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.

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