01 January 2008

Incredible India? You Bet Your Skinny Ass

The Elephanta Suite
By Paul Theroux
Hamish Hamilton/Penguin
Pages 287

“The filth and repulsiveness of the assembly were beyond all description, and I shuddered to think what their life in the badgered holes must be.”
~ The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes, by Rudyard Kipling
[A chilling tale about an Englishman who becomes a prisoner-slave of the crow-eating Gunga Dass and his rabble of un-dead cataleptics, after falling into a crater along the Sutlej.]

Paul Theroux is back. As mean, pugnacious, blunt, and acute as ever. The travel and literary fiction writer who loves documenting unpleasantness and awkwardness returns to India, with which he had struck a wonderful chemistry in his famous The Great Railway Bazaar. In The Elephanta Suite, his patently brash and politically incorrect re-imagining of Kipling’s India, Theroux examines what happens in those “badgered holes” of The Strange Ride.

The Empire was Kipling’s muse; Theroux’s is globalisation. This collection of three tenuously interconnected stories, set in the contemporary India of buzzing call centres, Garden of Eden-ish luxury spas, and big business deals struck in gleaming board rooms, brings Indians and Americans face to face, as if to mock the fears of globalisation spurring a rampant cultural homogeneity around the world. Theroux is trying to test if and how far the changing commercial East-West equation has resulted in the long-awaited meeting of the two cultures.

And strangely, the cultural equation is unchanged because, as Theroux reveals, Indians have not changed much. India is still a land of devious, “pestering and puritanical” people, “hating each other much more than they [hate] foreigners”. “They’re either at my throat or at my feet,” one of the American characters emails to a colleague back in New York. That’s a good one-line paraphrasing of Kipling’s works too.

If the two parallels seem to be converging, it is because the West has at last relented to roll out its yoga mats, feed peanuts to an Indian elephant, get Ayurvedic massages, outsource manufacturing of gardening tools to India, and mock at Indian English and the famous Indian gaucherie, not from the safe confines of Californian neighbourhoods, New Jersey suburban homes or sterile New York offices, but in the shitty, noxious, pestilentially populous lanes of India.

In the glorious age of easy travel and the anachronistic 'always enticing but never ever anything but hype' hype about the Incredible India that Americans resist so resolutely, Americans still allow themselves to be had once they are in India’s dreaded thrall. For having at last condescended to visit India and then finding the courage to step out of their hotel rooms, the compensation is the joy of exchanging thirty-nine rupees for a dollar, and yielding to the “land of yes” in an “unexamined” orgy of guilt-free sex with very willing natives.

In ‘Monkey Hill’, a rich businessman and his wife, curious about the real India beyond the sanitised, prettified world of their Ananda-In-The-Himalayas-type Ayurvedic spa, encounter the grimness of real India and their own dark desires. Initially thrown off by both, their keen curiosity soon sends them rushing in, trying to grasp India in a passionate, masochistic embrace, with tragic consequences.

Theroux’s characters, liberatingly outspoken, engage rather than withdraw: All of them shun the charms of the plush Elephanta Suite of the title, fearing it would shut them out of real India. And once they give themselves to India, they are like Hemingway or James Baldwin living in Paris and loving it.

In ‘The Elephanta Suite’ the story of the book’s title, Dwight Huntsinger, a New York lawyer, our-man-in-India for an outsourcing firm, sends his Indian contact and subordinate to America to take his place in a seminar. To Dwight's surprise, the man who had on their first meeting smiled and said, “I am at your service, sir”, returns home, touched by America, overbearing and familiar. “Old Shah had been -- not Americanised, but enlarged, made self-aware,” Dwight observes, but still continues to rely on him with disastrous results.

This newfound confidence of Indians, thanks to their newfound wealth, owes much to America’s large appetite and persistent nose for good deals, and this theme is explored with vehemence through the three stories. America uplifts Indians and then invariably regrets it.

The theme is taken up by ‘The Elephant God’, in which Alice, a young American woman, who earns her keep in Sai Baba’s Whitefield Ashram in Bangalore by working as a part-time accent trainer in a call centre, transforms an “awkward, slightly comic, oblique and old-fashioned jobseeker she’d met on the train” in a matter of a few months, into a confident, friendlier, funnier, more direct, “importuning brute.” Like Dwight, Alice too becomes the victim of the Frankenstein she'd created.

This Kiplingesque theme of repulsion-attraction finds its clearest articulation in ‘The Elepahanta Suite.’ Dwight, who initially regards going to India as an act of self-destruction, later hates the “dumb arrogance of mere bigotry” of his compatriots, who can’t stand India. “[They] would be terrified and angry, hating the place and the people ... like India’s victim,” he frets.

Discarding his own fears, Dwight “finds his level” in the hovel and arms of a young prostitute. Having turned from a fearful materialist to a pliant sensualist, Dwight soon learns, and apparently forgets, about “the Indian surprise. India attracted you, fooled you, subverted you, then if it did not succeed in destroying you with the unexpected, it left you so changed as to be unrecognizable.” And unrecognisable Dwight becomes in the end, and a victim of India.

This is Theroux in his element. Indians or Americans who pick up a copy will find themselves rolling on the ground as he wields his excoriating whip maliciously, accurately. And with every lash they will hear themselves scream, ‘More, Theroux, more!’ That’s because although he gets the Indian geography wrong, and he gets the facts wrong, and the endings are as preposterous as Kipling’s, Theroux always gets his people right.

Turn, Turn, Turn

My Revolutions
By Hari Kunzru
Hamish Hamilton
Pages 278

In his latest novel, Hari Kunzru switches off his Indian side. In his two earlier novels The Impressionist and Transmission -- one a send up of the Empire, the other a comic take on the new technology-based global economic and social order -- Kunzru, born of Indian-English parentage, drew on his own straddling of two worlds and put enough India on the pages to earn himself the tag of 'Indian Writer in English'.

My Revolution gives India a miss, except for a few stray references. It catches Britain in the grip of the restless but formative 70s: The brief flirtation with counterculture, the radical politics that almost became terrorism. Yet the new novel continues almost seamlessly with the earlier books' themes of transformations, transmutations, and the at once persistent and elusive nature of cultural identities, dealt through chameleon-like characters, changing but blending in as they move through social and cultural spaces.

Mike or Michael Frame has a past. And just a day short of his 50th birthday, Mike realises that his cover is about to be blown. An acquaintance from the past, Miles Bridgeman, has blackmailed him into exposing the brief radical past of the woman who would be Home Minister, to keep her from getting the top job. Mike’s own exposure is certain, threatening his suburban bliss of a successful businesswoman wife, a daughter just beginning to experience the joy and pain of adulthood, and his missus’ BMW in the driveway.

Mike, a self-effacing man employed in an old-fashion neighbourhood bookshop, his daughter thinking him a born monogamist, is actually Chris Carver, a one-time revolutionary who took part in the famous Post Office Tower bombing in the early 70s. Something he now regrets, as he is about to be banished from “the good society” of “mildly bored people, getting by” that he has become a part of.

Mike flees to Paris in his wife’s car. As if to assure himself of his past existence as a free-living radical, he goes off in search of the woman who might have been the reason behind his turning into a revolutionary -- Anna Addison, a Modesty Blaise-like alpha woman with a Willie Garvin-like boyfriend, Sean Ward.

Starting with this telling image of an ex-revolutionary in a BMW, Kunzru explores all the subtle ironies of this circle turned full, the whole shebang around the adage: ‘Today’s revolutionary, tomorrow’s conservative.’ Not a nostalgia trip this, Kunzru painstakingly rescues the 70s from the clichés that have turned them into one long, limp joke. Hence, barring two faint references to rock ‘n roll and some coming-of-age and later politicised sex, and drugs, Kunzru bins the popular myths of the Rocking Seventies.

Instead, we get a deeply-researched account of the Alternative 70s, which becomes a meditation on the futility, the necessity, and even the inevitability of change, as Mike flashbacks to his earlier avatar. We follow Chris’ progress from his living in the “joyless hole” of a Britain of the 50s and the 60s; to becoming a CND campaigner and a groupie; to his drift into a commune that changed his sense of property and propriety; to gradual radicalisation that begins innocently enough with “feed[ing] a few people” with stolen food and supplies to “make a political point: it would be an example of a practical redistribution, a condemnation of consumer society.”

Antes are upped, innocence lost, stances harden. Sit-ins turn into bloody demonstrations to ‘Off the Pig,’ the fascist state. Armed robbery becomes “Expropriation, the next logical step” to car thefts, to finance themselves to do “whatever it was we were daring each other to do.” The faux-political discourse also comes in handy to explain away the Notting Hill brigands’ internecine squabbles that entail the re-education of the politically backward, the purges, the factionalism, splits, and interrogations.

Then, as they are faced with fate worst then death for a revolutionary -- being ignored, becoming invisible unless they were seen on the telly -- and feeling appropriated by the very mainstream they had travelled lengths to escape, an epiphanic moment is precipitated: “We thought we were striking a blow against it, the hypnotic dream-show of fuckable bodies and consumer goods. Instead we fell into the screen. Our world became television." Desperation peaks. A PLA-trained and inspired cadre is born, willing to follow the “logic of confrontation” to the end.

With hindsight we can tell they were inching towards Margaret Thatcher’s monetarism -- the materialist 80s of conspicuous champagne-and-Porsche 911 consumption, to final the steady, low-key consumerism of the late 90s. Chris himself starts working, doing odd jobs -- readying himself for the ‘80s. All along in their communes there are hints of their longing for ordered lives, domesticity, suburbanism, which they would later embrace.

Kunzru recreates the bilious generation’s times and confusions convincingly without trivialising or robbing them of their complexity, thanks to prodigious amounts of research. But that very research chokes the narrative and suffocates the main characters giving them little space to breath and come alive.

Some Guys Have All The Luck

Romancing with Life: An Autobigraphy
By Dev Anand
Pages 438
Rs 695

It’s difficult to imagine another man more full of himself and an 84-year-old with a libido so high. By the third chapter of his egregiously puffy, exasperatingly charming and divinely readable biography, Dev (that’s how he like his fans to call him, ‘Just ‘Dev’, short and sweet and possessive, godly and sexy, and intimate to the extreme.’) is quick to establish his credentials as a louche, aged star. Girls chase him, almost right from kindergarten onwards, beg kisses of him, give him the eye, telling him to come hither, and soon go all the way with him.

Dev writes in the Preface that his idea of a biography is that you drop the drab bits and spice up the more interesting ones. The already spicy bits being spiced up more? That’s Dev for you, the incorrigible skirt-chasing romantic, who sometimes even reads just like that stalker, that molester, that lecher in a Best bus. And most of the times he seems to be making it up like a man who wants it badly. On his way to Pune by a local train, the prefered conveyance of the film stars including Dev and Dilip Kumar, to begin shoot of his first film, Dev claims he almost lost his virginity to a woman in the berth above. He ‘involuntarily’ climbed up, unable to resist her flashing her bits at him.

The florid, leering style, that uncannily reads like him speaking in his famous in-a-single-breath manner, might put the faint-hearted off. It's languid tone recalls Dev's droopy shoulder shuffle with arms hanging limp on the sides, the head that keeps on nodding, while the eyes rolled under the beautiful arch of those eyebrows making Dev look like a cock of some strange bird species courting the hen. But ludicurous as it may seem now, it charmed us witless.

But little patience and tolerance will make Dev Saab’s bio a memorable read. For instance, the start of his romance with his famous contemporary Surayia, that began with the realtive new-comer Dev and star Suariya flirting uncontrollably while her grandmother, uncle, and maids along with the director, camera men and other technicians look on. Reading so delicious, it marks a turning point early in the book, enabling reader’s acceptance of Dev for what he is or was.

But though he tells us why he is called Dev Anand, why he buttons his collar up to his neck, how Kishore Kumar was inspired by him to start yodelling, his first car, his romancing his leading ladies, and his meeting his ‘original’, Gregory Peck, Shirley MacLaine, Pearl S Buck, etc., we become certain that Dev is playing to the gallery, giving the fans what he thinks they want -- his real story remains untold. And then you feel that Dev perhaps has no idea how deep a part is of our subconscious he might be. And that we could be interested in him too, rather than his stardom alone.

It’s amazing how Dev seems to have very quixotic a notion of the Essential and the Decorative, the Superfluous: not a single passage that makes a serious attempt to analyse his circumstances especially his large family of which he was one of the nine siblings or his relationship with other siblings, stars, and artists, or grapple his reality! Instead, Dev prefers to make up things in a shallow narrative about him alone and his appetites and dreams.

But he is easily caught. Like his momentous Frontier Express-journey from Lahore to Bombay. He fashions a maudlin poor-little-me account of travelling into the unknown with just thirty rupees in his pocket. The reader is sympathetic until Dev reaches Bombay. There, standing at the platform, is his brother Chetan Anand who takes him to a Malabar Hill bunglow in a Victoria!

Little later in the book, the cereberal Chetan Anand introduces him in a circle of intellectuals and artists like Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Raja Rao, Balraj Sahni, Ravi Shankar et al at Chetan’s Pali Hill house, giving him the support he needed to fulfill his dream of becoming a star.

While the autobiography is poorer for it, it is still rich enough. We should be grateful that a star of his stature has taken pains to write an evocative and entertaining account of his times, a bold piece of self-revelation that blows smoke rings in the face of Respectability. Where we expected an elegiac note, he gives us ebullient chords.

Perhaps, the reader will in turn come to realise that Dev Anand’s famous style and mannerism as well as his self-aggrandisement might have been a mask once, but they have become the man. And a star, an incomprehensible and lonely one.

Na dukh hai na sukh hai
Na din na duniya
Na insaan na bhagwan
Sirf main, main, main!

(There is neither joy nor pain
No days, no worlds
No man, no God
There is only me, me, me.)

Sins of Secularists

The Solitude of Emperors
By David Davidar
Pages 246
Rs 495

When the New York Times declared Davidar’s first novel, The House of Blue Mangoes -- a stately, multigenerational saga set in the Nilgiris, from where Davidar himself hails, of pre-Independence India -- a ‘Notable Book of the Year,’ 2001, it seemed like a validation of the axiom that a good writer could come from anywhere, even if he happened to be a publisher-editor-brand manager of the largest English language publishing houses in India with an enviable book list.

Davidar, the man who built Penguin Books India from scratch and now heads Penguin Canada, proves with his latest book the corollary of the same axiom: that even a writer steeped in literary culture, armed with a top-of-the-pyramid view of international publishing, not to mention the international bestseller under his name, can come up with a muff of a book.

The Solitude of Emperors is the story is of Vijay, a young, idealistic Tam-Brahm who escapes his suffocating small town of his upbringing by writing a short report for a a Mumbai-based magazine called ‘The Indian Secularist’ edited by a sanguine secularist Parsi, Rustom Sorabjee. Vijay soon lands a job in the magazine and is off to Bombay where is becomes a meat-eating, secularist, metropolitan journalist. Here during the Bombay riots post-Babri, he is nearly killed by rampaging Hindu thugs.

To recover from the trauma, Vijay is sent to Meham in the Nilgiris where another Babri Masjid-in-the-making Christian shrine awaits Hindu right-wing recidivists’ challenge. He meets and (a bit too) soon becomes chummy with a stuck-in-the-‘70s Boho dude there named Noah, a shady squatter in the local graveyard where he does drugs and whores, while his dog Godless cavorts around with a pack of bitches.

When a Bombay-based businessman-turned-politician Rajan decides to claim the Christian shrine for the Hindus, Vijay’s rest and relaxation interlude turns into a busman’s holiday. Like a wild-eyed, secularist new convert, he jumps into the fray, all charged up reading chapters from a manuscript written by Sorabjee titled, ‘The Solitude of the Emperors: Why Ashoka, Akbar and Gandhi Matter to Us Today,’ containing profiles of the three great men ‘brief enough to hold the attention of even the most restless teenager’ through which Sorabjee advances the necessity of solitude for a leader. Sorabjee’s manuscript becomes the book within a book that redundantly amps up the ideology in a novel that was already full of it.

Despite some glimmer of his old self peeping through evocative descriptions of the Nilgiris, and some engaging, clearly autobiographical bits about small-town boy discovering himself in the city, Davidar, trying to achieve a sparse, clean, uncluttered narrative textured by the fictional text within a text, ends up with a flat, unaccented, monotonous narrative that seems to be written in a self-induced daze not unlike the amusingly hollow, frozen intensity of a Rajasthani puppet that his main characters exhibit.

The characters’ phoney ardour recalls equally generic characters of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, who lined up obediently for and against capitalism. Solitude’s wafer-thin characters too seem to be mere loud-hailers for Davidar to pick and speak through bits from his morality play about secularism. Their runaway passion for secularism and their idealism is never convincingly explained. Why does Noah, apparently based on the wild-haired flâneur-poet Arun Kolatkar, become tamer and tamer after his first meeting with Vijay? Has he at last agreed to take his medication?

Specificity. This is the missing ingredient in Solitude. Without it Davidar’s attempt to take on grand political themes, reads little better than a sketchy first draft of a case study.

The original sin might have been the injudicious choice of first-person narrative. Perhaps, told from the unctuous, wily Rajan’s point of view, or better as a third-person account, the story would have achieved lot more irony, complexity, and density. The narratives of the two near-perfect, self-righteous characters, have the readers feeling that Davidar has left them at the mercy of two bores while he travels around the world on his book tour.

Maybe, Davidar should have anonymously submitted his manuscript, like he did with his last book, for it looks there are not many editors around him who dare point at the Emperor’s new clothes.