Sunday, August 29, 2010

Exhibition note for "Flex, Feroze!"

The Parsis of Mumbai are a social people. They have a packed calendar, and can be seen at agiaries and charitable gatherings, weddings and navjotes, at the race-courses and at shareholder AGMs, at Parsi panchayat meetings and elections. Once a year, they turn up in their numbers at Rustom Baug, for the Annual Zoroastrian Power-Lifting and Bodybuilding Championship, open only to Parsi musclemen (and women) from all over the country.

This set of photographs of Parsis by Aparna Jayakumar, taken earlier this year at the ninth edition of the competition, is a celebration both of community (sometimes thought to be in decline) and of the body (clearly in good shape). The pictures record the animation of muscular bodies, but also that of the human face as it watches and sometimes wanders. They catch a Feroze as he flexes those biceps that have been in training all year long for this day, but also perhaps a Jamshed as he suddenly remembers hanging out with Freny on Marine Drive on a winter evening in 1965.

The photographs show an awareness that any public event involves not just an audience watching the actors, but also the actors watching the audience, and taking their cues from them. Casting their net widely about the scene of the event, they construct a narrative that roves back and forth across the line of the stage, creating a palpable sense of intimacy and drama. Parsis young and old, happy and gloomy, flexed and at ease, fill these photographs with their myriad looks and emotions.

Chandrahas Choudhury

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

On Kalpana Swaminathan's The Monochrome Madonna

Three female presences, not counting the gold-coloured Madonna of the title, light up Kalpana Swaminathan’s new crime novel The Monochrome Madonna. These are the aging detective Lalli, a retired policewoman familiar to Swaminathan’s readers from two previous novels; Lalli’s niece Sita, a woman of literary inclinations with a deliciously tart tongue and an acquired interest in crime; and finally Swaminathan herself (who last week won the Vodafone Crossword Fiction Award 2009 for her book of stories Venus Crossing), a writer with a turn of phrase as stylish as that of anyone else on the contemporary scene. The universe of Indian genre fiction in English expands by the day (often to a chorus of voices inclined to exaggerate the charm of what is on offer). But there are, in truth, few writers in this group as gifted as Swaminathan, whether the criterion of judgement is quality of prose, facility with dialogue and plot, or understanding of the curves and quirks of human nature.

The opening chapter of The Monochrome Madonna, only three pages long, might serve as a case study in how to get a reader onboard a story. There is the dramatic opening line (“I’ve always known I’d be stuck with a corpse  some day, probably in the first week of October”), which introduces us to Sita, from whose point of view the story is told.

Then the subject of corpse-ridden Octobers is illuminated with brief, intriguing descriptions of the trouble that has flared up in the lives of Sita, Lalli and their cohort Savio three Octobers running, as if the reader is already familiar with these cases. In this way, an air of intimacy between narrator and reader is cunningly established, and a kind of storytelling energy generated. There is also a murmur of resistance: we find Sita actually wants to sit down and write in peace, but in Lalli’s absence she has to follow the new case. We enjoy her grumbles, because it makes for a better and funnier story than if she had been ready and waiting. And by the time the chapter ends, we are on site with “the annual corpse”, and now the story must move both forward and, if is to be resolved satisfactorily, backward too. Who did it?

The various personalities and elements attached to the crime include the striking Sitara Shah, an old classmate of Sita’s with the air of a diva; Sitara’s husband Vinay, who adores his wife so much he has photoshopped Raphael’s famous painting of the Madonna and replaced Mary’s face with Sitara’s; a mysterious man discovered lying dead in Sitara’s drawing-room; and various little curiosities, from an empty teacup to a set of fake golden toenails. Lalli only appears on page 50, by which time Sita has done much of the groundwork. We see not Lalli’s serene confidence, but Sita’s doubt-filled diligence (even as she worries away at what is going to happen to her book on the sewers of Bombay, an interest sparked by an earlier case). “Murder felt safer when Lalli and Savio were around,” confides Sita. “Taking on murder meant total responsibility. I was edgy, knowing that I wasn’t good enough.”

Thus, while the unravelling of the crime (or the book’s plot) is left to Lalli; the observation of this from without (or the book’s larger story) is entrusted to Sita, and is this is division of narrative duties that makes for the satisfactions of Swaminathan’s book. Indeed, the story is most interesting when it stays close to Sita’s point of view – a sophisticated, charming voice, moving easily from Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes to the latest trends in nailpolish ("'I'm good. I'm good. No, honestly, I'm good,' she said, doggedly putting that phrase through all three inflections mandatory to American sitcoms circa 2005"). I thought it fell away somewhat when it got too close to other characters, such as the testimonies of Sitara, Vinay and Savio.

Swaminathan knows that even murder mysteries must have their moments of digression. At one point we are treated to a sudden page-long meditation upon roses, followed by another passage on meteors, and realise this is a very independent-minded detective story. Here is Sitara, whose moments of study, reflection, and creation are always being swept away by the troubles of being a character in a murder mystery, shown sitting down and beginning to enter that state of comfort and relaxation that all writers know and look forward to:
Nothing restores me like a blank sheet of paper.... It's Prozac and caffeine, prayer and heresy, buffer and catapult all in one. With a good pencil, the blank page can reduce my unruly demons to chains and loops of black markings, words that march in regular array like ants–deceptively industrious, but each twitchy with a secret agenda. Words are nanochips: a zillion gigabytes of memory can fit in a two-syllabled word. Think of what you can pack into an A4 sheet of Bond!
The plotline of The Monochrome Madonna is perhaps too elaborate, and sometimes it is hard to keep track of all the possibilities and permutations thrown into the mix. But there are many lovely moments in the book, and the writing has a leanness, wit, and easy grace that are in marked contrast to the earnest and windy phrasemaking and imperfect control of register of so much Indian fiction in English. Lalli, Savio and Sita love not just sleuthery but also eating, drinking, and talking, and there is a rich pleasure here not just in the business of death but in the quotidian satisfactions of life. Vile Parle, the unfashionable Mumbai suburb where Lalli resides, should name one of its streets after Swaminathan’s charming detective.

An interview with Swaminathan is here.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On Sarita Mandanna's Tiger Hills

Human presence in fiction is a complicated thing, and amounts to much more than the sum of the characters who exist within the field of the story. It extends to the narratorial presence as well – that is, the presiding intelligence that observes a novel’s characters, that reflects on the meanings of their actions and “lets them through” to us, or indeed sometimes productively screens them off from us, making them all the more intriguing because they are mysterious. When the narrator seems to pressure the material – to simplify the solution of a dilemma, to insist too strongly on a transition, to use suspiciously convenient accidents and coincidences to drive the story forward – we dim the lamps of our engagement and retain an interest only in the “what” of the story and not in what should be the pleasurable “how” of its progression, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph. I had just such a feeling reading Sarita Mandanna’s sprawling first novel Tiger Hills.

Tiger Hills won a substantial amount of pre-publication attention last year when it was reportedly sold to Penguin India for one of the highest sums paid to an Indian writer for a first novel. A period piece covering 50 years from the last quarter of the 19th century onwards, it is set in the verdant, mountainous south Indian district of Coorg (the beauties of whose landscape are extolled at great length) and tells the story of three generations of two families linked by love, marriage, hostility and discord. It might be seen as the story of the beautiful and spirited Devi, with whose birth the story begins, or alternatively as the thwarted love stories of three people.

When still a child, Devi becomes friends with Devanna, a motherless boy. It seems as if their affection might one day turn into love, and indeed this is how things turn out for Devanna. But when the 10-year-old Devi sees the dashing Kambeymada Machaiah, a kinsman of Devanna’s, at a function held to celebrate Machaiah’s slaying of a ferocious tiger, she is entranced, and decides to marry no one but him. She carries this resolve all the way into her adulthood. Even though Machaiah has taken a vow of celibacy for 12 years, Devi manages to wend her way into his affections. Devi and Machaiah begin an ardent love affair, but their accord is shattered by a single act of violence.

Returning drunken and battered from the medical school hostel where he has been assaulted by a senior, Devanna declares his love for Devi and, when she will not have him, forces himself upon her. Machaiah is away – and to cover the shame of the incident Devi is hurriedly married off to Devanna. Devi never forgives Devanna, not even when he attempts to take his own life and becomes an invalid. For all three characters then, life becomes the task of having – this is one of the novel’s few genuinely striking images, taken from the world view of a Christian missionary who mentors Devi – to “bear the weight of the cross”.

There is plenty of story in Tiger Hills. A mere summary of the plot would run to over a dozen pages. But if the book is a period novel by intent, it also has "The Past" stamped over it in a more unintended way. It is not a credit to the book that it should resemble so closely several over-familiar strains of the Indian novel. One may find in it the “Triple-Decker Novel of Family” (in which the sheer scale and duration of the storytelling invites our awe); or the “Novel of Tropical Weather and Burning Passion” (in which the glories of weather, landscape and love are always extensively described, and always without understatement); the “Novel of Predestination” or the “Horoscope Novel” (in which the protagonist is shown to be destined for a storied life from birth itself and is shadowed by portents and omens thereafter); and indeed, the “Novel of Characters Without Character”, in which the problems of the representation of an extra-large cast of characters are usually finessed by acts of omission or simplification, so that even the protagonists wax and wane in complexity.

Nor is the narrator at all a subtle or intelligent interpreter of the action. Consider the novel's reading of Hermann Gumbert, an ambitious German priest who heads the local Mission School, and whose love of botany finds rich matter in the burgeoning plant life of Coorg. Our introduction to Gumbert begins with a pointless act of narratorial fussiness (“Hermann Gumbert had arrived in Coorg over three years earlier. Three years, five months and sixteen days to be exact.”), one of many bits of padding and deadwood in the book. But what is more complicated is the narrator’s gloss when Gumbert, who is very attached to Devanna and does not want him to go very far from Coorg, decides that Devanna is to go not to Oxford but to Bangalore Medical School. Here the narration reaches ahead of itself, and we are told, as the closing line of a chapter: “[I]nnocent of the wheels he had set in motion, of the catastrophic consequences his actions would bring, Gumbert turned out the lamp and finally went to bed.”

But what exactly are these “catastrophic consequences” brought about by Gumbert? In medical school in Bangalore, Devanna is preyed upon by older students, in particular by a vicious Anglo-Indian called Martin Thomas. Thomas beats and tortures Devanna at every opportunity, and on one occasion sodomizes him. But the more that Devanna is preyed upon by Thomas, the more we wonder whether any of this should really have been be traced back to (or in this case, forward from) Gumbert. Not only is this narrative gesture poor storytelling, because it refuses to allow the story to take its own course and tries to draw us on by waving the red flag of approaching catastrophe, it is also poor perception, because it connects the well-meaning Gumbert to the despicable Thomas in an unreasonable way. We reject the narrator’s judgment because it seems to want more to produce a certain kind of story than to be just to the characters.

The three long-legged birds in silhouette on the cover of my British edition embody one of the novel’s more egregious contrivances. Devi is born to a family on the middle rung of Coorg’s feudal ladder. But as her mother’s water breaks while she is working in the fields, a flock of herons arrive from nowhere and circle around her, “executing a final sharp turn to land by her feet”, and then take off again, showering her with water from their wings. Devi’s mother is disturbed by this incident. When the village priest is in turn troubled by the child’s horoscope, she reports the incident with the herons to him.

The priest cannot explain the occurrence (“Who could read the mind of God?”, the narrator somewhat lamely interjects), but clearly the herons want to be part of the story and, unbeknown to the characters, continue to hang over the action all the way through. At key moments in the action the narratorial gaze suddenly slips away, and shows us a picture of herons taking flight somewhere nearby. Sometimes this gesture reaches a point of pure bathos (“High above them, a solitary heron floated on a thermal...”). This is just leaden, unsubtle symbolism, designed to infuse the story with a hooded mystery. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we are schooled by the pressure of repetition to expect something we are not used to. The arc of action rises (metaphorically); herons rise (physically).

The same sense of overdetermination is visible in Mandanna’s language, the predominant gesture of which is a kind of lush suffocation. The novel repeatedly makes heavy weather of weather descriptions, subclauses pointlessly repeating the action of main clauses. “Watery shafts of light spilled from behind dark grey clouds, laminating the town in opalescence.” “The mist draped itself over her, brushing wet, welcoming fingers over her cheeks and arms as it enveloped her in its gauzy cocoon.” Wouldn't the metaphor not be better if it was not so diffused and misty, attaching itself to every possibility – fingers, then a cocoon –  that comes up? Wouldn’t the sentence be much cleaner if it had the self-discipline to stop at “arms”? This sort of writing is frequently hailed as evocative and ambitious, but close examination shows it to be merely lazy.

The same metaphorical sloppiness is seen in a line like “He forced Kate from his memory like water through a sieve, until all that remained was a coarse sediment”. But water through a sieve leaves no sediment at all! The opening lines of my British edition – an epigraph, left out of the Indian edition, that goes “Through all of time, it’s rise and it’s fall;/the heart stays blind, yet sees truest of all.” – immediately strike a false note. What Mandanna really wants is the possessive pronoun “its”; not the contraction of “it is” that she has provided, thereby making a nonsense of the proverb. Its not right to do this.

One might end by examining a pivotal scene in the novel, that of Machaiah’s death, far from the place and the people he loves, in the passes of Afghanistan, where he is sent after enlisting as a soldier. As Machaiah falls, we are told that “Hundreds of miles away, a woman, heartbreakingly lovely, woke up with a start, her heart contracting with nameless dread”. The narrator’s emphasis is worth noting. Even as we are shown the lovelorn Devi being lacerated by a telepathic distress – which, as believers in love, we might just accept – we must for some reason be reminded in the midst of all this, as if with a close-up shot in a big-budget potboiler, that she is “heartbreakingly lovely”. Readers who enjoy this sort of lumbering storytelling may find much to be diverted by in Tiger Hills.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

On vacation

The Middle Stage is away this week on summer vacation in London and Cambridge, and is doing no reading. It will be back next week.