Monday, April 27, 2009

Same old, same old

That was the predominant feeling I came away with, after reading Window Seat: rush-hour stories from the city, by Jahnavi Acharekar. It plays with all the usual stereotypical characters we have come to associate with Mumbai- socialites, struggling models, cocaine heads, Parsi schoolteachers, Goan hairdressers - but rarely displays the writing skills to raise them from the mundane to the memorable. Indeed, a lot of the plotlines sound familiar, and remind me of stories I've read before. Several stories careen towards the melodramatic -'Moonshine', for instance, 'The City as Cinderella' or 'China'. Still others feel contrived and exaggerated, like 'Bambai ki Sair' or 'Driving Mr Dasgupta'.

The book begins with promise - restrained prose marks the narration of an encounter between two people at a beach and the relationship that develops, in 'A Game of Cards'. 'A Good Riot' is again a chilling and well crafted tale about a child's experience of a riot. I also liked the structure of the story 'Waiting for Ganesh' .But very soon after that, the book went downhill for me, with its uneven writing and rather marked tendency towards brand name dropping (a bow, perhaps, to the author's stint in advertising). I found these constant references to products rather annoying; they certainly add nothing to the prose, except to make the occasional story seem dated - are Smash Tshirts and Double decker chocolates even in production anymore?

This is a book of memorable (though hardly original) characters, but rather lacklustre writing. Florid prose abounds; sample this;
'.rancid abuse loses itself in the foetid environment", (A Good Riot); and
' ...brazen locks delicately held in place by cheap hair products framed a rugged face that flaunted a carefully rehearsed lopsided smile, blissfully aware of its more-than average good lucks'... (Discovered) .

I was also a little puzzled at first at the number of stories here that had nothing to do with Mumbai. 'Tivoli Park', for instance, is a wistful ode to a childhood in Kolkata; ' The Couple', an unremarkable retelling of the old 'canoodling couple mistaken for ghosts' yarn, set in Kerala. 'China' is again about a woman growing up in Kolkata, and finding self affirmation in a foreign country that is never mentioned, and who merely meets the narrator at the Mumbai airport. Similarly with 'First Cousins', a story about childhood betrayal. But then again, Mumbai is nothing so much as a city of migrants, of people in transit, often yearning to be elsewhere. And for many, Mumbai is not so much a place as a state of mind - glamour mecca for some, a nightmare for others, a constant struggle for everyone else in between. I wish this feeling , the grip this city has on its citizens, had been better captured.

There is an interesting device used in the second section, where a scene is first laid out and then individual characters are followed in seperate stories. But the characters remain stock stereotypes, and the reader never once gets a peek into their head or learns anything new. The section I was especially irritated by was the set of stories of women on a train about to blow up (inspired, no doubt, by the 2003 local train blasts in the city). And what irritated me, apart from the frothy prose - the rather flimsy use of a calamity to end these stories with a flourish. Again, choosing melodrama over language, to mark these characters.

A book like the train journeys it seems to hint at in its title - offering fleeting views of people you will forget even before you have turned away.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Seven Summers: A Memoir, by Mulk Raj Anand

Mulk Raj Anand, considered one of the greats of modern Indian literature, was known for his sympathetic portraits of the poor and marginalized in Indian society, as also his use of Hindi and Punjabi in his English writing. He was also one of the earliest Indian authors to gain an international audience for his work. Seven Summers: A Memoir, is the first of a seven volume autobiography that Anand had planned but never completed.

This book is a charming recollection of the first seven years of the author's life, lived in army barracks in various north Indian cantonment towns, in pre-Independence India. Anand names his protagonist Krishan, but in every other sense the character is modelled on himself, and the characters in the book are frank representations of his own family and friends. The book is structured as a series of vignettes from the author's life, describing incidents and experiences that shaped him as a boy. These are further divided into two sections -The Road and The River. The road represents the journeys and adventures the boy dreams of experiencing. At the very beginning of the book, a young Krishan even ventures across one, an early indication of the curiosity that will characterize him as he grows older.

If 'The Road' is about the yearning for adventure and excitement, a breathless wait for life itself to begin, 'The River' marks Anand's flow through life as he begins these long awaited journeys .This section marks several changes in the young Krishan, his growing awareness of himself and his surroundings, and his gradual disillusionment with several of the people and places he has idolized. He begins school, but his love for learning is dulled by the harsh treatment meted out to him by his teachers and later, as he begins to excel at work, his classmates as well. As the tremors of the Independence movement make their presence felt in the barracks, Krishan's father begins to vent his fears and anger on his children, eroding Krishan's hero worship of him.

At this juncture, Krishan also begins to bond more deeply with his mother whose nationalistic views are at variance with those of her husband's. This relationship is clearly the core of Krishan's childhood - it shapes his opinions, and even his relations with everyone else around him. The portraits the author draws of his family are not always flattering, yet his love for the people most important to him is clearly evident. He does not spare himself either - Krishan is portrayed as jealous, needy for attention and capable of spite and manipulation. He is fearless and impudent, also insatiably curious, academically bright, and eager to show off his knowledge, a fact that wins him adult affection, but also the spite of his friends and brothers. And he is no innocent - at the age of four and five, he is already aware of the sensuous charms of physical contact with his female relatives.

The author skillfully recreates the heat and dust of small town India, the petty squabbles and small pleasures of his childhood in the barracks. The book also deftly reveals the acute notions of caste and prejudices between communities that divided people then, and still do now. Krishan is warned against playing with 'lower caste' boys or eating in his Muslim friend's house, even though his own family is neither vegetarian nor high-born, and his mother is a loyal follower of the Aga Khan! Most poignant are the scenes revealing prevailing sentiment against the so-called untouchables- in particular, one where Bakha, a sweeper boy, assists a seriously injured Krishan, only to be berated for polluting the boy with his touch. Incidentally, Bakha is also the name of the protagonist of Anand’s famous novel, Untouchable, which suggests that this boy from Anand’s childhood may well have influenced that book.

Anand has been credited with being among the first Indian writers to present a child's view of the world. But I felt that this was not a child's view, so much as that of an adult looking back on his childhood. The reader is not always allowed to merely view and understand an incident as seen by Krishan, but rather have it filtered through the writer's own analysis of it., something I found quite dreary at times. In this regard, I think R. K. Narayan's simple yet timeless Swami and Friends stays true to a child's vision, while still conveying larger ideas about the time and place in which it is set. (Here’s an earlier post about some other stories that do a wonderful job of this.)

I also wish that Anand had stuck to using vernacular phrases in their original form in the text, rather than resorting to switching between these, and their rather strange English translations. This is especially alarming in the rather frequent instances when ripe abuse is used in dialogues between characters. Nevertheless, these are still minor details in this engrossing coming of age story

I also liked the striking cover of the book - a boy in silhouette, precariously balanced on a post, with his arms reaching up towards the darkening sky. It wonderfully captures the mood of the book, the joys and struggles -and isolation - of Krishan, his resilience and his unquenchable spirit in the face of the many hurdles he faces in his journey through life.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

No Onions Nor Garlic - Srividya Natarajan

Set in Chennai, the novel opens with a dramatic rendering of 'A Midsummer's Night Dream'. It turns out to be dramatic presentation of Murphy's Laws instead. From this funny opening, No Onions Nor Garlic lapses into umpteen cliches about Tamil Brahmins (or Tambrahms as they are commonly referred to), some more about the Dalit community, academic life and everything else related to ordinary life in Chennai.
The characters are flat - showing the bare minimum of growth. It is almost as if caste is the character that dominates and overwhelms everyone in the book.
To the acidic satire is added a vast amount of scatological humour. Hilarious if you enjoy that kind of thing.
The thin plot veers to a predictable ending. At a frantic pace, the author manages to cut the Brahmin hierarchy down to size. But the sudden appearance of lesbians, missing sons, confessions of illegitimacy and lost but recovered jewelery pushes the novel towards farce.
There is a surprise twist at the end but, for me, it was too late to redeem the book.
Read it if you have to.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Water for Elephants - Sara Gruen

I will read any book with elephants in it... Does anyone remember Gerald Durrell's 'Rosy is my Relative'? I think it is one of the funniest books ever written and I have lost count of how many times I have read it.
'Water for Elephants' has as its protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, living in a nursing home that he hates. Jacob is querulous and upset that his family thought it necessary to keep him here.
In his nineties, Jacob has seen all that there is of life. As Jacob struggles to cope with being old, his memories of the circus are partly triggered off by a kind nurse called Rosemary who is his only friend at the home.
Going back and forth in time, the story juxtaposes a young, dashing, courageous Jacob against the old man who has lived his life to the fullest and wants to die with dignity. The non linear aspect of the novel is further reinforced by the travel motif as the circus moves from town to town.
The death of his parents in a car accident while Jacob was a veterinary student at Cornell also leaves him penniless. This being the era of the Depression, Jacob finds himself unable to cope with the double shock of bereavement and financial ruin.
He runs away and boards a train that is carrying a circus, the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Here opens a world that is both bizarre and surreal. Memorable characters include the brutal Uncle Al, the ringmaster who when unable to pay his circus team simply has them thrown off the train and the paranoid schizophrenic August who is married to the ravishing Marlena.
If violence and murder are not enough complications, Jacob falls in love with Marlena and has to outwit both Uncle Al and August to win her. Marlena herself is rather flat and boring - she only comes alive when she is with her horses.
The review cannot be complete without the beautiful Rosie, the elephant, who finally engineers a happy ending for Marla and Jacob. Rosie is responsible for many of the circus' financial problems until Jacob figures out the only reason she is not obeying is because she doesn't understand English. But the breakthrough may have come just too late to save the circus.
The breath taking detail of circus life and the animals as well as Depression era America shows hours of meticulous research and create a living, breathing world for the reader.
I admire the complete control over the timeline Gruen shows... but am unhappy with the vast number of cliches she uses - both to further the plot and in terms of characterization. The young Jacob, despite his heroism, is far less appealing than the gusty, old Jacob who decides he will not "go gentle into the good night".
If you are a big fan of circuses and link them with happy memories of childhood, be prepared to see the underbelly, ugly, dark and cruel.
The book is being made into a movie - will Rosie steal the thunder? I certainly hope so!

Friday, April 10, 2009

A Book of Ghosts

Another World, by Booker prize winner Pat Barker, is an engrossing book about the power of memory and the burden of secrets . It builds on two themes she has explored in detail in other books - - the lives of soldiers surviving the First World War, (the Regeneration trilogy) and troubled children (Border Crossing). The book narrates the story of a few weeks in the lives of Nick Halfour and his family , as he struggles to keep the peace with his wife Fran and their respective children, and care for his dying grandfather, Geordie.

Nick's family is as dysfunctional as they come, and each member seems haunted by their own personal demons . Pregnant Fran struggles with housework, near-constant exhaustion and the stress of moving into a new house. She is devoted to her toddler, yet guiltily pushes her oldest child away.That child, Gareth, a troubled young boy with a past record of violent behaviour, vents his anger on his little step brother, yet deeply fears the older kids in the neighbourhood. Miranda, Nick's daughter from his first marriage, tries her best to fit into this household, even as fears she will inherit her mother's madness. Nick guiltily contemplates his repulsion of Fran, even as he finds himself drawn to his friend Helen. Geordie, a 101 year old veteran of the First World War, has never recovered from the trauma he suffered, and this seems to be taking its toll on him in his last days, as he begins to hallucinate. A chance remark by Geordie sets Nick off on a search into his grandfather's past, to find the ghosts that seem to haunt him still.

Meanwhile, Fran's single attempt at bringing the family together by working on redecorating the house leads to an unpleasant discovery - an obscene family portrait that suggests the previous occupants ,the Fanshawes, may have had secrets of their own. 'It's us', gasps Miranda, and you wonder as much, as the malevolence of that portrait begins to echo in their own lives. Nick then begins a second search, into the secrets that the house may harbour.

This is a gripping tale, deftly told. The language is sparse, the atmosphere bleak for much of its length. Menace lurks over the characters from very early on and, as the story increasingly acquires the feel of a thriller, an unpleasant end seems inevitable. Geordie's mind and body steadily betray him as he fights to keep his dignity in his last days. Nick discovers hard truths - both about Geordie and the Fanshawes. But as awful as the Fanshawe mystery is in itself,the fact that it mirrors the Halfour's resentment of each other suggests a similar, or worse, fate may lie in store for them. The book also deals honestly with a difficult subject - violent children. Gareth is like a ticking time bomb, as he steps up his attacks on his brother. Yet his mother - who relentlessly prevents Nick from stepping in as a father - chooses denial over confrontation with the boy, even as she waits to deliver yet another sibling for Gareth to resent and, most likely, victimise as well.

Loss, guilt, resentment - these are powerful themes, and well conveyed in this narrative. And yet, a disappointment at the end. Nick decides to hide the Fanshawe secret from his family, as he doesn't think it is knowledge that could help them. Fran deals with Gareth not by addressing his problems but by removing him from the house, to be be looked after by someone else.

'It's easy to let oneself be dazzled by false analogies - the past never threatens anything as simple, or as avoidable, as repetition'...writes Barker.

Yet it would seem repetition is clearly what Nick and Fran are aiming for, as they each independently choose secrecy or denial in dealing with their problems. I found this troubling - if there is a lesson to be learnt from Geordie's anguish , surely it is the tragic effects of repressing trauma and keeping secrets. And what was the Fanshawe tragedy about after all, but sibling rivalry and the need for a parent's attention? If Geordie's experiences have haunted him till his dying day, Gareth's issues, and his violent methods of dealing with them, are no less threatening to his future, and that of his family. The final scene too, with Nick in a graveyard, seems to allude to the wisdom of keeping things buried, of letting the dead lie - a closure that seems to summarily dismiss the pain and suffering that Geordie and the Fanshawes felt, in favour of the conspiracy of silence that followed them to their tragic ends.

A book to read for its spare, lucid style and some memorable, if unlikeable, characters. And for all my reservations about the way it turned out, still a powerful story.