Monthly Archives: February 2008

The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The God Of Small ThingsAfter plodding through the last few books, “The God of Small Things” was a refreshing change. It drew me in, into the lives of Estha and Rahel, into Kerala, Ayemenem, onto love and its fragile boundaries, easily crushed by blind traditions, by selfish, hypocritical motives.

What Arundhati Roy achieves in her debut novel, her only work to date, is quite remarkable. She has the Booker (1997) to show for that, though an award is not always well deserved, as I recently discovered. In this case though, it is. One hundred percent. May be one hundred fifty. The lyrical quality of the prose, the evocative locales, passionate, intriguing moments reaped to the fullest, all belie the fact that this was only a first work. What a first! One that masters would be proud of and imitators love to worship.

The story, strongly influenced by the writer’s own life, is set in a Kerala village, Ayemenem, where the twins Estha and Rahel, return after twenty three years. Reliving a past that had separated them and split a family terminally apart. A past where their mother, Ammu, had loved an untouchable. An affair they paid dearly for. Estha and Rahel return to the present, to a “hideous grief”, to be haunted by death. Like their mother, they break “the Love Laws. That laid down who should be loved. And how. And how much.

 

Why a writer of such talent would forsake writing after her first work is baffling. Maybe political activism is more alluring. Maybe that was all she had to say. Maybe she is destined to be another Harper Lee. Whatever the reason, I hope she is able to repeat her tour de force. At least once, for the sake of literature.

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

The Inheritance Of LossIt is not a badly written book. But not one “that” well written to deserve an award, and least of all one as prestigious as the Booker. So why did The Inheritance of Loss win the Booker?

Answer:

a) The rest in running were no better

b) The judges blundered

c) My perceptions are, well, questionable.

 

I hope it is option c. But reading the book I felt otherwise.

 

Sai, an orphaned teenager whose parents died tragically in Moscow, is left to the care of a reclusive and disillusioned grandfather, a retired Judge and former ICS officer of the British era, now residing in a desolate Kalimpong bungalow. The judge has a cook, whose son Biju is an illegal immigrant in the States, jumping from one small time job to another to stay afloat. The book hovers between the present life of Sai, the judge and the cook in Kalimpong in the backdrop of the Gorkhaland movement, and Biju’s struggle to find a foothold in New York, interspersed with flashbacks of the judge’s past, his cruelties and illusions of grandeur that have soured his taste for life

 

 

So why is this much vaunted book undeserving of its praise and accolades? Here I attempt a brief five point reasoning:

  1. Stiltedness : The overall effect appears stilted. It seems the author has tried to force fit herself into ideas of the region and its political climate (Kalimpong, Gorkhaland), the characters, and the result has carried forth in the writing. It has lead to characters hard to empathize with, despite numerous situations where it is called for.

  2. Exoticism : There seems to be a clear intent to sell this book to people who are not familiar to India. Exoticism can go beyond mangoes, guavas or chutneys. They tread into long stereotyped rituals like child marriage, subjugation of women, negativism among low level business class Indian immigrants in the USA and so son. The writer’s desire of satire, if any, falls flat, the humour impotent.

  3. Incoherence : While the narrative shifts from present to past, from Kalimpong to New York, from Gorkhaland politics and marginalised victims to Saeed Saeed and his desperateness of becoming an American citizen, the transitions are ill made and jittery, hardly Booker calibre.

  4. Bad dialogue : The dialogues in Inheritence are not only pathetic but also profuse, which adds to the pain.

  5. Failed experimentation: Desai tries non conventional structures, like an oddly punctuated list, or expressions, in the middle of a paragraph. Or even broken half formed sentences given the fullness of whole. While this is novel and does garner some attention, it is not hard to notice the lack of any resounding effect in outcome. Experimentation for its own sake. While Rushdie creates power and Arundhati Roy almost poetry, Desai manages only a hodge podge of something needless.

 

Is the book really that bad? By no means.You can certainly give it a try, though you might be hard pressed to finish it. Desai deserves credit for the research in hill politics and civil servant’s lives, for coming up with something substantial to say in over three hundred pages that perhaps took her years to write and which in no way can be undermined by a review that has taken only minutes. My regret is that with all the content for drama and conflict, the possibility of scintillating characterization and scope, the work frizzles out to produce only something average, that someone will read and forget, with its characters hardly lasting in our memories.

That is where the book fails, and the reason why I felt that option (a) or (b), or both combined is the most plausible answer to the question I had earlier asked.

The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer

The Conservationist by Nadine GordimerMehring, a shrewd, successful business tycoon based in South Africa and a sexually prolific if slightly depraved man, buys a farm, somewhat on a whim. It becomes a sanctuary for him, where he escapes on weekends to get away from his stereotyped world and also supervise its functioning, Jacobus and the rest of the black workers in the farm. There’s no story as such but incidents pieced together of Mehing’s life, the farm and its workers and a small time Indian family that runs a nearby shop. Mehring wants a vent from the drudgery of his life of business meetings and social commitments, seeks something missing in his personal relationships torn by a failed marriage, an estranged son, and a left winged girlfriend who has had to flee the country for getting politically entangled. The solitude of the farm, the river running beside it, the outdoor camping, drinking, the joy of defecating in the open, is satisfying. Jacobus, and the rest of the farm boys try to please him. Poor black people. Crafty Indians. We see glimpses of their lives as well.

There is little drama in the book, but wonderful perspectives, of lives from different angles of the South African social strata. The white man, wary of the black, keeping them on a leash, always circumspect of their intent. The black, trying to hold on to the land, trying to gratify its owner, bereft of education or wealth, but not short of compassion or merriment. The Indians, cunning, instinctive, somewhere in between the white and black (brown, yes, but also in a social sense), surviving political turmoils and biased laws.

It is a hard-to-read book, requiring substantial effort to plod through the probing, frequently diverting, interrogative narrative. But patience pays. Artifacts and faculties are sharply exposed, often caustic, intense scenes captured brilliantly, like the flood and its aftereffects, the dead body that comes floating in the end (“one of them”), Mehring’s surreptitious fingering of a teenager in the plane. Draws out a lot, then draws you in. Enjoy the ride, but don’t expect a conventional resolution or climax.

So why is Mehring a Conservationist? For becoming a part time farmer from pig iron seller, for his trying to preserve the farm, not letting it grow wild and waste(as his girlfriend suggests)? Or is it because he tries to conserve pieces of his life, that though materially successful, appear to him meaningless at times?

Winner of the 1974 Booker Prize.