Monthly Archives: March 2011

Book Review: Invitation by Shehryar Fazli

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There is no good reason why Shehryar Fazli’s Invitation should be so very boring. It is, for a start, supposedly the book that introduces the “Karachi Noir” genre, and the literary equivalent of being born with a silver spoon for any author is to make his debut already named paladin of a city, trustee of its milieu and mythos. Its protagonist is theoretically ideal: the sort of world-weary, multifarious man who doesn’t think twice before downing a glass in a cabaret dancer’s quarters and doesn’t flinch upon being told it has been spiked with opium, who wanders through its darker districts considering the novel’s single good line, “So much of a city’s value depends on what it offers the lonely”. Even its cover, if one can be so facile, is tantalizing: curving hips corseted in rhinestones, the novel’s title posed alluringly where the belly ends.

The narrator, Shahbaz, returns to Pakistan after two decades in Paris, an emissary on his father’s behalf to negotiate a family dispute over a large orchard. His aunt, the tempestuous, mentally unstable Mona Phuppi, wants to sell it. Shahbaz’s father, in exile at a distance, refuses. Shahbaz first sets up shop at the Khyber Hotel, then moves to the home of his father’s old friend, a well-connected brigadier. He becomes involved with Malika, a dancer from Cairo who calls him “darleeng” and both talks and behaves like a caricature. These are the ‘70’s, and Pakistan is still a nation divided into East and West, and Karachi’s cultural life is not just politically-motivated, but also something out of Bollywood: seedy, sleazy, and a little over-the-top.

Yet, it’s a challenge to keep turning Invitation’s pages. Even as far as halfway into the story, it fails to seize the reader’s attention. Shahbaz does not contain, in spite of a very few revelatory moments that suggest he might, enough in himself to moor the work. There is only one incident that carries in it the tensions this novel aspires to recreate, and that is a memory, a comparison between the dangers of Pakistan and France: caught unawares doing lines of coke in an unlocked bathroom stall in Paris, Shahbaz gives up the Ayatul Kursi he wears to the stranger who insinuates that there will be trouble otherwise. He follows the stranger. He does not know what to do, feels locked out of the city’s ciphers, contemplates his own helplessness. This consciousness of urbanity, human weakness and peril, ostensibly what the novel is all about, emerges nowhere else.

Fazli fares worst when it comes to evoking the urgency and intrigue of the times he is writing about. The weight and charge of history never fuels the plot in a convincing or exciting way. Karachi itself, as a figment of fiction, takes on no distinctive dimensions: it could be the underbelly of any city, anywhere, give or take a few locational markers and references. Even still, this underbelly lacks shape in some ways – it is dutifully sordid, but ultimately not thrilling or gritty.

The novel moves at a curious, uninspiring pace: not eloquent enough to be literary fiction, not snappy enough to be pulp fiction, and certainly not sexy or ambient enough to be noir. There is, through the narrative, what can only be described as a sense of laziness – as if the author threw in a little sex, a little violence, a dusting of old school family saga charm, set it all against the backdrop of historical incidents, then sat back and expected a full-fledged book, confident in the formula.

One wishes this was a bad book. That it uses language poorly, gives in to easy emotional manipulation, or takes leaps of logic and license. It would, in that case, either have been entertaining in some cynical way or at least ingratiating enough to write at length about. Instead, it is the worst thing a book can be: lackluster and forgettable. So much so that even skimming its pages during a perfunctory second reading, a search for a single quotable paragraph that might illustrate its sorry state yields nothing. The entire novel is composed of paragraphs so perfectly colorless that none stands out as more so than any other.

This, then, is perhaps simply the curious case of the kind of book that emerges at a certain lucrative moment, when the eyes of the world have been trained on works in a similar category (in this instance, the current explosion in Pakistani fiction, propelled by the likes of Daniyal Mueenuddin and a definitive Granta anthology), and moves along buoyed by a tide not of its own origination. Little else explains its lack of imagination.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

Book Review: Sensible Sensuality by Sarojini Sahoo

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Two things inspire the reviewer when opening a collection of sociopolitical essays. The first is to find that the book begins on a note of such clarity, if not compassion, that one doesn’t immediately feel compelled to adopt an argumentative stance. The second is total battiness. Sarojini Sahoo’s Sensible Sensuality: A Collection of Essays on Sexuality, Femininity and Literature plonks itself firmly into the latter category. Take the glorious logical progression of its very first essay: the author begins by talking about how she used to bicycle as a child, makes a flippant aside about a friend (“Unfortunately he committed suicide. I really felt lonely as I had to go alone on my cycle.”), proceeds to entertain the query of a “Portuguese philosopher” who asks whether bicycling had an effect on her sexuality, actually uses the sentence “wearing or not wearing a bra may not refer to sexual orientation but to sexual behaviour” and finally paraphrases from the Brihadaranyakupanishad. All this in a chapter of just a dozen pages, entitled (of all things) “My Bicycle and Me”.

Sadly, the remaining twenty-six chapters in this bizarre collection of hopelessly outdated and incoherent musings don’t achieve such heights of hilarity as often. Yet one is equally grateful that the work does not rile – as strange as the writing is, it is also utterly inoffensive. At best, Sensible Sensuality reads like the work of a mediocre graduate student, eager to show off what she has read, carefully annotating each observation with a bibliographical note. In essence, even the book’s most cogent ideas are regurgitations with no original perspective or contribution. At the risk of responding to battiness with cattiness, it’s hard to see why Sarojini Sahoo is described as a distinguished feminist writer when this book, in totality, is simply a set of summarizations by a feminist reader.

It is not clear what “sensible sensuality” is, aside from an alliterative exercise. Sahoo’s politics are those of a typical armchair feminist: theoretically sound but without context, experience or ingenuity. For example, a strong sex-positive thread runs through the collection, but from the distance of analyzing mythologies and literary texts, both foreign and Indian. What sex-positivity means in contemporary society and as experienced in the private choices of women both here and elsewhere is not addressed. The closest Sahoo comes is a listing of the lives of public figures, including Kuntala Kumari Sabat, Amrita Pritam and Maitreya Devi. What impact, if any, a few sensationalist anomalies have on the daily experience of the ordinary Indian woman isn’t explored.

One essay in particular illustrates Sahoo’s disconnect from contemporary society to vivid effect: the entire chapter is a response to a blogger, Pragya Bhagat, whom the author claims had compared her, unfavourably, to her grandmother. However, a look at the offending blog post (helpfully provided in the bibliography, of course) reveals that on the contrary, Bhagat had merely written that both the politically-conscious Bhagat and her karva chauth-observing grandmother were both, in their own ways, feminists. There are two levels of delusion at work here: that Sahoo would misread something so perfectly affable, and that she would take it upon herself to include a riposte to a perceived slight on the Internet, of all places, in a book.

Sahoo makes frequent references through the collection to her own fiction – which may well be as groundbreaking as she suggests. But Sensible Sensuality is hardly representative of a lucid and interesting imagination. It is a collection that doesn’t manage to even speak for itself, let alone for any other work alluded to in its pages.

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

Guest Column: Sisterhood Is Complicated

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I’ll have to begin this with a mea culpa.

There have been times when I’ve been a multiplier of gossip, a pronouncer of wicked words, a deliverer of the sharply-shredding gaze. And although I don’t think gender has anything to do with who constitutes one’s tribe, I’m still plagued with a little feminist guilt when the rage subsides and I realize its recipient has been of my own “kind”. Which is to say: another chick, another bachelorette, another girlfriend gone gaga. How strange that I can comfortably joke that one of my superpowers is emasculation, but feel such self-reproach when I turn my cruelty towards another woman.

I did this, in fact, not so long ago. The when and the why have (hopefully) sunk into irrelevance, but what I’ve continued to think about is a specific phrase I appended to one particular verbal defenestration. “Oh thank God I met you today,” I said to the other party, after a long tirade about a certain distressing damsel. “I needed to talk to a female friend today to restore my faith in the sisterhood.”

The Sisterhood.

What on earth does it mean, who gets admittance, and why does it sound so grandiose? In the United States some decades ago, sisterhood was radical and political – specifically, it was also (to quote from some book titles) Powerful, Global and Forever. But what does it mean to us, here, in these times? Female friendships are one thing but what about female community? In a country where the sexes still experience segregation in some quarters, i.e. that community can be forced rather than fall together organically, it’s a particularly interesting question.

The times I have most felt that sisterhood is important have been in times of its abject lack. For instance, I have longed for it when I felt betrayed by female peers who preferred stabbing me in the back and stepping on my shoulders to reveling in the creative synergy we could have had together. I have longed for it when I’ve felt ostracized. I’ve longed for it when I’ve seen other women enjoy it with an ease I did not share.

But sisterhood is complicated, like all good and grandiose things. Platonic relationships between women are the ultimate Longfellow’s little girl – when they’re bad they’re horrid, but when they’re good they’re very good indeed. There have certainly been times when I have genuinely had it, or something resembling the fuzzy, fierce emotions I associate with it. And in those times, I haven’t always been its perkiest cheerleader, much as I may have yearned or fought for it before. I’ve thrown in the towel (“I’m sick of these chicks and these straight boys. Where is my gay posse? Give me a boa and crown me empress among queens!”). I’ve been downright partial (too little energy for a bus across town to see a galpal, way too much enthusiasm for a bus across town to see a funbunny). I’ve taken it for granted, forgotten how special it is, traded it in, opted out, and generally been less than totally sisterly.

But then, think for a moment about what it actually means to have sisters or siblings. It means rivalry, it means responsibility, it means broken things and fisticuffs and conspiracy and tears and duplicity and loyalty and love. Love is complicated. Women are complicated. Family is complicated. Sisterhood is all of these – a little less on some days, a lot more on others. But always, somehow, worth the effort of finding out which.

An edited version appeared in Times of India (Chennai) today.