Sunday, May 25, 2008

On Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth

A slightly different version of this essay appears today in the Observer.

Fiction is nothing but a narrator’s intelligent attention to the play of human feelings, but in the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri that attention takes a very distinctive, refined form. Her characters, genteel Bengalis now resident in suburban America, are themselves acutely conscious of the management of their emotions, of not behaving in an unseemly manner, of keeping their regrets and resentments to themselves. They not only speak without exclamation marks, but also think without them.

And on another level their creator is similarly reticent, steering well clear (the metaphor seems appropriate because in many of Lahiri’s stories characters are seen talking or thinking as they drive) of pathos or melodrama or anarchic laughter, always choosing a murmur over a shout. Both the writer and the characters, for their own particular reasons, want to put a brake on emotion, and the reader moves into the space they have left open. A sentence from the title story of Lahiri’s first book, Interpreter of Maladies, might exemplify Lahiri’s method. A woman, Mrs.Das, argues with her husband over who is to take their daughter to the rest room on a journey, and loses. All we are told about Mrs. Das's response is that she “did not hold the little girl’s hand as they walked to the rest room.”

The stories in Lahiri’s new book, Unaccustomed Earth, although they wander over familiar material in a familiar manner, are decidedly longer, slower, and better than those of the earlier set: they might be said to represent the perfection of a method that was at last glimpse only simmering.

These are Very Serious stories, stories that take storytelling seriously, and everything in them works together to let us know they are so: the slow, even sluggish, openings, patiently building up a scene and behind it a situation; the precise, serene sentences, accumulating weight and meaning clause by clause; the unvarying gravitas of the narrators, whether third-person or first-person – a mood and meaning that are gestured at even by the statuesque author photograph on the inside cover.

The shadow of death hovers over many of them, but humour or happiness seem remote. On one of the few occasions that a character makes a joke, he finds that “No one laughed”. A peripatetic widower sends a postcard to his daughter and her family that says “Be happy, love Baba” – “as if the attainment of happiness were as simple as that”, the sentence goes on, and although we guess this is Ruma's response, it might just as well be the narrator's.

Even so, the stories succeed on their own terms: many of them are exceptionally fine. In the title story, the widower mentioned above comes to spend a week with his daughter Ruma and her little son Akash. Lahiri’s achievement here is to capture all the registers of the encounter between three generations, and evoke the ghosts that drift alongside. Ruma and her father have never been particularly close, and indeed she suspects that he does not really miss her mother. He is never named, as if to emphasise that he is only a visitor. This is very subtle of Lahiri.

But Ruma’s father and Akash take to each other immediately, and Ruma is “briefly envious of her own son”. Her father takes to working on her garden, as he used to in their old home – his home, and in an insight characteristic of Lahiri, we learn that “when he thought about his garden was when he missed his wife the most”. He is now seeing another woman, but cannot bring himself to reveal this to Ruma: the positions of father and child have been reversed. Both are on unaccustomed earth, and Lahiri beautifully draws their situation out to something like a close.

And in the book’s best story, “Year’s End”, a teenager, Kaushik, is told by his father, also a widower, that he has remarried: that Kaushik now has a stepmother and two stepsisters. Kaushik loved his late mother dearly, so his father is prepared for outrage. But Kaushik, although taken by surprise, reports that “no turbulent emotion passed through me as he spoke”.

When Kaushik arrives home after his exams, he is received by his father, and notes how the decor of the house has been changed by a hand with a different taste in interiors. But the house itself seems eerily silent, “as if Chitra and her daughters were discreetly hidden in one of the many cupboards”. “Where are they?” he asks finally, and in those three words are contained all the uncertainty and pathos of one of the many orphans in Dickens. We hear Kaushik’s plaintive question almost as a cry: in the same instant the boundaries between the author, and the character, and the reader are erased, and Lahiri's fiction has worked its magic.

And links
to two old essays on short-story writers, both, like Lahiri, of Asian origin and both now based in America, whose work is in my judgment as good as hers: Nalini Jones and Samrat Upadhyay.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Schoolmasters and accountants in the fiction of Kunal Basu

If there is one story in Kunal Basu’s new book of short stories The Japanese Wife that is revelatory of the author’s general method, it is “The Accountant”. An accountant’s life, we know, is almost by definition ordered, repetitive, prosaic – drudgery through and through. Unsurprisingly, Basu’s story opens with a scene of the protagonist, Mr.Ray, reading a manual of architecture at home after work while his wife Beena, an official in the income-tax department, folds clothes. “She was as indifferent to his reading,” we are told, “as he was to her folding.”

“The Accountant” promises to be a story of Chekhovian domesticity and compromise, of the hollow silences and thwarted yearnings of the petty bourgeoisie. But this illusion lasts only so long. Mr.Ray wakes suddenly in the middle of the night – as he has, we are told, all of the last month. What is happening to him?

Sitting up on the bed he wondered if he should wake Beena up and tell her everything. His gaze slipped through the open window and crossed the boundary wall of their gated colony, into the deserted roads and sleepy shrines. Then on it soared over the national highway, flying straight as a crow through the dustbowl of Northern India. It skirted the Yamuna on the way down the plains and came to rest on a flat bed beaten out of the alluvial soil where the river changed course from south to east. Agra! Mr.Ray felt that he had arrived, yet again, at the very spot he knew only too well. He sensed a familiar rush of excitement as he saw a much younger man who bore him a passing resemblance stride past throngs of labourers assembled on the flattened riverfront, struck with frenzy just as an event was about to unfold. Words rang in his ears…Mimar! Mimar! that followed the young man.

Mimar…the architect. He could understand everything –greetings, complaints, even a sly request for a leave of absence – muttered in a dozen tongues, knowing instantly that he had arrived at the Taj, not one of the world’s wonders as it is called today but the wonder that it was even as it was being built more than three hundred years ago by a team of clever architects. Mr.Ray felt certain that he was the Chota Mimar – the young architect arrived from Persia at the call of Hindustan’s emperor.
Without the least effort of his will Mr.Ray finds himself pitchforked into a seventeenth-century scene: a crowd of courtiers, scholars and traders sulking in the Agra sun, the widower Shah Jahan sitting crestfallen in their midst, and the upstart Lahore architect Ahmad Lahori theatening to take over and ruin the design of the Taj Mahal. Mr.Ray’s illusion is so captivating that we rush in right after him. These repeated visions trouble Mr.Ray deeply, he worries that he has contracted some rare disease of the brain, and he knows that nobody in his circle will believe his story of a past incarnation.

But the reader trusts him completely, and longs for more details of the past life of this magnificent Bengali bhadralok who was once a Persian. Just as Mr.Ray “couldn’t bring himself to deny the thrill, the secret pleasure of dipping into his memory”, the reader cannot keep himself from turning the pages of “The Accountant” (indeed, we might think of memory as a kind of compendious and fantastic book).

Later, on a real visit to the Taj with his family, Mr.Ray sees the spellbinding monument from the vantage point of the Yamuna river, and, remembering this view from three hundred years ago, wishes only that he was “a crane nesting on the dry riverbed, or a water buffalo left to roam on the banks by its owner, feasting his eyes on the Taj all day”. Allah, he exclaims to himself in wonder at one point, and in that one word is contained all the thrill of Basu’s leaping storyline: not only is the exclamation almost involuntary, but so is the particular word by which it is expressed. Allah, is what we might be saying to ourselves, too, as we follow the dizzying time travel of the romantic protagonist.

The distinctive feature of Basu’s fiction is his appetite for grand connections, for worlds set up almost from scratch. His novel The Opium Clerk explored nineteenth-century British colonialism and the drugs trade through the eyes of the clerk Hiran; The Miniaturist is set in the world of the artists of Akbar’s court; and his most recent novel, Racists, describes a race experiment set up by two European scientists in which a black boy and a white girl are brought up on a deserted island. Even in The Japanese Wife, Basu’s adaptable protagonists are found popping up in places far from home, whether it is an American widow who finds comfort in a Delhi family or a vacationing Indian couple caught up in the furore of Tiananmen Square 1989.

Basu’s love of world-roving fictions is never more beautifully deployed than in his title story (which is being made into a film by Aparna Sen) one in which the protagonist actually goes nowhere at all.

Snehamoy Chakrabarti is a lowly teacher in a village school in Bengal, and lives with his aunt, but there is one extraordinary thing about him: he has a Japanese wife. The relationship began as a letter-writing exchange between pen-friends, and it was the girl who suddenly proposed when she found out that Snehamoy was about to get married. For twenty years now husband and wife have been steadfastly sending each other letters and presents, advice and commiseration, across the sea while trying to save money so they can actually meet. Their relationship is founded upon small gifts that bear the burden of a great love, photographs that hint at the shape of a personality, the study of each other’s handwriting in letters:

Like a married man, he had grown used to coming home to her, to her things – the gifts she sent him regularly; he waited for her letters as if he was waiting for her to return from her daily visit to the market. In his personal portrait gallery – one that lay in a weathered file by his bedside – she smiled in a series of gently ageing faces. He greyed with her, advised her on her health. She prompted him to mind his savings and the loans he was eligible for but never took out. During monsoons, she’d remind him to wear socks over his slippers to avoid the bloodsucking leech.With the assured status of a Bou, she scolded him for neglecting his aunt – not taking her to see a doctor for his recurring malaria. He wrote about the bazaar women with gaudy made-up faces, who loitered around at night and gestured lewdly at passers-by. He could hear his wife giggle, teasing him…go to them Snehamoy, I know you would like to! Don’t come back to me, I can live without the... They fought over periods of silence, blaming each other, then blaming the lot of postmen. He could swear he saw her waiting for him one evening by Matla’s shores, as he came pedalling blindly down the muddy road after a rare evening with mohua – the local brew.
Basu’s exquisite tale of conjugal corcord nourished entirely by the power of the imagination invites us to think about the extent to which we imagine even the people we know from up close. The pleasures of this collection by one of the best and brightest voices in Indian fiction are enhanced by HarperCollins’s design and production, making for a book the tactile pleasures of which would surely have delighted Snehamoy Chakrabarti’s Japanese wife.

And an old post on another story of conjugal harmony: "José Saramago's Unknown Island".

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Zoey's Song

Although my Uncledom is expanding rapidly and now encompasses perhaps a dozen one- and two-year-olds across India and England, I am the godfather, as far as I know, of only one living being: Zoey, the dog of my friend Sonia Faleiro.

I happened to be around when little Zoetta arrived as a shivering pup in the Faleiro McKnight household in 2006, and we have been fast friends since. Our favourite activity is called Tuggies, and involves holding on to either end of a squeaky toy - sometimes a hedgehog, sometimes a chicken, sometimes a fake kabab like the one pictured above - and tugging away for hours, growling unpleasantly as we strive for complete control of the vastly valuable prize. No guest to the household can leave now without first having played a game of Tuggies in the right spirit.

To thank me for my time, Zoey reads The Middle Stage every week over the shoulder of one or the other of her parents. She recently wrote to me saying that the post she likes the best is this old one on boots, which she is a great fan of, having chewed up some.

Lastly, I am pleased to report that Zoey will soon turn two, and is going to have a dazzling birthday party (to which you might give yourself a chance of getting invited by leaving complimentary remarks on her blog). Also, under my tutelage Zoey has taken to composing verse in rhyming couplets, and you will find her first, promising bit of doggerel — the word loses all its pejorative associations when a real canine is involved — composed with a little help from a friend, here. I wouldn't say it's brilliant, but hey — even Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath had to begin somewhere.

The first lines of the poem are "I think of cats, hung by tail from hooks/ Exactly ready for the attention of cooks". Some of the lines have a Yankee twang, which comes from too many hours spent beside Momma watching American Idol and news of the Democratic primaries on CNN (Zoey is now the head of the Indian chapter of the group "Animals For Obama", in which, keeping up the inclusive spirit of Obama's campaign, many human beings are also registered).

Monday, May 12, 2008

On Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger

A shorter version of this piece appeared last weekend in Mint.

When compared to the journalist or the scholar, the fiction writer seems absurdly free. He or she can construct a story in any way he chooses. His characters have freedom to say whatever they like – in fact they are most persuasive when we feel them to be “free” of an authorial hand. All we demand in return is not that the story be true but that it be plausible – that it not give the appearance of being contrived.

But this requirement shows us that the fiction writer’s freedom is actually a difficult freedom. Constructing a plausible story from scratch – a story in which narration, dialogue, and plot construction work together to produce the effect of lived experience – can be harder than reporting or analysing a true story. This is the reason why, when judged by the highest standards, most novels are failures, some are honorable failures, and few are successes.

Fiction writers can misuse their freedom through simple incompetence, or by manipulative plotting, or by a failure to imaginatively realise the inner lives of their characters, or by simplified and schematic thinking that waters down the complexity of the world. Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger seems especially instructive in this regard, because it seems to me to be culpable in all the ways mentioned above.

The White Tiger takes the form of a series of letters addressed by an entrepreneur, Balram Halwai, to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. It is a slick monologue somewhat reminiscent of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but while Hamid’s protagonist Changez addresses the reader, Balram addresses Wen for no plausible reason: why not Ratan Tata or Rahul Bajaj instead?. Over the course of seven nights, Balram tells Wen the story of how he was for long a denizen of “the Darkness” and how, after murdering his employer, he made good.

Some other reviews of Adiga’s novel have praised Balram’s cynical, worldweary voice as a refreshing view-from-below, an antidote to romantic thinking about “the new India”. But they ignore the extent to which The White Tiger itself participates in the perpetuation of simple binaries. “Please understand, Your Excellency,” declares Balram to Wen, “that India is two countries in one: an India of Light, and an India of Darkness”. The two most conspicuous words in the narrative are “malls” (prosperous, materialistic urban India) and “the Darkness” (benighted, suffering rural India), a realm of rapacious landlords, corrupt politicians, and fatalistic citizens reconciled to living in “the coop”.

Elections in the Darkness are always rigged. “I am India’s most faithful voter, and I have still not seen the inside of a voting booth,” declares Balram. “I’ve heard that people in the other India get to vote for themselves,” says Balram’s father. Balram’s village, Laxmangarh, has many malnourished children with eyes that shine “like the guilty conscience of the government of India”.

Now it is certainly true that India’s malnourished children are an indictment of government. But would a man like Balram – himself a murderer and a corrupt entrepreneur who knows how to work the system – conceptualise a situation in these terms? Or is this just Adiga speaking to the reader over the head of his character, trying to score some points for being a bleeding heart?

Would a man like Balram, who calls himself a "half-baked man" because he was never allowed to complete his schooling, be able to declare, as Balram does, that "Only three nations have never let themselves be ruled by foreigners: China, Afghanistan, and Abyssinia"? We are never quite sure what to make of Balram, because Adiga cannot convincingly inhabit the voice or perspective of a hick from the hinterland. We get not Balram, but Adiga/Balram, and we find the sometimes attractive cynicism of the character ("There are three main diseases of this country, sir: typhoid, cholera, and election fever") mixed up with the manipulative cynicism of the novelist, who is not willing to set realistic limits on the character's imagination.

Among the many problems in The White Tiger – the literary problems engendered by the peculiar way in which the book is written, not the problems of all the desperate Indian people in “the Darkness” – is that of dialogue. Now, dialogue is almost always a knotty issue for the Indian novelist writing in English, because it requires a kind of translation of speech that Indian readers, at least, would recognise is not emanating from a speaker of English.

The challenge for the Indian novelist then is to bend or tint his English in such a way that it suggests something of the character’s background, the register and the stresses of his speech, and the limits of his vocabulary in a productive way. That is to say, his challenge, if he is working broadly within the conventions of the realist novel, is the challenge posed by all dialogue, with one additional factor thrown in: the sense that this is an analogue of speech in the character’s native tongue. In this sense his attitude towards dialogue might be helpfully understood as being similar to the attitude of a skilled translator.

But there is no evidence in The White Tiger, with its long stretches of tepid and predictable exchanges between characters, that Adiga has thought seriously about this issue. As with another contemporary Indian novelist, Manil Suri, his lead characters seem peculiarly rootless because they speak in such a way as to elide significant distinctions of class and background: these writers attempt to produce realism in social and political detail without taking the trouble over realism in character.

Adiga’s dialogue has a kind of colonial hangover. Early in the novel, we see Balram at his first day at his ramshackle village school, being asked by the teacher for his name. Balram says that neither his mother nor his father ever gave him a name other than his nickname “Munna” (itself an improbable claim). “Well, it’s up to me then, isn’t it?” says the teacher, sounding suspiciously like he himself went to school in England. Because there is already a Ram in the class, the teacher names the boy “Balram”, and asks, “You know who Balram was, don’t you?” Later Balram’s nephew asks him, “Give me a glass of milk, won’t you, Uncle?” At a booze shop in Delhi, Balram gets to the counter and shouts, “Whisky! The cheapest kind! Immediate service – or someone will get hurt, I swear!” Balram’s fellow drivers shout out to him one evening, “Come join us, maharaja of Buckingham!”

Adiga knows enough about characters living in “the Light” to throw in a few f-words into their speech (“we have this fucked-up system called parliamentary democracy...”; “What a fucking joke!”). But, just like other denizens of the Light whom Balram criticises, Adiga himself is unable to engage with the Darkness, and is himself in the dark about how a character from this domain might think and speak. The anglicisms of his rustics as they rail about “the Light” might be read as complaints about no one more than the author himself, who patronises them in the same way that their employers patronise them.

Adiga’s story actually becomes distasteful in one of the book’s closing scenes. Balram now runs a taxi service in Bangalore under the alias Ashok Sharma. One of his drivers knocks down and kills a youth. Balram/Ashok has contacts with the (inevitably corrupt) police, and gets the case hushed up. As a gesture of charity, he visits the aged parents of the deceased with a compensation of twenty-five thousand rupees. The mother will not take it. But “the old man, the father, was eyeing the envelope”, reports Balram. Eventually they take the money.

This scene is reprehensible not because Balram is so despicable, but because of Adiga’s implication that anybody – even parents whose grief is fresh as a wound – can be bought in India as long as the price is right. The other India that The White Tiger purports to investigate is certainly grotesque, but Adiga, no less than Balram, feasts upon and exaggerates its grotesquerie.

And some posts about recent Indian novels which similarly suffocate their characters: Raj Kamal Jha's Fireproof and Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva, and on two novels which realise Adiga's crudely imagined "Darkness" much more successfully: Amitava Kumar's Home Products and Siddharth Chowdhury's Patna Roughcut.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

On Shobasakthi's Gorilla, and some other recent reviews

What’s in a name? If we reflect on our experience, quite a lot. Names serve as a marker of our individuality, our uniqueness in all of creation. Even so, each one of us has not just one name but a host of names — nicknames, relationship names, work names — all of which define us in some way. Our names become shorthand for stages in our life, or for the emotions people feel for us. When your spouse addresses you by your full name, you know you are in trouble. When grandparents address us by some childhood name, we almost become children again.

The Sri Lankan émigré writer Shobasakthi’s short novel Gorilla asks to be read as the evolving story of a man and his real and imaginary names. It narrates the story of Rocky Raj, a poor and idealistic youth living in the island district of Kunjan Fields at the height of the Tamil insurgency. Rocky Raj’s father is a dreaded local goon, and his ruthless predations have earned him the sobriquet “Gorilla”. Unsurprisingly, the fallout of Gorilla’s notoriety is borne by his family, most of all by Rocky Raj. At school, his classmates and even his teachers begin to call him “Gorilla”.

Wishing to exit his father’s domain, Rocky Raj runs away from home and joins a local chapter of the Movement, or the Tamil insurgency. This action is meant to signify the way violence and bloodshed have pervaded Sri Lankan civil society. Rocky Raj runs away from the mindless violence of his father to a violence which at least seems to be in service of an ideal, that of the Tamil Eelam.

At the training camp where Rocky Raj and other youths like him are indoctrinated, each new recruit is supposed to get a Movement name. Rocky Raj is excited by this. The name he has chosen for himself is “Arafat”, which would cast upon him some of the reflected glory of the great Palestinian revolutionary. But his hopes are dashed when the trainers come walking past the lines of recruits, carelessly dashing off names for the youths to fill in their forms. Rocky Raj is given the name Sanjay, because the boy next to him has got the name Rajiv, after the sons of Indira Gandhi. This outpouring of names on an industrial scale suggests that the Movement sees its recruits as not much more than human fodder, to be sacrificed for the higher cause. "Arafat" and "Mujibur" are Rocky Raj's aspiration; "Gorilla" and "Sanjay" his reality.

Rocky Raj’s idealistic ways soon get him into trouble. He believes that once a rule has been put into place, it holds good for everybody, not realizing that the Movement pretty much works as it likes. When, as the local representative of the Movement, he objects to illegal sand quarrying in Kunjan Fields, a call to his higher-ups leads to him being apprehended, tortured and finally expelled. On the run, Rocky Raj/Sanjay finally ends up fleeing the country and seeking refugee status in France, where he gives himself an invented name — Anthony Thasan (which is also Shobasakthi’s real name) — and an invented past to persuade the authorities to approve his case. The short last section of Gorilla set in France is especially powerful.

As the translator of Gorilla, Anushiya Sivanarayanan, explains, the novel belongs to the genre of “autofiction”, in which the author is not just the narrator but also the main character. Shobasakthi was himself an LTTE child soldier and now lives in France, and his narrative uses the real names of many Movement stalwarts well-known in Tamil oral culture. The raw, sweaty, unpolished quality of his narrative is striking, but the publishers need not have accentuated it by letting numerous copy-editing errors slip through.

And some other recent reviews in Mint: on Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence (very dull, except for the sparkling opening section); Kunal Basu's The Japanese Wife (uneven, but with some remarkably fine stories that you should not miss); Satnam Sanghera's memoir of growing up in Wolverhampton If You Don't Know Me By Now; Sudeep Chakravarti's book about the Naxal movement Red Sun; and Jeffrey Eugenides's anthology of love stories My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead, about which I'd previously written in a different key here.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Middle Stage in Australia

As there is nothing that this blog reveres more than the book — that box of carefully chosen words that speaks in such a distinctive and unforgettable voice when opened, often for centuries, millennia, after the life that birthed those words, the voice behind that voice, has been snuffed out — I am very pleased, and proud, to announce that something that was first published here last year appears today in a book.

My Books Interview with Christopher Kremmer, whose sprawling account of India Inhaling the Mahatma I thought an exceptionally rich work, appears this month as a back-of-the-book extra in the new Australian paperback edition of Inhaling the Mahatma.

The new edition also reproduces in full my review of the book, which was coincidentally the first-ever review I wrote for Mint.