Sampurna Chattarji’s new novel treads familiar ground, say Kalpish Ratna: the teenage desire to be part of a gang
SAMPURNA CHATTARJI’s Land of the Well begins with a distillation of adolescent angst. The protagonist, unnamed, is a vehicle for everything readers have expected of the teenager since Portnoy’s Complaint. ‘The boy’, as we must know him, is in Goa on a monsoon holiday with his parents. He is bored, and boring, for 42 pages, and in a hormonal simmer that never comes close to boil. Then he sees a girl. Both boy and book are electrified, and the story takes off.
The girl is not alone. She is in a group of much older men and women who share a sophisticated intimacy the boy covets: They seemed like one soul with ten different bodies. He heard them eat, talk, laugh and fall silent together, and he felt terribly alone.
The only way he can get to her is by becoming part of the group — impossible thought, but he makes it happen. He connives to stay back in Goa, and contrives to cajole his way into the group. Or so it seems, till the fast-talking alpha male dubs him Pappu, and introduces him to the group: Baldy dragged the boy into the room… and shouted, ‘Wake up, losers, and see what I’ve got.’
With that we enter a familiar trope, wired in the best traditions of literature. The group — I prefer the more allusive, brigata — are known only by nicknames. Baby. Molly. Dodo. Tiger. Angie. Ciggy. Lolly. Cracker. Poka. And her. She is Momo.
As expected, the boy, now Pappu, is set an impossible task by each member of the brigata. What will he flinch from? Nothing, apparently. This masque-like sequence terminates with a challenge that might be life-threatening. The boy accepts it, and his initiation is complete.
This segment is written with perception, and a fair degree of tension, enough for us to anticipate alarums and excursions in Act II. The theatrical prose tends to the tedious, but who cares when there’s a beautiful fable to enjoy in between? At this point, I was all set to expect an operatic denouement.
The novel maintains a Decameron like structure as the group begins its catharsis. It is evident the game is meant to subvert and corrupt, yet the ambience remains curiously anhedonic. The rising anxiety of decadence, so compelling a part of the sexual allure of secret societies, is diluted by incessant overstatement. Which is a great pity, as this is a novel of ideas.
To reveal more of the plot would be a spoiler. But the writer, not content with philosophic premise, presents us with its resolution, and returns the story to what William Golding and Alex Garland have visited before. We know what’s coming, and when the atrocity does occur, it is commonplace and anodyne, its horror quickly rationalised.
The idea at the heart of this book is very interesting, and like The Decameron, medieval in context. It examines the body as the mind’s manifest. Its decadence assumes illness as a coveted luxury deserved only by the most exclusive, so the ultimate prize is not death, as among the Epicurians, but a realised hypochondria: You are no one in the land of the well.
To sell so sophisticated a perversion, one needs a light hand with the pastry. Chattarji’s prose is too earnest and too prolix. The central allegory alone, which is written with an expert fabulism, could have upheld the book, and given the idea hoist. Land of the Wellis picaresque but jejune: it dithers when it should dare.