Monthly Archives: December 2010

Book Review: The House of Five Courtyards by Govind Mishra

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Govind Mishra’s The House of Five Courtyards provides occasion for one of those kneejerk declamations about work in translation on its very first page, when the mellifluous and charmingly Indian “chik-chi, chikh-chikh, tick, toon-tick-tidding, chi-chiya, chi-chi-chi… kutock, kutock” of birds rising in harmony with an ahir bhairav is rudely interrupted by a rooster that actually crows “cock-a-doodle-do”. One decides, as one does in these cases, to shoot the messenger – in this case, Masooma Ali, who translated the novel from Hindi.

This, as it turns out, would have been a grave mistake. The errant foreignness of that rooster is one of the few moments of being snapped to attention in this book, and given the tedium of the rest of it, one is actually grateful. Here is a novel so utterly cliché, so incapable of making up in charm what it lacks in innovation, that to pin its failure just on how it was adapted into a different language would ring hollow.

The novel opens in Benaras in 1940, where a large family share their lives together in a massive mansion of five courtyards, its three lynchpins the advocate Radheylal, the elderly matriarch Badi Amma, and the imposing Badh Baba, the banyan tree. Its inhabitants are not atypical of such settings: Sunny abandons his studies for the sarangi, and then abandons music for the mendicant life. The boy Rajan recites a patriotic Urdu verse in school and is caned for anti-imperial sentiments. The dignified courtesan Kamlabai visits often for musical soirees and is considered one of their own; when an in-law of Radheylal’s house seeks her services as a brothel madam, she turns him away with a subtle reminder that he has married into her family.

Radheylal disappears into the underground of the independence movement. The ties of the next generation to the house of five courtyards dissipate more and more: in Kanpur, Rajan and his wife Rammo occupy a small flat with their children, Shyam educates his children in English and lets their Hindi lapse, and the house is eventually divided up and let out to tenants. All the makings, in short, of a saga about a changing world.

It isn’t that we, as a collective readership, have grown jaded of sagas – there is a timelessness to them that bears, if not begs, many renderings by many voices. It is simply that Mishra has injected no identifiable colour, humour, magic or humanity into this narrative. Its characters lack idiosyncratic appeal, and even the pathos of the end of an era, which the writer says in an afterword is what inspired this book, is not adequately transmitted. Perhaps it is Ali’s interpretation that makes this book so lackluster, but perhaps it is not – as with all translated works, only the sufficiently bilingual will ever know. And who knows, perhaps in the original, the rooster also crowed “cock-a-doodle-do”.

The House of Five Courtyards won the 1998 Vyas Samman (a lucrative award for Hindi literature), the same year in which a plethora of similar novels filled with extended families, sprawling chronologies and nostalgia for “Indiannness” flooded the market in a variety of languages – the Arundhati Roy afterglow. Few matched Roy’s masterpiece; all attempted to. The success of Mishra’s novel seems, at best, to be a product of the same, and as with other such products, its glow has not survived the decade. If there is anything that sets it apart from its numerous counterparts in English, it’s only that it doesn’t resort to the easy exotica that characterized many of them. Ironically, this may have made the book so bad that it would no longer have been boring – which, ultimately, is far worse the crime to the reader.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

The Venus Flytrap: Winter

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For one month every year, the city becomes “elsewhere”, which is to say, anywhere but here.

Its famously sweltering conditions become chilly enough to bring out the cashmere shawls, the ponchos, all the warmer selections of one’s collection of clothes for eventual migration (am I the only one who makes no secret of mine?). The fans are voluntarily turned off all day, and particularly at night. Wooden doors swell with rain, refuse to shut, and compromise one’s privacy in a place in which one has very little already. Cyclonic winds waltz with treetops, twirling and twirling, raising goosebumps as if they were fingertips circling on skin. The sun, when we see it, we greet like family.

We put on our sturdiest rubber chappals and pay the monsoon price for autorickshaws, because for once Chennai is too exciting to miss, its excess of activity dismantling every stereotype we know of its lassitude. Once a year, there is everything to do, and too few days to do it in. It’s the season of being spoilt for choice, of shows and showing off, of cultural pursuit becoming a matter of daily routine. You can almost hear the crackle of newspapers dating to February being removed from those sarees, starched and saved for the season. Time compresses: we who are so used to a city that never wakes up find that there aren’t enough hours in the day to rest. It expands too: we drink our fill of lectures and performances, the classic, the avant-garde, the homegrown and the foreign – like students who only crack their textbooks open just before a final exam, we absorb in weeks what could have been spread over a year. And most elegantly, time stands still – every sabha in the city thronging with that generation of women who wear a floret of diamonds in each nostril, and a pavé of roses coiled into white hair.

All this romance, sprung entirely from this decidedly tender climate. “Baby-making weather,” a friend winks. It must be true. One of the sharpest images this city has seared in my mind is of the man and the woman I saw one night as I walked a bridge across the Cooum. They were under a piece of cloth, which he was gently tucking over her with one hand, stroking her cheek with the other.

Chennai in the winter becomes a city whose exits shift into sight: its weather and its bustle both insinuate other places, windows into other worlds. But there are those who have neither doors nor windows, whose city it is much more than yours or mine, and for whom its year-end guise is not the same one we experience. I’ve spent a lot of time this winter wondering and worrying about them, those who make their homes on the pavements and the beach. My bad throat and muddy shoes are bourgeois trifles beside their concerns. So this year, some items of that pile of clothing for eventual migration have found their use. As have curtains and blankets in surplus in my household. In giving them away to assuage the coldness in someone else’s bones, I’ve found that, in my comforters and comforts, the thing that lets me sleep soundest is the sense of having done something useful. It keeps me as warm as a hug.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Book Review: Ranjan Kaul’s Through The Forest, Darkly

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Somewhere in the three hundred-odd pages of Ranjan Kaul’s Through The Forest, Darkly lies a novella of half its length and twice its appeal. That book, I imagine, would be a precise, ethically complex account of some of the political extremes currently shaping India, taking a young man out of his well-to-do Delhi comfort zone into the hinterlands of Maoist occupation – and the reader with him. This book, on the other hand, is a prolonged, mostly monotonous telling of that journey, pedantically detoured and ultimately unimpressive. Aseem, a recent graduate trying to find a sense of direction, chances on the idealistic Swati, who teaches at slums and rejects her parents’ Communist allegiances as not being radical enough. Bored with urban ennui and not realising the hypocrisy of having met her in the first place at a socialite gathering, he becomes politically active – thus condemning himself to repeat the failures of his father Avinash, a former Naxalite.

The novel opens with a short, captivating prologue describing two funerals, but recedes as soon as the first chapter begins into a prosaic and sometimes grating style. There’s a vexing schizophrenia to the narrative: portions set within the forests of Bastar carry a genuine lyricism, while everything else is written with a marked lack of craft. By the time a corporate mission that turns mutinous sends Aseem into the forest, the setting that inspires Kaul’s better passages, we have meandered through too many pages of stilted, adverb-qualified dialogue, redundant scene selection and lines like “No one in the car was interested as the driver proceeded to unravel the silk from the cocoon of his knowledge about caterpillars” and “’Fine, give my love to Aseem,’ said Menaka, and went back to the epicurean world of cocoa”.

The caricaturish Menaka, Aseem’s insipid and opportunistic aunt, is the source of most of the novel’s troubles – not because of how she contrives certain events of the plot itself, but because of the author’s evident lack of facility in rendering her in a manner that is either fully-fledged or at least relevant. A disproportionate amount of attention is paid to her tangential conversations and fixations, and one gets the sense that Menaka is Kaul’s real obsession, his muse if you will, but one with whom he grapples with little reward. The motivations of other characters – supposedly less facile than this one – are not given this sort of attention. Thus we don’t understand why Sri Sri Narayanaji, the godman whom Aseem’s uncle Aroon is repackaging for the world, agrees to go along with the commercialization of his image. We don’t understand why Aseem’s mother Ritika tolerates her sister’s manipulations, or even what drives Swati, whose do-gooder actions clash with her belief that the adivasis are naïve and incapable of compound thought. We aren’t presented, in any insightful way, the extent of ideological and ethical conflicts at the novel’s heart, or the complex relationship between adivasis and the “civilized” world, with its contrary forces of Maoism and capitalism. We do, however, get an exasperating amount of detail about Menaka’s toilette, libido and moods – as well as her dog’s.

Still, Kaul’s portrayal of everyday life in the forests of Chhattisgarh is a vivid and convincing one. This is where the novel’s entire potential can be found, and one wishes that Aseem, and the novel, had found their way into it sooner and with less petty distraction. Through the Forest, Darkly mirrors, in its failure, the activism of some of its protagonists: what counts is the commitment to be immersed in the nucleus of the situation, regardless of whether or where else action has flared. All else is peripheral.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

The Venus Flytrap: Old Tricks of the New Age

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“You need to fully inculcate your complete maternal self,” he said, between mouthfuls of a fine continental spread. “You need to nurture and give and embrace your true nature.” He paused, significantly, and swallowed. “This just came to me, a message to help you on this journey: start by buying me breakfast. Providing nourishment will allow you to reconnect with yourself.”

We were at The Park. I could have bought breakfast or I could have posted bail.

Well, I should have known better then than to set up an appointment with a holistic healer whose business card read: “Tarot, Hypnotism, Arts Therapy and African Voodoo”. Now, after a couple of years’ worth of questing and questioning, I do. Self-styled spiritualists of the small-time variety are common, ineffective and quite hilarious. The thing about surviving all of that existential anguish is that you’ll have very few tangible takeaways you can talk about afterwards – except the fun anecdotes you’ve collected from those who claimed to have answers for it.

One of my other favourites was the breathing exercise teacher who took a rather unsavoury interest in my toilet habits. “Did you oil your rectum today?” she asked each time I saw her. Taking my uncomfortable expression to be mere stupidity, she would then proceed to gesticulate, in detail, exactly how I ought to do this. I suppose I ought to be thankful that she didn’t take it upon herself to offer a comprehensive demonstration. I can’t say I felt the same hesitation toward the hot chakra cleanser, though.

Which brings me to: why was I prescribed ashwagandha for my insomnia without being informed that it was also the great Indian aphrodisiac? Between the hours I was keeping and the touted potency of that herb, I could have turned into some rampaging nocturnal succubus.

Which I avoided, I hasten to add, by virtue of developing an intense obsession with transcendental mysticism and the fine sciences of auguring the future through the study of the feng shui of fridge contents and the Facebook newsfeed. In fact, I learned during this period that I am so intensely obsessive because I am a Scorpio Rising, that too born in the anaretic degree. This also makes me vindictive, envious, secretive and paranoid. Now you know why I’m so popular.

All of this came, of course, thanks to my involvement with a self-professed visionary. She interpreted my dreams (“To dream of a cat indicates a craving for cheese”), she analysed my psychosomatic conditions (“A pain in the ass indicates grief over betrayal – or an unoiled rectum”) and ran zodiac compatibility tests on my suitors (“Oh what’s a little BO with such a spectacular Mars-Jupiter trine?”). She was as efficient as predictive text on a cellphone. She was oracle and Oprah combined. It all toppled like a house of archangel cards when, in the process of severing my auric cords to malevolent influences from my past, she accidentally singed my eyebrows. Astrally.

“Shame about the eyebrow – now how will you know where to tap to activate your acupressure points?” she said.

I know. Even excusing a little hyperbole, I should be a hardcore cynic by now. But some people are just incorrigible (like Scorpionic types). I’ve just learned that divinity doesn’t come neatly packaged. Aromatherapy oils, though, still do.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Feature in Ritz Magazine

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I’m in the December 2010 issue of Chennai’s Ritz magazine, as part of a feature which also includes Kuttirevathi, K. Ramesh and Tishani Doshi.

Click the image below to check out the article (it becomes legible once you double click). I should note that the name of my novel in progress is wrong (why do many journalists get it wrong? It’s not Stars, it’s not Czars, it’s not SARS. It is Scars.) But you already knew that. :)