29 April 2010

Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's One Amazing Thing

Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Pages: 224
Price: 450
Publishers: Hamish Hamilton (Peguin Imprint)

Expatriate writer Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who is best known for her award-winning short story collection, Arranged Marriage and novels, Sister Of My Heart and The Mistress of Spices (adapted into a film, the Aishwarya Rai starrer) released her new book, One Amazing Thing recently. This was my first introduction to her work and while I mostly enjoyed the novel and found it a breezy read, I couldn't help feeling that the sum of the story wasn't at all greater than the parts.

One Amazing Thing is about a group of six-seven people of different nationalities who get trapped at the Indian consulate office in US after a major earthquake strikes. As food runs out and the building starts collapsing, the characters find the boundaries between them starting to crumble down, literally and otherwise. To keep sane and avoid panicking, one of the characters suggests to the others that each one of them should reveal one amazing thing that has happened to them. Among those trapped are an elderly white couple going through a difficult time in their marriage; an Indian-Muslim man, Tariq who is disillusioned and angry with the new US; a Chinese-Indian, Jiang, who loved and lost a man in her youth; her talented grand-daughter, Lily; a middle-aged army officer haunted by his guilt; Two visa officers – Malathi and her boss, Mangalam on the verge of an extra-marital affair; an India-American student, who is confused by her parents' decision to return to Kolkata after living in US for over 20 years.

As uncertainty builds over whether they will make it alive or not, the characters pour their hearts out in stories that seek to unburden them from a certain baggage of their past, and offer hope for the future. Divakurani sets the stage well and you are acquainted with atleast three of the characters before the earthquake strikes, so that later, their's are the stories you are most interested to know about. Among the rest, Jiang's story is easily the most affecting and haunting one. Her story dates back to the time when she was a smart, young Chinese girl living with her father and brother in Kolkata. In spite of her age, she handles her father's shoe business efficiently and it is at this juncture that love strikes. Jiang falls in love with a Hindu boy and there is stiff opposition when they plan to marry. They stay determined, but not for long. The Indo-China war of 1962 endangers the life of Chinese settlers in India and Jiang is hurriedly made to board a ship to the US, along with a family friend who offers to marry her. Jiang - the strong and steadfast woman that she is - continues to live her life, but not without the wistful regret of what she lost. Divakurani narrates the story with great feeling and vividness. Also, the story gives you a sense of history about the Chinese community in India, all of which adds to its appeal.

The other very entertaining story involves Malathi and her stint as a beautician in a top beauty salon. Malathi's tale is the most light-hearted one, intended to show her adventurous, brave side. She describes a rich socialite who visits their salon often, accompanied by her servant-girl. Things are perfect in the lady's life, until she suspects that her liberal-minded son has falled for the servant. All hell breaks lose then.

The other stories are a mixed bag. The visa officer's character intrigues you the most at the start, but his story --- about his impoverished background and later getting trapped in a loveless marriage with a rich heiress... all seems straight out of a Bollywood family drama. Tariq's story is again an all too familiar one --- an Indian-American, who has lived all his life in US, feels unfairly discriminated back against for being a Muslim post 9/11 and wonders if he must goto India. The other stories are readable, but nothing stays with you.

If one wouldn't have known that Divakurani has worked with refugees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and has seen from close quarters rita Hurricain hitting Housten (the place she resides in), causing a massive evacuation, one would have been surprised aboout her bringing in an earthquake situation out of all things.
And the Indian Consulate setting seems like a forced one to bring characters of diverse backgrounds together. Very early on, Divakaruni evokes The Cantebury tales, Chauser's celebrated epic about a group of pilgrims who narrate one story each. It's one thing for characters to narrate stories on a journey, but would they do so when they are waiting to be rescued from an earthquake affected area? The whole situation is a bit contrived.

The author's intend is to show the healing power of stories, how they empower us, how they redeem us. The stories by themselves are mostly engaging, but one is never wholly convinced about the situation they are caught into. The sense of urgency doesn't come across strongly and neither is there any plausible trigger point for the characters to narrate stories.

Individually though the stories are well-told. Divakurani is a perceptive author, who succeeds in keeping the narrative simple yet elegant. The language is graceful. Her similies and metaphors are original and interesting. "Moving to live where no one knew you, shucking off your wornout life like old snakeskin"

One Amazing Thing is certainly worth a read, though it might not leave you fully satisfied.

27 April 2010

Monkey-man and interview with Usha K R

Author: Usha K. R
Pages: 259
Price: 299
Publishers: Penguin
Published in the year: 2010

After her stunning last book, A Girl And A River that won Usha K R the Vodafone Crossword Award, 2007, the author has just come out with her second book. Much like A Girl..., her new book, Monkey man is a pleasure to read ---rich as it in characterisation and situational drama. Usha demonstrates her love for her favourite author, Jane Austen in the manner in which she slowly goes about unraveling her numerous characters, presenting them with unmistakable irony and subtle humour. But where Usha perhaps resembles Austen less and George Eliot more is in her grim understanding of the human condition. A Girl... was both historically and socio-culturally rooted. In Monkey-man, the author attempts to portray the changing Indian urban scape at the turn of the century through the lives of different characters.

Usha bases her story in her own city, Bangalore - one whose complexion has drastically altered in the last two decades. From being a breezy city of gardens, a Pensioner's Paradise, Bangalore has gone on to become one of the country's leading IT hubs. Today, it's a highly commercialised city, one of the prime metros of the country with soaring real estate prices and crazy traffic, among other things.

Usha's choice of location for both A Girl.. and Monkey Man - Southern India - is welcome. For a change, it's not Delhi, Mumbai or Kolkata. Quite instantly, the world Usha creates feels fresh. Besides, Usha is acutely conscious of the socio-political landscape that her characters inhabit.

The novel is about four characters residing in Bangalore - they could of course be from anywhere in India. There is Shrinivas Moorthy, a senior professor, forever falling back on the virtues of Gandhian passivity, even as the world around him has changed in ways he cannot recogonise anymore. He stubbornly sticks to the tried and tested ways, looking with suspicion and unease at any new plan that his dynamic friend-turned-superior Jairam suggests.

Shrinivas's story covers a journey from 1960s to 2000. The fact that he is caught in a time wrap is accentuated through the contrasts brought out by the other characters. Jairam and his wife Geeta for example. All three of them start out as college friends, hanging around together, being part of intense political debates. Shrinivas is thrifty and somewhat timid, using his intellectualism in safe and secure ways – like the film club he runs. Jairam, the more volatile and charismatic one, goes through a brief period of intense political fevour during the Emergency days that threatens to derail his life. But luck favours him in the long run.

Many of the college scenes and fiery exchanges that Usha presents in this story are excellent. Even some of the minor characters she etches out are done with delicious irony...

“Preeti Vaidya, the English lecturer was a different kind altogether. Her husband was the head of a multinational company, whose photographs and pithy comment appeared almost every other day in the business section of the newspapers, and Preeti made it quite clear that she didn't need the job; her house did not run on her salary. She was there only for her love of English literature. Which didn't make her any less attentive to her entitlements of dearness allowance, and scale and seniority, but it edged her dealings with her colleagues with a mild condescension”

Shrinivas' character has its moments, but he seems too much of a metaphor in the end. He teaches history - literally to symbolize how he's turning ancient now. Somehow, this character didn't work entirely for me, but the scenes around him are well-crafted and the supporting characters in his story are all excellent.

The one real triumph with respect to character-creation is that of Neela Mary Gopalrao, the spiteful, but romance-yearning secretary to an influential man in a Government organisation. She treats her colleagues shabbily, creating new impediments for them everyday, withholding payments. Like Shrinivas, she is also a representative of the “old economy”, where a Government job implies complete security. Having struggled to reach where she does, Neela indulges in petty games, unable as she is to be productive in any true sense.

Neela is a highly original character and though, she isn't really a 'representative' of any section in any obvious sense, all the parts involving her are highly readable.

These are really the two characters that really stand out. The other two, Bali Brums – the hot-shot RJ and Pushpa Rani, who leaves a temporary Government job to work in a call centre – are both meant to be representatives of the emerging new generation, with new ideas about career and life. Bali Brams' arguments with his parents over not completing his engineering and taking up an unsteady job etc – are all a bit familiar. Pushpa Rani is an important character, in the sense she comes from a disadvantaged economic class, eager to prove her worth and improve her station in life. But even some of her portions involving her family appear a bit long-drawn.

So the big question? Why is the book called Monkey-man? This is an episode that happened in the year 2000, where people from all over the country reported seeing a strange monkey-like creature. Most of the above characters happen to see this 'monkey' and hence are called on Bali Brum's show.

Yet, the novel is not really about the Monkey-man incident. Even in real life when people were terrified about the creature, there was a cloud of suspicion on whether it is was for real or a figment of someone's imagination. Usha K R evokes the creature's shadowy, hazy and mythic image as a metaphor for the dramatic, overwhelming and grotesque transformation of the city.
This is an excellent fictional device, which sounds great on paper. But in the book, the connection seems somewhat forced, not born very organically from the stories. The sudden attack of the monkey taps into the inner-most fears and insecurities of the characters. But that feeling doesn't come across as effectively as it could have.
There is an uneasy stretch in the narrative for sure.

Again, Bangalore has grown exponentially since 2000, but that is obviously not covered in this book. This might disappoint those who expected the novel to be about present-day Bangalore. But otherwise, this is once again a solid effort from Usha. In fact, while her previous, A Girl... was grim and even heavy at places, albeit a wonderfully challenging read, Monkey-man is easier and more character-driven.
Usha's language is rich and fluent, without ever getting turgid or pretentious.
Go for it!

PS: It's a quick read. I myself read it twice in the span of one week.

Bangalore Bytes

Award-winning writer Usha K R uses the famous 'monkey-man' episode to symbolise the dark, grotesque and uncertain ways in which Bangalore has exploded as a metro in the last few decades

Bangalore-based author, Usha K R has been an accomplished writer of fiction for the last two decades, but her moment of reckoning came with her last novel, The Girl And A River which won her the prestigious Vodafone Crossword Award in 2007. Her latest book, Monkey-Man, about the denizens of Bangalore, has also opened to rave reviews.

The action in Usha's book dates back to 2001, where the 'monkey-man' episode was hot news. The rumour was that a dark, monkey-like creature had invaded the country. No one could tell exactly whether it was an animal or a human being, but everyone was struck with terror, as people reported to have been attacked by it. Usha uses the 'monkey-man' episode as a metaphor for our fear of the unknown - the dark, disorienting feeling it brought. From a breezy city of gardens, Bangalore has rapidly metamorphosed into a huge IT hub, with glitzy malls, happening pubs and crazy traffic. Usha takes different characters who have to deal with the city's dramatic transformation in small and big ways. Some of them see the changes as an opportunity to break free, while others struggle to keep up with it. In each case, the 'monkey-man' is a forewarning of the dark, shadowy and fearful space they seem to be entering into.

On what prompted her to use the 'monkey-man' metaphor?

Usha K R: One of the marvels of fiction is that it seems to suggest very plausible connections between things that are logically very remote - the connections can be slight or tentative and they grow in ways not imagined or foreseen by the writer. As I was thinking about the lives of my characters in this ‘exponentially growing’ world, and how little control they seemed to have over the changes that were creeping up on them, I wondered over the possibility of a completely random element that takes over our lives and destinies and forces them to a logical end, and whether this logic is dictated by our nature or the pattern of our lives. Next in line was whether cities have their own destinies, whether sudden and uncontrolled growth can spin off a miasma, a spectral presence, and in which case what would it be. Would it be emanation of wish-fulfillment, of desire or disappointment or death or of change for the better or none of these things? Through the lives of my characters I wanted to explore these connections.

On her characters

Usha K R: The novel is set against the background of the changes that have swept through the country in the last few decades - affecting different parts and different cities to a lesser or greater degree. And since Bangalore is the pin-up city for new India, I have used Bangalore as a template for these changes. You have Shrinivas Moorty, growing up with Marxist ideals, but who is completely out-of-sync with the new dispensation; Neela, who senses the changes but without the appropriate skills to deal with them, she can only fall back on guile - these two are what I call my ‘old economy’ characters. Then you have Bali Brums and Pushpa Rani, unburdened by the past, by caste and community, who grasp at the opportunities that the new age has provided and want to live life on their own terms. These people could be there in any city or town in India.

On her last book, A Girl And A River

Usha K R: A Girl and A River was a historical novel; Monkey-Man deals with contemporary events --- and the pace is much faster. If A Girl… was a marathon, this was a 100 metre dash, or rather - a T20 as against a test match, and each form has its own rhythm, its beauty and its compulsions. Actually, I started thinking about both these novels and making notes for them almost simultaneously. But A Girl … got written first. Much also depends on how the novel suggests itself to the writer in the first place.

On Indian Writing In English

Usha K R: If IWE has to acquire a wider readership, it has to spread its wings and go beyond literary fiction as it is doing now, and that is a good thing. Moreover, readers also want to read different kinds of writing - you want to read a thriller, and fluffy romance and a more serious ‘literary’ work, perhaps simultaneously. So, there is room for different kinds or writing and writers.

- Sandhya Iyer