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Book Review: The House of Five Courtyards by Govind Mishra

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Govind Mishra’s The House of Five Courtyards provides occasion for one of those kneejerk declamations about work in translation on its very first page, when the mellifluous and charmingly Indian “chik-chi, chikh-chikh, tick, toon-tick-tidding, chi-chiya, chi-chi-chi… kutock, kutock” of birds rising in harmony with an ahir bhairav is rudely interrupted by a rooster that actually crows “cock-a-doodle-do”. One decides, as one does in these cases, to shoot the messenger – in this case, Masooma Ali, who translated the novel from Hindi.

This, as it turns out, would have been a grave mistake. The errant foreignness of that rooster is one of the few moments of being snapped to attention in this book, and given the tedium of the rest of it, one is actually grateful. Here is a novel so utterly cliché, so incapable of making up in charm what it lacks in innovation, that to pin its failure just on how it was adapted into a different language would ring hollow.

The novel opens in Benaras in 1940, where a large family share their lives together in a massive mansion of five courtyards, its three lynchpins the advocate Radheylal, the elderly matriarch Badi Amma, and the imposing Badh Baba, the banyan tree. Its inhabitants are not atypical of such settings: Sunny abandons his studies for the sarangi, and then abandons music for the mendicant life. The boy Rajan recites a patriotic Urdu verse in school and is caned for anti-imperial sentiments. The dignified courtesan Kamlabai visits often for musical soirees and is considered one of their own; when an in-law of Radheylal’s house seeks her services as a brothel madam, she turns him away with a subtle reminder that he has married into her family.

Radheylal disappears into the underground of the independence movement. The ties of the next generation to the house of five courtyards dissipate more and more: in Kanpur, Rajan and his wife Rammo occupy a small flat with their children, Shyam educates his children in English and lets their Hindi lapse, and the house is eventually divided up and let out to tenants. All the makings, in short, of a saga about a changing world.

It isn’t that we, as a collective readership, have grown jaded of sagas – there is a timelessness to them that bears, if not begs, many renderings by many voices. It is simply that Mishra has injected no identifiable colour, humour, magic or humanity into this narrative. Its characters lack idiosyncratic appeal, and even the pathos of the end of an era, which the writer says in an afterword is what inspired this book, is not adequately transmitted. Perhaps it is Ali’s interpretation that makes this book so lackluster, but perhaps it is not – as with all translated works, only the sufficiently bilingual will ever know. And who knows, perhaps in the original, the rooster also crowed “cock-a-doodle-do”.

The House of Five Courtyards won the 1998 Vyas Samman (a lucrative award for Hindi literature), the same year in which a plethora of similar novels filled with extended families, sprawling chronologies and nostalgia for “Indiannness” flooded the market in a variety of languages – the Arundhati Roy afterglow. Few matched Roy’s masterpiece; all attempted to. The success of Mishra’s novel seems, at best, to be a product of the same, and as with other such products, its glow has not survived the decade. If there is anything that sets it apart from its numerous counterparts in English, it’s only that it doesn’t resort to the easy exotica that characterized many of them. Ironically, this may have made the book so bad that it would no longer have been boring – which, ultimately, is far worse the crime to the reader.

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

Book Review: Ranjan Kaul’s Through The Forest, Darkly

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Somewhere in the three hundred-odd pages of Ranjan Kaul’s Through The Forest, Darkly lies a novella of half its length and twice its appeal. That book, I imagine, would be a precise, ethically complex account of some of the political extremes currently shaping India, taking a young man out of his well-to-do Delhi comfort zone into the hinterlands of Maoist occupation – and the reader with him. This book, on the other hand, is a prolonged, mostly monotonous telling of that journey, pedantically detoured and ultimately unimpressive. Aseem, a recent graduate trying to find a sense of direction, chances on the idealistic Swati, who teaches at slums and rejects her parents’ Communist allegiances as not being radical enough. Bored with urban ennui and not realising the hypocrisy of having met her in the first place at a socialite gathering, he becomes politically active – thus condemning himself to repeat the failures of his father Avinash, a former Naxalite.

The novel opens with a short, captivating prologue describing two funerals, but recedes as soon as the first chapter begins into a prosaic and sometimes grating style. There’s a vexing schizophrenia to the narrative: portions set within the forests of Bastar carry a genuine lyricism, while everything else is written with a marked lack of craft. By the time a corporate mission that turns mutinous sends Aseem into the forest, the setting that inspires Kaul’s better passages, we have meandered through too many pages of stilted, adverb-qualified dialogue, redundant scene selection and lines like “No one in the car was interested as the driver proceeded to unravel the silk from the cocoon of his knowledge about caterpillars” and “’Fine, give my love to Aseem,’ said Menaka, and went back to the epicurean world of cocoa”.

The caricaturish Menaka, Aseem’s insipid and opportunistic aunt, is the source of most of the novel’s troubles – not because of how she contrives certain events of the plot itself, but because of the author’s evident lack of facility in rendering her in a manner that is either fully-fledged or at least relevant. A disproportionate amount of attention is paid to her tangential conversations and fixations, and one gets the sense that Menaka is Kaul’s real obsession, his muse if you will, but one with whom he grapples with little reward. The motivations of other characters – supposedly less facile than this one – are not given this sort of attention. Thus we don’t understand why Sri Sri Narayanaji, the godman whom Aseem’s uncle Aroon is repackaging for the world, agrees to go along with the commercialization of his image. We don’t understand why Aseem’s mother Ritika tolerates her sister’s manipulations, or even what drives Swati, whose do-gooder actions clash with her belief that the adivasis are naïve and incapable of compound thought. We aren’t presented, in any insightful way, the extent of ideological and ethical conflicts at the novel’s heart, or the complex relationship between adivasis and the “civilized” world, with its contrary forces of Maoism and capitalism. We do, however, get an exasperating amount of detail about Menaka’s toilette, libido and moods – as well as her dog’s.

Still, Kaul’s portrayal of everyday life in the forests of Chhattisgarh is a vivid and convincing one. This is where the novel’s entire potential can be found, and one wishes that Aseem, and the novel, had found their way into it sooner and with less petty distraction. Through the Forest, Darkly mirrors, in its failure, the activism of some of its protagonists: what counts is the commitment to be immersed in the nucleus of the situation, regardless of whether or where else action has flared. All else is peripheral.

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

Book Review: The Story That Must Not Be Told by Kavery Nambisan

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When Simon Jesukumar misses his train back to Madras from Delhi, among his lost possessions are his deceased wife’s thick manuscript, which he has lugged from publisher to publisher over the years out of a sense of guilt and duty. Aging, curmudgeonly, and living alone in an apartment complex beside the city’s vast and thriving slum, Sitara, he is returning from a stay with his son – whose mother-in-law he has struck a slightly dubious friendship with. His only companion at home is his cat Thangu; when his formerly-estranged daughter Sandhya visits, he tolerates her with a mix of parental affection and genuine dismay. Kavery Nambisan’s The Story That Must Not Be Told opens with tremendous promise, introducing to the reader this complicated old man, one of the most interesting protagonists seen in recent Indian fiction.

Throughout the novel, similarly adroitly-sculpted characters make their appearances, only to fade in importance. Each of them – from the noble butcher Gaffur to the quack doctor Prince to the envious and dastardly Ponnu – come with a compelling backstory. The slum itself is drawn with a strong sense of the overbearing spirit pervasive through locations as complex and gritty as Sitara (or even Madras itself). The trouble is, cast and setting both arrive fully-formed and precisely executed in a novel that loses track of its own plot.

The Story That Must Not Be Told is essentially a story about the human condition as it plays out in urban India today, dichotomized by privilege and its lack, and juxtaposed by sheer proximity. Simon decides to buy a water cooler for the school in Sitara, and thus begins his involvement with the slum and its people. This is at odds with his neighbours at Vaibhav Apartments, who want to see to it that the slum is cleared. Questions of crime and hygiene have become issues; nonetheless, manual labour – from schoolboys running errands for the elderly to construction workers, and most especially, cleaners of toilets – comes directly from Sitara.

It’s a familiar scenario to any Indian: one may have people from lower classes cleaning their houses, may work for people of higher classes, or may take a conscientious approach and attempt or claim to eschew this system altogether, but ultimately all of us exist within it. This means that realistically, we already know how the story ends, and the onus on the element of surprise and originality rests with the author.

Still, Nambisan’s finesse at etching her characters is hugely admirable. Despite his cantankerousness and stubbornness, one finds it impossible not to side with Simon entirely. In a perfect echo of his sentiments, the slum dwellers are notably more nuanced than his own family and apartment neighbours – all of whom irritate the reader just as much as they do Simon. One roots for Simon and Sitara, and reads the book through in order to find out what happens.

That the book devolves into unresolved loose ends, a pat finish, and a bit of political commentary is thus all the more disappointing. There is a sense that the horse and the cart were switched at some point during the narrative; instead of being led by the natural pathos of its characters, the thematic and didactic aspects of the story gain precedence. Much is lost: the truth behind the misplaced manuscript is never resolved, the burgeoning friendship between Simon and his son’s mother-in-law is unexplored, and the eventual fate of Sitara is given an almost cursory conclusion. A much stronger and more stunning novel could have emerged if the focus had remained on the details, and not the pursuit of a bigger picture.

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

Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue

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Until he turns five, Jack lives in Room with Ma. When God’s yellow face looks in through Skylight, he counts one hundred cereal and eats it with Meltedy Spoon. Then he plays games, sings songs, and watches TV, and when God’s yellow face is gone from Skylight, he lies down inside Wardrobe and watches as Ma lets Old Nick through the door that only Old Nick knows how to open. Jack counts the creaks Old Nick makes in Bed before he finally falls asleep.

Then Jack turns five and Ma tells him that it isn’t true that he and she and Old Nick are the only people, and that some of the things he sees on TV are not make-believe, and that what is outside of Room is not Outer Space – it’s the rest of the world. Only, because he was born in Room (right on Rug), he has never had a chance to see it. And because Ma has lived in Room ever since the day Old Nick tricked her and stole her from her life, neither has she seen it herself in seven years. But now, because they can’t live like this forever, it’s time to find a way out of Room, and to a world that has no idea that Room, or Jack, exists.

Room is the story of a little boy’s world expanding, but in ways that bewilder him and shake to the core everything he has ever believed about what the world itself is. Told in Jack’s voice, Irish-Canadian Emma Donoghue’s gripping and deeply stirring novel is on the shortlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. This is a story not about trauma and damage – Ma’s kidnapping at 19, subsequent rapes, and the consequences of her life in custody are dealt with only through Jack’s eyes. The child himself is both beloved and loving, and spared the knowledge of his unusual situation until such time that he might be able to reconcile it. What gives Room its power is how it disturbs the reader not by evoking shocking details of human life in captivity, but by turning the question more existentially to confinement, reorientation, and the multiplicity of reality.

Literature about children and adolescents with dysfunctional backgrounds is extensive, but Jack is unlike any other such character. Thoroughly endearing and possessed with a beatific disposition, with a gift for imagination and love that is almost heartbreaking in aptitude, he steals the heart and inspires more awe than pity. Ma, we understand as a complex adult – a teenager who found it within herself to nurture this incredible child under astonishing circumstances, but whose life before and after Room contain other facets. But Jack’s life began with Room. His very first encounter with the world Outside is in during their Great Escape, which he manages single-handedly, and which is the beginning of every challenge that comes as he adjusts to a world beyond his very paradigm of comprehension. That Donoghue has found a way to render a child character who is both innocent, who won’t cut his long hair in case he will lose his strength like Samson and thinks Dora the Explorer is his friend, and yet is so intrinsically heroic and inspiring, is a victory.

Room leaves the reader shaken – disgusted by the criminal nature of what was done to Ma and Jack, disturbed by what it might be like to undergo such an experience, uplifted by the wonder and testament that is Jack himself, and overflowing with admiration for Emma Donoghue’s ability to evoke all of the above. This is a fantastic book, recommended without reservation.

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

Review: Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves

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When the renowned painter Robert Oliver attempts a brutal attack on a painting in a gallery, he is institutionalized under the care of the psychiatrist Andrew Marlowe, where he retreats into a sullen and complete silence. Marlowe, who in his fifties lives a reasonably contented life with little upheaval, finds himself inexplicably drawn to his patient’s case. The mystery of Robert Oliver’s outburst, as well as his charisma and extraordinary expertise, have an unusual effect on Marlowe. To his own surprise, he begins to take an unprecedented, even unprofessional, interest in the case.

All Marlowe knows about why Oliver brandished a knife at a painting depicting the Greek myth of Leda’s rape by a swan is that it has something to do with the enigmatic woman who fills sketch after sketch and canvas after canvas of Oliver’s work at the institution, as well as something to do with the antique bundle of French letters he keeps re-reading. The more Marlowe observes Oliver, the more he too becomes entranced with this otherworldly muse.

Thus begins a pursuit of an answer to the mystery that deepens into a pursuit of the truth itself and the setting aright of historic injustice. From the Washington gallery where it all began, Marlowe’s research takes him first to other American cities, then as far as France and Mexico. In order to unravel the secret of Oliver’s muse, he relies on what the artist’s other women – his ex-wife Kate and recent lover Mary – can tell him. The quest becomes the central force of Marlowe’s life.

Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves is a novel about this obsession, and others. It is also a novel about possession – the ways in which inspiration and desperation can make us act beyond our wills and radically alter the trajectories not just of our lives, but of history itself. And although it lacks a sense of urgency or tight plotting, and too often gives in to small failings like over-description and meaningless detours, in the yearning of its characters, a clear sense of their passions is evoked. And this is ordinary yearning – only Oliver, whose genius sets him apart anyway, suffers from longing that is anything other than human, daily, and universal. The power of art transforms even the most commonplace of lives.

While it does suffer from some flaws in execution, and could have been more powerful in the hands of a more creative writer, The Swan Thieves is certainly recommended as a light yet absorbing read. At nearly 600 pages it provides several days’ worth of entertainment for the reader who enjoys a mellow mix that’s neither too literary nor too lowbrow. Although written in an unremarkable pedestrian style, and ultimately far too predictable to really qualify as a mystery, there is something both engrossing and satisfying about this book. It is as though the inscrutable Robert Oliver and his muse exert their spell over the reader as much as they do over Marlowe; we cannot help but be rapt.

An edited version appeared in today’s EDEX, The New Indian Express.

Book Review: My Name Is Will by Jess Winfield

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One of the best things about Shakespeare is that he isn’t a sacred cow – rather, he is more like the last carcass in a shortage. Every bit of his body of work can be put to use in some way – his writing finds extended life in everything from parody to purist portrayal, allegory to animation. You must forgive this slaughterhouse imagery – in the brilliantly blasphemous My Name Is Will, we find the young Shakespeare in much similar circumstances: chasing daily after hens in his father’s butcher shop, which are promptly decapitated, divided, and dined upon by his family.

We also find him, invariably, disarming the tunics off medieval lasses, lost in the arms of a hallucinogenic trip or taking up arms against persecution. But the teenage William isn’t the only one whose misadventures with politics, women and drugs we encounter. Enter William Shakespeare Greenberg, aka Willie, American graduate student in 1986 California, who’s having trouble getting his thesis on his namesake finished. His distractions include his professor’s alluring assistant Dashka, an unfettered relationship with the activist Robin, Oedipal issues and making sure that he gets a giant psychedelic mushroom delivered and paid for without getting incarcerated.

Cleverly juggling the plot between William and Willie in alternating chapters, My Name Is Will finds the two young men at stages when they are about to come into their own. Both are at turning points with women – will duty or desire make the decision? Professionally too, both linger at the threshold of their destinies. And both are deeply engaged in the politics of their time. As with all eras in which those in power wield it without moderation, the counterculture thrives – and both Will and Willie are fortunate to be a part of these dissident environments, and indeed it shapes their fates.

And there is drama aplenty – serious cliffhanger-style drama at that. Winfield is astute in his construction of the novel, leaving protagonists dangling so precariously between chapters that the book is rendered utterly unputdownable. With its ingenious, engrossing narrative style and its generous servings of sex with a side of wit, the book strikes a winning note.

William finds himself in the possession of a sacred relic that leads him to uncover a clandestine network of Catholics in the authoritarian Protestant Elizabethan regime (centuries later, Willie’s thesis postulates that Shakespeare was secretly Catholic). Willie has his own sacred relic – the giant mushroom, which he too must ensure gets delivered into the right hands – at the risk of losing his own freedoms under President Reagan’s crackdown on illicit substances. Though running on different trajectories in space and time, at points, largely owing to the transcendental effect of the said illicit substances, the two lives entwine and intersect.

My Name Is Will is a delight from start to finish. Its puns are deliciously bawdy in true Shakespearean style – Winfield never overshoots the humour, and in fact the most audaciously wicked joke in the book is such a subtle one it might escape a less dirty-minded reader.

Also to the author’s credit, the impressive amount of research into the Bard’s works and milieu that clearly went into this novel, as well as his own extensive study of the texts, never overbears on its entertainment value. And rare is a funny book that raises legitimate questions about civil freedoms, free speech, moral policing and government (even twenty and four hundred and twenty years after its protagonists struggle with them), without losing its punchlines to polemics. My Name Is Will is a terrific novel – funny, incisive and original. Despite its irreverence, or perhaps because of it, it captures the spirit of Shakespeare’s enduring appeal and comes closer to greatness than many self-proclaimed tributes.

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