20 July 2008

Past Continuous
By Neel Mukherjee
Picador India
Rs 495
Pages 544

Neel Mukherjee writes scurrilously unsparing, jocundly caustic book reviews for some of the best publications in the West. But one can tell by the bravado with which his own derivative, imitatively and gratuitously experimental, self-conscious Big Book Past Continuous is written that Mukherjee managed to silence the critic within while writing it.

This messy, unfocussed, anarchic novel is made up of two prima facie unrelated narratives (a different font for each!) clumsily woven together. One concerns the hero Ritwik’s journey from the “seething shit” of Calcutta's low-middle class wretchedness -- make that poverty and abuse at the hands of an over-conscientious mother -- to early orphanhood, to Oxford and gay sex, to his eventually becoming an arms dealer’s catamite. The other one sketchily takes up the account of Miss Maud Gilby, the music and English tutor played by Jennifer Kapoor in Satyajit Ray’s Ghaire Baire, who “had refused to live in a little England” of fellow expats in India, “a country where she was going to have to learn all over again,” and she does, willingly.

Using two narratives to pull and push against each other and create dramatic, thematic tension, is a done thing. But sadly each narrative ends up diluting the other, each narrative being in itself flimsy. The whole feel is of two different, incomplete packs of playing cards shuffled together just to make up the numbers.

The first chapter, titled 'Zero', sets the tone. It maps the cesspool called Calcutta and the middle class life sloshing in it -- the ground zero from which would emanate a raw, turbulent, misanthropic anger that would set Ritwik on a self-destructive trajectory. It makes Past Continuous read like a long howl in the spirit of Howl, the foul-mouthed, filthy-minded rant-ish poem that got its creator Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in trouble with the US law.

Ritwik, reluctantly attending to the last rites of his mother who has died within days of his father's passing away, and appalled by the scavenger-like curiosity of his relatives and neighbours, unleashes a blast of rabid bitterness and violent rage that ends suddenly at the end of part one of the book. He floats on these thermals to reach Oxford, where he seeks and sells fellatios, and finally settles down to being an illegal immigrant in London, tending an old English woman and trading more fellatios.

But Mukherjee does not harness these tempests efficiently and with enough focus to come up with a refreshingly subversive version of the clichéd Bengali narrative about rice ceremonies and the roll call of joint-family members. Ritwik’s narrative reads at times like a my-friend-is-gay spiel: The unrealistically high pitch of anger telescopes the narrator's and the writer's identity, imperiling the novel to be read as a sort of thinly disguised coming-out-of-the-closet novel for Mukherjee, where parental abuse seems dubiously placed in a cause-and-effect vis-à-vis his gayness.

Trying to pack the novel to the gills with meaning takes its toll. Obscure literary references, the vapid colonial narrative of Miss Gilby, trite thematic symmetry (his animus against his own mum balanced by his giving tlc to an old English woman with an India connection), uneven writing that stoops down to juvenilia in the matter of a line, and not to mention Ginsberg’s well-known picture in Calcutta on the cover, mar the novel’s nippy nostalgia. Mukherjee, almost criminally, ignores and fails to realize the complexity and vitality inherent in his core narrative---of a boy's psychic and spiritual growth on his journey from Calcutta to London---that would have sufficed to convey all he had intended, and instead looks for it elsewhere.

As far as Ginsberg is concerned, he would have been bemused at Mukherjee intellectualising visceral and spiritual experiences: in short, for being a perfect square.

Lost Magic, Realism Misplaced

The Enchantress of Florence
By Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape
Pages 360
Rs 595

Every new Rushdie book is, at the end of the day, just another random anniversary commemorating the advent of his iconic Midnight’s Children (1981), the book that is still a pulsating presence in the canons of contemporary world literature and the English novel. And, of course, a landmark of Indian writing in English. Scanning our literary horizons for the next Rushdie is in fact one of our national pastimes.

But the last time a Midnight’s Children-like brilliance was seen even in a Rushdie book was more than a decade ago, in The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995). Since then almost every Rushdie book has become an occasion for despair. Now we are resigned to the fact that Rushdie too, post-fatwah relieved of fear, lightened of the burden of victimhood, stripped of his alluring repressed complexity, should live in his own shadow. This is particularly the case with his new book.

The Enchantress of Florence has a mellowed Rushdie, unable to fully kick the magical-realism habit, so instead, bringing the pitch of strangeness, improbability, and fancy down a few notches, settling for Fable -- more accurately, a hybrid of fable-history -- to spice up, pique, and intensify reality-history. He finds a fabulous connection between two 16th-century cultures in their respective florescences: The Mughal Empire at its zenith under Akbar, a rare, and hence great subcontinental unifier of fractious kingdoms from Kabul to almost the southern tip of the peninsula; and the Italian city state of Florence enjoying its golden age under the powerful business family, the Medicis.

The connection comes in two guises. One, Mogor dell’ Amore, literally a Mughal born out of wedlock, a yellow-haired Italian who lands in Akbar’s court claiming to be the Emperor’s uncle. The other, Qara Köz, the missing Mughal princess, Akbar’s grandfather Babar's sister, whose son Mogor claims to be. Mogor’s narration of how Qara Köz ended up participating in the golden age of Florence, and as one of the early inhabitants of the newly discovered Mundus Novus -- the New World, South America -- makes up the heft of Enchantress.

Despite Rushdie setting up a whole circus of his famous acts -- his pet themes as a writer, the slippages of memory, distortions of history, the East-West equation, identity and the strains that transplantation and dislocation put on it -- their adumbration seems smugly rushed and hollow. It appears Rushdie is more at peace with history than he ever was, and perhaps feels less alienated in the West than he ever did since he left India for it at the age of seventeen. The quintessential immigrant who had dared to step across the line and live in imaginary homelands, has apparently at last found comfort in a cushy corner in America, and settled down to being an international celebrity with little urge to recall the earlier angst of acculturation.

This would also explain his new approach to History, opting for researched history rather than his usual mnemonic take on it. Historical fidelity, however, has burst Rushdie's bubble, let the fizz out of his famous effervescence. This is most noticeable in the parts dealing with Renaissance Italy: He tries hard, even borrows shallow slick style and noir bits from graphic-novels and Hollywood’s historical fare, and liberally sprinkles Italian conversations with a zillion 'f**ks', yet ends up giving us pages upon pages of pimped history that make Enchantress one of the most unreadable of all Rushdies.

In this literary traffic jam of themes and operatically large cast of characters, including the Navratnas and Niccolò Machiavelli, the characters are worst off: Akbar, Mogor, and the two chimerical ones imagined by an old and exhausted Akbar, Jodha Bai and Qara Köz. Though mapped well to be historically or legend-wise accurate, they are scarcely convincing fictional characters. The two-dimensional Mogor could have walked out of a comic. Even Akbar, despite all the existential internal chatter -- constant, whether he is carrying back from a distant battlefield, 'the heads of his defeated enemies bobbing in their sealed earthen pickle-jars,' or as he 'sip[s] watered wine and lament[s] his gory genealogy,' -- remains a set of co-ordinates picked from well-prepped research note cards.

Rushdie tries to liven up the poster boy of Indian syncretism: A lower register of Akbar's internal monologues countervails his Prithviraj Kapoor-like harrumphing grandiloquence. We 'hear' Akbar the Great berating himself for being a 'barbarian philosopher and a crybaby killer, and also an egotist addicted to obsequiousness and sycophancy who nevertheless longed for a different world.' But being a historical figure, Akbar, with little free will, ends up looking like a regal version of the street-smart intellectual Rushdie, about whom could also be said that '[h]e wanted a country.' Someone who can with little gaucheness observe that his subjects are 'all bags of selves, bursting with plurality.' And this identification with Akbar is apt: Rushdie perhaps suggesting that Akbar, a conqueror never really viscerally connecting to India (the unattainable Jodha) and craving for his roots (Qara Köz), mirrors Rushdie's own relationship with the complex West and his estranged vatan. Like Akbar, Rushdie might have carved a niche in an adopted country, but is homesick!

The leaping, bounding, trope-laden language that in early novels of Rushdie hurried meaning, gave sneak-previews of things ahead, nudged-winked the reader to find real world correspondences, tackily punned and winced at its own tackiness, has now gone flat. The plot is static and lacking in the charge that in the earlier Rushdie novels came from the internal peek-a-boo between a book's parts -- which together with Rushdie’s lingual brio and magical realism went in to the coining of the neologism, Rushdiesque.

Instead, we have Agra-tourist-guide tripe, kinky sex in the shape of cheesy threesomes, coffee-table erotica, and the whole Kamasutra shebang, which seems to be the only historical reality thoroughly dealt with in the book, the six-page high-brow bibliography notwithstanding. If there is Indian exotica, mumbo-jumbo can't be far behind. Counting the number of enchanters in the book could make for crashingly erudite game on a summer afternoon. The city is an enchantress. The Emperor is an enchanter. So is Mogor. The skinny whore, ‘Skeleton,’ is an enchantress. Tansen, who lights up the lamps in Skeleton’s house by singing raag Deepak, and burns himself in the process, is also an enchanter.

More endearing bits of Enchantress are Rushdie’s tongue-in-cheek self-references. He naturally identifies with Mogor, a fellow storyteller and a literary show-off: 'If [Mogor] had a fault, it was that of ostentation, of seeking to be not only himself but a performance of himself as well.' And even more transparently: 'Himself a teller of tales, he had been driven out of his door by stories of wonder, and one in particular, a story which could make his fortune or else cost him his life.' Storytelling or writing history as a perilous vocation is perhaps the most fully realised theme in the book. And its depth and sincerity is authentic: 'The dungeon did not understand the idea of a story. The dungeon was static, eternal, black, and a story needed motion and time and light. He felt his story slipping away from him, becoming inconsequential, ceasing to be. He had no story.'

Enchantress reads like an earnest, adults-only, stolid version of the pixyish satirical Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Haroun, the boy protagonist based on Rushdie's older son, queries his storyteller father Rashid the Shah of Blah, ‘Why tell tales if they are not even true?’ Enchantress, as if written as a riposte, retorts, 'The story was completely untrue, but the untruth of untrue stories could sometimes be of service in the real world.' An author in search of a purpose to write a story has no story. This is Rushdie gone soft, having lost all sense of irony. He has forgotten how to make the untruth of the story tell the truth without sounding preachy and boring. Another failed attempt to come out of Midnight's Children's very long shadow.

18 July 2008

Through Eastern Eyes

Photograph: Hemant Sareen
KUNAL BASU LEADS A DOUBLE LIFE. His day job is as a Reader in marketing at Oxford University, and you can tell the Oxford don in Basu by the rhetorical, interrogatory ‘Okay?’ with which he ends almost every sentence, making sure he is understood. Basu’s other life is as a writer. His three acclaimed novels, The Racists (2006), The Miniaturist (2003), and The Opium Clerk (2001), and his recently released collection of short stories, The Japanese Wife, are somewhat like red herrings in the post-Rushdie canon of Indian writing in English. They buck the trend of post-colonial, often self-confessional, ebulliently nostalgic narratives obsessed with defining India and the self. Basu looks outwards instead, with no inhibitions about who can write about what -- only stories and ideas matter.

That might give the impression that Basu’s inner life is not be complex or knotty enough to write from and about personal experience. Far from it. Hemant Sareen caught up with the author to discover a man with a full-sized kit of contradictions that he carries with élan, never allowing it to bear heavy on his persona of the well-adjusted, successful-as-they-come Indian writer in English.

photographs by Hemant Sareen

Hemant Sareen: So far you have written novels of ideas, narratives with a historical sweep. Your latest book, The Japanese Wife, is a collection of short stories about East-West encounters. You seem to be working with themes, or perhaps a theme that is trying to explore the East-West equation?

Kunal Basu: I do not work with themes, I think in terms of stories. These stories are about people, about context, about relationships, and in some stories the context is that of the East’s interaction with the West. If there is one overarching theme that connects all of all my writing, and it is difficult to find such a theme, it is perhaps one of humanism, of compassion -- compassion towards the oppressed in society, towards those who are disadvantaged, be it the opium addicts forced into addiction, or the young woman from the story ‘Long Live Imelda Marcos’, whose life is destroyed because a prospective husband is killed in a riot.

Purely cultural contact or conflict between the East and the West bores me to death. I am not interested in that. I am not interested in people from different cultures meeting and having difficulty of language, customs, manners. Or about NRIs living in the West and having cultural conflicts because their children are dating Caucasians. What I have tried and am interested in, and hopefully these short stories reveal that, is people who meet in unlikely places. Unexpected encounters in unlikely places spark off dreams, memories within them. And it can happen even to the most ordinary among us.

“Purely cultural contact or conflict between the East and the West bores me to death. I am not interested in…NRIs living in the West and having cultural conflicts because their children are dating Caucasians.”

HS: You write very easily about the world beyond India and what your readers would imagine to be your own immediate world as a Bhadralok Bengali man. Where does that outward looking world view come from? Has it anything to do with the communists’ notions of Marxist internationalism, given that your father was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of India (CPI) and later the CPI(M), and you yourself were once a cardholding member of the CPI(M)?

KB: Not simply in terms of politics, but culture as well. I grew up in a house full of books; a bookish house, one might say. My father was a publisher and my mother an author of Bangla fiction. She is still alive, 86 years old, and still very prolific; she published her memoirs a few years ago and a collection of short stories last year.

I grew up with intellectuals, my parents’ friends, all around us -- poets, politicians, filmmakers, theatre actors. In the crucible within which I grew up there was an absence of prejudice of any kind -- race, gender, caste, religion and what have you. The world was open to us. We would read Tagore, but we would also read Tolstoy. We would watch films by famous filmmakers from around the world. Art was a very significant part of our upbringing. We would forever be talking about artistic movements in different parts of the world. So it was an enlightened childhood that gave me the values of humanism, of universality, of not being restricted by prejudice. And I have carried that through my life.

HS: When you became a member of the CPI(M), was it a given that you take up the family’s political affiliation, or was it your own decision?

KB: It was a conscious decision. I was actually into the arts, theatre. I acted on stage in school and later in college; I was also into painting. I was not into writing, though I did write a little here and there. I think my political consciousness took shape at the time the Emergency was declared. I was in the early years of college, and to me it was a huge jolt. For the first time since 1947, we Indians were in a situation when our fundamental liberties were being curbed. I said to myself that as a thinking Indian I needed to oppose it. That took me into the realm of politics. But bear in mind, my political life actually was very brief. In 1978, soon thereafter, I graduated and went abroad to study.

HS: Brief, yes, but you still managed to have MISA [Maintenance of Internal Security Act] files on you?

KB: But who wouldn’t, in the 70s in India, in Bengal, struggling against the Emergency? I was no exception.

HS: From a CPI(M) cardholding member to professor of marketing at Oxford. That’s some transformation. How easy or difficult it is to rationalise these contradictions in your life?

KB: I don’t see it as a contradiction. We aspire to and believe in lots of things at certain points in our lives. They don’t necessarily stay the same 20 years later. Today’s views, even in the Left, about capitalism have changed from the time I was growing up in the 70s. The world is dramatically changed. The Soviet Union no longer exists. China is the most powerful communist country in the world now and uses capitalist methods.

[Also], I realised very soon after 1978, when I went abroad, that I am not really comfortable as an organisational being. That’s not my personality. My personality is that of an individualist who thinks about things, sits down and writes. So here was a clear departure away from organisational politics. At some point as I was growing up in my post-University years, I realised the futility of strong ideological views of any particular orientation. Instead, I became interested far more in how common, ordinary, poor, disadvantaged people in this world can be helped. I became more concerned with methods than the ideologies behind those methods.

“I am not really comfortable as an organisational being. That’s not my personality. My personality is that of an individualist who thinks about things, sits down and writes.”

HS: You are very deeply situated in the West. You are part of an institution, Oxford University, which is the epitome of Western values. From that vantage point, what kinds of changes you have seen in Western views about India and the East over the years in the West?

KB: First of all, the advantage of being an author who is also an individualist is that I do not have to subscribe to the philosophies and views of the institutions I work for. If I work for a large company, it doesn’t mean I have to identify with what the company does and stands for. It is just a way for me to make a living. It is my profession. The advantage of being an academic in any institution in the world, in the East or the West, is that I can be what I am. I can believe in what I believe in and can write what I want to. I don’t have to be located within any particular paradigm. I can choose my paradigm wherever I live.

Views about the East are changing of course; I don’t need to say that. The face of the world is turning towards the East. It is turning because of economic reasons. Those economic changes are causing ripple effects in [international] politics. Asian nations have become important political players. In every domain Asians are making their presence felt. I hope in arts too.

HS: You were talking about the liberty to think, write, and speak in the places where you have lived. That is no longer to be taken for granted in India?

KB: This is a matter of contention. If you as an author or as a person in the arts take a strong position, you will be opposed and criticised wherever you are. I will give you one example. When Racists came out, which is a story about 19th century European racism, the book was extremely widely reviewed, but there were voices that criticised it very sharply saying, ‘Why is he writing about us? Racism is something that has gone and disappeared. Why is he bringing all that up again? Why is he corrupting the minds of young generation with these ideas about race?’ I wanted to write back -- though as an author you never write back to the reviewer -- and say, ‘I wish that was the case. But look at the racism around.’ In 2006, when Racists was published, race riots [had raged] in Birmingham, Sydney, Paris, and New Orleans.

So contentious views would be criticised anywhere in the world. What one hopes is that the kind of criticism or discourse remains civilised. I know of the events and incidents you are alluding to here. In such cases, civil society needs to step in and say: Look, people can have different views that you consider outlandish, but it is important to air these different views.

HS: Do you feel certain expectations, if not pressure, to write a certain kind of novel, say, a more personal book?

KB: I don’t. But I know what you are talking about. The expectations that, you know, he is an Indian, he should write about the ‘hot’ Indian themes such as the Bombay mafia or religious fundamentalism. I don’t pay any attention to that because I have to be very sensitive to the stories that I think about. And if I like my stories, those are the ones I will write, always, regardless of what’s the fashion of the week or what anyone expects. I hope my readers will like what I write. But I will not write and have never thought about writing stories that fit expectations.

HS: You are considered an outsider to the Indian-writing-in-English literary marketplace, a stranger to its hardsell, self-promotional ways. That is a bit strange for a professor of marketing?

KB: Do I want to be commercially successful? Absolutely. Every author wants to. And my books sell pretty well and are popular not only in India but in other parts of the world too. But at the end of the day, I write literary fiction, and you can’t have an eye out for commercialisation of your work. If people like it and it is widely, widely appreciated, I would love that. But I won’t market myself; that’s the job of the agent and the publishers. I need to stay focussed on what I do, and what I do is write fiction. And bear in mind I have written four books in less than seven years! I have to be extremely focussed on my writing.

“At the end of the day, I write literary fiction, and you can’t have an eye out for commercialisation of your work. If people like it and it is widely, widely appreciated, I would love that. But I won’t market myself.”