24 July 2008

Book Review: A Girl and A River

Author: Usha K R
Pages: 324
Published by: Penguin
Price: Rs 295

This River runs deep

It's been a while since I've read a book where the author displays such fine sway over her content and craft. Usha K R has been writing for more than a decade now (her last novel was The Chosen) and while she has always received rave reviews for her works, it is her latest book, A Girl And A River that has come in for some much-deserved critical attention. The author was the recipient of the Crossword Award recently, where she won in the Fiction category for the same book --- while William Darlymple received the award in the Non-fiction section.

On the surface (and as the book cover demonstrates), it is a straightforward story --- that of Setu and Kaveri's life -- a brother and sister duo brought up in pre independence Mysore and the unexpected turns their lives take. Nothing prepares you for the complex, ironic web of human relationships, emotions and the play of fate ---- influenced by circumstance as much as by character--- that the author so elegantly unravels.

Usha draws up an exhaustive social scape of the 1930 and '40s with meticulous detailing on every level, studding it with keenly fleshed out characters- their actions closely linked with the moral and social fibre of the time. So you have the patriarch, Mylaraiah -- running his prosperous household-- happy to be a beneficiary under the Britishers and hoping things will run as smoothly as they are. He’s surrounding by charismatic men like Narayana Rao and CG K Sir (the history teacher at school who writes anonymous letters in newspaper columns in support of the freedom struggle), who play a proactive role in getting rid of the British. Mylaraiah, if he feels a sense of inadequacy and guilt about supporting the English, quells these emotions by making donations to welfare projects (soft issues like Khadi and so on) undertaken by Narayana Rao. Mylaraiah’s teenage son, Setu is too overwhelmed by his father's aura to defy him and join any of the prevailing freedom struggle groups. He watches them from a distance - with a glint of envy.

Not surprisingly, the two women of the house –Mylaraiah’s wife Rukmani and their free-spirited daughter Kaveri grow up (since Rukmani too came to the house as a child-bride) finding the outside world with men like Narayana Rao and C G K’s son Shyam respectively irresistibly attractive. To their imaginative, idealistic minds, these were the men of real action, men who could change the course of history with their fiery speeches and ideals. These were local heroes who thought nothing of sacrificing their personal lives and comforts in the wake of the freedoms struggle.

The men of the house dismiss the rising nationalistic fervour in their women as something stemming from 'a vague notion of patriotism' and think it appropriate to nip such feelings in the bid.

Rukmani’s disillusionment comes when Narayana Rao marries off his 12 year old daughter, inspite of preaching against the practice of child marriage. To her mind, this is a breach of trust from the man she loved and respected. It causes her ill-health and she loses her vitality forever. However, the fate that befalls her daughter, Kaveri -- fed on stories of valour in novels-- is the more poignant one. Having lived in her own world of dashing heroes (and nearly found and lost one in Shyam), she is unable to bear the emptiness and drudgery of a loveless marriage - in some measure brought on by her own family.

The author explores all these threads using one common story - that of Setu's grown-up daughter (in the 1980s) trying to unravel the tragic mystery behind the woman who was not just her 'aunt' but something more too.
Usha K R - while recounting the story - gives a vivid picture of pre-independence South India -introducing characters like Dr King (an Englishwoman who treats patients in the town, riding from place to place on a bicycle) and her snobbish niece Ella. Then there other interesting ones like Rukmani’s flame-throwing, quick-witted cousin Shivaswami or Setu’s childhood friend Chapdi Kal.

It’s truly remarkable how Usha crafts this story, never hitting a wrong note once. Yet, for all its wonderful strengths, this is not the easiest of reads. Its language is impeccable but tends to get too wordy at various points. Also, the detailing can be a bit tiresome and heavy for those who want to get on with the story. This book could have easily been 25-30 pages short.
Also, the story keeps moving between two different time span and that can be confusing for the first time reader.

The book's true worth really unfolds with a second reading, if you ask me. The first time I found myself grappling to keep pace with the numerous characters and time-shifts. That's another thing--- this book seems to run at a stretch and it doesn't help that the words keep tumbling on each other. So while it's awe-inspiring to see the writer's command of her subject and language, I wished she’d allowed her narrative to breath easy at some points.
But again, to her credit, Usha constructs the story in a manner wherein some amount of tension pervades the entire story and the suspense is intact till the very end.
Finally, this is a riveting book, one that is dexterous and rich. More importantly, it respects its reader's intelligence by saying a lot and leaving a lot more unsaid.

-Sandhya Iyer

Interview Usha K R

You recently won the Vodafone Crossword Award 2007 for Best Work in English Fiction? Was the honour expected? The reviews to the book of course were very encouraging…

UKR: The book was shortlisted earlier this year for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2008. So I had a faint hope. But the short list for the Vodafone Crossword Award was very strong – it showed the sweep of the judges’ expectations. So the honour was unexpected.

You've been a writer for a while now. Would you say it's the first time that your work has won such an honour /visibility?

UKR: Whatever critical attention my novels have received so far – Sojourn in 1998. The Chosen in 2003 and now A Girl and a River has been positive, but the award has brought my work visibility that it did not have before.

You've written two books and other short stories prior to A Girl And A River. Can you tell us a little about your journey as a writer so far?

UKR: If I have to ‘read’ my work, I’d say the broad theme is the contradiction and the constant friction between character and circumstance. I seem to be exploring aspects of this theme almost without realizing it. My preference is for grounded storytelling with an intriguing but organic structure.

A Girl And A River is a complex, rich work of fiction on all counts and functions on various levels at the same time. Was there a single point on which you started the story, after which you weaved in other elements?

UKR: What first came to me with this book were the two children Setu and Kaveri in a 1930s setting – and I knew that I had to work their story along the lines of cocooned lives being torn apart by the tides of history and their own bewilderment in the face of change. This had to run parallel to the larger story of the nation, the country coping with independence.

The book's narrative style, going back and forth, and divided into two different time spans shifting from first person to third, is interesting. How did that choice come about? While it adds more depth to the story, it can be a little confusing to a first-timer….

UKR: You may find it strange but writers often conceive of the story and the structure simultaneously – one growing out of and feeding on the other. I knew that I had to have two distinct voices, not just to separate the chronology of the book but also to signal the different sensibilities and moods of the characters and the times. I also wanted to carry the reader along, inviting her to unravel the mystery along with me, and I feel it has worked.

The book has the backdrop of pre-independence South India…what kind of research went into the book and how much have you drawn from your own life-experiences?

UKR: I had to read quite a bit of local history but the spirit of the book comes from the experiences of many who had lived through those times – I have to thank them for the authentic feel of the book.

7)From the past few years, Indian lit in English has been dominated by diasporic authors. Do you see a problem of 'authenticity' when they write on India? Also, when too much of Indian writing is done by authors based abroad, it can create a skewed vision of things. Do you see it essential that Indian fiction in English must have more books written by authors based in the country itself?

UKR: The question of ‘authenticity’ arises when we are talking of straightforward, realistic accounts. Writers like Rushdie circumvent it with the mode they choose to write in. So long as the end product is convincing and has literary merit, it should not matter whether you live in India or abroad, whether you write in English or any other Indian language. The problem is that of visibility. Books by ‘Indian’ writers do not get noticed and reviewed as much. Which is why I was surprised when ‘Girl … ‘ won the Crossword award. We still look for some form of endorsement from the west.

20 July 2008

How 'Indian' is Indian Writing In English

How 'Indian' is Indian writing in English?
Are diasporic writers still its commanding masters or are desi counterparts finally finding a voice? Sandhya Iyer strikes a debate, only to discover that the literary scene is ridden in complexities

For a while now the 'outside', 'insider' debate has been raging across literary circles. For more than three decades now, diaspora writers --- born in India but settled abroad --- have dominated the literary firmament. They have undeniably been the 'face' of Indian Writing in English (IWE) and its most visible representatives. Clearly, we ought to celebrate the immense prestige that writers like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, Chitra Divakaruni, Amartya Sen have brought to IWE. In some measure - inspite of the fact that writer Shashi Tharoor resides abraod, he ought to be included here. He has been an Indian 'official' after all.

It would be fair to say that the entire 'A' list of commercially successful writers function from the West. However, this has brought in its share of criticism on issues like authenticity and the idea of NRI authors selling Indian exotica to the West. "How can a writer sitting in the first world write about the third world?" native writers ask.

Back home, we've had commendable authors like Ramachandra Guha, Kiran Nagarkar, Shashi Deshpande, Usha K R, Ira Deshpande, Esther David, Upamanyu Chatterjee and so on. But, the success ratio remains tilted towards prize-winning NRI novelists --- with greater brand appeal and possibly snob value even. Save for a Arundhati Roy (The God Of Small Things), Khushwant Singh, to an extent Shobhaa De and now, Chetan Bhagat (Five Point Someone, One Night @ A Call Centre, The 3 Mistakes of My Life), no writer in India has really entered the collective consciousness where English writing in India goes.

However, writers and others in the know here believe that things are changing for the better and publishing houses are looking at tapping into the all-strong English-educated base in the country. So have 'midnight's children' finally come of age or is there still a long way to go?

The question of 'representation'
The common refrain is, why don't we see more writers like R K Narayan, Arun Kolatkar, Ruskin Bond, Mulk Raj Anand etc? All their writings being deeply rooted in their own culture instantly connected with readers. Post '70s, there came a new wave in IWE by way of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children that caught the world's attention. Rushdie revitalised and rejuvenated IWE.
Unfortunately, the publishing industry in India was hardly as robust as it is today (we've never been a serious market for English language books), which meant not too many desi writers could get noticed globally.
This naturally presented an unusual situation where it was left to our NRI writers to explain 'us' to the world. Doesn't that create a stilted vision?
"It is obvious that Indian writing in English is not 'representative'--- but this raises the question of whether it is even the function of writing to be 'representative'; one might say it is not --- there is a difference between writing and representative democracy. Perhaps the problem arises because of our insistence on using the term "Indian", and then complaining when various writers (be it Jhumpa Lahiri or Amit Chaudhuri or Rushdie) are insufficiently Indian. But "Indian" means many things, and it shouldn't surprise us that reality does not conform to our abstractions. An authenticity litmus test would be intolerable -- by that yardstick, Chekhov and Joyce might have failed Russian and Irish literature, respectively." says literary enthusiast and avid blogger Umair Ahmed Muhajir.
He believes that lack of English translations (except for small tokens) for regional literature is certainly distorting. "It's a world missed," he says.

Aspiring filmmaker and literature student Abhishek Bandekar believes writers -whether diasporic or India come with their own strengths and that needs to be recogonised. "Indian Writing in English(IWE) or Indian English Literature(IEL) is a troubled breed of literature. It has to grapple with concerns of authenticity and identity. But it’s an ironic struggle. The classification of IWE as post-colonial literature limits its scope; restricting authors(native or NRI) to recount merely that which is nostalgic or ‘imagined’(in as much as ‘imagined’ is that which is not ‘exoticised’). Even if one were to leave aside the whole native IWE vs NRI IWE argument for a moment, one is still confronted with the problem of ‘different’ truths. A Salman Rushdie is radically different from an RK Narayan. The former’s works while championing the hybrid of pidgin English nevertheless falls prey to cultural imperialism, in that it interprets the ‘past’, without ‘imagining’ the future. The latter’s works on the other hand, may employ 'standard english' but stays true to its cultural roots, in that the works require and expect cultural familiarity," he views.

Does location matter for 'authentic' literature?

Devyani Satzman, writer of the book Shooting Water and daughter of filmmaker Deepa Mehta, lives in Canada. She says, "Fundamentally, I think all perspectives and voices are valid. Ultimately, stories should introduce us to new worlds, and I'm not as concerned about where the writer resides as long as they do a good job taking us into that world."

Renowned poet Dilip Chitre says, "First of all, non-resident Indian describes two kinds of people: 1. Those who have migrated to other countries; and 2.Those whose parents were immigrants. Salman Rushdie belongs to the first category (but so do many physicians, surgeons, space scientists, managers, software engineers, teachers etc); and V S Naipaul to the second. He adds, "Just by living in India, nobody becomes a representative of Indian writing. If you are a good novelist, poet, playwright, or a poet the language you write in is secondary to your talent. Artistic authenticity is primary; nationality and/or mother-tongue culture are incidental."

However, Murzban Shroff, whose book Breathless In Bombay got rave reviews believes location is an important criteria for authenticity. Shroff stays in Mumbai and feels that enabled him to come up with a 'solidly researched book' "I wish people like Rushdie and others could base themselves in India and recount stories from here. That way, we'll have Indian content and Western craft and in my view that's the perfect balance," he says.

Are desi writers in India close to bringing about a change?

Many authors believe much has changed for the better where IWE is concerned for desi writers. Chetan Bhagat, who seldom gives up an opportunity to criticise the elitist club of NRI writers makes it clear that his target readers are only Indians. And the fact that he's one of the highest selling authors the country has led to several people from all walks of life picking up the pen.
Says Gouri Dange, who recently published her book 3 Zakia Mansion, "Honestly, I was daunted at the prospect of writing. Since I was simultaneously reading Rushdie's Shalimar, The Clown, I kept feeling my language was too seedha-saadha but then I soon got over it, thinking 'that exists but this can exist too."
Publishing opportunities have vastly grown in the last five-six years, says Janaki Vaswanath, owner of the bookstore twistntales and she believes it is a natural outcome of the country getting dominant on the world stage.

Sampurna Chattarji, a poet, fiction-writer and translator, adds another dimension to the discussion. This proliferation can have a flip side as well, she believes. "In the rush to compete for genre-slots especially, a lot of sub-standard work is getting published and that can only be detrimental to the growth of IWE in the truest sense of the writing going from strength to strength. What we need is perceptive editors and agents who will be able to identify and promote the best writing being done in India today. Unfortunately, IWE is still seen as a territory largely ruled by fiction, when the truth is that exciting new work is also being done by poets writing in English."

But not all are equally optimistic about the flowering of IWE here.
Murzban Shroff says the draft for his book met with a cold reaction when he submitted it to Indian publishers. On the other hand, international publishers were more than forthcoming.
He adds, "Even if Indian publishers were to give you an opportunity to write, they expect you to do your own marketing --- getting a star to launch your book and so on."
He also rules out writing predominantly for an Indian audience, observing that the market here is still to evolve.

Binoo K John, who recently wrote the witty Entry From The Backside Only, categorically believes that diaspora writers are still ruling the roost. "All of this year's major releases have all been from NRIs: Jhumpa Lahiri (who got a big award last month for Unaccustomed Earth), Chitra Divakarunni, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie. Diasporic writings have their own place in literature and in IWE. One genre does not grow by stymieing the others. The two genres have parallel lives and why not? In fact diasporic writing has consistently scored over Indian writing (due to advantages of being in the first world)," he says.
Ultimately, one would have to submit to Dilip Chitre's view that only the future can take this story forward.
"The fact that English is a global language, with more speakers between Mumbai and Shanghai than in the entire United States, will sooner or later affect publishers' marketing strategies. The fate of writers may still be decided in London or New York; but the franchisees of publishing corporates operating in vast potential markets such as India will start betting on local talent," he believes.

19 July 2008

Past Perspective: An Area Of Darkness

An Area of Darkness

Author: V S Naipaul
Published in: 1964
Genre: Travelogue


V. S Naipaul has always been a controversial figure. Whether it is for his rude behaviour towards fellow writers at conferences or his show of support for India's Hindutva ring, Bharatiya Janata Party or his admission in his autobiography that his callousness killed his wife, this Trinidadian author has always been some sort of an enfant terrible of English literature. For all his genius, he also remains a vilified figure in India and not without reason. The Area of Darkness, when it was published in 1964, created an uproar among Indians and was intensely criticised for its unkind, deriding and supercilious view of India.

Naipaul's literature, much like his personality demonstrates a certain extremism -where there are few or no grey areas. And that is most evident in The Area of Darkness. (His subsequent work, India; A Million Mutinies Now was a far more objective and detailed read -in many ways, this is his best book, apart from A House For Mr Biswas). The book is about how Naipaul built a 'mythical' image about India staying in Trinidad (Naipaul's grandfather was from India and they re-located to West Indies - in a small British colony called Trinidad) and how his one-year visit to India shattered his childhood image of the country. The entire experience is a deeply personal one -- and Naipaul himself behaves like a rather fussy, ungenerous foreign-returned guy(he was just about 30 years old) who criticises the loss of his 'imagined world' without bothering to delve into the reasons for it. This was a plundered country that was struggling to fight its colonial past and tackle some enormous problems at hand.

From the moment he arrives in the country, he applies his own litmus test on it and decides it's a failed nation on every count. So to Naipaul, the weather is oppressive, the poverty is horrifying, people squat defecating all over the place, they serve food with unclean hands, they overcharge customers and what more, even their films don't offer a respite! Naipual has not one good thing to say about the country but doesn't show the slightest hesitation to indulge in gross overstatements and ridiculous generalisations with comments like 'Indians lack in courage...they have been known to go on picknicking on a bank while a stranger drowned' or that 'Indians defecate everywhere'
And this is a bit strange considering half the book is dedicated to his three-month long stay in a cozy, pampered House Boat in the picturesque Kashmir valley. Yet, Naipaul sees no beauty in the land!

Naipaul makes some very sound points when he talks of India being a country of symbolic, speech-making gestures. Whether it was the '60s or today, action is by way of symbols rather than concrete measures. He's also right to be irritated about Indians and their stubborn unwillingness to see what is obvious. They turn a blind eye to what is painful or disgusting and go about their business like nothing happened. This is important because not much has changed for in India in this respect. They continue to be escapists. Economically of course, the country has progressed by leaps and though I don't share all of Shobhaa De's exuberance on this, India is surging forward more confidently than it ever did.
It's difficult to take Naipaul's criticism seriously because most of it seems like an effort to deconstruct the notion of India. There's perverse cynicism at work and the author -while criticising the country's present-- makes no effort to understand its tumultuous recent past or look into its prospects. Hence, even as a piece of work, it remains a highly personal account which unjustly creates and reinforces colonial prejudices.

Two of his observations in particular are condescending and unjustifiable. Naipaul talks of how incongruous India's premier buildings appear in the face of its squalor and poverty. "It is building for the sake of building, creation for the sake of creation....In the North, the ruins (forts etc) speak of waste and failure and the very grandeur of the Mughal buildings is oppressive. Europe has its monuments of Sun-Kings, its Louvres and Versailles. But they are part of the development of a country's spirits."
In a display of unimaginable bad faith, he even suggests that the Taj Mahal could be transported slab by slab to United States and re-erected and it would seem wholly admirable. There, he implies that the edifice would serve a meaning. Here, he says, it is only a despot's monument with poverty around it.

Again, he talks of how the English language is the 'greatest incongruity of British rule' and has caused 'psychological damage' to the country through its continued official use. English, Naipaul should know was never thrust upon Indians. Other countries resisted it, Indians were attracted to it. Today, India constitutes one of the largest English speaking nations and this has had tremendous impact on its global appeal and economic progress. It's unfortunate that Naipaul chose not to see at all the fascinating side of India- its splendid diversity, it colour and cuisines, its incredible warmth and festivity - which today has made it one of the top most tourist destinations in the world.
The only aspect about India Naipaul seems to have really liked is its Railway system which he describes as 'too fine and complex' for a country like India. Phew!