Category Archives: Indian fiction

“Forget all your fears now. Have a fling this night”

March roundup

This is my March roundup. Again, a pretty solid reading month. I may do a similar post for April and then try to start doing individual posts again (it’s a bit daunting when you have a multi-book backlog to go back and start writing them all up individually – better to start afresh with a new month).

White Hunger, by Aki Ollikainen

 

This one’s had a lot of reviews across the blogosphere. It’s a Finnish novel about a famine, told from the viewpoint of those reduced to starving refugees and those sitting comfortably in the capital talking about how awful it all is.

It’s a bleak tale featuring desperation and terrible suffering. It’s also very powerful and worth reading even if the description here makes it sound a bit grim. Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Journal did a good review here and Grant of 1stReading’s Blog here.

The Apocalypse Codex, by Charles Stross

 

Book four in the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross – basically comic novels which combine spy fiction, Lovecraftian horror and British government bureaucracy to form a particularly unholy mixture.

For some reason Stross never seems to assume you’ve read previous novels in the sequence (but who starts at number four?). That makes for a bit of repetition and he does sometimes reuse the same jokes and references even within the same book, but even so these are light and fun reads. Beach and transport books to borrow Emma’s rather marvellous category.

The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle

 

This is a horror novel which again draws on Lovecraft, but here more by way of a mixture of homage and critique rather than simply by reference. LaValle takes the famous Lovecraft short story The Horror at Red Hook and retells it from the perspective of a new character not mentioned in the original.

Red Hook is one of HPL’s more racially iffy stories and while LaValle is clearly a fan he’s aware of the issues in HPL’s work. Here he uses an African-American protagonist to contrast real world brutalities with HPL’s more fantastical ones.

I thought this clever and affectionately respectful of the original while doing something new with the material. If you’re not already an HPL fan though you’ll miss a lot of what’s going on.

Transmission, by Hari Kunzru

 

I’ve yet to read a Kunzru I didn’t love. This is his second novel and tells the story of a young Indian programmer brought to the US on promises of a chance to make his fortune, but who discovers instead that the American dream is often built on cheap third world labour.

At the same time it’s also the story of a computer virus that sweeps the world and the lives caught in its wake, one of them an up-and-coming Bollywood star. All that and above all else it’s a novel about the difficulties of human contact and how our personal signals can get lost in the noise around us.

If I get a chance (but I probably won’t), it deserves a full write-up. It has a shot at my end of year list.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

Great cover for this one. It’s a lovely little gothic tale of a psychic researcher who brings a motley group to a famously haunted house, among them a very troubled young woman who shouldn’t be anywhere near the place.

It has a bit of an odd tonal shift three quarters of the way through, but otherwise it’s well done and justifiably famous. I’m already planning to read more Jackson.

Glittering City, by Cyprian Ekwensi

This was one of Penguin’s recent Penguin Modern short releases. It’s a short story/novella about Fussy Joe, a Lagos charmer and waster who likes to hang out at the station picking up young women fresh in from the country who don’t yet know to avoid men like him.

It’s a quick read and Ekwensi manages the balancing act of making Fussy Joe likeable while at the same time making it quite clear why he deserves to get his comeuppance. It does exactly what Penguin hope for from this series – introduces you (me anyway) to a new writer and gives a sense of their style.

From ancient Rome, to ‘60s Lagos to modern Rio or Tokyo the place and time may change but wherever you go there’s a Fussy Joe and there’s fresh innocents to be fleeced, or at least there are as long as Fussy Joe can keep ahead of all the people he’s borrowed money from or taken advantage of… Lots of fun.

Ghachar Ghochar, by Vivek Shanbhag

This was a good book to finish the month on. It’s an Indian novel told from the point of view of a rich young man who is notionally heir to a successful business but who spends his days sitting in a café as he’s a bit lazy and doesn’t have any actually useful skills.

As the story unpacks you get a sense of the underlying family dynamics, their route from poverty to their current wealth and the compromises they all made along the way. What starts as a fairly gentle comedy becomes a moral enquiry, an examination of the culpability of those willing to turn a blind eye for a comfortable life.

There’s lots of reviews of this one including from Stu here and this one from Grant at 1stReading’s Blog which pushed me over the line to giving this a try.

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Filed under Ekwensi, Cyprian, Horror, Indian fiction, Jackson, Shirley, Kunzru, Hari, Lovecraft, H.P., Nigerian fiction, SF, Stross, Charles

The Autobiography of a Half-Baked Indian

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

I’m not a fan of state of the nation novels as a rule. The themes often swamp the characters. The message is usually more important than the prose. They tend not to be subtle (since making a point is the point).

State of the nation novels about contemporary India though? That’s a different matter. All those problems are probably still going to be there, but at least the subject is interesting.

Characters in The White Tiger exist for the sake of the story. It’s not that they’re unconvincing as such, but you wouldn’t read the book for psychological insight. The prose is effective, but it doesn’t strive for beauty. The White Tiger is not a subtle book.

Whatever flaws it may have though (and arguably nothing above is actually a flaw in the context of this book) The White Tiger won the 2008 Man Booker prize. I don’t follow the Booker closely but I do recall not everyone thought it should have won. Some thought it shouldn’t even have been longlisted.

I don’t actually have a particularly strong view on whether The White Tiger deserved to win the Booker. I didn’t read many of its competitor novels and in all honesty I think the idea of there being a “very best book of the year” is silly. I do think though that The White Tiger succeeds on its own terms.

The White Tiger is a novel about the life of a man named Balram. Balram grew up in what he calls “the Darkness” – rural India. For him this is the India of poverty and of ignorance. Balram is of the sweet-makers’ caste, and in the Darkness caste determines destiny.

One day a school inspector visits Balram’s district:

The inspector pointed his cane straight at me. ‘You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In any jungle, what is the rarest of animals – the creature that comes along only once in a generation?’ I thought about it and said: ‘The white tiger.’ ‘That’s what you are, in this jungle.’

Balram is the White Tiger. He is that rarest of beasts, a country Indian who leaves behind his village, his caste and even his family. Balram gets rich through his own efforts. Everyone else he encounters gets rich through being born that way, through connections or through corruption. The trouble is as Balram reveals very early on his own efforts included murder.

The obvious comparators for The White Tiger are Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Indra Sinha’s dazzling Animal’s People (which I read before I started this blog – it’s excellent, here‘s John Self’s review which I absolutely agree with).

All three novels share a common feature. They all have unconvincing framing devices. In Animal’s People the entire novel is supposedly narrated by the protagonist into a tape machine. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist the entire novel is supposedly a conversation between the protagonist and an unnamed American, and we only hear the protagonist’s side of the conversation. In The White Tiger the entire novel is supposedly a series of letters dictated by Balram and addressed to Wen Jiabao who is shortly to visit Bangalore where Balram now lives.

Here’s the thing. The framing device doesn’t really make sense. Balram can’t post these letters. He can’t even have them typed up. He confesses far too much criminality for them ever to be heard by anyone but him. So it goes. Like in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, like in Animal’s People, you either have to accept the device or close the book. I chose to accept it.

Each night Balram dictates a letter, and each letter tells something of his past. He grows up in the village hearing tales of the Great Socialist who is going to transform the lives of the poor, but the transformation is always after the next election and the elections are all bought. The poor’s votes are cast for them and anyone who tries to cast his own is seen as a madman, and beaten mercilessly.

There were three black goats sitting on the steps to the large, faded white building; the stench of goat faeces wafted out from the open door. The glass in most of the windows was broken; a cat was staring out at us from one cracked window. A sign on the gate said: LOHIA UNIVERSAL FREE HOSPITAL PROUNDLY INAUGURATED BY THE GREAT SOCIALIST A HOLY PROOF THAT HE KEEPS HIS PROMISES Kishan and I carried our father in, stamping on the goat turds which had spread like a constellation of black stars on the ground. There was no doctor in the hospital. The ward boy, after we bribed him ten rupees, said that a doctor might come in the evening. The doors to the hospital’s rooms were wide open; the beds had metal springs sticking out of them, and the cat began snarling at us the moment we stepped into the room.

Real power lies with the rural landlords, but to make money you have to leave the village entirely. Balram does, and after working in a tea shop where he spends his time learning from listening to the customers rather than serving them, he tries to get a job better than anyone else in his family has dreamt of. He tries to become a driver:

We went into the house where the taxi drivers lived. An old man in a brown uniform, which was like an ancient army outfit, was smoking a hookah that was warmed up by a bowl of live coals. Kishan explained the situation to him. The old driver asked, ‘What caste are you?’ ‘Halwai.’ ‘Sweet-makers,’ the old driver said, shaking his head. ‘That’s what you people do. You make sweets. How can you learn to drive?’ He pointed his hookah at the live coals. ‘That’s like getting coals to make ice for you. Mastering a car’ – he moved the stick of an invisible gearbox – ‘it’s like taming a wild stallion – only a boy from the warrior castes can manage that. You need to have aggression in your blood. Muslims, Rajputs, Sikhs – they’re fighters, they can become drivers. You think sweet-makers can last long in fourth gear?’

From there it’s all upwards. Balram becomes second chauffeur to a rich family. His master is an indulgent example of a new breed of Indian. He’s foreign-educated and likes to think his staff are as much friends, family almost, as they are servants. His reward is to have his throat cut by Balram. There’s an ambivalence here. The book is filled with anger at the injustice it describes, but the only man in it who tries to act at all justly (he fails, but he tries) is killed for for doing so.

I began by talking about this as a state of the nation novel, and that’s where making Balram a driver pays dividends for Adiga. Making Balram a rurally born driver who later becomes a Bangalore entrepeneur allows Adiga to simultaneously present a view of the servant class, of village life (the darkness) and of the old and new moneyed classes.

Balram then is a vehicle as well as driver. He’s a means by which Adiga can explore a wide range of different strata of Indian society. It’s a mistake then to look to him for deep characterisation. Balram here serves the same role as the protagonist in a classic science fiction novel. He is a means to enter a world. He isn’t a world in himself.

The book has a dark undercurrent of humour in it which is often welcome, but in the main it’s relentlessly ugly. Intentionally so, but also unremittingly so. Balram’s metaphor for India is a rooster coop. For him it’s a country where everyone is kept in their place and where the poor opress themselves by crushing anyone different to them – anyone who seeks to escape what he was born into.

The Rooster Coop was doing its work. Servants have to keep other servants from becoming innovators, experimenters, or entrepreneurs. Yes, that’s the sad truth, Mr Premier. The coop is guarded from the inside.

It’s not all that blunt. Some points are made more obliquely (“When he opened the door of the apartment, he pointed to the floor. ‘Make yourself comfortable.’”), but there’s no upside here. It’s a relentless portrait of a vicious and ugly country ruled by avarice and corruption.

Adiga is excellent on the small hypocrisies of the rich. I loved a scene where Balram cracks open the window of the limo he is driving to give a beggar a coin, and is then berated by those he is driving who go on to talk loudly about how much they give to charity. Balram is a sociopath and a killer, and even so he’s better than those around him.

If I had to make a comparison to another writer it wouldn’t ultimately be to Hamid or Sinha. Instead it would be to Dickens. I have mixed views on Dickens. He’s often maudlin. His characterisation is frequently weak and his novels mix the journalistic with the sensationalist (and occasionally with the improving message). For all that though Dickens was a tremendously effective social critic. He sought in his writing to show what was wrong with his society, and for me that’s what Adiga is seeking to do here.

Does Adiga succeed? Not entirely. This is sometimes a crude book. It’s targets are obvious ones and there’s little here to surprise a reader who already knows much about India. I could make all those criticisms and more though of Hard Times (swapping England for India). Does Hard Times succeed? Not entirely, but in the end yes, it does. In the end The White Tiger succeeds too.

Like I said at the beginning, I don’t know whether The White Tiger deserved to win the Booker. Having now read it though I will say that I can entirely understand why it was nominated, and why at least some of the judges championed it.

I’ll end with one final quote:

My humble prediction: in twenty years’ time, it will be just us yellow men and brown men at the top of the pyramid, and we’ll rule the whole world. And God save everyone else.

One of the many messages of The White Tiger is that the desperate fight harder than the comfortable. This is a state of the nation novel, but it’s also a state of things to come novel. Balram is a future. Adiga here portrays that future in the hope of holding a mirror to it, in the hope that it might recognise itself and learn to be better than it looks right now.

John Self’ wrote a highly critical review of The White Tiger over at The Asylum, here. Trevor of themookseandthegripes wrote a much more positive one here. Both, as ever, are worth reading. There’s also an interesting interview with Adiga at the Guardian here where he talks a little more about the ideas underlying the novel.

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Filed under Adiga, Aravind, Booker, India, Indian fiction

In this room the hours would accumulate like grains of sand until they buried him

And, indeed, they rather buried me.

The Glass Palace is Amitav Ghosh’s epic novel of love, family, sweeping history and the mutability of power. Published in 2000, it is 552 pages long, very much a widescreen novel (to use a phrase coined by John Self) and for me at least more melodrama than literary fiction.

It’s also, unfortunately, a book I didn’t find particularly successful. In fact, I got bored. Accordingly, for those looking for a more positive view on Ghosh (albeit a different novel), there’s an as ever excellent John Self review of Sea of Poppies here.

The Glass Palace is, in essence, Dickensian. It is immensely readable, the first couple of hundred pages absolutely zipped by and even after I’d lost interest it remained a very easy read. It is also a novel of real scope, ambitious in its way, and deeply concerned with social issues. It covers over a century of Burmese and Indian history, and in the course of that history addresses matters as diverse as the teak industry, the morality of imperialism, the long and short term effects of colonisation, and the realities of power and powerlessness.

It is also, however, Dickensian in its tendency to melodrama and to sentimentality, and is at times rather wearyingly obvious. The novel opens with a gruff yet kindly woman who takes in a quick witted orphan boy that I immediately guessed would have a great Copperfieldian destiny. I was right. Indeed, it was rare that I expected a particular outcome and was wrong. If I had been wrong a little more often, I would have liked the book more.

The central character is that orphan boy, an Indian named Rajkumar who is working at a food stall in Mandalay, just outside the walls of the Royal Palace. Within, the court await news of the outcome of recent conflicts with the British. They receive reports of glorious victories from their ministers, but hear the sounds of approaching cannon and soon see the arrival of dispassionate ranks of marching Indian soldiers. It is 1885, the year the British deposed the monarchy and absorbed Burma into their Empire, and in one of the finest passages of the book we see the sudden transition of authority from the court to the British. Everything polite, ordered, but the realities of power unmistakeable.

This is how power is eclipsed: In a moment of vivid realism, between the waning of one fantasy of governance and its replacement by the next; in an instant when the world springs free of its mooring of dreams and reveals itself to be girdled in the pathways of survival and self-preservation.

As the novel progresses, the story branches out. Rajkumar leaves Malaya to become a worker in the teak industry, leading to (genuinely fascinating) descriptions of the traditions and dangers of Nineteenth-century teak production. At the same time, we follow the court into exile to Ratnagiri, an isolated town in India where they have a fine view but little else. Rajkumar is a born entrepeneur, brilliant and driven. His sole tragedy, beside the death of his parents, is that as the royal family left their palace he fell in love at first sight with one of the queen’s handmaidens – Dolly, who is now living with the exiled monarchs in Ratnagiri. Dolly is spectacularly beautiful, patient and wise. Rajkumar does not know whether he will ever see Dolly again, though it comes as no surprise that of course he does.

Also in Ratnagiri is the Collector, a man of Indian extraction but who has won high position for a man of his ethnicity in the British run Indian Administrative Service. The Collector is Oxford educated, sees the British way as the civilised way and dreams of a European style marriage of equals with his unhappy wife Uma (who becomes fast friends with Dolly). The interaction of Dolly, Uma, the Collector and the royal family is in microcosm a study of the treatment by the coloniser of the colonised, the king’s attempts to live within the limits of his now foreshortened world often frustrated by a paternalist administration that wishes to protect him for his own good. Imperialism does not just occupy the lands of the conquered, it occupies their minds too.

Generally, the novel’s themes emerge naturally through the characters. Ghosh though is not always content with leaving points implicit, occasionally just directly telling the reader what to think. The following quote is an excerpt from a paragraph long authorial description of what may be read into the queen’s smile (a lot it seems), and for me is a modern voice directly commenting on the novel’s theme in rather a crude way:

A hundred years hence you will read the indictment of Europe’s greed in the difference between the kingdom of Siam and the state of our own enslaved realm.

The difficulty with this, beyond it coming dangerously close to being a lecture, is that by being so blunt it also becomes arguable. I’m no defender of colonialism, but I’m not sure the British can be wholly blamed for the present state of Burma. Singapore, Malaysia and India were conquered too after all, and are doing rather well these days. Ghosh is a good enough writer not to need this sort of blatant intervention, and could usefully trust his readers and his writing a little more, his points are already fairly hard to miss.

As the novel continues, the imperial theme continues to dominate. The demands of teak production (and, later, rubber production) wreak environmental havoc. Through Rajkumar and others (many approving or oblivious), we see the land exhausted for the benefit of its new masters. More subtly, each teak logging camp has its own British overseer – a young man who ensures the native workers carry out their tasks – and so is its own colonial state. This was probably my favourite part of the book, the descriptions are rich, the sense of the camps – temporary villages which like the trees themselves are each the same yet each fractionally different – vivid. There are some off notes, a campfire ghost story which I thought added nothing save colour for its own sake, but in the main I’d happily have read a whole novel set just in these settlements, among the near indentured workers, their elephants and their overseers.

Rajkumar grows rich, chiefly by becoming a small imperialist himself, going to India and coming back with poor villagers misled into working in dangerous conditions in Burma. Rajkumar, like the British, has little sympathy for those he exploits. He is a man driven by the need for success, like the Collector he adopts the values of the British, though here their avarice rather than their culture. Dolly and Uma continue their more domestic dramas, with Dolly’s quiet wisdom enabling Uma to grow and become more independent. Uma’s has one of the novel’s better character arcs, her growth over the book organic and one of its few unexpected elements. Her argument with Rajkumar, in which they attack each other’s philosophies, constitutes one of the novel’s best passages (which sadly I can’t quote for fear of spoilers).

There’s a lot of plot in this book, of which I’ve summarised only a fraction. As the novel continues, it follows the characters’ lives and those of their friends, their children and their friends’ children. Decades pass as the characters argue, trade, love, marry. Colonialism recurs in the form of the Japanese occupation, the British defeated just as they defeated the Burmese, maintaining their colonial distinctions to the end with evacuation trains marked for Whites only.

From the war we go to Indian independence, post-independence politics and even the Burmese democracy movement. Everywhere, there is scope, the sweep of history, great events and in the midst of it all the characters who are each beautiful, passionate, brilliant people. I longed for one of them to want to open a bakery or to become an accountant, sadly not, there is no room here for small people.

And that takes me to one of The Glass Palace’s key flaws, there really aren’t many decent characters. Rajkumar, Uma and a young Indian army officer in the twentieth-century by the name of Arjun (who is faced with agonising issues of loyalty, as the Japanese advance and he has to face questions as to what and who he is fighting for) are the only interesting ones in the lot. Dolly is beautiful and wise, but not convincingly human, the Collector is credible but hardly deep, others are similarly unsatisfying. As in much science fiction, the characters are there primarily to allow the story to progress. They are a vehicle, not a destination.

As I noted above, in the main the story and themes are expressed through the characters, but the price paid is that each of them has only room for a handful of traits (shy, brilliant photographer say, or free spirited and beautiful, to take two examples). The result is that many of them just aren’t that convincing. Worse yet is the tendency to cliché, all the men are brilliant, all the women beautiful (save Uma, who is brilliant), everyone is exceptional and special.

As the novel continues, the problem with characterisation gets worse. Even Aung San Suu Kyi when she appears is described as “beautiful almost beyond belief”. Really? Is it not enough that she is a fighter for democracy in a corrupt regime who has spent years of her life for her cause, must we also suddenly make her breathtakingly beautiful too? Would her work not otherwise count? There is a triteness to this, a simplicity of thought which is fair enough in an airport thriller but less appealing in a Booker nominated novelist, a problem made worse by the predictability of most of the character’s fates which by and large reflect their thinly sketched traits all too neatly.

There are other misjudged notes, such as when Dolly has a psychic experience. Given the novel has an omniscient authorial voice this is presented as simple fact and for me it was a bizarrely jarring episode. An event which fits well enough I suppose into a middlebrow family saga, but which I struggled with in what was ostensibly a serious novel.

All that said, The Glass Palace is by no means all bad. Ghosh has a definite talent for description and metaphor – the title of this blog entry for example is a line regarding the king’s room in Ratnagiri, where he will live out his exile. Equally, in the following passage the evocation of grief and its savage bleakness is for me very effective:

The station at Sungei Pattani was as pretty as a toy: there was a single platform shaded by a low red-tiled awning. Dion spotted Alison as the train was drawing in: she was standing in the shade of the tin awning, wearing sunglasses and a long black dress. She looked thin, limp, wilted – a candlewick on whom grief grief burnt like a flame.

‘You want the pain to be simple, straightforward – you don’t want it to ambush you in these roundabout ways, each morning, when you’re getting up to do something else – brush your teeth or eat your breakfast…’

Equally, Ghosh sometimes does use the space he gives himself to good effect. Indian troops serving British masters are introduced as a minor element, hundreds of pages and decades later we see them again but from their own perspective. Ghosh trusts the reader to note how much they’ve changed. Here, a character in the 1880s speaks of the Indian troops that serve the British:

‘For a few coins they would allow their masters to use them as they wished, to destroy every trace of resistance to the power of the English … How do you fight an enemy who fights from neither enmity nor anger, but in submission to orders from superiors, without protest and without conscience?’

Sixty years or so later, an Indian officer still under ultimate British command speaks to one of his men, another Indian, of those earlier troops:

‘But your father and grandfather were here,’ Arjun said to Hardy. ‘It was they who helped in the colonisation of these places. They must have seen some of the things that we’ve seen. Did they never speak of all this?’
‘They were illiterate yaar. You have to remember that we’re the first generation of Indian soldiers.’
‘But still, they had eyes, they had ears, they must occasionally have talked to local people?’
Hardy shrugged. ‘The truth is yaar, they weren’t interested; they didn’t care; the only place that was real to them was their village.”

But by about page 500 the pacing of the novel falls apart, picking up a little after a detour to 1990s Myanmar but generally feeling like a tidying up of threads and putting away of deckchairs. There are some rather dull soliloquies on the Burmese democracy movement, a little sermonising, and a remarkably irritating final couple of pages.

The Glass Palace is a broad novel, but not a deep one. It has many good elements, anyone looking for a sweeping Gone with the Wind style historical epic should find much to enjoy and it is genuinely intelligent on the lasting psychological impact of colonialism. It suffers though from a crudity of characterisation, from at times being simply too obvious, and in all honesty from just being longer than it needs to be.

In parting, it is perhaps worth mentioning that Tan Twan Eng’s novel The Gift of Rain has some degree of thematic overlap with The Glass Palace. Both speak, among other things, to issues of loyalty, patriotism, the legacy of colonialism and the nature of power. The difference, for me, is that The Gift of Rain addresses those topics while retaining depth of character. The Glass Palace by contrast is well researched, clearly something of a labour of love for Ghosh, but the history leaves too little room for the humanity.

The Glass Palace

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Filed under Ghosh, Amitav, Historical fiction, Indian fiction

Love and Longing in Bombay

As a rule, I don’t use the titles of works I comment on as titles for my blog entries. In this case, however, the title of Vikram Chandra’s spectacular short storiny collection is really as apposite as it is possible for a title to be, and so I thought an exception was in order.

Love and Longing in Bombay is a short story collection by Vikram Chandra, currently best known for his epic work Sacred Games which clocks in at a rather intimidating 947 pages. Although I had heard positive things about Sacred Games, starting a work of that length by an unknown (to me) author seemed perhaps unwise. Happily, the protagonist in Sacred Games appears in one of the short stories in this earlier work, and so I decided to try this collection before immersing myself within Sacred Games.

There are five stories in this collection, each titled by a single sanskrit word each of which refers to some principle or theme to which the story relates. Dharma (proper conduct), Shakti (ability, feminine creative force), Kama (sensual pleasure), Artha (purpose, prosperity), Shanti (inner peace). Those are my crude translations, taken from Wikipedia, I suspect a reader familiar with Hindu teaching (which would include I suspect basically any Indian likely to read the book, including Muslim or Sikh Indians since they live within a predominantly Hindu culture) would be drawing subtler meanings from these titles. The stories cover a range of topics, a general’s encounter with a ghost, a battle between two society hostesses (one old money, one new), a policeman’s investigation of a murder, a young software business and its problems with seemingly inexplicable data errors in their first major account, a love story in immediately post-war India. Along the way, many other elements are thrown in, so that we see a range of Bombay life and capture the flavour of the city, it’s dreamers, workers, gangsters, mothers and the vast assortment of life it contains.

Each story is framed by the works of an elderly but respected man who sits in a down at heels bar and tells stories to those present. Subramanian:

Subramanian had white hair, he was thin, and in the falling dusk he looked very small to me, the kind of man who would while away the endless boredom of his life in a bar off Sassoon dock, and so I shaped him up in my mind, and weighed him and dropped him.
I should have noticed then that the waiters brought his drinks to him without being asked, and that the others talked around his silence but always with their faces turned towards him, but I was holding forth on the miserable state of computers in Bombay.

Subramanian acts in part as a framing device, in part as a celebration of the importance of stories and the delight of storytelling (and that delight is a key part of this work), and I think the quote above also demonstrates Chandra’s skill at swift evocation of character and description. This concept of framing the story as story, as a thing related person to person, is brought to its climax in the final tale in which characters tell each other even shorter stories so that within one short story are other nested narratives. The parallels with Arabian Nights are obvious, though also I think Chandra is reminding us that the story is a human thing, that the act of storytelling is an act of creation even when – as here – every storyteller in the book claims their stories to be absolute truth. Subramanian narrates the stories, but they are narrated to us by another unnamed narrator who sits in Subramanian’s audience. As the stories continue, that unnamed narrator finds his own life enriched by the stories, but also his inclusion as a framing device framing the ostensible framing device reminds us that each story contains within it other stories, layer within layer.

Throughout the work, Chandra excels at description, and displays considerable (though thankfully unflashy) technical skill as a writer. Sometimes this description comes in large and luxuriant paragraphs, dense with detail, sometimes in one line sentences made rich from context and subtle use of language:

The house stood on a square plot on prime residential land in Khar, surrounded by new, extravagant constructions coloured the pink and green of new money.

The five tales differ widely in subject matter, and improve as the book continues with the first being powerful and affecting but the second with its tale of the conflict of old and new money having even greater resonance and impact. So it continues, with the effect of the stories building cumulatively, each stronger than the last perhaps in part due to the impact of the others before it but also because the collection has been carefully assembled into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Unlike many short story collections, this work does repay reading the stories consecutively in a reasonably short time period.

The stories speak often of the complexities of love: of how a beautiful woman comes to love a short and dumpy man; of the love of married couples and the secrets within a marriage – which can be as simple as a fleeting caress at the kitchen table and the realisation of genuine affection. Infidelity is found here, as is the love of a gay couple forced to have sex outdoors as they cannot afford an apartment and certainly cannot use either one’s parents’ home, and so too is the love of young couples full of impossible confidence in their ability to supersede all barriers.

Similarly, the book is suffused with longing, often for the inchoate, often in the form of grief for loved ones (wives, brothers, lovers) lost. The general who feels phantom pain in a limb long since removed, the policeman aching over the break-up of his marriage unable to sign the divorce papers sent to him by his wife, the quest of a young woman for her air force husband lost in a WWII combat mission, the drive of a gifted programmer for perfection in her code, the characters in Chandra’s work are suffused with emotion and desire.

All of which makes it sound like a work of romantic fiction, which really couldn’t be further from the case. Rather, it is a work engorged with life, with the noisy contradictions of a great city full of people each striving after that which they believe will make them happy. And just as this is a work which celebrates the art of storytelling, so too it is a work that celebrates the mere fact of living. The sheer joy of it, which is so easily forgotten in the everyday, and the tragedy of those who do not value it.

In the rearview mirror, Sartaj could see Kshitij’s shoulder, the line of his jaw, and he thought, it’s always hard on the serious ones. They were always tragic with their earnestness and their belief in seriousness. He remembered two boys who were the grandsons of farmers in his grandfather’s village near Patiala. He recalled them vaguely from a summer visit to the village, remembered them in blue pants and ties. There had been a celebration of their results in the seventh class exams, and he had tried to talk to them about the test match that everyone was listening to but had found them boring and uninformed. After that he had never seen them again and had not thought of them for years until his father had mentioned them during a Sunday phone call. They had been caught by a BSF patrol as they came over the border in the dunes near Jaisalmer laden with grenades and ammunition. They had tried to fire back but had been neatly outflanked and machine-gunned. The papers had reported the death of two Grade-A terrorists and had reported their names and their affiliations. There had been a grainy black-and-white photograph of sprawled, bloodied figures with open mouths. Sartaj had never heard of their organization but had no doubt it was a very serious one.

Many of the stories are left deliberately incomplete in parts, explicitly so. Characters look for answers to things important but opaque to them, yet without any guarantee of success and more than one story ends with key elements left unresolved and at times even wholly unexplained. A character comments at one point that this too is life, that not all stories have endings, that sometimes we must just make do with such answers as we have however poor they may be.

Equally, where Indian words are used, they are not translated and we are left to deduce their meanings (if we do not already know them, I didn’t) from context. I said in another entry on my blog that a good work should not need a glossary, the story should make plain what the words mean. Here that is the case, although words are often used which (not being Indian) I am not familiar with, I was always able to see easily from the text what they must mean at least in large part and other than the story titles themselves I never felt any need of translation (and one could not translate those titles and still enjoy the stories in their own right). As with the endings, not everything in life is explained, not everything is comprehensible. Life is larger than we are, and keeping going despite sometimes not fully understanding everything is a key part of it.

And that is the other key theme of this work, as well as a love of storytelling we have a love of life itself, in all its sheer ungovernable mess. The sheer beauty of it, and with that the extraordinary vitality of Bombay with all that struggling life bursting within it striving and loving and longing. To be alive is to desire (a very Buddhist line that, on reflection, I wonder if it is the same in Hinduism?) and with so much life in it Bombay is a city of desire – of love and passion and ambition and the sheer glorious excitement of existence.

He had Katekar and the jeep waiting below, at Beach Candy, but he wanted to walk for a while. A van passed with that ugly throbbing American music that Sartaj could feel in his chest. A school bus passed, and three girls in blue uniforms smiled toothily at him from the rear window. Sartaj laughed. He twirled his moustache. In the blaring evening rush he could feel the size of the city, its millions upon millions, its huge life and all its unsolved dead. A double-decker bus ground to a halt at the stop across the street, and people jostled in and out. On the side of the bus a poster for a new movie proclaimed: ‘Love, Love, Love.’ Somewhere, also in the city, there was [ ] and his partymen, with their building full of weapons and their dreams of the past, and Sartaj knew that nothing was finished, that they remembered him as much as he thought of them. A light changed just as Sartaj was about to cross the road, and the stream of cars jerked ahead madly, causing him to jump back, and the sidewalk vendors and their customers smiled at him. He smiled also, waiting his moment. Then he plunged in.

This is one of the finest works I have read this year, it is graceful yet playful in its use of language. It celebrates storytelling as an art form and celebrates both Bombay itself and the sheer act of living. It is a work of excellence from a major talent, and one I am delighted to have read.

Love and Longing in Bombay

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Filed under Chandra, Vikram, Indian fiction, Short stories

I have been arrested. For winning a quiz show.

Q & A is the first novel of Indian novelist (and diplomat) Vikas Swarup.  It is also the source for the upcoming Danny Boyle film Slumdogs, a film which based on this novel I would be interested in seeing as in many ways the work reads more as a screenplay treatment than as a novel.

At its core, Q & A tells the story of a young and penniless Indian waiter who wins the largest prize in game show history on an Indian equivalent of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (here Who Wants to be a Billionaire?).  His success bankrupts the production company, which has him arrested on the assumption of fraud, and this all forms a framing device where he talks a young lawyer through how he came to know the answer to each of the twelve quiz questions and in the process takes us through his life and the various parts of Indian society he has encountered.

Each chapter then is a different vignette from the life of the bizarrely named Ram Mohammed Thomas (his name is itself a plot point, and something of a running joke as he chooses the most convenient part of it at various times so as to avoid inter-ethnic prejudices).  The chapters are not in chronological order, but rather in the order of the questions, and each chapter illustrates why he happened by chance to know a particular quiz answer.

From all that you might well think this is a novel in which coincidence plays a large part, and in truth it does since Ram only knows the answers to the quiz by a series of twelve improbable coincidences.  But once one gives that (and I don’t think it’s a big give, that string of coincidence is the conceit that makes the novel possible) the rest of the work contains a few coincidences but not so many as to make it inherently incredible.

Generally the tone of the novel is light, often humorous, however the subject matter of individual chapters can be very dark indeed taking in racism, sectarian violence, parental child abuse, the crippling of child beggars to increase their profitability, robbery, murder, wasted lives and crushed dreams and a variety of other issues topical to contemporary India.  This is in many sense a state of the nation novel, Ram is an everyman whose life takes him into contact with a wide range of Indian society from the very poorest to wealthy expats to the home grown rich, and through him we therefore see how these different faces of Indian society operate. 

Unfortunately, Ram himself as a character did not persuade me, and indeed the narrative voice generally seemed to me much more that of a highly educated Indian diplomat and not at all that of a poorly educated Indian orphan (admittedly Ram is not wholly uneducated, and can speak English, but even given those points it seemed the voice of someone of a far more comfortable background than Ram is given).  I simply didn’t believe at any point that I was reading the words of a working class Indian, which given the entire novel is supposed to be Ram’s own words recounted to his lawyer was a problem for me.  In the film treatment, that won’t be an issue, but here I found myself remembering the marvellous Animal’s People and how skilfully that gave life to a seemingly authentic voice of a member of India’s poor.  Equally, given Ram’s lawyer is an attractive young woman and he recounts his story to her while sitting in her apartment I did find it slightly remarkable that he would describe how when sitting in the cinema he liked to sit at the front as the proximity to the screen made the heroine’s breasts more voluptuous.  The truth is of course, Ram is not saying this to a young and pretty lawyer he is sitting next to, Vikas Swarup is saying it to the book’s audience having seemingly forgotten his own framing device.

Worse yet, later in the novel there are two incidents where a dog is described in some detail, down to the spots on its fur, and we are informed that nobody saw it.  This simply makes no sense at all, the novel is Ram’s account of his experiences, why then do we have passages detailing things he hasn’t seen?  Again, the impression is that Swarup has forgotten his own framing device.  Certainly I did not have the impression that Ram is intended as an unreliable narrator, the issue is of a faulty framing device, not a faulty internal narrative.

That’s some fairly hefty criticisms there, so it’s worth going in to what I think does work.  Many of the individual chapters make interesting stories, particularly those involving Ram’s best friend Salim who is the greatest film fan in all India.  We see Salim’s unfortunate encounter with his film star idol, his brief occupation as assistant to a man who turns out to be a professional hitman, his job as a tiffin box delivery boy, his work as a bit part extra in Bollywood, to be honest I’d have happily seen a lot more Salim and a lot less Ram.  Salim is a Muslim, and he is also used to bring out some of India’s sectarian divisions, at one point nearly dying when a religious mob attack a bus he is on:

‘The bus stopped at a traffic light and a group of ruffians wearing head bands and armed with swords, spears and tridents got on.’
‘Oh my God! Don’t tell me it was a mob.’
‘Yes, it was. I realized then that we had landed in the middle of a communal riot. The wreckage of a smouldering vehicle lay directly in front of us. Shops had been reduced to rubble, splashes of blood could be seen on the pavement, stones sticks and slippers littered the street. The driver immediately bolted from the bus. My mind went numb with fear. I had thought I would never have to see such a horrifying sight again. I heard sounds which I thought I had forgotten. My mother’s shrieks [Salim lost his family to religious riots as a child] and my brother’s cries echoed in my ears. I began shivering. The ruffians told everyone on the bus that a Muslim mob had set fire to Hindu houses and now they were out for revenge. I learnt later that the whole trouble had started over a simple quibble about a water tap in a slum. But people’s minds were so full of hate that within hours buses were being burnt, houses were being torched and people were being butchered.’

The mob question the passengers, letting go those with Hindu names though first checking them for signs that they might be Muslims, including inspecting within a small boy’s trousers.  The passage is brief, but communicates the casual nature with which sectarian violence can spring up and claim lives.  I thought it one of the book’s better passages, though I’d note that Salim’s narrative voice is essentially identical to that of Ram.

Elsewhere, Ram himself works for an Australian diplomatic family, is servant to a faded Bollywood megastar, lives in a variety of slums, travels on India’s famous railways (with much in the passage about the experience, and dangers, of rail travel in India), makes and loses money and helps those worse off than himself whenever he is able.  He works as a servant, a waiter and in a range of largely unskilled occupations, with his varying servant roles giving him insight into how the wealthy live.

Other passages that work well include a very early one where we see Ram living in a slum with his neighbours being a once prosperous middle class family headed by a former academic, a man insistent that his sojourn in the slum is temporary and that the family will soon be prosperous again.  We learn that the man’s alcoholism led to the loss of his job, and with that and the exhaustion of their savings the family swiftly fell from the comfort of its middle class existence to destitution.  Life in Ram’s India is fragile, status and wealth precarious and easily lost and like in the works of authors such as Hardy the threat of ruin is a very real one.

On Mr Shantaram and his family’s arrival next door to Ram:

‘What do you do?’ I ask Shantaram.
‘I am a scientist, an astronomer.  You won’t understand.  But these days I am taking a break.  I am working as the sales manager in the Vimal showroom.  This room here is a very temporary arrangement.  We will be shifting to a de luxe apartment in Nariman Point very soon.’
I know Mr Shantaram is lying.  Those who can afford to live in Nariman Point never stay in chawls, not even temporarily.

For me, this was an affecting and powerful sequence, the snobbery and condescension of Mr Shantaram even in his reduced circumstances is well captured, as are the lies he is telling himself about the temporary nature of his fall, lies which to the poor are hopelessly transparent.

Equally, an episode in which Ram and Salim are taken from their orphanage to a home run by a gangster who cripples children in order to make them more effective beggars is horrific and credible (and being credible is important here, since I understand this is a real phenomenon), and I enjoyed the depiction of the faded Bollywood star unwilling to face the reality that she has become too old for the roles that made her famous.

There were also passages that were, for me, less successful.  I did wonder rather at what the story involving a gay tattooed shotgun wielding biker priest told me about contemporary India (though one could argue that the inclusion of gay tattooed shotgun wielding biker priests is essentially self-justifying in any narrative), equally a story involving what appears to be working voodoo magic, even the hitman narrative, seemed slightly unnecessary.  There was much in the novel that I thought essentially sensationalist in tone, which ultimately is fair enough given that the book is light and fun and generally an easy read but rather unfairly led to my being disappointed with it as I had expected more about contemporary India and less escapist adventure.  Still, one shouldn’t criticise a book for not being what it did not set out to be, and Vikas Swarup is hardly to be blamed for my mistaken expectations of the nature of his work.

Overall then, this is a picaresque novel, though one lacking a picaro as there is nothing really roguish about Ram (though for an innocent abroad he and Salim manage to kill two people and try to kill at least one other).  As is the nature of picaresque works, if you are happy to spend time with the protagonist (and Ram is easy enough to spend time with) then if one adventure does not appeal there is usually another along soon enough.

How then would I summarise Q & A?  The back blurb refers to it as a “warm-hearted tale [in which] lies all the comedy, tragedy, joy and pathos of modern India.”  That’s actually not a bad blurb, it is a warm hearted novel, it certainly sets out to include passages of comedy and tragedy, joy and pathos, it does provide an overview of India that at least to me was not like any other works I have read (though I’m not well read as yet in contemporary Indian literature).  But warming hearts is something of a two edged sword, and for me the sensationalist elements, lack of narrative credibility and a certain degree of sentimentality meant that I did not enjoy the novel nearly as much as I had hoped. 

All that said, my impression is that I am in a distinct minority and that most of its readers have adored it, certainly the inner cover comes adorned with glowing reviews (and some arguably not so glowing) from among others the Sunday Telegraph (which to its credit uses the term cartoon-like, with which I would agree), The Times, the New York Times Book Review, Literary Review, various Indian and Australian newspapers as well as the perhaps less persuasive Daily Mail and Mariella Frostrup (though to be fair to Mariella, all she says is that she can imagine it as a movie).  If, therefore, the theme or ideas of this novel interest you, it may be worth checking out.  Alternatively, I suspect it will make a very good film.

Finally, apologies to anyone who came to this page because Google threw it up in response to their search for gay tattooed biker priests.  I hope your next hit is more to your tastes, or at least has pictures.

http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/WEBSITE/WWW/WEBPAGES/showbook.php?id=055277250X
 
As a minor addendum, this edition has at the back an interview with Swarup, some notes on the factual background to the book, a nice little section of suggested further reading and some incredibly basic questions for discussion which I thought probably pitched at too low a level to be useful to most book groups (which is who they’re aimed at).  The idea of this section is I think a good one, as anything that helps people engage with a text is in my view a good thing, but I think it’s a slight shame the questions are at such a basic level.  That said, Black Swan may know book groups better than I do, since I’ve never been in one, and at the end of the day it’s extra free content and the interview, facts and further reading sections are all well done.

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Filed under Indian fiction, Swarup, Vikas