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.

6 comments:

Srivaths said...

This is a very good review.

Anonymous said...

Good review..

Brian Stoddart said...

I thought your review was restrained and insightful, because the book is terribly disappointing for anyone who has spent any time in Chennai. For myself, I spent a lot of time there as a doctoral student from Australia, and still love the city which I visit as often as possible - it was hard to recognise much in this book!

numerounity said...

Nice and elaborate review and liked the parts where you dissected the truth as known to author with actual reality like the poem of Dalit activist Meena. Good read.

I too have read and reviewed this book at http://ektakhetan.blogspot.in/2012/08/book-review-tamarind-city.html

hope u will like it :)

Anonymous said...


though a fan of Ghosh's writings, liked ur review.
Whatever,every chapter of the book kept me hooked.

u r blogrolled :)
-Vandy

vandy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

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