Category Archives: novel

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

MarriageBureauforRichPeople

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?)

Rating: 2/5

Mélange

Several months back, I began reading Salman Rushdie’s “Enchantress of Florence”. Even brilliance of prose can be tedious, as I realized not too far into the book. Nonetheless, it did trigger in me some interest in history. Out came a dusty paperback from my bookshelf, an old edition of History of India Vol. 2 by Percival Spear. A trip down its pages was so much more refreshing than the gibberish (sorry Mr. Rushdie, I like your writing, but everyone should retire one day, no?) I’d been digesting, that I returned to it with much reluctance. The end result of course was that my persistence fell short of my impatience, and I abandoned the book more than halfway through it.

Then came another book that I was hard pressed to finish – Manil Suri’s “Death of Vishnu”.  I did finish it though (with much gritting of teeth), overcoming the profusely ornamental style and unending series of cliches. The ennui of plodding through two (well, almost) painstaking books clearly signaled that I needed a break, perhaps into stuff not classified as “literary”, or even non fiction for while.

Michio Kaku’s “Parallel Worlds” was as intriguing read, next. But physics itself seems so limiting in trying to explain the non-physical, that I have a hard time carrying on, at least beyond one book. Projecting something as the pinnacle of knowledge when the source itself is dependent on our perception is a futile, if not unwise, exercise. Interestingly, I picked up Kaku’s book after watching a few episodes of the hilarious sitcom – Big Bang Theory (The title, science, books … you know, one thing led to the other). It’s about a bunch of bungling Caltech geeks and their hot neighbor.  Incidentally, I’ve become a fan, and recently watched the entire Season 1 on DVD

From physics to metaphysics – I re-read Dr. David Hawkins’ “I: Reality and Subjectivity“, the third of his trilogy(or what I knew as a trilogy till today before I checked amazon.com. I really need to catch up on his more recent works), a profound piece of work that highlights the importance of kinesiology for the serious spiritual seeker, a vehicle for intuitively discerning truth from falsehood. Yet despite the depth, I feel he should have kept away from opining on politics and other trivia (which seems oscillate more towards the right wing, to a degree). They act as  mere hindrances. Still, a very valuable book, for its insights. The book itself is in a question/answer format, somewhat like the compilaiton of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj’s discourses “I am That“, an advaita classic. David Hawkins himself greatly revers Maharaj, who, in his kinesiologic test, calibrates at 740.

But wait, I haven’t entirely given up on ficiton and literature. I couldn’t. One refreshing read was Gita Mehta’s “A River Sutra”. Written simply, it’s an allegorical tale of a retired bureaucrat’s search for meaning. It reminded me of Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha”. Perhaps I’ll write about it next. In the meantime, I’d very much welcome tips on anything recent (Booker perhaps? Haven’t paid much attention to it), or even the not so recent.

Behind the words

I have just begun reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth”. The back cover caught my eye. It is not that I haven’t seen her picture before, and was caught unaware by the fact that she is good looking (quite photogenic too). But the way photograph has been rendered, she could pass for a model, or a film star. While only a fool would buy a book based on an author’s looks, there is no denying the fact it has become increasingly common to flaunt it if you’ve got it, and perhaps even if you haven’t. So what if JL was a buck toothed hag with a De Niro mole on her nose and about as photogenic as a crow? I am sure that the photograph would be either missing or much subdued. What I am not so sure of is whether this is a phenomenon chiefly pertaining to women writers. Perhaps.

Nonetheless, one must learn not to take blurbs on book jackets seriously. The photograph merely makes up for the missing ones, and enhances the rest. One shouldn’t unduly bother with correlations between their fulsome promise and the quality of the actual writing, which, in this case, is surprisingly high.

 

jhumpalahiri

 

A writer of the caliber of JL needs such accoutrements only for those who have not experienced her earlier works, most notably “Interpreter of Maladies” – a gem of a collection. I admire her unornamented style, very much contrary to the glitzy marketing snapshot, but equally, if not more, arresting. She’s a shining example of what talent and a good writing school degree can do to someone with luck. The luck factor is of course required for winning fame and recognition, awards. And her good looks are only a part of her good fortunes.

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

seaofpoppiesTo read an Amitav Ghosh novel is not merely to get a glimpse of the best of contemporary Indian writing, but also a snapshot of an oft-ignored episode of history. The “Sea of Poppies” is no exception. After a somewhat lukewarm tryst with Sunderbans and the Gangetic Dolphin (Hungry Tide), the first novel of the Ibis trilogy is a tour de force.

 

Ghosh has a talent for suspense. The ghost anecdote from Calcutta Chromosome is still vivid in my memory, and certain parts of Shadow Lines gave me goose bumps. The climax of this work sees ample use of this prowess, and leaves one breathless. But the best sections of the novel, in my opinion, are the ones dealing with the transformation of Neel – from the squeamish Raja Neel Rattan Halder to the denounced convict resuscitating an opium addict, as if in redemption. The abjectness of Neel’s incarceraton hits one with a retching effect, such is the power of his prose.

 

To read the novel is also to get a glimpse also of the beaten-to-death issue of caste system. So many people have written about it in so many different ways that it has become a cliché. So is the Kalua character and his escapade with Deeti. Ghosh however adds a linguistic tribute to Bhojpuri, the language spoken by the shipload of girmitiyas (indentured laborers) being transported to Mauritius:

 

“… of all the tongues spoken between the Ganges and the Indus, there was none that was its equal in the expression of the nuances of love, longing and separation – of the plight of those who leave and those who stay at home.”

 

This is immediately followed by what I think are the best lines of the book:

 

“How had it happened that while choosing the men and women who were to be torn from this subjugated plain, the hand of destiny had strayed so far inland, away from the busy coastlines, to alight on the people who were, of all, the most stubbornly rooted in the silt of the Ganga, in a soil that had to be sown with suffering to yield its crop of story and song? It was as if fate had thrust its fist through the living flesh of the land in order to tear away a piece of its stricken heart.”

 

What an awesome metaphor!

 

Another beaten-to-death theme of many post colonialists, the ills of colonization itself, is given a poignancy that blatantly stares us in the face and raises unanswerable questions for the guardians of so called modern civilization. The British in the eighteenth century attempted to freely sell opium in China. In today’s context, it is tantamount to allowing the drug lords of Columbia a free rein in the streets of LA. Yet, in the name of the free market and God, the British fought two wars with China over opium trade. Here is how the Mr. Burnham character, a businessman of the East India Company, justifies it when Neel questions him on the moral implications of opium trade:

“…the antidote for addiction lies not in bans enacted by Parliaments and emperors, but in the individual conscience – in every man’s awareness of his personal responsibility and his fear of God. As a Christian nations this is the single most important lesson we can offer to China – and I have no doubt that the message would be welcomed by the people of that unfortunate country, were they not prevented from hearing it by the cruel despot who holds sway over them. It is tyranny alone that is to blame for China’s degeneracy, sir. Merchants like myself are but the servants of Free Trade, which is as immutable as God’s commandments.”

 

Swap poppies with petroleum and the Emperor of China with Saddam Hussein and it sounds very much like George Bush and the Iraq war.

 

Noam Chomsky in his arguments often states that the standards set by developed Western nations are not the same when it comes to judging their own actions, that somehow they are above the very principles by which they hold others. When Neel is sentenced and every bit of his property seized, he has similar thoughts on the virtues of English law.

 

“There was something about this that seemed so absurd to Neel that he had to drop his head for fear of betraying a smile: for if his presence in the dock proved anything at all, it was surely the opposite of the principle of equality so forcefully enunciated by the judge? In the course of this trial, it had become almost laughably obvious to Neel that in this system of justice it was the English themselves – Mr. Burnham and his ilk – who were exempt from the law as it applied to others: it was they who had become the world’s new Brahmins.”

 

The hypocrisy is further elucidated with Captain Chillingworth’s candid admission:

 

“…We are no different from the Pharaohs or the Mongols: the difference is only that when we kill people we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this pretense of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history.”

 

 

In many ways, Sea of Poppies is a departure from his earlier works. It has a new publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, no doubt, but also a substantial chrestomathy in the appendix, as a reference to the eighteenth century British India lingo (sea faring and otherwise) used extensively throughout the book. While one can understand why bawarchi became bobachee and Pollock Saug the anglicized name of the popular dish, the ubiquity of such terms appear needless to me. I do not think that the novel would fall short, in the veraciousness of its context, with a lesser profusion of such nuances. Such background is really part of an author’s research and flouting it to the reader serves little purpose in a work of fiction. Perhaps it is a marketing ploy or an effort to optimize content for audiences with only a dithering knowledge of India or those inquisitive of the arcane. Is it also a marketing ploy to not publish the entire trilogy at once? My argument is, if Suitable Boy was suitable for it, why not this? The counter side is of course that Ghosh might be at work on the rest and was unwilling to wait as long. The sale of three volumes is certainly more enticing than one while appearing less onerous to the reader as well.

Another departure is a hint of magic realism. Deeti’s vision of the Ibis and her future does not appear to have an equivalent precursor, except perhaps in Calcutta Chromosome, which again is a different genre altogether.

Also, the generousness of humor is a markedly different approach. Nob Kissin Pander and Doughty doubtless attenuate the grim events, but their deliberateness seems quite intended. The Glass Palace, whose scope this work emulates, has a far darker tone.

 

At the end of the novel, one sees a chapter in the lives of the characters coming to an end, but there is a distinct undertone throughout the book (references to Deeti’s shrine) which does not see fruition. There is also a general inconclusiveness — of Neel in his new avatar, of the fate of Zachary and Paulette’s love, of Deeti in isolation, of Kalua and the band of mutineers fleeing Ibis. This is the buildup to part two, which I fervently await.

 

*Shortlisted for the 2008 Booker*

Adiga wins the Booker

It is probably news no longer, but I am happy with the choice, though it might sound strange when I haven’t read the other books in contention. On reading The White Tiger, I did get the feeling that it might actually win, no matter the competition. Congratulations to Aravind Adiga!

Link to BBC Interview.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

What becomes apparent soon into The White Tiger is its anger. This is the voice of the post liberal India, the generation after Rushdie and Mistry. While the principals of Mistry’s Fine Balance are crushed in subhuman surroundings, the one here rises in protest using the very system which keeps countless others like him in “darkness”. The novel brings to forefront the apparent anomalies in India’s economic growth, driven principally by a burgeoning outsourcing industry. Perhaps no where else in the world are the differences in social strata so stark – glittering edifices of the elite on one hand, and the destitute defecating in the open on the other.

 

The narrative is unique and extremely engrossing. Balram, a successful entrepreneur in booming Bangalore, tells the story of his life, with a lot of his native wisdom and insights about India included, to the Chinese premier Wen Jibao in a series of letters he writes late at night. Born in the impoverished rural India (a village called Laxmangarh), he has left his past behind to emerge successfully in a new avatar. It is a story of his transformation, his gruesome leap to alter his destiny.

 

Adiga paints India in two shades. One is Darkness, where Balaram and his ilk are taken advantage of generation after generation by a deeply unfair social system, by the corrupt political class. Then there’s the India of Light, which is still as corrupt, but with a glimmer of hope.

“This city has its share of thugs and politicians. It’s just that here, if a man wants to be good, he can be good. In Laxmangarh, he doesn’t even have this choice. That is the difference between this India and that India: the choice.”

 

The work is searing in its criticism of the fatalistic belief system that keeps millions in hopelessness, in the “Rooster Coop” of degeneration. It celebrates Balram’s release, albeit the criminal means.

I’ve made it! I’ve broken out of the coop!

But his freedom itself is a question mark on the system of law and order and corruption in modern India.

“I have switched sides: I am now one of those who cannot be caught in India.”

 

Balram is one of the few who make it over from one world to the other. A rarity, like the “White Tiger”.

 

Scathing and irreverent, the book questions the very foundations of India’s democracy, much touted in the image presented to the rest of the world. It is reminiscent of Khushwaht Singh, only Adiga is more incisive.

 

But regardless of its profound implications, the novel succeeds also as a great entertainer. Hugely readable, it is a page turner, with a thriller like pace at times. It should be a strong contender for this year’s Booker, for which it has been shortlisted. Kudos to Adiga, for such a refreshing and delightful read.

The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh

In his essay on the anti Sikh riots of Delhi (The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi), this is what Amitav Ghosh has to say about “The Shadow Lines”:

a book that led me backward in time to earlier memories of riots, ones witnessed in childhood. It became a book not about any one event but about the meaning of such events and their effects on the individuals who live through them.

It is difficult to describe the book any better this. While the central, climactic event – that of a single riot which changed the lives of several people unwillingly pulled into its vortex – is only revealed in the end, the narrator’s journey through the “shadow lines” of geopolitical boundaries, through the past and present, is really an attempt to find some meaning of such meaningless (at least to the victims) violence.

 

At one level, it is all about personal relationships. There are a surprising number of characters, given the relatively short length (less than 250 pages in the first hardcover American edition), and I found myself fumbling between family hierarchies. Essentially there’s the narrator’s family, and the family of their close English friends.

 

 

 

 

 

As evident, the characters span three generations. I have highlighted the ones of central interest.

 

Grandmother and Mayadebi are sisters, who grew up in Dhaka before the partition. While Mayadebi, the more gregarious of the two, marries a diplomat and enjoys a life of stature abroad, Grandmother loses her husband in Kolkata and has to fend for herself and her only son, the narrator’s father. She’s a fighter, refuses any charity, and manages to raise her son, the narrator’s father, who eventually becomes a successful executive.

 

The narrator and Ila, to whom he is attracted, are thus distant cousins. His yearning for her however goes unrequited. The narrator’s character and that of Ila are an antithesis. While he tries to solve a puzzle of the past, she attempts, in her evasion, to obliterate it, at least for herself. She assumedly falls in love with Nick, and the two are engaged.

Then there’s Tridib and May, their unconsummated love, Tridib’s death and May’s guilt. Tridib, May and the narrator stand at the the opposite ends of perception defined by Ila and Nick.

 

Robi, who is closer in age to the narrator and Ila rather than his much elder brother Tridib, comprises the third character, along with the narrator and Ila, who reflect on the past, in the present from where the novel takes off. The three get together in London, where the narrator is a student and where Ila lives, and where Robi is in transit en route to Boston.

 

The story unfolds through flashbacks, then progresses occasionally in the present. The narrative is intricate, and Ghosh is laudable for handling the complex flow of time, from starkly different historical perspectives, masterfully.

In this setting, between the buildup of generations of history, the hitherto unknown circumstances of Tridib’s death is revealed to the narrator (and also to us) in the final phases of the book. To those having undergone the trauma of such riots and even to those living in the shadow of it, which essentially includes people of the entire subcontinent, the book poses a simple yet challenging question: Was it really worth it?

In Robi’s own words:

“…why don’t they draw thousands of little lines through the subcontinent and give every little place a new name? What would it change? It’s a mirage; the whole thing is a mirage. How can anyone divide a memory?”

 

If there’s one book of Amitav Ghosh that’s undeniable, it is this. Here Ghosh the fiction writer takes precedence over Ghosh the researcher/academic, and by a wide margin. Unlike his later works – where the story sometimes takes turns that seem like props for a grander scheme on which it relies, unfortunately, like a crutch – there is clear focus, a deep, driving intent to unfold truth in the true novelistic style.

In the end, the futility of subcontinental politics intending to erase the truth of human lives by inventing “shadow lines” of divisions emerges acutely through the work. Therein lies its greatest success.