Monday, June 20, 2011

English, August - Upamanyu Chatterjee

My reading of Indian English writing is negligible, somehow I have not got around to reading them as I try to do Indian vernacular writing. So, several years ago, I saw this book 'English, August' by Upamanyu Chatterjee. I bought it on a lark, as it seemed about the Indian bureaucracy and since Upamanyu himself had apparently been an IAS officer, I thought it would be good. I was not disappointed, this is one of my favorite books ever and one that I enjoyed thoroughly.
Set in the late 80's, the book is about 'Agastya Sen', aged 24, called August due to his child hood fascination to be like Anglo Indians and the  1 year he spends at a place 'Madna' a fictional district in the hinterland of India. Though August, has been selected for the IAS, he is not interested in it, he has joined it because he does not know what else to do with this life. He is a rich, or at-least upper middle class youth, belonging to the yuppie generation which talks 'Hinglish' (Upamanya has satirized it, even before the term became used commonly) and is also a slacker.
amazing mix, the English we speak. Hazaar fucked. Urdu and American,' Agastya laughed, 'a thousand fucked, really fucked. I'm sure nowhere else could languages be mixed and spoken with such ease.'
His father himself has been a venerated figure in the  Civil Service, been a CEC and is now the Governor of Bengal. 
August reaches Madna is immediately shocked by the change in surrounding to which he has been used too and feels completely dislocated from reality. He is under the charge of the district collector 'Srivatsav' and has to attend various department meetings. But August is a slacker and he spends most of time in his darkened room of the guest house, doing basically the following, reading Marcus Aurelius and the Gita, listening to music, lying naked, getting stoned and masturbating to his fantasies. He finds ingenious ways to slack out of work, (even attending meetings stoned and making sure that no one finds it out) and to finagle invitations for lunch/dinner from the persons who live with their families there. (He is disgusted by the meals prepared by Vasanth his cook, whom he feels is feeding him his turds). August meets a motley group of characters with whom he has to interact. There is Shankar, his next door neighbor in the guest house, an engineer who spends most of his time drinking, singing thumris and believing that Jagadamba will get his transfer approved. The collector is a serious man, full of himself and the sanctity of his post and in August's point of view a asshole. There is also the district SP, Kumar who seems to be a connoisseur of porn movies and who laments to August that Indian women are reserved and hence our porn movies are not good.  

Upamanyu is not afraid of ruffling feathers and goes all out in satirizing and lampooning basically everything. (I don't know if he was in the IAS when he wrote this, but it should have caused a scandal if he had been around after publishing it). His is a brand of weird, kinky and lusty humor, one which may startle if you are a bit prim and proper. One complaint against Indian English writing is that it tends to sensationalize issues and present caricatures to the Indian audience. In this work, I felt that Upamanyu didn't do that. For instance there is a incident where August sees a statue of a old bald man with spectacles with a rod coming out of his ass. August is shocked that Gandhi could be represented in this way, but is told that the rod is to keep the statue upright. Considering the care that we take for our statues and other monuments, it would be touchy for us to consider this as sensationalism or stereotyping or insulting Gandhi. Who knows, a Gandhi statue may have suffered such a fate in reality too. Then there is the collector who ensures that he arrives at all functions late by at least 30 minutes as he thinks protocol and his post demands it. What's even worse is that the organizers too are used to it and think of it as natural. He is for sure is one of zaniest writers I have ever read. The parts where August lies about his family, upbringing etc when someone asks him about it are hilarious. (He tells one person that his wife is dead, the other he is Muslim and their families refuse to the marriage, to yet another he is suffering from Breast cancer, even he finds himself confronted by these lies and cannot remember what he told earlier). Word by word, passage by passage he makes us laugh out loud or at-least smile. Though the passages are funny, one senses a concealed rage which is manifesting in this manner. It's not that the book is fully of ribald jokes and fun, there are several places where he shows an insight into a troubled dislocated mind. 
Eventually, he knew, he would marry, perhaps not out of passion, but out of convention, which was probably a safer thing. And then, in either case, in a few months or years they would tire of disagreeing with each other, or what was more or less the same thing, would be inured to each other's odd and perhaps disgusting ways, the way she squeezed the tube of toothpaste and the way he drank from a glass and didn't rinse it, and they would slide into a placid and comfortable unhappiness, and maybe unseeingly watch TV every day, each still a cocoon

Now, why should one empathize with August, let alone like him?. He is financially well off, well educated, has go into the cream of the Indian jobs (remember this is the late 80's before the full blown advent of computers). There are much much more people in more difficult circumstances who would be deserving of our empathy right? Maybe, but consider this incident which happens when August falls ill (nothing serious) and is lying in the room looking at the ceiling. He starts laughing uncontrollably without knowing why, thinking about his situation. How many of us, rich, poor, middle/upper middle class have felt the same about our life at some or other? A sense of dislocation from our every day life, through which we move as though in a haze. This is not the case of a person who has been pulled out from his dream work and asked to work on something he hates. No, this is the dislocation and disengagement of some how, who does not know what he actually wants, but ends up doing something for the sake of his livelihood and as in August's case also because he does not want to disappoint his father. This feeling I am sure is common to everyone regardless of his or her material status. A lot of us manage to sweep this under the carpet and get on with our lives, but for those who cannot reconcile this it proves a problem. I personally could relate with August at some level, particularly the part about being in a dreary job and wishing that you could be spending your office hours reading something, but reality beckons and you have to meet it. In fact not just August, several other characters in the novel also suffer from the same disengagement. Shankar the engineer, who spends most of him drinking, the previous engineer Tamse who has long been transferred, but one who has done bizarre paintings of his native Goa which crude poetry attempts that show his loneliness and mental state. In fact, one feels a immediate connect with Tamse, though we do not ever encounter this character, apart from the paintings and architectural designs he has done.

The best part of the novel is that it neither gets preachy nor does August have an awakening and starts working for the rural upliftment. There are no moments of epiphany where August understands his true calling in life, not at all. August gets posted as a BDO and gets to see some of the rural problems first hand, he even tries to sort out a few, but by and large he stays true to the person he is at the beginning of the novel (i.e) a stoned direction-less slacker to the core . In what could be seen a bizarre crude joke in bad taste, he even gets an erection when a rural woman comes to him with a problem in her village. He helps her out, but is candid enough to admit that he did because it would be a change from his daily routine and also because of the woman. He also understands that his mental state is not something unique, but one which is shared by many others, but he cannot reconcile to it. He is then posted as Assistant collector for the last months of his training, but leaves for Calcutta presumably with the idea of resigning from the civil service. The novel ends at this point with August as restless as he was at the beginning of the novel.

To stretch things a bit, I would say that this novel is your Indian version of 'Catcher in the Rye', though August is 24 and the novel is more about a youth facing life in the journey to becoming a man. This is just a loose comparison and I must say that I like this novel and relate to it much much more than I did to Salinger's work. But I wonder why this is not appreciated or even spoken about more. What Dhurbo a friend of August says about Ritwich Ghatak could be applied here too. He says "He was awful at first, then the French praised him and he became a master". Maybe if the book had come out a bit later, in the liberalization era and got more publicity etc it would have been spoken about more even today. This is one novel that I go back to every year, either to read fully again or to dip into some portions. I could go on and on about this novel, but will stop here. This is a cult classic, very highly recommended. 

PS: August apparently continues with his training because in 'The Mammaries Of the Welfare State' a sort of sequel to this novel, he is present as a part of the bureaucracy, still not fully comfortable, yet chugging alone. Well, that's for another post. 

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Historian - Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian has as it's center, one of the spookiest legends of all time, one that has spawned multiple spin offs in both movies and books. I am referring to 'Count Dracula' or 'Vlad Tepes' the actual person on whom Bram stoker based his Dracula. No, this novel is not a desperate rip off of the Twilight series, it actually does not have much vampirism so to say, this is in a different league and much more erudite and better plotted novel than the crap being dished out by Dan brown and others of his ilk.

The novel is split into 3 parts. The first part begins with an unnamed narrator, describing the events that happened in the 70's. The narrator is never named throughout the novel. In the 70's she is a teenager and  living with her father 'Paul' in Amsterdam. It's an idyllic life, with Paul running a center for peace, which helps out in humanitarian operations. One day the narrator finds in her father's library, a woodcut book with a single figure of a dragon which is associated with Dracula. She questions her father about it, who seems to unwilling to tell about it. But eventually she drags it out of him and he starts telling about it in bits in pieces. It turns out that the woodcut came into his possession on it's own when he was a graduate student. (in the 50's). He brings it to the notice of his guide/mentor 'Rossi' who is as shocked by it as Paul is when his daughter finds it. Turns out that Rossi too has such a book with him which again came into his possession on it's own (in the 30's). Rossi's suspicion is that Dracula is not just a legend but is still un-dead . Rossi disappears immediately after leaving Paul some letters of his. The novel is at this point split into 3 separate narratives, one in which the narrator travels with her father throughout Europe as his father narrates what happened in the past,  the other concerning the events that transpired in the 50's to him and the third is Rossi's narrative from the 30's in the form of letters. (Maybe a homage to Bram stocker's epistolary style of writing). This is something like a story within a story structure. As the first part ends, Paul goes missing and the narrator decides to go in search of him. 

The second part sees the narrator's story being sidelined and the focus is on Paul's past and the past of Rossi. Paul meets Helen, who is the daughter of Rossi and they begin a journey through central and eastern Europe, going to Istanbul, Bulgaria, Budapest and to Romania and the place of Vlad Tempes (Dracula). I am not exaggerating here, but the the first part and the some areas of the second part has some genuinely scary, spine chilling moments. (Explaining them would act as spoilers, so am desisting from it). I would not say this is a road novel, but there is quite a bit of travelling going on, with even the actual story line being bit sidelined as Kostova sets up the scene for the finale. Midway through the second part, you see that the scary moments are becoming less and that the pieces of the puzzle are being put together. Paul and Helen meet Helen's mother who provide them some inputs and also 'Turgut Bora' in Istanbul who helps them in their search. This may be putting off to some, but I did enjoy the characters travels. That's because personally I have been fascinated with the eastern European countries, with their gloomy, fog bound castles, buildings and also by the romatic imagination of Istanbul as the gateway between east and west. Kostova shows us a glimpse of the sights and sounds in these countries, tells us about the superstitions about werewolves, vampires that exist in the countryside. Someone like me, who is never going to go to any of these places would surely like this part. Kostova also gives some tantalizing bits on how Dracula became the un-dead, some scary moments that happen when the monks keep watch over his body, but stops short of saying that this what exactly happened. We get to understand Dracula's power and the fear and loathing he inspired in the Turks, so much so that his tomb was sought after by the Ottoman sultan? But why? Kostova gives us some clues on to this. A reason for this digression from the main thrust of the novel could be found in one of Kostova's interviews where she says that she wanted to write a Victorian style novel foremost, which had some elements of a thriller and not just write a straight forward thriller. So the unfolding of the novels happens in a unhurried pace, though the events in the novel themselves are exciting.

In the third part, Paul thinks that Dracula's tomb could be buried in a monastery in Bulgaria and searches for it. He and Helen find it and reach there leading to a per-climax confrontation. The stories of Rossi and Paul/Helen converge at this point and the narrative now shifts to the 70's and to the narrator. After understanding what happened in the 30's and 50's, the narrator now is sure of where her father could be. She goes to a monastery in France, where all the principal characters from the past and the present converge leading to a confrontation with Dracula and a supposed end to all that happened. 

What of Dracula, the object of the quest? We can sense his malevolent presence throughout the novel, though he makes an appearance only towards the end. The reason for the disappearances and dracula's actions was to me personally weak, but it did show a different facet of Dracula as a erudite well read person. It does nothing to mitigate his evil but just shows that there could be another side to him and that Dracula could have been a product of his times which were extremely violent. But I was totally disappointed, even disgusted by the novel's epilogue. It was a total let down, mainly when you consider Kostova's clean planning and unraveling of the events in the first 3 parts, the epilogue seemed completely unnecessary other than to give a twist in the tale in the tail. But that should not bother a prospective reader. I know I have not mentioned much about the story line, but with novels of the mystery/thriller genre, it is better to mention only some points which will not act as spoiler to the future readers. Considering this is Kostova's first novel, it is indeed a success. Fans of the Dracula legend, thrillers and general readers too would be able to enjoy this thrill ride through Europe. Be warned however, this is a huge novel running into 800+ pages with the setting of the various characters taking most of the first part running to 300 pages. If you are looking for a page turner from page 1 to the end, then maybe this is not the book for you. This is a more leisurely, languid read and should be approached as a general normal with some elements of thriller and not as a hardcore thriller. I think that with some patience readers would be able to enjoy this. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Yiddish Policemen's Union - Micheal Chabon

The genre of crime/mystery fiction seems to have fascinated our more reputed writers of general fiction in the modern era(I use 'general' here instead of 'literary' since the latter sounds snobbish). From Borges to Eco to Orhan Pamuk several writers have written works based on this genre. But can we classify 'The Name Of the Rose' or 'My Name is Red' as conventional crime fiction? The base is crime yes, but the writers expand the boundaries, in fact tear open conventions of crime fiction so that their works become a new genre of sorts themselves. We mostly see the inventiveness and even playfulness of the writers when they attempt such works. The crime becomes a secondary part in the works. But a true blue crime fiction or noir? They are pretty rare. Of such works Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn) and Micheal Chabon (The Yiddish Policemen's Union) tend to tread the path of hardboiled crime fiction genre. The authors bring in their own twist to the genre, while not deviating too much from the established conventions of the genre.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union starts of a alternate history premise. It is set in 'Sitka in Alaska'. The premise is that at the end of world war II, Jews were settled in Sitka instead of at Jerusalem. This is apparently based on a actual proposal about settling Jews in America, that came up in the 1940's. (It was not carried out in the end). Chabon starts off with this unique setting. Sitka is now a Jewish settlement, with the Jews living together with the native americans of the area. The main protagonist is 'Meyer Landsman', a typical hardboiled police detective with all the traits that such a detective has in novels. He is alcoholic, divorced (his wife is his superior), does not play by the rules and what not, basically a pest who some how gets things done his way and for that has to be put up with. A murder has occurred in the hotel that he is staying. The victim is Mendel, who was supposed to be a  'Tzaddik ha-Dor'. (This refers to a person who could be the potential messiah for the Jews. Such a person is supposed to be born every generation). The story kicks off as Meyer starts the investigation.
Chabon also weaves in the story of the entire jewish community which is facing another exile. The lease given to them for Sitka is set to expire in the next few months and the American government would not renew it. People are applying to go to other countries or to migrate within America itself. Chabon paints a picture of an almost claustrophobic and insular Jewish community who are very tightly integrated and at despair about the future. Suffice to say that Meyer is not worried about it. As a typical fictional detective, he has his own emotional baggage to carry (his sister's death, his relationship with his deceased father) that solving crime seems to be the only way out for him to survive that baggage. Mendel is found to be the son of a rebbe who is the head of one of most powerful crime syndicate in Sitka. He antagonizes Mendel's father and as a result is told to lay off from investigating the crime. He continues with it and as a result is suspended from work. Being the classic stubborn type he still continues with his investigation in private and starts piecing together the details about Mendel's life.
Along with the normal set pieces of crime fiction, Chabon gives a moving account of Mendel's story, his glorious childhood to youth when he was revered by most people who came in contact with him, the expectancy of great things from him and his fall from grace just before his marriage. He runs away from home before his marriage and his father disowns him. We get a hint that his sexual orientation could have played a role in it, but it's not explicit. At this point, we find ourself empathizing with Mendel more, how would it have been to carry the burden of an entire race as being the chosen one, being under scrutiny always, always expected to be perfect. It is in these pages, that Chabon pushes the boundary of crime fiction to something more. I found myself transfixed by Mendel's story up to the point and the crime took a back seat. More than Meyer, Mendel fascinated me. (To digress here a bit, the victim in 'My Name Is Red' did not affect me as much, though he even talks to us in the beginning. This again could be because, the author there was more concerned about things other than the victim or the mystery, namely the Ottoman art and the nature of painting itself).
During the course of the investigations, Meyers gets shot at, imprisoned, has a chase, gets beaten and bruised, but still on the move and determined to get the end. (Your typical set pieces). He also comes to know some new details about his Sister's death. He uncovers a diabolical plot, but is not able to divulge it. He is released on making that promise. Ironically it does not seem to have anything to do with Mendel's murder. Meyer reunites with his wife, but is still nagged by the thought of the murder being unsolved. Finally he cracks it, which is quite surprising to say the least. The novel ends with Meyer ready to face life wherever it takes him in the upcoming exodus. 
The novel worked for me as a generic fiction and not as pure crime fiction. Chabon paints an minutely detailed picture of the Jewish community in exile, their quirks, makes his characters flawed in more than one ways, which in turn makes them more believable. Meyer, with his template habits could be a worthy successor to Philip Marlowe. The relationship between the natives of Alaska and the Jews is also brought out well, in some cases humorously. One sees both the groups being racist towards each other, in an almost unconscious manner, which is bit ironic when we consider the Jews being a bit racist in their day to day life. Chabon uses some beautiful similes throughout the novel, one other thing we cannot find in your conventional crime fiction.  But these same things hinder the novel from being a great crime fiction. At some point, you just want to move ahead in the story instead of getting more character portraits. At the end I was not too interested in the murderer, but was caught up in the individual characters lives. This is surely a triumph of his story telling, but from  the perspective of a crime fiction aficionado, it was a bit of a letdown, though the author is not the reason for it. If you approach the novel as a generic one, with not much expectations on the crime front, you would like this. This is probably the closest one could get while trying to straddle 2 genres, without disappointing much in either. For hardcore crime fictions fans however, it better to stick to Raymond Chandler, Henning Mankell, Ian Rankin and the other masters. 

Chabon has also tried out the intermixing of genres with his 'The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay' which concerns comic books juxtaposed with the second world war and the holocaust. The life of a comic book hero rescuing Jews contrasts with the reality of that time. 

Micheal Chabon's website is