Why so serious?

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A young Sikh man’s ennui is an intriguing premise, but Amarjit Sidhu’s novel is unvaryingly dour, says Jai Arjun Singh

THERE ARE reasons to want to like Amarjit Sidhu’s novel about a young, reticent Sikh man drifting from India to America, then back to India and again to Canada, in the early 1980s. No Way Home is earnest and introspective and well-meaning. But oh, the heavy-handedness.

On page one, it’s raining when Dave (short for Davinder) goes to pick up his visa, so the third-person narrator tells us that “for him that afternoon, the rain became an obvious symbol of regeneration, of rebirth”. Is Dave always so preoccupied with the “symbolism” in the quotidian details of his life? Perhaps he is. Later, in America, when a woman dying of cancer pulls him onto a dance floor, “Victoria became a sudden assertion of life.” Peacocks on the wall of his family’s village fort are “a symbol of its final absorption into the rural landscape”. (Never mind the very next sentence says the servant quarters now have television antennae.) When Dave gets a postcard from friends, it isn’t merely a postcard, it’s also a confirmation “that the first movement in the performance was coming to an end, that lives around him were changing”.

Elsewhere we are pelted with observations about (among others) the nature of officialdom in India, the various types of national holidays, and the parent-child relationship in conservative families. But these aren’t fluidly integrated into the plot — they are presented as discrete, pedantic chunks of information, as if the narrator, bored with Dave, was conducting a private tutorial on the side. Tucked into all this is a red herring: the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, which provides a marketing peg but is only a fragment of the plot and doesn’t seem crucial to Dave’s story anyway. His unsettled state owes more to his personality than to external events. These events are a pretext for banal musings like “No matter how fond one might get to be of an alien land, it could never be home” and “Was there really sufficient reason for so much anger in the world, reason for so much disapproval, disagreement, conflict and violence?”

No Way Home does have a couple of things going for it. When Dave first comes to America, the writing has a gentle quality that mirrors his own wide-eyed impressions, and the cultural shock isn’t presented dramatically — instead, one gets the sense that he inwardly recoils at certain things while maintaining his outward poise. Unfortunately, the promise shown here is laid to waste by a dreary narrative that doesn’t follow the “show, don’t tell” principle. This book is a case of “tell, tell, tell” all the way.

jaiarjun@gmail.com


How to have your cake and not eat it

Now we can finally start a quarrel with Subimal Misra, says Gaurav Jain

HOW DO you write about a writer’s earliest stories without reading his subsequent work of 40 years? You introduce him and leave things be. What do you do when these stories are described as ‘anti-stories’? As ‘anti-establishment’? Quarrel, of course.

A disciple of Godard, Subimal Misra brought film techniques like jump cuts into Bengali literature in the 1960s. This book collects 15 stories written in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His translator V Ramaswamy says, “This book is an introduction to get his name out beyond the Bengali domain.”

All his life, Misra preferred self-publishing. In his first interview to a mainstream publication, Misra’s answers to TEHELKA display his granitic artistic commitment. They also hint at how his isolation has had its corrosive effect – much like Godard. (INTERVIEW AT TEHELKA.COM.)

The title story is the most successful, where the country anticipates a golden statue of Gandhi from America, interspersed with images of a hungry widow’s corpse floating through rivers. Misra dislikes linear narrative, and his juxtapositions create an unsaid emotion of pity and revulsion. The rest of the book isn’t so successful. The characters are cinematic without history or social context. There’re the usual excuses of satire and surrealism, and one might excuse such grandeur. But the relief of storytelling isn’t about adhering to an ‘establishment’. It’s a more essential substance for us, like water.

gaurav.jain@tehelka.com


Some Sexy Shadows

Parvati Sharma’s debut collection of short stories has an elegant and amused voice, finds Anjali Joseph

INDIA IS more open than some markets (like England) to collections of short stories by new writers.These keep being published — from the last couple of years, I think of Nighat Gandhi’s excellent Ghalib at Dusk, Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s wittyEunuch Park and Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other RoomsOther Wonders. In the past, short story volumes really were collections of stories that had individually been published elsewhere. Now, they tend to be the first, apprentice-work of a new writer. But a great short story collection is harder to pull off than a satisfying novel. A novel, with its sunk cost of readerly investment of interest in the characters, draws a reader on; each story in a collection must dance onto the stage and charm afresh. Publishers’ and editors’ reaction is often to pretend that short story collections are nearly novels. The ‘stories linked by a theme’ gambit, borrowed from Joyce or Carver, is familiar. In Mueenuddin’s stories, this was a common set of characters related to one zamindar, KK Harouni. With Gandhi or Mehrotra’s stories, the link was less formally clear: what united the stories was the tone. In other words, what was making its debut was the writer’s voice.

PARVATI SHARMA’S voice is, at its best, balanced, elegant, and delightfully amused. The best of these stories evoke F Scott Fitzgerald’s elegant airiness. ‘Belu Bhatnagar’s Happy Endings’, the final story, not only nods in its title at Fitzgerald’s classic, ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’, but includes touches as delightful as his. The story tells of Belu, who when it opens is sixteen and lusting after the class Adonis. She shaves her legs to appeal to him, a strange but compelling act that doesn’t bear the fruit she’d hoped. Never mind: Belu masturbates about the boy, Vidyarthi, an incident rendered as beautifully as any I’ve read. As the years go on, she discovers that a simple act of mental focus can bring her to a silent, unremarked orgasm in any situation. ‘In the weeks that followed,’ Sharma writes, ‘Belu found herself summoning small, discreet orgasms several times a day. Sitting in the shop in a slack hour, watching young boys race past with keyboards, monitors, cartons of peripherals.’ What’s so lovely about this, as well as its dry humour, is the way Sharma recuperates apparently insignificant moments (‘peripherals’), allowing us readers to slow down and see the way the light falls. This is the job of the short story writer, and she performs it with excellence.

Sharma is deft at conveying a sense of contemporary Delhi: scenes in parties, rickshaws, shared flats, terraces on which a Sintex water tank stands, or under a quilt in a barsaati. And she writes very well about sex, between men and women, women and women, or indeed women on their own. If there’s a new thread in Indian writing to be followed, one of unspoken moments and impulses, then these stories are among its narrative: tales of the shadow lives of people like us.

letters@tehelka.com

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