granta’s best young British novelists – was a sympathetic portrait of the radicalisation of a second-generation Pakistani immigrant in Sheffield. In The Year of the Runaways, also largely based in the same city, he writes of those who have fled their homes and countries to forge a better future not just for themselves but also those close to them. As one of the characters puts it, “It’s not work that makes us leave home and come here. It’s love. Love for our families.”

The novel is structured around the interactions of three such young men and one woman over the course of four seasons during which their dreams, physical limits and faith are put to the test. There’s Tochi, from a so-called untouchable caste in Bihar, embittered and alone when his attempts at making a living by driving an auto go up in flames after an engineered riot; there’s Avtar, a private bus conductor from Amritsar, who finds himself at a dead end after he loses his job and finds a girlfriend; there’s Randeep, a college student from Chandigarh who is forced to take over the reins of running the household after his father’s stroke; and there’s Narinder, a staunch Sikh from Britain who discovers that following the codes of her belief leads to an ethical impasse.

After their arrival in England, Tochi, Avtar and Randeep share a squalid flat with other migrants and work on a construction site until circumstances pull them apart and then together again. Sahota describes their motivations and movements in pacing and prose that’s pleasingly unhurried, so that the unfolding of the plot takes on an air of inevitability. Attention is paid to minor characters, be they a girlfriend, an erratic co-worker, a heartless employer or an ailing family member, which creates an enviable verisimilitude. Details of everyday adjustment to an unfamiliar environment – from clothes to food to cramped living quarters—are also carefully and tellingly chosen: “Soon the house was a whirl of voices and feet and toilet flushes and calls to get out of bed. They filed down, rucksacks flung over sleepy shoulders, taking their lunchbox from the kitchen counter; next a rushed prayer at the joss stick and out into the cold morning dark in twos and threes, at ten-minute intervals.”

Sahota lets the predicament of his characters as they move through time and space speak of the novel’s concerns: the injustice of treating people as higher or lower in a pecking order based on circumstances of birth, the wretchedness of having to scrounge for work, and the grimness of having no alternative but to carry on. Large defeats and small triumphs are delineated in a manner that makes us care deeply about them and in this way the novel tunnels through news headlines of immigration and caste debates, one of its transcendent strengths.

At one point early on, when Tochi insists on plying his trade despite the warnings of others, he realises that it’s “not just pride” that makes him do so: “It was a desire to be allowed a say in his life. He wondered if this was selfish; whether, in fact, they were right and he should simply recognise his place in this world.”  This story of Tochi and his compatriots is an empathetic exploration of this question, with Sahota proving to be an able guide to the migrant terrain of loyalty, loss and longing.

(My earlier review of Sunjeev Sahota's debut novel is here.)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Colonising The Present

This review of Anuradha Roy's Sleeping on Jupiter appeared in today's Indian Express.

The past is a foreign country, L.P. Hartley famously wrote; they do things differently there. The manner in which the past colonises the present, and the ways in which we attempt to make peace with it can be said to be the subject of all of Anuradha Roy’s fiction so far, including her new novel, the whimsically titled Sleeping on Jupiter.

As with her earlier An Atlas of Impossible Longing and The Folded Earth, this one features a cast of well-outlined characters, with attention paid to fleshing out their particularities and points of view. There is, to begin with, the group of Vidya, Gauri and Latika, friends in their 60s – “three old biddies from Calcutta”, as a hotel manager dismissively calls them – who embark on a five-day trip to Jarmuli, a medieval temple town overlooking the Bay of Bengal. Of this trio, Latika is efficient and gently mocking; Gauri is garrulous and increasingly afflicted by forgetfulness; and Vidya takes pride in being practical and sensible. Among the people they meet in Jarmuli is Badal, a temple guide in his 20s, a graduate from the school of hard knocks whose street-smart manner conceals an essential naivete. The narrative also circles around Suraj, a liaison person for a TV production company, with his thwarted film-making dreams, erratic, violent temper and controlling ways.

Above all else, Sleeping on Jupiter is the story of the young Nomi – the well-travelled Nomita Frederiksen, born in India but adopted by a foster-mother in Oslo, who has returned to Jarmuli in order to shine a more powerful light upon the fragments of her past. Years ago, Nomi had been wrenched from her family and fallen into the clutches of a predatory ashram, witnessing violence and undergoing abuse almost too much for any young person to withstand. She now faces the challenge of putting these shards together in a form that will afford release and allow her to move on, depicted in the novel by means of deft, occasional shifts from first person to third. 

With most such novels written in a realistic mode, there’s a tussle between the needs of the character and those of the plot. How far can such fictional individuals be allowed to exist as entities in their own right, and how much do they have to be manipulated to serve the unfolding narrative? Most of the time, Roy walks this tightrope with ease, but there are wobbles: easy co-incidences and neat encounters, however necessary they may be to deepen the plot, do at times come in the way of the artifice of reality.

All of Roy’s characters have had things taken away from them, sometimes through violence, sometimes through time's passage. In some cases, innocence is what has been waylaid; with others, an intimate relationship has come apart at the seams; with yet others, it’s the coherent memory of the past that has vanished. The novel progresses by means of these people engaging and disengaging with each other, and the after-effect of these meetings and partings yields truths about the world and about themselves that have so far been concealed or ignored.

The experience of reading Sleeping on Jupiter is, for the most part, rich and immersive. Roy’s delineation of Jarmuli is as atmospheric as that of Ranikhet in her earlier The Folded Earth. In this town by the sea, incense mingles with the stench of rotting fish, scorching afternoons give way to mellow twilights, sunlight plays on water that carries ominous currents, cardamom and ginger are crushed into tea leaves at a stall by the beach, and the stairways and interiors of intricately carved temples witness a swarm of people, from visitors to locals, from the devout to the irreligious. This precise evocation of a sense of place, matched by an equally precise portrayal of interior states, all in unhurried, unshowy prose, makes Sleeping on Jupiter both accomplished and affecting.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Home And The World

This appeared in today's The Indian Express

On a December morning in 1986, the ten-year-old Rafia Zakaria’s Aunt Amina left her husband to return to her parents’ house. This, to the young Zakaria, was mystifying, until it was explained to her that Uncle Sohail had taken a second wife. The reveberations of this episode and the context against which they play out form the driving force behind Zakaria’s The Upstairs Wife, a domestic memoir of Pakistan that's counter-balanced by public events.

In Shame, the novel banned in Pakistan almost immediately after it was published in 1983, Salman Rushdie writes: “I had thought, before I began, that what I had on my hands was an almost excessively masculine tale, a saga of sexual rivalry, ambition, power, patronage, betrayal, death, revenge.” However, he continues, “the women seem to have taken over; they marched in from the peripheries of the story to demand the inclusion of their own tragedies, histories and comedies”. If Shame is set in Rushdie’s “looking-glass Pakistan”, The Upstairs Wife is Pakistan-as-jigsaw-puzzle, with many pieces – though not all -- portraying women’s tragedies, histories and comedies.

The book moves backward and forward from 1986 in an ambitious attempt to capture Pakistan’s “intimate history”.There are vignettes to do with the lives of Zakaria’s grandparents in undivided India: Konkani Muslims living in the shadow of Mumbai’s Jamia Milla Mosque, they stay on after Partition, changing their minds and arriving in Karachi only in 1961. There’s the saga of Aunt Amina who returns to her husband and his second wife: she lives on an upper floor, with Uncle Sohail’s time equally divided between one and then the other. There are mini-portrayals of other members of the family: the author’s mother, for instance, who is determined to provide her children with an education.

Interwoven with these are observations on historical events, notably, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, which forms the book's prologue. Other pieces of the jigsaw that make up this portrait of Pakistan feature the Bangladesh War, the effects of the Islamic policies of Zia ul-Haq, the struggles between the muhajirs and other communities, and the fallout of happenings in Afghanistan over the years. A lot for any place to endure.

It’s an approach that works well when there’s a resonance between the private and public. The day of Benazir Bhutto’s killing, for example, is also the day that Uncle Sohail is in hospital after suffering a stroke. As Zakaria writes: “For one odd, brief, and singular moment, the catastrophes of my family and my country had come together, showing me how they were woven together, knotted and inextricable, inside and outside, male and female, no longer separate.”

At times, though, the links seem forced: “One year after Uncle Sohail took a second wife, another strange wedding took place in Karachi [that of Benazir Bhutto with Ali Asaf Zardari]”. At yet other times, the connections are tenuous, especially as many pieces of this jigsaw aren’t specifically about women’s lives. This can give The Upstairs Wife, deeply-felt and keenly-observed though it is, something of a fragmentary character.

Journalistic set pieces or otherwise, Zakaria’s slices of life in Pakistan are always revealing. There is, for example, the delicious tale of how Hamida Bogra, wife of Mohammad Ali Bogra, third Prime Minister of Pakistan, started a campaign for women’s rights after her husband fell in love with his secretary, resulting in the country’s Muslim Family Law Ordinance. Pages and years later, there’s the moving account of Shaheeda Parveen, sentenced to be stoned to death because her previous husband alleged that he had never really divorced her.

The significance of The Upstairs Wife also lies in its portrayal of the quotidian in the face of the uncertain. “There was the outing to the beach disrupted by the kidnapping of a friend’s father,” the author recollects, “the concert that concluded a half hour after it began because of a bomb threat; the exams carefully prepared for again and again and again only to be put off due to curfews and killings and strikes and sit-ins”. Here, as elsewhere, Zakaria demonstrates how public events shape private lives. Individuals may change history, but more often than not, it’s the other way around.

Bihari Hamlets And Don Quixotes

This appeared in the March 9, 2015 issue of India Today.

In one of the stories from Siddharth Chowdhury’s new collection, The Patna Manual of Style, the narrator settles down for a train journey, looking forward to re-reading Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches: “a book which always calms me down and makes me feel more generously disposed towards humanity in general”.  In a famous essay written in 1860, the Russian writer mused on two types of characters in fiction, the Hamlets and the Don Quixotes. The first is eaten away by self-reflection, while the second is purposeful and full of belief in reaching his self-proclaimed aims. Both types of characters can be found in Chowdhury’s The Patna Manual of Style; the former comes across as a fictional stand-in for the author himself, while the striking figures he encounters represent the latter.

Readers of Chowdhury’s earlier work will find these interlinked tales comfortingly familiar. Many characters and concerns from Patna Roughcut and Day Scholar appear here too, making The Patna Manual of Style an organic extension. This collection, then, largely deals with the continuing fortunes of the twenty-something Hriday Thakur as he navigates jobs and writing projects in New Delhi. Along the way, he charts a course through a loose network of friends, family and acquaintances of varying castes and affiliations, almost all of them with a Bihar connection.

Among the more pleasing aspects of The Patna Manual of Style is its distinctive tone of voice. This, for the large part, is a mixture of the knowing and the naïve, of the sardonic and the nostalgic, of Bihari comportment and new-wave cinema – all of which sounds like it can’t possibly hang together, but somehow does. (In the first few pages, for example, Hriday strikes a noir pose in Connaught Place by buttoning up his ancient herringbone, “patched up at the elbows and cuffs with scuffed tan leather” and lighting “a fresh Gold Flake from the dwindling embers of the previous one”; after a visit to the barber, he thinks that “with the beard now gone and a thick moustache in place I looked more grown-up and purposeful, which I felt was a good thing”; thus fortified, he looks forward to devouring a thali called the Patna Large at Yadavji Litti Centre in one of the bylanes leading to the train station.)

Many stories involve Hriday coming across, or hearing news of, a character from his past – Quixotes to his Hamlet – with the narrative filling in the blanks between then and now. Thus, Jishnu-da, a former university associate, tells him about how he’s now transformed into an “importer of blondes”, by which he means a supplier of Russian dancers for shows, weddings and the like, and of the dangers of mixing heart and head. At the start of another detail-laden and character-filled story, Hriday attends the funeral of one Samuel Aldington Macaulay Crown, “the best proofreader in all of Ansari Road”, and we’re then supplied with details of Hriday’s initial encounters with him, as well as his potted career. Yet another story deals with Hriday’s wife telling him of the suspected affair of one of his old flames, a lever for Hriday to recall past times.

Perhaps the most satisfying story here is told from the point of view of Hriday’s wife, Chitrangada, a rumination that dwells on her gradual acceptance into his circle of friends. More specifically, it deals with the consequences of a drunken lunch with them, during which she first meets the beauteous Charulata Roy, whom Hriday was ealier almost married to. The shift in focus from Hriday to Chitrangada is pulled off efficiently and provides a welcome and needed shift in perspective.

Many other stories, however, are no more than slight character sketches.  There’s the gently self-mocking tale of writer named Siddharth Chowdhury, who has “published a novel no one has actually read”: a postmodern pirouette that sits a trifle uneasily with the rest, especially since this story is little more than a vignette.  Another such vignette brings us the first-person musings of another writer, the daughter of an eminent littérateur, who riffs on people "getting her goat" as an euphemism for sex (that's more corny than horny, if you'll pardon the expression).

To return to Turgenev, it was of his A Sportsman’s Sketches itself that he somewhat self-deprecatingly wrote: “Much has come out pale and scrappy, much is only just hinted at, some of it's not right, oversalted or undercooked – but there are other notes pitched exactly right and not out of tune, and it is these notes that will save the whole book.” One could say much the same of Siddharth Chowdhury’s The Patna Manual of Style.