04 December 2012

In All Earnestness

Recently, I almost got arrested for trying to kiss Oscar Wilde's tombstone. It might have been poetic, but rather than rot away in a Parisian jail, I thought I'd write, instead, about the turbulent aftermath of Oscar Wilde's own forbidden kisses. An edited version of this piece first appeared in The Hindu Literary Review.

Perhaps the cruelest trick literature has played on itself is New Historicism, a school of critical thought that aims to understand a literary work through historical context and, in that process, understand historical context through the work. In the dramatic arts, where the negotiators of a text are many, it becomes particularly hard to know just when to stop peeling the onion. This is especially true of Oscar Wilde’s work, which is layered with such scathing social commentary that it is tempting to look at it as burlesque representation of his times. But Wilde, a vocal proponent of the Decadent movement (“art for art’s sake”), would have hated that. It is true that he was ever delighted to have his person associated with his work, often using his flash and bombast to further his career within London’s torrid celebrity culture (had he lived today, he might have conquered Twitter, admired Lady Gaga, and run a tabloid). But rather like the epigrammatic witticisms in his plays that come together like they fit together, these are parts that stand alone when they are not whole, and so much more than the sum of the parts when they are.

Still, there are times when context must seep into art, particularly on nights like the premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest on Valentine’s Day 1895. By this time, Wilde was an acknowledged master of social comedy, known for his aesthetic and journalistic integrity and his hatred of sanctimonious moralising. While his contemporaries gave in to farce, Wilde insistently immersed himself in the business of creating beauty. Despised and ridiculed by the American presses and adored by the London intellectuals (his admirers included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who dined with him one night and found his brilliance overpowering), Wilde was already in talks about his next play, a tragedy of marital discord. Although he never wrote it, it was clear he intended to explore the plight of his female protagonist, a perspective he had earlier championed with plays like Salome and with The Woman’s World, a magazine he briefly edited. 

Earnest received a response so spectacular that Allan Aynesworth, who played Algernon Moncrieff, remarked, “In my fifty-three years of acting, I never remember a greater triumph than [that] first night.” The title of the play works out to be a triple pun: “earnest” was Victorian underworld slang for “gay”. At the time, Wilde’s love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, a much younger aristocrat, had just come to light. Wilde chased beauty in every form and young Douglas was undoubtedly very beautiful. Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, in a furious attempt to humiliate Wilde, whom he believed had unmanned his son, planned to throw rotten tomatoes at the playwright during his curtain call.  Wilde was tipped off and had the Marquess banned from the theatre.

After a series of trespasses, Wilde and Douglas, against the counsel of friends including George Bernard Shaw, accused the Marquess of criminal libel and he, in order to avoid conviction, went on to have Wilde charged with gross indecency. In the trials that followed, Wilde was vain enough to lie about his age, but honest enough to tell the truth about his sexuality. His prosecutors repeatedly used passages from The Picture of Dorian Gray as evidence of guilt despite the fact that it was written before Wilde and Douglas first met. Ironically, it was after reading Dorian Gray that Douglas had become infatuated with Wilde and engineered their meeting. Frustrated by their attempts to use his art against him (after all, it was he who famously argued that life imitated art far more than art imitated life in his 1889 essay The Decay of Lying) Wilde went on to present an eloquent defense of “the love that dare not speak its name” (a term first used in Douglas’s poem “Two Loves” and now a euphemism for homosexuality), inspiring applause and a retrial. But in May that year, less than four months after the premiere of his best-known play, Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labour. Earnest ran to eighty-six packed houses before it was forced to shut down. Oscar Wilde never wrote another play.

During his imprisonment at Reading, Wilde wrote what is now known as De Profundis, a 50,000-word letter to Douglas recounting the very intimate details of their relationship, culminating with an account of his own spiritual growth. Later, he wrote a poignant ballad based on his harrowing prison experiences, which was published under the pseudonym of his cell-name. It was a huge success, going into seven reprints in only two years before the truth of its authorship became known. He spent his final years in France under the name Sebastian Melmoth and was reunited with Douglas, even living with him briefly, until they were parted on pain of disinheritance. During his lifetime, he frequently wondered if he would outlive the millennium, but this was not to be. He narrowly missed, dying penniless in Paris on 30 November 1900, but not before remarking, “I am dying as I have lived, beyond my means.”

In the century following his death, his lovers were extravagant. By 1905, Salome, which was originally banned in England, was adapted to the opera and De Profundis was published to immediate critical acclaim; by 1920, fake manuscripts flooded auctions; by mid-century, several biographies of varying authenticity had emerged. But by 2011, aside from films, status as a gay icon, and alarmingly frequent quotable quotes, his most distinguishing legacy was on his gravestone at Pere Lachaise in Paris: it was found to be so covered with lipstick marks from kisses left by adoring fans that parts of it had eroded, leading the Irish Government to put up a glass wall around it. Wilde might have liked these flamboyant displays of affection better than the wall of chastity that prevented them, but he was, in the course of his life, so often imprisoned from love that he might have appreciated the irony as well.

In a 1999 lecture, Tom Stoppard referred to Earnest as “the most nearly perfect work of art in English stage comedy.” But what Stoppard found extraordinary about the evolution of the play was how seventeen pages of typescript were coldly slashed out of the original draft. George Alexander, the producer, suggested to Wilde the cutting of one scene from the play. Ever genial, Wilde wrote to him: “the scene which you feel is superfluous caused me back-breaking labour, nerve-racking anxiety, and took fully five minutes to write.” But Wilde trusted Alexander, having already worked with him on Lady Windermere’s Fan, and combined the elements of the third and fourth acts to create the taut and comically brilliant third act now found in the play. The 2002 film adaptation, which had a star billing that included Dame Judi Dench, Colin Firth, and Reese Witherspoon, incorporated the edited scene and it, in what seems to be poetic justice, was the dullest part of the movie. Wilde may have been the genius, Stoppard says, but it was Alexander who was the technician of that genius.

Alexander revived the play at its original theatre as a tribute to Wilde eleven years after his death, whereupon it became one of the most critically and commercially successful plays of the English repertory. W.H. Auden described the play as “pure verbal opera”: the play does indeed have the quality of dramma giocoso per musica, a genre of libretto that combines comedy and drama seamlessly. The result – both in classical opera and in Wilde – is a kind of lightness in movement that entirely belies the sheer energy and vitality that goes into its creation. The final work is, as Stoppard puts it, nearly perfect. In another letter to Alexander, Wilde wrote, immodestly, but accurately: “The first act is ingenious, the second beautiful, the third abominably clever.” He might well have been describing his life.


19 November 2012

Mrs. Ali’s Road to Happiness


This review first appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Farahad Zama’s books liken themselves to Jane Austen in ways that are more unkind to Zama than to Austen. The expectations that the comparison engenders are unrealistic. Social hypocrisy and the veil of appearances are certainly important themes in Zama’s work. But, her very fine penmanship aside, Austen had a capacity for irony that revealed her quiet bitterness in the same breath as her extraordinary wit; her biting sarcasm, her fantastic sense of humour, and her capacity for parody have rarely been equaled in literary history, and Zama, whose work is almost nothing like Austen’s, will surely pale in the comparison.

A better, and kinder, comparison would be Alexander McCall Smith or, closer home, R. K. Narayan. Zama’s portraits of small-town life call for all those weary, cringe-inducing clichés that dominate blurbs of both Smith and Narayan: charming, warm-hearted, good-humoured, and (of course) exotic. The clichés ring true for all three of these writers.

Mrs. Ali’s Road to Happiness is the fourth installment in the award-winning Marriage Bureau for Rich People series, set in the sultry seaside town of Vizag in Andhra Pradesh. Mr. Ali, who has quickly decided that retirement does not suit him, begins the marriage bureau in the first title. He is jolly and kind and astute, if a little madcap, and his wife, watchful and unfailingly discerning, reigns powerfully over the household. His paternal common sense and her matriarchal pragmatism tinge the episodes abundantly with culture-specific and practical philosophies that are recognisable and familiar, if often a little politically incorrect.

The books are populated with lively, winning characters, several of whom are members of the Alis’ family. Quirky special appearances from Mr. Ali’s diverse and often frustrating clientele are tossed liberally into the melting-pot. By the time the fourth book comes around, the main cast of unlikely heroes is well-established and they’re all interesting enough to inspire curiosity. The Alis arch, like the wise old banyan of Indian folklore, over the second generation – Rehman, their idealistic son, Aruna, their efficient assistant, and Pari, the indefatigably cheerful widow of their nephew – lovingly, despairingly, and protectively.

Zama really seems to have come into his own in the third and fourth titles, flowing from the breezy lightheartedness of the first two titles that rarely ventured out of the social comedy of arranged marriage, into rougher waters, dealing capably with such contemporary issues as Maoist insurgency, homosexuality, religious strife, developmental inequity, and single motherhood. Rehman and Pari, especially, grow colourfully and engagingly as the series progresses. Pari becomes engaged to a young gay man from Mumbai named Dilawar despite her growing feelings for Rehman, who is in the throes of love with a hotheaded young journalist named Usha. Dilawar himself struggles to come out to his family and friends, while Aruna, who has had a whirlwind romance, learns to negotiate with her new and substantially wealthy family.

Pari comes to adopt a little boy called Vasu (the son of Rehman’s best friends who have both had tragic deaths) and the crux of Mrs. Ali’s Road to Happiness is the religious tension that Pari’s decision has given rise to. Hindu fundamentalists are furious that the boy is being raised in a Muslim household, while the new imam at the local mosque is determined that the boy be converted to Islam. The clashes put both Pari and her son in very real danger. Of course, this is popular fiction and happy endings always loom prettily in the distance. But it is to Zama’s credit that the way these happy endings transpire is rarely predictable.

Austen pioneered the use of free indirect speech as a tool in characterisation, and since Austen, few writers have employed the technique as cleverly or as unaffectedly to provoke both empathy and contempt. But Zama does wield that spear regularly and effectively in his books. Especially with Mrs. Ali, this becomes revelatory. Zama’s omniscient narrator rarely passes judgement on any subject, but the disguise of indirect discourse shrewdly blurs distinctions between the narrator and the characters without visible arbitration. Thus, what could often be considered morally didactic within the narrative becomes confessional stagecraft in free indirect speech.

Zama does not seem to write for an Indian audience at all. Dosas are described as black gram pancakes. Idlis are steamed rice-and-lentil cakes. Things that ought to be obvious to the Indian reader are constantly and repeatedly explained, translated, and parenthetically defended. But once the lens of the non-Indian reader is donned – that is, once one tunes these nagging little explanations out – it becomes much easier to enjoy Zama’s books for just what they are: not great literature or even groundbreaking content, but a series of cheerful vignettes of community-centred life in a sleepy South Indian town, all cleverly poised to inform the reader’s understanding of social milieu, almost as if to say, this is India, too.

25 October 2012

A Free Man

This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books.

“Ashraf, as my editors and I had noted, made for excellent copy,” writes Aman Sethi. This is true. Mohammad Ashraf, who is able to wax eloquent on subjects ranging from the dissection of frogs to the psychology of freedom, is eminently quotable, regularly funny, and has frequent bouts of wisdom. This is enough to make A Free Man a great read. But it is so much more: it is what Arthur Miller calls the tragedy of the common man—the sort that exalts in the “thrust for freedom” and the “revolutionary questioning of the stable environment.”

In this probing book, Sethi follows Ashraf, a daily-wage labourer in Delhi’s Bara Tooti Chowk (“the largely empty space between the backpacker havens of Paharganj and picturesque Chandni Chowk”) through the unpleasant vagaries of his routine and carefully records his experiences. Whether it is the hierarchy of construction workers, the secret pockets of a mazdoor (labourer)’s outfit, or the darkly funny interview with an officer of the Department of Social Welfare that has promised to make Delhi “beggar free” for the Commonwealth Games in 2010, Sethi, who intended the portrait of one man in one place, perhaps unwittingly becomes the chronicler of Delhi’s marginalised proletariat. Just as in Arthur Miller, there is the underlying critique of the capitalist state that exploits labour through an unjust mechanism of valuation. There is also the intensely human aspect of the critique through Sethi’s personal negotiations with the demographic that he is studying.

Sethi finds that for purposes of his research he will have to smoke too much ganja, drink too much whiskey, and, above all, be a “medium-type friend” to Ashraf—the sort of friend who will answer drunken calls made in the middle of the night, take a young boy with tuberculosis to the hospital, lend capital to the high-risk entrepreneurs of Bara Tooti, and still realise that only so much friendship is possible, that “getting along is largely besides the point in Bara Tooti where the jokes are dark and largely unintelligible to outsiders, and conversations tangential and prone to the most unlikely non-sequiturs.”

But Sethi is no sad-eyed romantic. Nor is he the sort to hide his emotions within the disguise of objectivity, although he is objective. He is voluble, sarcastic, friendly, and sympathetic by turns. His kindness is evident, but what makes his kindness more immediate is how frustrated and jaded he regularly feels with the capricious toxicity of the male bonding.

Rehaan, another medium-type friend of Ashraf’s who is usually more a listener than a talker, tells Sethi in a moment of sudden candour: "This is a brutal city, Aman bhai. This is a city that eats you raw [...] For you, all this is research: a boy tries to sell his kidney, you write it down in your notebook. A man goes crazy somewhere between Delhi and Bombay, you store it in your recorder. But for other people, this is life." Sethi too realises that his narrative is inextricably bound to the city’s particular brokenness, adding, after reading a report on mass hysteria about an imagined predator, that it is "a city of the exhausted, the distressed, and the restless, struggling with the uncertainties of eviction and unemployment; a city of twenty million histrionic personas resiliently absorbing the day’s glancing blows, only to return home and tenderly claw themselves to sleep."

From the minutiae of the working-classes, the latter sections of the book instead turn to the insecurities of urban reconfiguration. As disease claims their lives and the state claims their space, unhappiness and squalor unhinge the men of Bara Tooti,  sweeping them indelicately into an alarming awareness of their mortality. They disperse, change, move, and make plans in their attempts to escape and survive, to not be swallowed whole and eaten raw by a city that permanently seems a work in progress. But as Rehaan says, “Finally, how much can you run, Aman bhai?”

A focal point of A Free Man is the author’s evolving determination to set a lucid timeline for Ashraf’s life. Along the way, many adventures are had and many truths are unearthed; but it takes Sethi a long time indeed to get at the timeline he so desires. Ashraf, a most modern man, sees no reason for chronology or linearity or even accuracy. His stories are deliberately ambiguous. He casually tells Sethi that he went to Patna for a while between his time in Bombay and Delhi, making it seem like a necessary stop-over; much later, Sethi discovers that “a while” was eight years—a time period during which Ashraf married a woman, fell in love with her, fathered her two children, and abandoned his family. Much, much later, Sethi comes to find that it was in Calcutta that Ashraf lived and got married, before moving to Patna. By the time Sethi finally pins Ashraf down to a timeline, the message is clear: in so personal a history, speciousness is as relevant as specificity and close retelling must understand and even embrace the irrational memory of the afflicted, making space for the individual in public record.

Arthur Miller once wrote: “I believe that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were […] It is time, I think, that we who are without kings, took up this bright thread of our history and followed it to the only place it can possible lead in our time—the heart and spirit of the average man.” Books like A Free Man and Sonia Faliero’s Beautiful Thing are tragedies of this order—violently personal, profoundly human, and very, very frightening.

01 September 2012

Another Country

This review first appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Poor Leela. Everyone is mean to her. Her friends are jealous of her. Men just want to sleep with her. Except when they want to marry her. Nobody understands her. She belongs nowhere. Her days are too full. Her wallet’s too small for her fifties and her diamond shoes are too tight.

Self-pity and whining are the general themes of Another Country by Anjali Joseph. Leela, its protagonist, is painfully self-involved. By all appearances, Leela leads a fabulous life: living alone in Paris, then London, and then Bombay in her twenties, she is reasonably affluent, highly-educated, sexually liberated, socially active, and not unattractive. But Leela constantly, inexplicably feels victimised.

In Paris, she wants Patrick, but ends up in a friendly romp in the sack with his friend, Simon, whom she neither cares for nor even likes very much. And yet when he explains that he has no intentions of a real relationship with her, Leela bears the wounded air of a martyr. In London, she continually whines about her loveless relationship with the next boyfriend, Richard, but takes three years to break it off, after which she plays the victim once again. At the end of the London section, she embarks on yet another it’s-complicated relationship with Roger that ends with – surprise, surprise – Leela breaking it off and feeling exploited. In Bombay, she takes a break from the usual theme and decides to feel persecuted by the mother of the next boyfriend instead.

In fact, as a rule, Leela seems to dislike all women. She is nasty about Amy, her supposed best friend, behind her back to Richard, whom she is dating but does not like very much. She decides, with absolutely no reason, that Chitra, her friend in Bombay, is envious of her relationship with Vikram, whom, once again, she is dating but does not like very much. While travelling through Kerala, she imagines that the wives of the local fishermen despise her because their husbands fantasise about her. Leela seems to believe that every woman has a vendetta against her – her friend’s mother in London, her boss in Bombay, the women she meets in Paris. Vikram’s mother is painted like an evil caricature. Of her own mother, she is contemptuous.

At a party in London, Leela decides that Amy is flirting with Richard. A few chapters later, at a party in Bombay, Leela is convinced that everyone wants to steal Vikram from her and deals this patronising blow: “Duelling with another woman for a man’s attention was an important female skill she’d never had – it seemed to involve things like confidence, hair flicking, talking loudly, touching the man in question, all techniques she’d memorised but never been able to implement.” At a charity event, she describes the gathering as “mostly women of a certain age and income”. About Vikram’s mother, she says: “People are weird about their sons. Mothers.” Leela’s small-mindedness manifests in patriarchal clichés and sexist stereotypes – jealous women, possessive mothers, cat fights, desperate housewives – that, in contemporary writing, ought to have crossed the line from insensitive to laughable by now. Instead, it is hugely frustrating.

Leela comes across as smug, shallow, and judgemental. She is frequently irresponsible and regularly selfish. She has no clue what she wants, which is a blessing when you consider the fact that even if she did, she is unlikely to ever put any effort into going after it. She continually drifts, allowing things to happen to her, not bothering to attempt anything concrete. Nothing gives her satisfaction – career, romance, friendship, family, travelling. But what magnifies her querulous nature is its sheer needlessness: Leela has no real problems to speak of. Her crises are at best non-existent and at worst mild. One day, she ruminates the colours of the files in her office: “In the tube, she brooded. Everything in the office conspired against her; even the physical environment.”

Perhaps it was the author’s intention to create a wholly unlikable character. But if it is the duty of literature to showcase the human spirit in all its ugliness, shouldn’t there also be an awareness of it? There is no recognition of fallibility, no aim for a higher existence. What comes through brilliantly is the sense of purposelessness that the twenties are often beset with – the monotony of halfhearted success, the motionlessness of perpetual movement, and the passage towards adulthood that breeds the apathy that breeds contempt. Joseph captures the endless parade of inconsequential events that cloud over everyday routine with terrifying accuracy. Like some other subcontinental writers (Aamer Hussein particularly springs to mind), Joseph disengages from the larger picture in order to embroider more intricately the complexity of small, meaningless negotiations, mundanely lathered, rinsed, and repeated.

Joseph’s writing is beautiful in a dry, wry way that breathes elegance into nothingness. Her lyrical sparseness is highly original. Individual moments are vividly examined, encased in locations so gorgeously described and details so intensely catalogued that one regrets that this isn’t travel writing. It might have been nicer still to see that skill employed in pursuit of a less exasperating character.

Other reviews of this book that I enjoyed were in DNA and The Guardian: The Observer (which succinctly sums up: "Irritating girl and, ultimately, an irritating book").

20 August 2012

Em and the Big Hoom

This review was first published in The Asian Review of Books.

Em is Imelda—brilliant, vivacious, funny, a gifted writer, a spirited human being. The Big Hoom is Augustine—stable, sensible, a large, looming presence, a much-needed anchor. Susan, their daughter, is the graceful and dependable offspring. Their son, unnamed, is the obsessive scribe of the family, the ardent, troubled historian. The story of their lives, which are cloistered—lovingly, brokenly—in a little 1BHK (a one-bedroom-hall-kitchen flat) in Mahim, Mumbai, is Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto. Em is no longer “whole”: her doctors diagnose her as bipolar, manic depressive, neurotic; Em calls herself mad; the city of Mumbai dubs her “mental”. And so the story begins to unravel, seam by seam.

But Em was once Beloved and The Big Hoom was Angel Ears. Within the expanse of these former sobriquets, a twelve-year courtship is described: fleeting hours spent wandering through bookstores, drinking copious amounts of tea, and holding hands. She calls him Booming Voice and Mambo and Augie March and Limb of Satan. But she, for the most part, is Beloved. Imelda of the Beloved years is a tender-footed ingénue who earns more than Angel Ears and still gives her earnings to her mother (until she has to give them to her husband); she writes detailed, delightful notes in her diary about the wooing period and has the astonishing forethought to sign a contract with her fiancé declaring that her body is hers to do with as she will. Beloved is the sort of woman with whom it is difficult not to suddenly find yourself in love.

And Em, too, at some moments, will have you endlessly charmed. No subject is taboo for Em. She tells her children that she never wanted them; at the same time, she pierces them with such convulsive fits of affection that the holes she puts in their hearts are routinely refilled. She wants to know about their sex lives and wants to tell them about hers. She fogs the house with the cheap beedis she smokes, swears incessantly, parleys with sparkling wit, and writes beautifully. But when Em is clouded with the sorrow that so ravages her, she wants to kill herself. And she attempts very, very often. What little room is left in the 1BHK seems permanently filled with the blood that seeps out of Em’s slit wrists.

Pinto writes: “Love is never enough. Madness is enough. It is complete, sufficient unto itself. You can only stand outside it, as a woman might stand outside a prison in which her lover is locked up. From time to time, a well-loved face will peer out and love floods back. A scrap of cloth flutters and it becomes a sign and a code and a message and all that you want it to be.” The book is so populated with descriptions of Em’s condition that it almost reads like a poetic treatise on the subject of madness. Through Pinto’s elaborate and frequent metaphors, madness becomes a tower, a prison, quicksand, an Arctic floe; it is likened to winter and nighttime and despair and all things dark; analogies are drawn repeatedly to show how it feels to be on the outside, looking in, and yet not so far outside that it is impossible to fall in. More instances and fewer metaphors might have served the book better.

Em’s mother who speaks in elisions and The Big Hoom who rarely speaks unless absolutely necessary leave so many things unsaid that Em, with her wonderment and honesty and bursts of clarity, frequently seems to be the only one who truly engages with the outside world. The Mendeses are a family that long to be “a textbook illustration: father, mother, sister, brother.” They are “messed up by Reader’s Digest standards”—not the sort of “heart-rending story you can read on your summer vacation.” But this is also the family that will not send Em into a home for people like herself; her pain is theirs as she herself is. The brief forays into the mental health care institutions of India are some of the most disturbing sections of the book.

There are no touching little vignettes of the city of extremes, the land of contradictions, maximum city, dream factory, local trains, chawls, smells, crowds, squalor, poverty, slums. But there are moments—like when the municipal corporation digs up the streets outside the 1BHK and forgets to close them up again, leading Em to a paranoia about graves outside her house—when Mumbai emerges within the narrative, casually, almost accidentally. That the story is set in Mumbai is clear from the details (Coke floats, Amitabh movies, Brijwasi Sweets) but it could just as well have been set elsewhere.

The story is told by the son, who seems to have decided that if he must live with his mother, he must understand her. He must trawl her past, scrutinise her childhood—as a wandering migrant from Burma, a family’s sole wage-earner, a little girl who longed to go to college but became a stenographer instead—and chart the love that even now envelops Em and The Big Hoom into a single unit. For this purpose, he reads her well-documented life with an almost feverish devotion and quizzes her, demanding details that she cannot always remember, so that he can piece the puzzle together into the whole that Em does not seem to be. “And through all this, I told myself, and with all this, I told myself, I'll try and understand her. I'll try and figure out how this happened to my mother, once a beautiful woman with a lovely singing voice, and—yes—how this happened to my father, a man with a future who had given it all up to make sure the present was manageable. For her. For us.”

This is a small and beautiful book, and one of the many things that makes it beautiful is its production quality: a brilliant cover design, stark end paper, a striking layout, inky edges, stunning binding. Pinto’s writing has startling sweetness; it is not overwrought with emotion or tragedy. Rather, it glides into the greyness of tragicomedy, resorting as often to mirth as to distress and as often to love as to anger. The narrator’s voice has the sort of lingering pathos and wisdom that is seen in youth weighed by adult responsibility—its innocence, its resignation, its precarious hopefulness, its hint of laughter. It is the voice of a boy and his sister, both in complete awe of their father and in thrall to their exceptional mother, who must find a way to let them both go just a little bit in order to steady their beating hearts.

01 August 2012

Bring Up the Bodies

A shorter version of this review first appeared in Mint Lounge. I reviewed Wolf Hall, the first book in Hilary Mantel's trilogy, earlier on this blog.
Note: Bring Up the Bodies has just been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2012.

Bring Up the Bodies begins where Wolf Hall stops: at Wolf Hall, the estate of the Seymour family, where King Henry VIII is enraptured by young Jane Seymour, and the king’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell, who, in Wolf Hall, engineered England’s breakaway from Rome to secure the king a divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, must now rid the king of his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Cromwell, son of a Putney blacksmith, is far from his humble origins – he is now Master of the Rolls, Chief Minister, Master of the Jewels, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Clerk of the Hanaper, and Master Secretary to the King. He is the man you will go to when you need things to be done – and in the court of Henry VIII, you will often need things to be done.

It is 1535 and Cromwell has broken England free of the Pope. He has masterminded the English Reformation, instituted the distinctly Protestant Church of England, and has had the Catholic Church discredited. He has surveyed the country, conducted its first census, and investigated the corruption of the monastic order. Papists, including the sainted Thomas More and John Fisher, have been beheaded and new acts of succession and supremacy have been passed in parliament. Without Rome’s support, the country teeters dangerously between its two closest allies, France and Spain. England has no male heir and the Plantagenets are eyeing the throne. At home, the threat of civil war hovers; from overseas, the bull of excommunication. But none of these things matter as much as the fact that Henry is already bored of his new wife.

Once more unto the breach, then: the second marriage must be annulled and a new one must be forged. But why should the king – or any man – prefer dull Jane Seymour to remarkable Anne Boleyn? Jane is “a plain young woman with a silvery pallor, a habit of silence, and a trick of looking at men as if they represent an unpleasant surprise,” while Anne is “an elegant woman, with a refinement that makes mere prettiness seem redundant.” Jane’s insipid innocence, which constantly borders on stupidity, is in stark contrast to Anne’s glittering brilliance, her sharpness, her sense of humour, her mental agility, her shrewd stateswomanship. No one, not even Jane’s brothers and father, can comprehend the king’s attraction to this girl who is “as much use as a blancmange.” Anne’s volatility “was what fascinated the king, to find someone so different from those soft, kind blondes who drift through men’s lives and leave not a mark behind.” But it is just such a blonde that the king has now decided that he desires.

Anne and Cromwell linger over the king like a pair of daggers poised toward each other, blurring into likeness. Both are ambitious, quick-witted, and cunning; they are crafty administrators, sophisticated and prescient; they evince surprising warmth of spirit; in conversation, they are incessantly funny; and they are both driven, in their own ways, by a pervasive love for the king. It is no wonder, then, that they are bent upon destroying each other. When Cromwell reflects upon Anne, he could just as well be describing himself: “He has always rated Anne highly as a strategist. He has never believed in her as a passionate, spontaneous woman. Everything she does is calculated […] He wonders what it would take to make her panic.” In another instance: “She will have to ask herself what Jane can give the king, that at present he lacks. She will have to think it through. And it is always a pleasure to see Anne thinking.” They regard each other with reluctant esteem, acutely aware that only one of them will survive the king’s new fancy. It is Anne who must finally concede her hand. She fights for Henry, but Cromwell fights harder, and better, and Anne finds herself facing charges of adultery, incest, and treason.

Mantel’s Cromwell is not the Lutheran that history would have us believe. He is a rationalist, a man who would have done well in the Enlightenment. He leans, decidedly, away from the papists, but mostly because it seems a convenient position, considering the many political and economic reforms he has in mind for England. He is most concerned with Henry’s purse strings and will not let the exchequer go to Rome. He has read Machiavelli and found him trite. He is a man of unwavering loyalty. He will avenge, however he can, the death of his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey; and no matter how grim circumstances turn, he will stay true to his friend, Thomas Wyatt. Over and above everything else, he will serve the king.

Five young men are handpicked by Cromwell for the charge of adultery, four of whom have been unkind to the memory of the late Cardinal (the fifth is chosen for no reason other than that he is foolish and arrogant). In synthesising Henry’s divorce, Cromwell will extract revenge. These men are guilty, he reasons, just not guilty as charged. The four interrogation scenes are laid out like the four paws of a beast. These men are rich and corrupt and cruel, and Cromwell has nothing but contempt for them. The barbarous machinations of those with power and the careless freedom of the elite are richly and articulately debated in Cromwell’s questionings (it would seem that he would have done well in the Occupy movement as well). But the irony – which will strike us only later, for we have come to love Cromwell too well by now – is that Cromwell, too, in his position as vigilante, has come to abuse his powers with the presumption of a man who has risen above his own. Really, the question we are left with is this: can power ever not be abused?

There is no way we can forget our knowledge of what comes next; Anne Boleyn must die, and Jane Seymour must become queen. We cannot un-know these facts. And yet, Mantel endows popular history with such trepidation and suspense that our breath is bated. Our wondering is futile, and yet we wonder, for Mantel will not stop laying her traps. We pray, foolishly, that Anne will be acquitted, just as we will pray, when the third installment of the trilogy comes, that Cromwell will weather Henry’s fleeting attention span.

Cromwell is given to peculiar flights of imagination. In his head, he conducts conversations with dead men, organises grotesque dinner parties at which the heads of the Boleyns are served for the main course, and constantly writes a book on how to manage the king. Cromwell’s dealings with women – especially the women of Henry’s life – are the sharpest, wittiest sections of the two books. The conversations are awash with humour and ingenuity of wordplay. Mantel’s writing – aside from being clever and interesting and wicked and beautiful – is also hilarious. Her priceless sense of humour is most persuasively seen in her dialogue, particularly when it is Cromwell who speaks.

Mantel will not let your brain rest for a single moment. Her ambiguous pronouns, her use of the present tense, and her disconcerting refusal to explain herself will keep you on your toes; you must be diligent, for everything that transpires is of consequence. She will not let your attention waver, as Henry’s often does; she will collar you uncomfortably and hold you to your seat as Cromwell does to his detainees; she will draw you in and then, like Anne Boleyn, she will tease you for being drawn. All the while, she maintain such calm and elegance and mastery over her craft that you will be loath to accuse her, as Eustache Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador, accuses Cromwell: “You are laughing behind your hand!”

27 July 2012

The Garden of Evening Mists

This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books
Note: The Garden of Evening Mists has just been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2012.

“Every aspect of gardening is a form of deception,” the gardener Nakamura Aritomo tells his protégé Yun Ling in Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists.

The Japanese garden borrows scenery from the outside world through the principle of shakkei. Simultaneously, it conceals its actual features through the principle of miegakure. To walk through a Japanese garden, then, is to constantly discover that you have been mistaken - the things that seem to belong to the garden do not, and the things that belong to the garden seem not to exist. It is a series of surprises: now you see it, now you don’t.

Fiction - indeed, any art form -  is much the same in its employment of clever disguise. It reveals only what it wishes to; it borrows freely from its settings; perspectives are unreliable, and it is only by following the winding paths that the actual landscape is discovered. At the same time, it is aesthetically pleasing, a vehicle for contemplation, a deeply private space.

Teoh Yun Ling first hears of the gardener of the emperor of Japan when she is seventeen. But he is to haunt her for a lifetime. While travelling through Japan, her sister, Teoh Yun Hong falls in love with the art and aesthetics of the Japanese garden and longs to make one of her own. But during the Japanese occupation of Malaya, the sisters are interned in a brutal and grotesque camp of which Yun Ling is the sole survivor. After the War, she devotes herself to prosecuting Japanese war criminals, desperately trying to avenge the cruelties she and Yun Hong have suffered at the hands of the Japanese. Yet, it is to a Japanese man that the memory of her sister leads: Nakamura Aritomo, who has quit Japan and lives in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, spending his days in the creation of Yugiri, the garden of evening mists. Yun Ling, who openly despises the Japanese, is apprenticed to Aritomo during the darkest period of the Malayan Emergency, and the land is fraught with murder and terror as the communist guerrillas, the Malayan nationalists and the British colonisers strive for control over the country. In the midst of a life constantly torn by war, Yun Ling must somehow find peace.

The narrative takes two streams, both in the first person, told by Yun Ling, separated only by tense. In the present, the older Yun Ling returns to Yugiri as a retired judge in the 1980s and finds herself revisiting several pasts, most particularly, her time with Aritomo, and begins writing her memoirs, which form the past. Between the two streams are several inlets that glide into side-narratives, like the unforgettable war story of Yoshikawa Tatsuji, a Japanese professor visiting Yun Ling, and the many digressions of Magnus Pretorius, a charming veteran of the Boer War. Aritomo’s departure from Japan is cloaked in secrecy, as is Yun Ling’s astonishing escape from internment. The characters are entangled by their complex pasts; histories, both personal and national, intertwine in Tan’s elegant, panoptic tale.

This is a good old-fashioned story with a plot that arcs gracefully, maintains suspense, and stays true to characterisation. Yun Ling’s independent spirit and her anger seep like ink-stains into the narrative, but its distilled essence is a quieter appraisal of the dichotomy of memory, its treacherous failures, its cruel conveniences, its fadeout and deliverance. Outside Magnus’s house are two statues: one is of Mnemosyne the goddess of memory and the other is of her twin sister, the goddess of forgetting, whose name, of course, has been forgotten.

Here, too, the garden is the conceit. “A garden borrows from the earth, the sky, and everything around it, but you borrow from time,” Yun Ling accuses Aritomo, “Your memories are a form of shakkei too. You bring them in to make your life here feel less empty. Like the mountains and the clouds over your garden, you can see them, but they will always be out of reach.” The garden that Yun Ling intends to make is about more than a desire to preserve the memory of her sister, though, for in many ways, it was the idea of this garden that kept the sisters hopeful through their long internment. The Japanese garden, with its many deceptions and beauties, becomes a well-formed metaphor for the ways in which our lives are lived.

The writing too has the lush beauty and artistry of a Japanese garden. The storytelling is ornate - sometimes ostentatious - burying moments and vistas deep in heavy imagery: “In the low mists over the hills, an orange glow broods, as if the trees are on fire. Bats are flooding out from the hundreds of caves that perforate these mountainsides. I watch them plunge into the mists without any hesitation, trusting in the echoes and silences in which they fly. Are all of us the same, I wonder, navigating our lives by interpreting silences between words spoken, analysing the returning echoes of our memory in order to chart the terrain, in order to make sense of the world around us?”

Thankfully, this is not a story of forgiveness or of coming to terms with anger. As a war hostage (“a guest of the emperor,” as the Japanese called them), as a prosecutor, even as Aritomo’s apprentice and later his heir, Yun Ling is driven forth by a marked fury. Her overt contempt and pointed jibes lend cathartic relief to her storytelling. The denouement, especially, is an unusual, well-told revelation, luminous with possibility and incredibly satisfying.

19 July 2012

The Man Within My Head

This review first appeared in The Sunday Guardian

Pico Iyer awakens one night and finds himself almost possessed; he writes a feverish sketch titled “Greene” that he cannot himself comprehend, much less contextualise. But this he comes to realise: it is Graham Greene that he must seek out if he is to excavate and recognise the several sensations that crowd his mind and heart. Thus begins this glorious, gorgeous book, part-memoir, part-biography – a “counter-biography,” as Iyer puts it – that took the author over a decade to write. It is the story of Iyer’s deeply personal, impressionistic journey with Graham Greene, whom he has never met, but has adopted as his sometime father.

Greene’s life bears startling resemblances to Iyer’s own. The “hauntedness” that Iyer describes – and what a fine word it is! – is something we have all experienced in our negotiations with our idols. It is not merely that we have loved and followed them in our own and particular ways, it is also that we find, every so often, that our lives have unknowingly shadowed theirs, that theirs have mirrored ours. In appropriating them, we become self-fulfilling prophecies. We seek them out in all the things we do, snapping up those coincidences that inevitably map two distant lives and engaging in connections that seem far too intimate for what can only be termed a one-sided relationship to allow. Our most surreal, unreal loves are formed in just this way, and whatever we term them – father, friend, mentor – we find that we are affected by them in indefinable and impractical ways.

The Man Within My Head is not just about the act of reading Greene, though; it is about the very specific act of Iyer reading Greene, of Iyer reading himself reading Greene, of Iyer using his reading of Greene to uncover his well-hidden demons. Very soon, a parallel narrative is formed, about Iyer’s relationship with his real father, a man he has sought to displace with Graham Greene. As Iyer uses his investigations of Greene to understand himself, he locates the many deceits of adopted, and real, parenthood: “The whole point of an adopted parent, I’d often thought, is that you can have him to yourself. He’s a figment of your imagination, in a sense, someone you’ve created to satisfy certain needs, so he’s always there, in your head, at your disposal. Real parents have lives to attend to, lives beyond our understanding, and they commit, most of all, the sin of being real; they’re human and distractible and fallible.”

But Iyer mournfully finds this to be untrue. He does not choose Greene; Greene is pinned upon him by some inscrutable bond: “our shadow associates are, like parents (or godparents), presences we’ve never chosen and, like many of our loves or compulsions, blur the lines inside us by living beyond our explanations.” What we do find, though, within the imagined camaraderie of literary obsession, is the sympathetic fellowship of those after whom we have fashioned ourselves.

The three parts of the book cover ghosts, gods, and fathers, easily interchangeable and threaded together, albeit somewhat thinly, by Iyer’s journeys. He traverses continents and cultures, as he often does in his best-loved work, with the easy, unexpected melancholy of a transient lover, charting Greene within his journeys, plotting his characters across the world, sometimes even seeking them out.

Early in the book, Iyer recalls a man of Indian descent whom he encountered in a little provincial town in Mexico. Later, as he tries to piece together the man’s story, he remembers that it was Greene alone, who, in his prolific sketches of the wanderer’s itinerant soul, seemed to have captured this man on paper. This is what we long for in art – a looking-glass to reality that somehow doubles up as a window to escape it. We search deeply, hoping to find ourselves submerged in authorial intent, often even expecting to find solutions, if not always salvation. But we search, too, for the people that we meet, expecting their back stories – at least the ones that we have invented for them – to be diffused and decoded in the ways that only the writers we love can. This Iyer finds as often in Greene as the traveller finds in Iyer himself.

The reverse works, too. As he drifts through Saigon, Iyer half-expects characters from Greene’s A Quiet American to step out on to the streets and accost him (and, at times, they do). These are the irrational expectations that fiction presses upon us. The return to life is, ironically, less maddening when we have invested ourselves so powerfully in the worlds we long to inhabit that we do, in fact, continue to inhabit them in silent and puzzling ways long after we have left them. Just as we take up residence in these worlds, these worlds take up residence within us, and we repeatedly find ourselves looking inward when our intent is to look outward. In serendipitous moments, we perhaps know the people we love before we have met them, simply because we have read about them. Such are the chambers into which fiction entraps us.

Iyer writes, “The paradox of reading is that you draw closer, to some other creature’s voice within you than to the people who surround you (with their surfaces) every day.” In this way, this is every-reader’s story. But it is also every-writer’s story. Besides himself, Iyer likens Greene to P. G. Wodehouse, Somerset Maugham, Henry James, and John le Carre, admitting, at some point, “the man I felt such closeness to was a type.” Above all, though, this is every-son’s story.

The trouble with quoting Pico Iyer is the temptation to quote him in entirety, to serve up the complete book as an example of the striking beauty of his writing. His exquisite prose bears multiple readings, a few of which must be devoted to the sheer appreciation of his elegant turn of phrase, his stunning construction, and the piercing loveliness of his pathos. As in his travel-writing, Iyer is a gentle sort of companion – clear-headed, warm-hearted, and peaceable. His own private revelations and discoveries of Greene are just that – his own. A regular reader of Iyer knows that his journey need not be her own, that he is more a benevolent philosopher than a guide. But there’s a fatherly kind of guidance in that as well.

14 July 2012

Home

This review first appeared in Mint Lounge.

Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
 
From Requiem by Robert Louis Stevenson

But for the soldier, is it home from the war? This, really, is the question that Toni Morrison asks in her slim new novel, Home. Frank Money returns to the United States from the Korean War, where he has lost his two best friends and his self-respect, and suffers from what we now know to be post-traumatic stress disorder. The country he returns to is racist America of the fifties, a harder, more unkind version of itself, which offers no homecoming – no home, even – to its veterans. Frank briefly falls in love with a woman named Lily before going in search of his sister Ycidra (Cee) and rescuing her from the medical experiments of a doctor who calls himself an inventor. With Cee, he must return to Lotus, Georgia – “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield” – where they spent a despised childhood with a cruel step-grandmother, Lenore, and largely apathetic parents. But to save themselves and, indeed, each other, they must both first find themselves.

Morrison plays and replays the splintered events and pieces them together through the shifting perspectives of Frank, Cee, Lily, and Lenore. The three women who tint our worldviews are wrung by aspiration; they long to leave behind the smallness of their worlds and find very particular spaces – homes – to inhabit. In contrast, Frank, who has left Korea only to find that Korea has not left him, simply longs for an end to the war within himself. While the women are constantly spurred to action, he is inspired only to passivity – until he receives an ominous letter about his sister.

The spite and cruelty of racial politics consistently linger between the lines. We know, without ever being told, which characters are white and which are black; and we know this most often, and most alarmingly, from the way they are treated. Lily is denied the house (and, therefore, titular home) she wants more than anything else. Cee becomes a laboratory rat, medically abused by her employer. Lenore is driven to a marriage of convenience out of a fear for her safety. And Frank is repeatedly assailed, from within and without, as he journeys across the country. These iniquities are not described so much as acknowledged; they are marked by a clipped weariness that underscores their violence, gaining weight from tired resignation rather than outrage.

The fable-like didacticism that was the nucleus of Morrison’s other work is in Home too, especially in the almost simplistic depictions of Lenore and in the many little sentences in which Morrison states what the discerning reader ought to guess. The prose is terser and less winding than in her other work. It remains graceful and sinuous, but it is also more direct and straightforward. There is still emotion (and how could there not be?); Morrison pricks through layers of brutality with the sharpness of an author who knows her characters well, and laces her findings with the tenderness of lived experience.

If in Beloved Morrison wrote a sweeping saga of almost epic proportions, in Home she writes a simpler story – not of heroism, but of survival. But as it often happens in her hands, the women emerge as the unsung everyday heroes, a sisterhood of pragmatic, warm-hearted, no-nonsense goodness. When Frank rescues Cee and takes her to the place that ought to be called home, the womenfolk of Lotus heal her hurting in more ways than one. The healing chapter bears the flags of all the themes that run through Morrison’s novels: communion, womanhood, sacrifice, the inheritance of custom, and the sharing of burdens: “… they practiced what they had been taught by their mothers during the period that rich people called the Depression and they called life.” The women, who coax Frank and Cee into forgiveness and acceptance, are the home the Moneys have come to.

The two-part redemption feels like it’s easier than life usually makes it. Both Frank and Cee step too lightly from distress to calm. In particular, Cee’s passage from an almost incapacitating dependence on her brother to ownership and self-reliance is glossed over. Cee’s sorrows are the crux of the book; her harrowing experiences jolt Frank out of his torpor and move the many women she encounters – neighbours, coworkers, acquaintances – to extraordinary kindness. Yet, her flight to safety and health is too speedy; it occurs through little more a series of wise aphorisms, as though tough love and good advice are enough to restore peace to troubled minds.

Here and there, in short, italicised chapters, Frank Money addresses the narrator, whom he thinks is “set on telling [his] story”. He frequently rights her wrongs (“Don’t paint me as some enthusiastic hero.”), scolds her (“Is that too hard for you to understand?”), and challenges her to get it right (“I don’t think you know much about love. Or me.”). These chapters read like a loving but impatient admission of the limitations of writing: “You don’t know what heat is until you cross the border from Texas to Louisiana in the summer. You can’t come up with words that catch it. Trees give up. Turtles cook in their shells. Describe that if you know how.”

Frank’s commentary is what makes this volume entirely real. His admissions are tinged with an optimism that is both heartbreaking and uplifting; at the same time, he is consciously devoid of the romanticism that the narrative is given to. These chapters seem to be telling the real story as a mordant aside. They are the memories, unreliable by their very nature, that are more potent than objectivity. They encase individual, unconnected moments that seem to be mocking the main narrative’s insistence on a story that ties together, on an arc that childishly depends on conflict and resolution. Frank’s notes urge us never to forget the atrocities of our past, never to lull ourselves into the security of happier times; they remind us too, in their own piano-soft and hopeful way, that it is through sheer human decency that we rid ourselves of our demons and mend our wounded hearts and jaded spirits. These chapters form a powerful trajectory from war to peace.

25 June 2012

Tamarind City

This review first appeared in Biblio: A Review of Books. To read it, though, one must sign in to the website (which is free).

In the prologue to Tamarind City, the author, Bishwanath Ghosh, confesses that it was little more than a whim that led to the title of his book. The tamarind is neither unique to Chennai, nor is it particularly hallowed in Chennai; it is not a metaphor either, for nowhere does the author liken the city to either the sweetness or the sourness of the tamarind. The title, Ghosh says, is a reference to an illusory childhood association with the city of Chennai. This passage is a foreshadowing of what is to come – an unstructured and desultory jaunt through Chennai that is as whimsical as the book’s title.

From the very start, Bishwanath Ghosh places himself at the centre of his narrative; he freewheels through the landscape of the city and is disarmingly candid about his thoughts during the process – so candid, in fact, that the book reads, very often, like an uncorrected first draft of what could have been a very fine book about a city that is often overlooked. Undoubtedly, this is a personal story. The book’s blurb describes it first as a “biography of a city” and later as “an evocative portrait of this unique city.” A contradictory, more honest, note from the author at the beginning of the book declares that the book is not an authoritative study of the city. This is true, for the book is neither as balanced as a biography nor as thorough as a portrait. It is a series of rambling essays, a patchwork quilt of a decade spent living in and learning to love Chennai. Perhaps this is as it should be, for how better to experience a city than to simply allow yourself the luxury of serendipity?

The thread that binds these essays together is not Chennai, but Ghosh himself. When he does exert himself to move outside of his comfort zone, the writing is pointed. There is the glib, obligatory nod to Carnatic music, the cursory overview of industrialisation, and the hurried history of the city to justify the subtitle (“Where Modern India Began”). The perspective of an outsider does have its limitations, although these are easily removed by enterprise and groundwork. At the end of an interview with the poet and Dalit rights activist Meena Kandasamy, Ghosh wonders how the Tamilians, who admire her causes, would react to some of her sexually explicit poetry if it were available to them in Tamil: “Would they still toast her, or tut-tut at her for using words and imageries [sic] that are unbecoming of a Tamil woman?” Only someone who has made no effort to research Tamil poetry can ask this question. Historically, Tamil poetry and Sangam literature have made no secret of their sensuality, and even contemporary poets writing in Tamil, like Salma and Kutti Revathi, are known best for their erotica. In these sections, unlike the ones that he seems to be covering out of a personal interest, Ghosh seems perfectly happy with perfunctory glances.

In contrast, the section on sex which, oddly, perhaps accidentally, includes a completely unrelated record of the author’s visit to a retirement centre for senior citizens, aside from interviews with a transsexual and a sexologist, and the sections on cinema and politics are peppered with insight and atmosphere. Ghosh shows a capacity to reserve judgement; while he certainly does opine most spiritedly on almost everything he encounters, his chatty volubility is not coloured by prejudice or preconception. He is rarely given to generalisation and he has no intolerance for his subjects: he engages and listens attentively, and, when aroused, he searches relentlessly.

In describing these intriguing encounters, though, he simply quotes. All his conversations, whether with Dr. Narayana Reddy, a sexologist, S. Muthiah, Chennai’s best-known chronicler of its history, or Patricia Thomas, a catering entrepreneur, are reported almost entirely in direct speech. Ghosh makes no effort to filter out the parts that are redundant or insipid; nor does he correct the errors that inevitably occur in colloquial conversation. Many of these sections – often pages and pages of quotes with no interjections (and, seemingly, with no edits) – are frustrating to plough through. They desperately need the journalistic contrivance of paraphrasing and – although this is true of the rest of the book as well – the refinement of a blue pencil.

But the lack of interjection turns out to be preferable to its alternative. Just before Ghosh meets Saroja Devi, a former heroine of Indian cinema with a prolific career in Tamil films, he offers the reader a particularly dull window into his own thoughts, replete with redundancies and contradictions: “Though a part of me is eager to meet the actress, there’s another part that secretly hopes the actress refuses to meet us because I am not even carrying a pen, leave alone a notebook. Moreover, I have just begun to enjoy my drink. Unfortunately, we are summoned to her room right away. Fortunately, my wife fishes out a small notebook and a pen from her bag.”

Ghosh is particularly self-indulgent in the latter half of the book; he begins to devote more time to his personal life and thoughts than to the actual city. In most cases, this is merely irrelevant – a graphic description of a drink here, an indolent conversation with a friend recounted there. But in a chapter like the one that describes the tsunami of 2004, it is much more than irrelevant – it is profoundly insensitive. The section begins with an entirely unnecessary story of his drinking escapades the previous night; he moves on to describe his hangover the next morning (which happens to be his birthday), the number of calls he receives in the morning, and his moment of pride as he reads his cover story in the Sunday papers. Finally, the tiniest of sections is devoted to the actual tragedy – vaingloriously beginning thus: “Even though I covered the entire distance on foot, time just flew because I kept getting calls – some were calling to wish me, others to compliment me on the cover story – and before long, I stood face to face with reality.” He goes on to describe the rest of his day in a similar vein: “That evening, my voice must have been heard eagerly by the BBC’s Bengali listeners as I gave sound bites [sic] on one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history. Although, I hardly consider this to be a distinction: I am neither very proud of my voice nor of my spoken Bengali.”

Ultimately, between the devil of direct speech and the deep sea of self-indulgence, it is the city of Chennai that is left with neither the biography nor the portrait that the book’s blurb promised. What works best is when Ghosh lets go of his tendency to be his own protagonist and, instead, simply allows himself to meander into other people’s lives. Almost all of the information that the book compiles is arresting. Ghosh seems to have a knack for picking up on little peculiarities and investigating them. He has the curiosity of an outsider and the probing eye of a reporter. There are quick, smart vignettes that are far more emblematic of the city than the discursive eulogies.

This is especially true when he goes wandering through North Chennai, finding himself constantly distracted by all that this part of the city has to offer. In this chapter, Ghosh removes himself from the narrative just enough to still be the teller of the tale. His descriptions are detailed, but not tedious; the chapter is filled with the little moments of genuine joy and discovery that characterise good travel-writing. The prose is not well-written or taut, but it is good-natured and sincere enough to make for pleasurable reading. Equally, as he negotiates the complicated caste-politics that are inextricably linked to the city, Ghosh is full of quiet little anecdotes and conversations that are just as telling as the history he briefly delves into. It is in these little surveys that Ghosh offers his most effective glimpses into the city.

Ghosh certainly is loving – often to the point of being maudlin – in his descriptions. Largely, the loving eye he casts is sensitive and respectful. But the beginning of the first chapter is excruciatingly patronising: “Chennai, that charming old lady with a string of jasmine tied around her hair, is too modest to talk about herself.” The personification, which thankfully does not repeat itself after the first chapter, does not end there: the charming old lady, whose trysts with the British Raj are described as courtships, makes filter coffee, repeatedly offers you vadas, blushes for no reason, smiles shyly, and is overall cast in every possible patriarchal cliché of the demure and bashful woman that Ghosh is able to unearth.

Being both resident and outsider, Ghosh could have had a truly remarkable perspective of the city. Perhaps he even does. Unfortunately, it does not come through in this book. Surely Chennai – old lady or not – deserves a finer paean.

04 June 2012

Death in Mumbai

This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books.
 
In May 2008, a young, handsome television executive named Neeraj Grover was murdered in the apartment of his lover, a little-known actress named Maria Susairaj. The two main suspects were Susairaj and her fiancé, naval officer Emile Jerome. As the case unravelled in graphic detail in the Indian media, it was discovered that Neeraj Grover’s body was hacked, dismembered (into three hundred different pieces, one newspaper alleged), burned, and buried. The case was played out in court—and, most sensationally, in the news—until June 2011, when, three years and twenty-three days after Neeraj Grover was murdered, the trial court convicted Emile Jerome of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and sentenced him to ten years’ imprisonment. Maria Susairaj was exonerated of the murder charges and convicted of destruction of evidence. She was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, and had, ironically, completed her term by the time the judgement was announced.

It was one of the most-reported crimes of the last decade in India. Its striking protagonists—all young, beautiful, ambitious, sexually liberated—dominated the media for months. The crime captured the imagination of an entire country and, notably, several filmmakers. In the aftermath of this spectacle comes Death in Mumbai: A True Story by Meenal Baghel, a comprehensive report of what has come to be known as the Neeraj Grover case. A book like this depends much on the timeliness of its publication; Death in Mumbai, perhaps because of rushed production, contains some typographical errors, questionable translations from Hindi, and minor inconsistencies, none of which, however, detract from the sheer thoroughness of the book. 

In this Capote-esque venture, Baghel extensively interviews the people involved in the case and puts together a compelling account. Her research is in-depth and painstaking. She follows both the paper trail and the human trail closely, and is careful to tell the story from several perspectives. Baghel journeys to the acting studio where Susairaj once enrolled, to the naval base where Jerome was posted, and, in a particularly poignant chapter, even to Kanpur, where she has a moving encounter with Grover’s grief-stricken family. She spares no detail in her description of the violent crime and the police investigation that uncovered its gruesome particulars. Her questioning is persistent and her writing straightforward. And, by its very nature, the story is gripping.

The night before the murder, Susairaj had invited Grover to her apartment, presumably to spend the night. She had also intentionally provoked her fiancé into jealousy by informing him of the fact. The crux of the case lies in Susairaj’s intentions that night. Had she, not unlike Roxie Hart in the musical Chicago, realised that Grover had been leading her on with his many promises of a television role, and invited Jerome to murder him? Or had she, miserable about Jerome’s inability to go against his family’s wishes and marry her, taunted Jerome with Grover’s presence in her apartment in a desperate attempt to push him into commitment? And, most importantly, what is it that triggers ambitious, intelligent professionals into such inconceivable depravity?

Unlike Capote, though, Baghel offers no insight into the motivations of the crime, even as she reconstructs it exhaustively. Very little is gleaned from a reading of this book that could not be gleaned from actually following the story in the news, aside from a careful de-sensationalisation of the events. In the last chapter especially, Baghel poses all the right questions—questions that everyone has been asking—but none of the answers. She compiles information in copious amounts, but almost never analyses it. While she does occasionally enter the pages of the book, it is to describe specific and momentary experiences and not to put forth an opinion.

While the case is still pending in court, Susairaj tells Baghel, “I have come to know [Emile] better in these last three years during our court meetings than I did in our one year of courtship. Given time and space I feel we can work out our relationship.” This is a most bizarre revelation, considering that Jerome has spent the three years framing Susairaj for the murder he was later convicted for. If Baghel had any reservations about Susairaj’s faith in her relationship with Jerome, she neither voices them nor investigates the statement any further. The rest of the book is filled with such alarm-bell moments, but Baghel seems to take almost everything she hears at face value, making the book a report rather than an investigation. She wonders, but does not hypothesize; she recounts, but does not examine.

What the author does do, though, is contextualise the brutal events. As in any other book set in Mumbai, the city spins its own narrative. Both Grover and Susairaj were seduced by the big city in ways their families never understood. Was it the city—the “dream factory”—that was to be their undoing? The Neeraj Grover case was the flag-bearer of what the book’s blurb calls “a new type of crime affecting the Indian city”.

The murder itself is dealt with very quickly, albeit thoroughly, in a few chapters. In the rest of the book, Baghel strays into Mumbai’s film and television industry through interviews with Moon Das, another scandal-ridden actress from a small town (who was, at one point, offered the role of Maria Susairaj in one of the films that the case inspired), Ram Gopal Varma, a maverick filmmaker who made a movie about the murder (and claims to have “a hundred per cent strike rate” with women), and Ekta Kapoor, India’s best-known producer of soap operas and made-for-television films, with whom Grover once worked.

These are the most telling sections of the book. Each is cleverly placed to inform our understanding of this particular brand of white-collar crime. They create the ambience of Oshiwara, the glamorous, deeply superstitious television heartland of Mumbai, where Grover worked, and where Susairaj hoped to work. They speak of the lengths to which aspirants will go to achieve fame and celebrities will go to retain it; they are full of surprising little revelations and flashes of insight. Ultimately, the book is more a portrait of this world than of Neeraj Grover’s murder.