Tag Archives: book reviews

Book Review: Nelycinda & Other Stories by Susan Visvanathan

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One would think the novella would find more favour in these times of abbreviated attention spans. Less demanding than the novel and meatier than the short story, it is the Goldilocks “just right” of texts. Susan Visvanathan’s “Nelycinda”, at just under a hundred pages, is a stunning novella. Told in twenty short chapters, it makes superb use of the neglected form, with a perfect balance of generosity and restraint. It should have been published as a stand-alone book; instead, Nelycinda & Other Stories becomes just that: one superlative piece of writing in a volume made unnecessarily plump with extras.

The title story is set just 300 years after the birth of Christianity, in a time when the southwest of India was a collision, or a collusion, of Roman, African, Chera, Chinese and other influences. Visvanathan writes about Kerala before it was Kerala with remarkable skill, painting a picture that is as vivid with texture and humanity as it is shorn of pretentiousness. At the centre of the novella is Susa, the wife of a wealthy trader who is frequently, and then seemingly permanently, travelling. At once ambitious and intimate, “Nelycinda” is both historical fiction and the story of one woman’s choices, circumstances and agency.

Not all the remaining stories in this collection are fillers, but the two that immediately succeed “Nelycinda” particularly pale in comparison. In “An Incomplete Travel Diary”, the second longest in the book, a former abused maid and her rich, impotent husband travel to India to adopt a child. In “Shopping in Paris”, both father and son in a family of Martiniquais musicians are obligated to choose between staying at home or travelling for work or love. Neither story compels in language or in mood, nor are their characters well-etched. It’s not progressive to suggest that an author mine a single landscape repeatedly, yet there is such a marked difference when Visvanathan writes about Kerala that it’s difficult not to wonder about her limitations.

A few stories are unmemorable, as when Visvanathan turns her gaze to Malayalis in the Middle East in “Gulf Baby” and “Further Away From Paradise, Returning Home”, or “Allapuzha”, which begins and continues as a short factual essay before suddenly diverting into a fictional introduction. There’s a pointlessness and an absence of grace in their lines, as though the evidently gifted author herself was ambivalent about them.

Still, the book is not without rewards. A trio of linked stories – “Correspondences”, “Pepper Vines Trail My Hair” and “Sludge Without Sun – are catalysed by the beautiful centre piece, in which a woman prophesied to die young maintains only a delicate and bittersweet attachment to the world. The first story comes long before the second, so that we arrive at the connection with delight. The collection ends on a strong note – “Odd Morning”, in which a Malayali American theatre actress leaves a train mid-journey, discomfited by its male passengers, and stays for weeks in a remote village.

Visvanathan is a curiously underrated author, despite her prolific output (Nelycinda & Other Stories is her fifth book of fiction; she is also the author of seven non-fiction works). In the best of her work, there is a lyricism and suppleness in the writing, tethered by deep reflections on history, gender and religion, and a distinction of style that deserves a larger audience. This collection of disparate pieces suffers only from bad curation. This doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the title story or the few persuasive ones. The demoted novella could have had better company, or none at all, but it is still a gem – albeit among a less sparkling assembly.

An edited version appeared in DNA.

 

 

 

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.

Review: Don DeLillo’s Point Omega

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In September 2006, in the thick of the United States’ war in Iraq, a man stands day after day in the shadows of a room at the Museum of Modern Art, watching an installation of Hitchcock’s Psycho slowed down and stretched to a 24-hour videowork. When the book opens, it is the second to last day of the screening, and he is watching the infamous shower scene with a devotional, and yet dispassionate, engrossment. He has spent five days immersed in this altered reality. We don’t encounter this man again until the epilogue, when weeks have passed in the lives of our protagonists, but he is still there, in decelerated time. It is the sixth and final day of the installation and when he leaves this room, his reality isn’t the only one that will be permanently lacerated.

At just under 120 pages, Don DeLillo’s Point Omega has the effect of a small, slick razor – the cut itself is brief, the sting far more lasting. A disturbing yet remarkably accessible novel, it leads to ponderings about human consciousness and conscience, heavy and even dark subjects, without resorting to labored rhetoric. The “war intellectual” Richard Elster has retreated into the desert upon retirement, which is where an experimental filmmaker named Jim Finley seeks him out. Finley wants to make a single-take documentary featuring an unscripted monologue by Elster, who in spite of his reluctance has invited the filmmaker to visit. The visit runs into weeks of dialogue and Scotch, and Finley stops counting the days, until Elster’s daughter Jessie also comes to stay, and an inexplicable event throws things into disarray.

Slim in pages and sparse in its prose, for a story largely about the distortion of time and space, Point Omega zips by rapidly. This makes it all the more successful; unlike the prolonged Psycho of its prologue and epilogue, it saturates the mind far quicker – densely packed as it is with ideas that might be described as almost post-apocalyptic. Having left his work under the Bush regime disillusioned (“They think they’re sending an army into a place on a map”), Elster’s mind turns increasingly toward concepts of reality and how it is experienced. Once a scholar who wanted the profound simplicity of a “haiku war”, and who traced the etymology of conflict jargon, he has begun to believe that language itself has lost its purpose, and that humanity seeks to devolve into a point of lower consciousness. Out in the desert, he aspires to a sort of disappearance into the landscape – a wish that proves to be ironic.

What this novel owes to cinema is reflected not only in elements of plot detail, but in its entire mood and pacing. It is not so much the gothic horror of Hitchcock that DeLillo takes as influence here, but modern films with a dystopian sense of foreboding, evoking, among others, the surreal desert landscapes of Bruno Dumont’s 29 Palms, or the unnerving noir of a David Lynch work.

Point Omega is a formidable novel, and deceptively enjoyable. Absorbed by the concepts of modern existence it presents, one forgets that the realities and probabilities it describes are neither fictional nor of a time other than ours. Like Elster, who believes that cities are built to keep out “the terror” (even as they are the arenas on which terror, as we know it today, plays out in the world), and yet is utterly unprepared to see it magnified and manifested in the desert, one emerges from this book disoriented by its power.

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

Review: “The Shape of the Beast: Conversations With Arundhati Roy”

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First published in today’s The New Sunday Express.

Over a decade after the extraordinary success of The God of Small Things, and somewhere before the publication of what will only be her second book of fiction, comes The Shape of the Beast. This collection of fourteen interview transcripts chart Arundhati Roy’s career as a political activist from between 2001 and the present, and thus comes almost as an exercise in taking stock, in looking both backwards and forwards. Its insight into the mind of one of our foremost public intellectuals is valuable.

In many ways, this is an extremely deliberate book, clearly seeking to fashion an arc of evolution with its snapshots of Roy’s opinions at particular points. Fortunately, it is largely devoid of the egotism one might expect from any such venture by a similarly larger-than-life celebrity. The hero of The Shape of the Beast is undeniably Roy – but her choice to speak for many is by far its central focus.

The Beast in question is, naturally, a political animal. In these interviews, Roy takes on, in her penetratingly poetic manner, the hegemonies of state, religion, imperialism, corporate entities and social constructs. All of them have been published before, so in themselves they say nothing new. But collected together they shed light not so much on the nature of the Beasts that democracy, egalitarianism and sheer goodness are up against, but on the woman who dares to outline their shapes.

What we get then are interviews which seek to understand where Roy’s perspectives come from, how her upbringing and life prior to and since fame shaped the logic behind her activism. The dialogues segue easily from the political to the personal, exploring the relationship between her background and belief system. Whether discussing American imperialism, Maoist insurgency, Narmada Bachao Andolan or Kashmir, the connection to Roy’s fundamental principles is laid bare. Unpopular as her views have been in some circles, both her stunning clarity of thought and refusal to be ignored are evident in these interviews. The Shape of the Beast thus functions convincingly on two levels: as a comprehensive source of the opinions to date of our most beloved and beleaguered activist, and, simply, as fodder for fans.

The most revealing interview of all is the final one, conducted in March 2008, in which Roy speaks about herself as a person, a writer and a celebrity and the private and public negotiations of these selves and projections. The political weight of the other conversations is absent here, and because of this it knits together the two Roys who have inhabited our common consciousness since 1997 – the glimmering, melancholic writer who gave us The God of Small Things and the fierce, incisive activist we have seen since then.

The book’s success lies primarily in the fact that it is neither mere defense for a decade of what some have seen as incidental activism, nor an exercise in self-congratulatory vanity. There is certainly some amount of careful persona distillation here, but hers is a voice that represents in equal measure both the disenfranchised and the simply far less eloquent. And for this, one remains grateful.

“I insist on the right to be emotional, to be sentimental, to be passionate,” says Roy in one of the interviews. This is exactly the kind of statement that does not endear her to her detractors, but it is also the reason why the rest of us remain so enamoured. She dares to be a subjective voice speaking on objective things, an anomaly in an arena of clichéd catchphrases and the politically fashionable, if not politically correct. Love her or loathe her, we need Roy. And this book, in a nutshell, is why.