My review; appeared in today’s Hindustan Times. The printed version has only a few sentences missing, which I can live with. (Much better than the injudicious cutting on a story I recently wrote for another publication, where the introductory reference to an interviewee was deleted – and the first quote from him popped up later in the piece with only his surname mentioned. That’s one thing that stings about freelancing - not being able to look at your story on the page before it goes off to press, something I’ve always been paranoid about. Ah well - it’s all about Letting Go, I guess…)
Back to Neelum Saran Gour’s book. Reading for work, and also trying desperately to read for pleasure every now and again, I often have a pre-decided list of the books I’ll tackle in a given month. So it’s a pleasant diversion when I’m assigned a book I would otherwise never have gotten around to, and it turns out to be better than expected. That’s pretty much what how I felt with Sikandar Chowk Park (another factor being that I feel guilty about not reading enough by Indian authors apart from the Big Names). Here’s the review:
It’s a depressingly familiar sight for any newspaper reader - the headline "Bomb blast in..." followed by the number of dead and injured: the reduction of human lives to cold numbers. Or as Siddhanta, the narrator of Neelum Saran Gour’s new book, puts it, "History’s ciphers...unchronicled potential history-fodder".
Siddhanta is a journalist covering a bomb blast that has killed 57 people in Sikandar Chowk Park, Allahabad. But this isn’t an investigative story, or not in the usual sense of the word. What he’s interested in is the minutiae of these lives that were abruptly cut off. He looks at 11 of the people whose bodies were so badly mutilated that immediate identification was impossible. Who were they? What combination of circumstances led them to this macabre appointment with death? What were they doing in the months leading up to the incident? And then, "out of the random mashed mess there sprang personalities, lives, stories of pain and love and betrayed trust and fantasies and forgiveness and fresh resolves".
We meet the victims to be, among them a woman whose husband is slowly dying of cirhossis; a gentle professor who "lived trying to understand history and would die inadvertently enacting it"; two people who begin a relationship on a tenuous link (the discovery of uncashed cheques exchanged between their relatives 60 years earlier); an aging Vakil Sahib who jokes about wanting to be “the first millennium corpse”.
The politics of religion that presumably led to the blast are never explicitly discussed. Instead, Gaur shows us how a steady accumulation of events can add up to something horrifying. A conversation between an old Muslim landlady and the young vagrants playing cricket outside her house begins as cheerful banter but slowly, insidiously, comes around to the question of whether she supports India or Pakistan in cricket. Another edgy discussion pits one God against another (“Allah and Jesus are responsible folk, yaar. They look after their own. But imagine going to Lord Krishna and saying: Sir, I have a stomach ache. He’ll ask you with a smile: What is this stomach and what is this body? What are you?”) The precariousness of even an old family friendship is revealed after a Muslim child takes the Hindu boy to see a goat being slaughtered. When it comes to religion, we are reminded, the smallest differences becomes unbreachable chasms, even between families who have lived in harmony for years. Ordinary people living ordinary lives in a small bustee can be moved to perpetuate a riot of savage proportions. And yet, in the midst of all this, there are also glimpses of humanity and selflessness - like the aging music teacher’s love for his stray dogs - that transcend all divisions.
Though Siddhanta’s voice is overly portentous (at times he sounds almost like he’s morbidly enjoying himself in this sutradhar role), Sikandar Chowk Park is an engrossing novel. The narrative structure is an intrinsically compelling one: the foreknowledge that these people’s lives are to end with such cruel suddenness gives their tales an edge - it adds a poignant new perspective, for instance, to the urgency of a woman’s hunt for her husband’s mistress of 35 years ago.
Inevitably, some of the stories are more interesting than others. There are, possibly, a couple of characters too many, and it’s difficult to do them all justice in the space allowed by a 280-page book. But in a sense that’s the point too - these lives, and the lives they affect, are destined to be unresolved. These have to be fragmented tales, not whole ones, and Gour spaces them out as adeptly as can be expected. The technique of speeding the narrative up as the climax nears (the equivalent of reducing the duration of each successive shot in a film) is effective too.
And the ending is abrupt, but then how could it not be?