I read Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy over two years ago. Yet many of the characters, even lesser ones – like Mahesh Kapoor, remain vivid in my memory. I can almost see the man when I close my eyes and try to imagine a scene from the story. One could argue that it’s unfair to compare with “A Suitable Boy”, where Seth left no stone unturned in developing the characters, where even lesser ones are given meticulous attention and volume to help the reader eke out in their minds, the flesh and blood aliases. The point I’m trying to make is this: without interesting characters, or even apparently ordinary characters cast extraordinarily by the author, a book – a work of fiction that is – will not leave a mark in the reader’s imagination. Mr.Zama’s debut novel is such a book.
There’s no need to brace yourself – I am not going to flay the author. Even today, with the plethora of publishers and writers, it remains quite hard to get one’s work published (and I don’t mean on the Internet). That, in itself, is quite an achievement. One needs persistence (let’s forsake talent for while, we’ll get to that in a bit), and some luck. Sometimes luck alone works. Zama probably has both. At least, this book is not as cheesy as Vikas Swarup’s Q & A (source of the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire). What it is is a mixture of excoticism (with an overdose of spices), avuncular wisdom, a paean to secularism, a jumble of none too memorable characters (except perhaps Aruna) all afloat in a drama devoid of any significant conflict, a probable cause being Mr. Zama’s over inclination to resolve all problems, and resolve them fairly easily. There, I’ve violated my promise, but it was unavoidable.
At times, the book reads like a manual for Indian cooking:
“Aruna’s mother lit the second ring of the gas burner and put an aluminum pan on it. She poured a couple of tablespoons of oil into it. When the oil was hot enough, she took out an old round wooden container. She slid the lid open on its hinge. Inside, there were eight compartments, each holding a different spice. She took a pinch of mustard seeds and put them in the oil. When they started popping, Aruna’s mother dropped cloves, cardamom pods, and a cinnamon stick into the hot oil. She added a small plate of chopped onions to the pan. The lovely smell of frying onions filtered through the kitchen and into the rest of the house”
…and this goes on for another paragraph. I mean, come on! Almost any major city of any consequence has an Indian restaurant, and with YouTube and the zillions of recipe websites, one no longer is in awe of popping mustard seeds and the smell of fried onions in spices. These so called tactile mechanisms are a bane and detract the reader, but perhaps there’s a selling point that I’m missing. Through such deviations, mediocre writing, and failing to latch on to the potential latent in the Aruna character, Zama’s work never really picks up, stuttering on through its three hundred odd pages, letting in too many inconsequential people walk in through Marriage Bureau’s doors. Mr. Ali, Mrs. Ali – why not just use their names? And their son, Irshad – I was hoping to see some real conflict when he was arrested in a protest against farmland acquisition. But Zama fritters away that chance too, and with the bloody battle of Singur still fresh in many a mind, what a miss it is.
Now, talking of talent, one doesn’t expect every Indian author to bear the promise of a Vikram Seth or Amitav Ghosh. We have become, are becoming, a more and more egalitarian society, with most of us finding it easier to accomplish one’s heart’s desire – be it launching a startup company, scuba diving or writing. This is a good thing. Seriously, I mean no irony or cynicism even if there’s a whiff from my take on the book. There’s a playing field for everyone, and that’s how things should be. Now as far a reading goes, it is fair to say that one needs to be choosy in this avalanche of media, and finding a good book to read (and that of course, as many might quickly point out, is purely subjective) remains difficult, for talent, unlike opportunity, is less common. Read the jackets carefully, sometimes they help. The “About the Auhor” section at the end of this one says –
“…He works for an investment bank and writes on his commute and sitting in front of the TV after dinner.”
I wish I had read it prior to my venture. Now that I have, I am not surprised of the outcome. Quite an achievement, Mr. Zama! (See, I didn’t use his first name at all in the essay, barring the title. Doesn’t sound so good, does it?)