Friday, November 05, 2004

Writing contest, and Shanghvi’s drivel

Got this on email and had to share. Here’s the winning (?) entry of this year's Bulwer-Lytton contest (AKA Dark and Stormy Night Contest) run by the English Department of San Jose State University, wherein one writes only the first line of a bad novel.

"The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the greensward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated, sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the frog's deception, screaming madly, 'You lied!’ "

What’s all the fuss about? I’d read that novel. Can’t be worse than Sidharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s The Last Song of Dusk (which was hailed as the Next Big Thing in Indian writing in English), which I reviewed earlier this year. Realise on rereading the review that I was probably trying to be too clever, but what the heck, having wasted so much of my time reading the wretched book I’m entitled to some self-indulgence. Hereunder is the review.

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The last sentence on page two of The Last Song of Dusk, the much-hyped debut novel by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, reads: "A weep gathered in her chest like the crest of a wave." This immediately set me thinking of Steve Martin’s delightful short story "Drivel", in which the narrator -- the publisher of the American Drivel Review -- trades in analogies of the sort "a tear marked her cheek, like a snail that has crept across white china".

"Drivel" was gloriously, deliberately cheesy. Dusk is, well, just drivel. It’s painfully obvious after a few pages that the funniest moments in this book weren’t intended to be so. (Still on the analogies, my personal favourite is "the air was bursting with tension, like the navel of a pregnant male sea horse".) The few actual attempts at humour, parody, or what you will, are laboured (e.g. the annoying anthropomorphising of the house Dariya Mahal, which "threw back its head and laughed…" and "would have slipped on its dancing shoes if it had had legs…"). But there’s some merriment to be found in the well-meant solemnity with which Shanghvi produces gems like: "Modesty trailed her as the most dignified of chaperones in her candlelight tryst with Destiny."

That Dusk is, at the very least, going to be derivative is obvious from an early moment where "several bees grow dizzy and promptly faint in mid-air" (because of the strong fragrance of the flowers worn by the heroine). Uh oh, you think, there’s the first nod to magic realism. Naturally, there’s more to follow. The lady in question is Anuradha Patwardhan, who, as the book opens, is leaving Udaipur for Bombay to marry Vardhmaan Gandharva, a doctor. Anuradha’s mother, who comes to see her off, is, we’re told, "a woman of altitude (sic)…slim but with pertinent parts of her biology eye-catchingly endowed and a certain gift of Song".

The capital S in Song commences a tradition that lasts the length of the book, where select words (which the author can presumably use to hint at Deeper Meaning) are subjected to the same treatment -- words like Joy, Desire, Death and, on one memorable occasion, even Quietness ("a puzzling Quietness had settled in him like a silverfish in a book").

To be unnecessarily kind, there is a point, early on, when despite all these stylistic irritants, one gets a sense of something readable -- of the kernel of what might turn into a promising story. Especially with the introduction of Anuradha and Vardhmaan’s precocious first child, Mohan, who demands a violin when he is two-and-a-half years old. There’s also a (very) briefly moving account of an Englishman who dies in Dariya Mahal while waiting for his lover, a Rajasthani prince -- thus relegating said mansion to haunted house status.

Unfortunately, none of the good parts lasts very long. The reader is assaulted, at all-too-regular intervals, by passages like: "She slides through the forest. Monkeys barking. His cantering paws crushing twigs. Blood on her neck. Gasping. Takes a right. Almost goes down a damned gorge. Out pours the moonlight she has bayed at and branches that whack her flat." Not to mention the repeated use of words like "clavicle" and "tumescent" (the latter used at one point to qualify the noun "teat"). And Dariya Mahal soon morphs into the book’s most annoying character, a house that is far too clever for its own good, or ours.

By the time the real protagonist, Nandini Hariharan, is introduced, ennui has thoroughly set in. Nandini is an orphaned cousin of Anuradha; the women in her family have a regrettable history of copulating with leopards ("Cat’s blood she had in her. Cats.") -- hence, one supposes, the sheepish-looking panther on the book jacket?

Nandini’s rise in art circles soon becomes the focus of the book, as the story gets increasingly confused and directionless, moving away from Anuradha and her estranged husband. Among her other achievements, Nandini tells M K Gandhi his loin cloth is "unbelievably sexy", smartly advises Virginia Woolf to "jump in the river or something" and attends parties frequented by the likes of "Stella Dimm, England’s first ever Tit Girl, who was shacking up at the Bella Vista with Sudipto Bhattacharya, author of the international bestseller The Mating Habits of the Hindoos, an updated version of the Kama Sutra, for which he had been awarded the prestigious Hooker Prize" (sic).

All this probably makes the book sound more interesting than it is. But there’s only so much fun that can be squeezed out of unintended humour, and I soon lost interest in these self-important characters and their lengthy discourses -- like the depressingly blah dialogues between Anuradha and her dying friend Pallavi that are so, so, obviously aimed at the western reader. ("Even love comes with its own season…and relationships with their own kismets. They start through us, Pallavi, and then love loves through us. Like the fruit that must fall from the bough if it is to carry its life into its next avatar.")

Since a review as dismissive as this one is open to charges of prejudice -- or at least to a blinkered view of what good writing should be like -- I’ve included as many passages from the actual novel as I could. My advice therefore is: take a quick look at those again, see if there’s something here you might fancy, and then decide for yourself whether you want to buy this book. If not, leave it to the silverfish.

-- May 2004

10 comments:

  1. Who are you, Jabberwock? Why aren't you in one of these white people's publishing houses, screening what passes for slices of Indian life for a living? Have you recently met any books in English by Indian authors that don't ever mention palanquins,princesses, spices, jasmine bowers, ruined palaces, peacocks and other assorted exotica?

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  2. firstly, i agree with shangvi's book being drivel. after listening to people writing paens to it, it's nice to read this one.
    also loved dom moraes' (RIP) one in outlook.

    and yes, anonymous, it is rather a shocking realisation that most indian english books nowadays mention exotica.

    but one exception is shauna singh baldwin's stark 'what the body remembers'. though she makes up for that with her new one!

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  3. I have read The Last Song of Dusk & met siddharth Shanghviwhen he visited australia and I would have to say i have never been so effected by one person. He is a wonderful story teller whos graceful presence is amazingly beautiful and the fact that i got to meet him is a major highlight of my year, Im so excited to expereince his next book.

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  4. Anonymous said ...``He is a wonderful story teller whos GRACEFUL PRESENCE ..''
    ...well should have also mentioned his `graceful voice'... that would have cleared some anonymity of yours.!!

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  5. I must say, I have never spent a more enjoyable afternoon rooting through bogs of friends of friends of friends, which is how I found this. I write - or at least have pretnsions to such grandeur. I go to school in NY and intend to end up in a desolate ditch somewhere with a piece of paper qualifying me to be a starving poet. Right now, I am ignoring my duties and not writing a term paper on "The Kreutzer Sonata" and reading old bogs of yours. Two weeks from my last summer were spent doing a whirlwind tour of Delhi's bookstores, trying to hone in on the trends and contemporary writers. I picked up Shangvi and Rana Dasgupta and when I read them my emotions were completely at odds with each other. I will admit, I preferred the latter to the former (not by much, though). My mindset was this - if such drivel is being published - and lauded - And awarded, the chances of gettign something halfways decent out there are pretty strong. Or are they? Are we just simply so jaded now that we simply cant tell the difference. Am I? Jaded, i.e.
    I felt vindicated when I read this blog and have every intention of locking my room, lighting a candle and reading "Love and Longing in Bombay" start to finish to soothe my agitated nerves. Good day, sir.

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  6. Damn sharp article. Shangvi is the breed of trash that will always proliferate. He writes over-flowery language to disguise his inadequacy of experience. He's a rich reject who might just find even more fans in the coming years. But those who know, will always know - that he is nothing but complete rubbish. But more than Shangvi who must only be too happy to pose in his wealthy, panzoid glory, I think the media is to blame, for having made him a super star to begin with.

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  7. I was very surprised when I read Siddarth Dhanvant Shanghvi's 'The Last song of dusk' and Rupa Bajwa's 'The sari shop' were given the same award for their Italian translations. I forget the name of the award but it is supposed to be a pretty big one. I mean, Shanghvi is just like a rich kid escaped from a bad creative writing course and there is no way his writing can match up to Bajwa's. 'The Sari Shop' is a very unassuming, honest novel. There is a sure touch, but no loud confidence in it. At the same time, it is a very strong novel, with deft, economical prose, superb handling of diverse characters and a great ability to transport the reader to the protagonist's life.
    In sharp contrast is Shanghvi's overloaded prose, each word of which screams 'Read me. I am great', eclipsing the story and the characters completely. So how come the two were chosen for the same award?

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  8. I wrote about Shanghvi's book in 2004 but couldn't remember its name for the death of me. I Googled it and I was amused to chance upon your post. Very apt. Funnily enough, Amitava Kumar hated it just as much as you did and he couldn't stop reminding me frequently while I was interviewing him about Husband of a Fanatic. He even listed it as one of the most overrated books in an short interview with Tehelka. Well, wonder what Shanghvi is up to these days? Has he retired to (chuckle) Dariya Mahal?

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  9. you are all being unnecessarily harsh. Yes, "The Song of Dusk" is a bit exuberant, and there are paragraphs in it that could clearly have done with a second edit. Yes, some of the stuff is pretty unbeliable and can annoy a reader. However, the strength of the book is this--the writer seems to have delved into that playful part of himself and not censored even the "drivel", as one critic puts it. The result is a lot of energy and color--and when a reader goes out to a bookstore and finds book after book of flawless prose (Boring Jhumpa comes to mind), it is refreshing to come upon this kind of prose. It is like finding a street cart filled with soda bottles of colored water-you know its toxic but you love it anyway. Was the book overhyped? Perhaps. But then you gotta love your young writers, the one who take chances and are not hemmed in by convention. Imagine a world that would be filled with flawless diamond prose, Jhumpa style--I'd cut my throat rather than watch that happen! So bring it on Siddharth--but please could you get rid of that photo with the gelled hair. Its just a bit too much... I know it made you popular iwth the Italian senoritas, but still...

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  10. A terrible review. If you can't open your imagintion to a book, leave criticism to people who're more capable.

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