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There is no doubt about it: English poetry by Indians – even by Jeet Thayil’s broadened definition that includes the likes of David Dabydeen, Jane Bhandari and Sudesh Mishra – is a minority genre.
Unlike their counterparts in prose or vernacular languages, its littérateurs are easily the country’s least known and least celebrated – readers are usually also writers, a second edition is a miracle, and profit is a laughable concept. Bookstores carry Dr. Abdul Kalam’s collections in quantities as embarrassing as the books themselves, but the award-winning Tishani Doshi’s is unavailable. When someone asked recently if the large cheque my publisher had entrusted briefly in my care was my advance, I scoffed, “What do you think I am, a novelist?”
This collection, therefore, is not just a risk, it’s a bit of marvel. Sixty poets and fifty-five years of work are here, traipsing the breadth of experience – love, sex, exile, the city, existential angst, the body, gender, death, and family. There are some exceptional choices, including Mamang Dai, G. S Sharat Chandra, Srikanth Reddy and Vivek Narayanan, who deserve greater local acclaim.
And there are notable exceptions, in spite of influence (Agha Shahid Ali), fame (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Reetika Vazirani) or recent notability (Meena Kandasamy, Temsula Ao, Sridala Swami). Alongside most of the other usual suspects, names largely unknown or unremembered take their place, among them Gopal Honnalgere, Subhashini Kaligotla, Karthika Nair, and Kersy Katrak.
In some cases, this recognition is posthumous or out-of-print, and could bring the work to greater attention. In others, the springboard provided by inclusion may portend some promising careers.
Either way, Thayil has taken some gambles, and this is commendable, for doing so augments the canon. In the past, anthologies (including two Oxford University Press ones edited by R. Parthasarathy and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra) have stayed loyal to a tested fifteen or so names. Even Ranjit Hoskote’s Reasons For Belonging, with a meagre fourteen poets, encountered criticism for being filled out with “mediocre” choices. If nothing else, 60 Indian Poets will serve to detonate the perception that only a handful of English-writing Indian poets are worth attention.
But there is more to savour in this book than just the poems. Thayil’s introduction is so precise in contextualizing the place(s, as it were) of the Indian poet writing in English that it holds the attention more than some of the poems within. Two essays by Bruce King and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra are also included – King’s on the Holy Trinity of Bombay poetry in its heyday, Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar and Nissim Ezekiel, all of whom died in 2004, and Mehrotra’s on “the Indian poem”, using Kolatkar as a base. All three essays are a pleasure, and a few more would certainly have added perspective to a collection that in its ambition clearly intends to encapsulate not just the poetry but also its milieu.
The introductions to each poet also speak volumes, such as the subtle suggestion that Kamala Das’ scandalous reputation may be no more than the effect of various personae, or when Thayil says of Bibhu Padhi, “His poems have the numbed conversational tone of someone who has been so long in mourning that he has forgotten the origin of his grief”.
And there are the photographs of the Bombay poets, a wonderful touch that discreetly but too infrequently punctuate the collection. One in particular, of Eunice de Souza in a caftan with a bird on her head, is delightfully candid.
The question remains: is this a definitive anthology? Indian poetry in English has some way left to go, and this book appears at a significant junction; its publication may in fact be the most visible harbinger of an upcoming revival. A fresh interest in poetry, as evidenced by mainly low-key efforts in cities including Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai (Bombay is exempted here for its headstart and iconic status as the country’s capital of verse), suggests that in a decade, 60 Indian Poets could well be no longer representative. And this, if this minority genre meets its potential, is as it should be.
An edited version appeared in The New Sunday Express.
At the outset, Viva Santiago has a lot going for it. There are its pleasingly psychedelic cover and long lunch-friendly 137 pages, for a start. More importantly, there is its promise, as can be deduced from the synopsis, to be that rare thing in Indian literary fiction: a jovial, light-hearted read that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
But then, being confronted with the groan-inducing email forward cliché – “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving in a well-preserved body; rather, to slide in sideways, mojito in one hand, Mary Jane in the other, screaming whoo hoo… what a ride!” – that is its first paragraph swiftly sets the tone for the rest of the book. In an odd way, this novel both tries too hard and doesn’t try at all.
Alonso Gonzalez, a typical college student in Delhi, finds himself taking an impromptu trip back to his Goan hometown with Yvette, a Canadian woman who claims to have known his deceased grandfather. Grandpa was infamously devilish: perpetually stoned, surrounded by women, addicted to Bob Dylan, and into heavy pseudo-religious tripping (and vehemently blasphemous, of course). And as it turns out, he also seems to have left a treasure hunt of sorts for Alonso, which he embarks on and solves with unlikely ease.
There is a convenience to the plot that makes it completely unrealistic. The mystery is over quickly, with absolutely no room for suspense (and it’s no spoiler to say that everyone becomes privy to what the treasure is but the reader). Way too many deus ex machinae show up – from Yvette, whom our protagonist inevitably hooks up with (laughably, for a book that’s supposedly about hedonism, in a very chaste manner), to the shady character whose mysterious gift sets the whole ball rolling. Yes, life is often stranger than fiction, and with its random drizzling of photographs, Viva Santiago seems meant to be read as autobiography. But bad fiction is not strange, just boring.
Fernandes has a good feel of laid-back student types, and draws Alonso and his friends reasonably convincingly. He also has a flair for macabre and stoner humour, that terribly unoriginal first paragraph notwithstanding. But there is no real arc of logic to the way in which arbitrary anecdotes about life in Delhi and Goa are thrown together. Plus, there is a boastful undercurrent to the book which erases, if it were ever intentioned or present, the kind of nostalgia and broader concerns that underpin the best memoirs and memoir-like fiction. But like everything else about this book, even the self-absorption isn’t fully-realised. There were several points at which I wondered whether I was reading a casual blog post or an actual book.
It’s rather little saving grace, but Viva Santiago is the kind of novel that only makes one think about how disappointing it is after breezing through it. Perhaps that’s too kind a statement for such an unfledged read, but to its credit, it’s decently-written enough to irritate the reader above all else only with the failure to be the supremely cool novel it could have been. And this is a pity – one suspects that Fernandes is actually a fine author, but lets himself coast by on the bare minimum of effort. The note at the end of the book acknowledging that it was written in three weeks confirms this.
Which makes me wonder: is Viva Santiago, the book, just like all the anecdotes contained within it? Perhaps the challenge of writing it was for exactly what one gets the feeling Grandpa’s and Alonso’s shenanigans are supposed to amount to: impressing someone who’s being chatted up. In which case, this girl, at least, isn’t charmed.
An edited version appeared in yesterday’s The New Sunday Express.
Hanif Kureishi’s latest novel is a startlingly clear-minded, often hedonistic, but ultimately believable look at the complications of life, love and sex. Jamal, a middle-aged psychoanalyst, remains obsessed with the loss of his college girlfriend Ajita and lives in guilt over his own participation in the murder of her father. Despite his own neuroses, or rather, because of it, he has experienced great success in his field, and enjoys an intimate all-access pass into the lives of the wealthy and popular. As if in contrast, his sister Miriam, some variant of a spiritualist with too many children and piercings, lives in disorder and filth, and he shares a typically middle-class relationship with his son, Rafi, who lives with his estranged wife Josephine. His Pakistani father is dead, and his elderly English mother is in a relationship with a woman she knew as a child.
Jamal’s famous director friend Henry suddenly embarks on an affair with Miriam, which serves as a sort of turning point in excavating the past. It turns out not only that Ajita is alive and well, but her brother Mustaq – once also in love with Jamal – has reinvented himself into a flamboyant, affluent celebrity musician. As things take their course and it becomes clear that Jamal needs to confess to his crime, what remains to be seen is whether his desperation to absolve himself of his errors will tear them apart or bring them together.
Although Jamal is both narrator and default protagonist, every character is so persuasive, so larger-than-life yet perceptively etched, that at most times the book feels like a vehicle for an ensemble cast. And there are many – exes, offspring, lovers, cameos both by real celebrities and characters taken from Kureishi’s earlier fiction. No relationship has a denouement, be it to a ghost made from guilt or a girlfriend. Everyone is fair game in this complex web of selves past and present – and a declaration of love is inevitably a declaration of war.
Sex, of course, levels everything out, from class to race to religion (the evil paterfamilias – for what’s a Freudian analyst without one? – that was Ajita’s father is replaced by the Bush-Blair empire, and its effects on an England just about to be hit by terrorism). Miriam and Henry indulge in orgies at clubs; the same occurs in Mustaq’s home. Jamal and the preadolescent Rafi discuss sex, violence and psychology as they watch cats copulate. Jamal has a less terrible, yet equally detrimental secret in his past: a career as a pornographer. Sex is everywhere, with little hint of scandal – unrealistic perhaps, but how refreshing.
The humour, when it appears, hits chords of brilliance, as when Henry’s adult daughter Lisa visits Jamal at his office, calls his work “patronizing analyst quackery”, then says, “Freud’s been discredited over and over. Patient envy… Penis envy, I mean. Jesus.”
Slips, Freudian and otherwise, abound aplenty in this novel. Accidental pregnancies and murders have their place, but above all else are the slips of the heart – who is loved or desired, who stays loved or desired, and why.
Despite their superficial dysfunctions and exaggeratedness, its characters are innately human. Children are loved, oppressors are hated, death and age catch up. At its heart, the simplest truth remains: hell is other people, certainly, but it is also their absence.
Most commendably, the novel is neither soap-operatic nor stuffed with psycho-philosophical ramblings. For a story that could so easily have lapsed into either direction, populated as it is by a veritable circus of characters and narrated by a man preoccupied by the psyche, Something To Tell You avoids those pitfalls. This is not drama. It is contemporary life, with its mish-mash of sexual expressions, unconventional domestic arrangements and relationships that do not ever fall apart completely, only reincarnate to accommodate what life brings along. Kureishi does nothing but tell it like it is in this utterly delicious read.
An edited version appeared in today’s New Sunday Express.
First published in today’s The New Sunday Express.
Because I work with the reimagined archetypes of Draupadi and a (female) Karna in my own writing, I cracked open Divakaruni’s retelling of the Mahabharata expecting, even hoping, to feel some envy. The Palace of Illusions presents the epic via the voice of Draupadi/Panchaali. It’s an ambitious project, and not without predecessors, choosing as its medium one of world mythology’s most idiosyncratic women.
To rework an epic is like writing a ghazal: there is infinite variety within the constraints of its key identifiers. But Divakaruni’s Mahabharata bears little difference to what we popularly understand to be the epic. That Panchaali is the narrator offers only a slight, undistinguished shift in perspective.
Plot-wise, the story is largely faithful to the original. The author succeeds in conveying depth and nuance in almost every character, portraying for example both Kunti’s resentfulness and righteousness, or Drona’s cruelty and greatness, in different lights. But when it comes to rendering her protagonist, the results are unadmirable.
Curiously absent are elements that truly challenge the misogyny of the original epic. Where is Panchaali’s famous lust, which in some retellings (but not this one) caused her husband in a previous birth to have cursed her with five husbands to quench it? Despite unexplored hints at her temper and capacity for vengeance, she is depicted mostly as obedient, pleading codes of honour as a ruse to mask cowardice. Even the single attempt at subversion, the centering of Panchaali’s secret love for Karna as the great regret of her life, is trite.
This Panchaali is obsessed by her roles, self-conscious – never is there a moment when she is not a princess, a queen, a wife, an exile, a woman wronged. Weighted down by these, she markedly lacks individuality – an enormous pity because what good is it to retell a familiar story without injecting it with a special spirit? Ultimately, the reader never manages to be fooled into believing that it is Panchaali speaking, as the best first-person narratives can do. Nowhere remains the intense, resilient, dangerous Draupadi we know of, who undoubtedly inspired the author herself.
Panchaali, in the final reckoning, is a weak, malleable character. She is unlikable, consumed by her ego, lacking the essential humanity that makes us love our heroes; the only thread that keeps the reader concerned for her is the memory of other, more fully-fleshed Draupadis.
Divakaruni seems to have juxtaposed one of the near-identical female protagonists of her previous books onto an epic setting. But positioning an indistinct character in a grand plotline cannot make the transposed character inhabit that skin comfortably by default. One wishes that Divakaruni had been bolder, dared to manipulate the epic in a manner that could have made this Draupadi truly hers.
Perhaps what draws the reader back to Divakaruni’s books regardless of their clichés has always been her impeccable stylistic craft, particularly her extraordinary gift for metaphor. But her writing in The Palace of Illusions is functional, stripped of lyricism. The closings chapters have their gripping moments, riding on the emotional crescendo of the original, but it is too late by then for the novel itself.
The Palace of Illusions succeeds as an introduction to the Mahabharata. But both its feminist and artistic aspirations seem shallow. Divakaruni’s reinterpretation of the Mahabharata falters above all because of an absence of imagination. The pathos of the original tale and its powerful heroine as raw canvas, combined with her gift for imbuing beauty in even the most repetitive storylines, should have made this book the author’s masterpiece.