Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Or the Day Seizes You: a review

There's a passage in Or the Day Seizes You, Rajorshi Chakraborti's compelling debut novel, where the narrator visits an "exclusive men's club" in London along with a couple of friends. This is effectively an amusement park of sex, housed in a sprawling seven-floor building: they pay at the desk, are given cards with their numbers and asked to wait for their turn. In the meantime, they have the run of the place – access to unlimited drink, the right to wander anywhere they please in the building, even watch what's going on in various bedrooms; the place looks neat, well-managed, efficient. But the night wears on and it becomes obvious that things aren't as perfect as they seem: at 3 in the morning they're still 15 numbers away from their turn.

Exploring the upper floors, the narrator realises with a start that what he thought were a long line of doors are mere paintings – clearly a ruse to make the place appear grander than it really is. An angry Nigerian joins their group and delivers a long monologue about how they're all being cheated: "Look at what they offer you. You sit around for hours waiting for them to keep their promise, and they tease your eyes and ears so you won't leave, but that's the way it will be all night..." This extraordinary scene ends with the three men being forced to leave at 7am, weary and perplexed, never having achieved what they came to the club for.

People being repeatedly frustrated in their attempts to finish something, or even to focus on the task at hand...this is a theme rooted in the surrealist tradition. Luis Bunuel's film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is built on the constantly interrupted efforts of a group of six people to sit down to dinner. In an earlier Bunuel picture, The Exterminating Angel, guests at a dinner party succeed in eating all right, but then find they cannot leave the house (no reason is specified). In Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, a famous pianist is kept from his central task (though we never learn what that is) by a number of irritating distractions.. (Like the characters in The Discreet Charm..., he never gets to finish a meal either – which paves the way for the powerful ending involving a seemingly limitless feast spread out at the back of a tram-car.)

Or the Day Seizes You has other elements in common with these works: a continuing sense of dislocation, of time being stretched out to the point where it doesn’t mean anything, uncertainty about where dream-life ends and waking-life begins. Some of this is reflected in the book's cover design, which is one of the more interesting I've seen lately. Two famous Salvador Dali paintings occupy the background: "Le Sommeil" ("The Sleep"), which depicts a giant sleeping head precariously tethered to the ground, and the hypnotic "The Persistence of Memory" with its landscape of eerily folded “melting” clocks. The book contains no reference to Dali or to surrealism, and I don't know about how much collaboration there was between author and designer, but it's a strikingly appropriate design.

It's difficult to write a straight review of a book like this. It doesn't have a conventional beginning, middle and end, and it feels almost irrelevant to summarise the contents. But here goes anyway:

Niladri Dasgupta, a man in his mid 30s, gets a complaint about his seven-year-old daughter's inappropriate behaviour at her school, and this in turn leads to the discovery that his wife has been unfaithful. After a brief visit to a hill-station with his daughter, he leaves the country and goes to London by himself. Five years later, he returns to attend the funeral of an uncle who was murdered during an altercation at a traffic jam. He learns unpleasant truths about the reasons for the estrangement between his father and the deceased uncle, discovers that a vital part of his life – involving his family's cruelty towards a neighbour – was founded on a falsehood. He visits his ex-wife, marvels at how completely she has settled into a new life without him: "I found her absolutely undepleted and her magic circle was as large as ever, only I wasn't inside any more."

Interspersed with all this are vignettes from his life in London – including the sex-club incident and a trip to Normandy that ends in a nightmarish car chase. Near the end of the story Niladri is fleeing once again – this time as the result of his father's foolishness in taking on a powerful local ganglord. At a point where one would think the book could easily have gone on for another 100 pages, it simply ends.

This plot isn't remarkable in itself, but what's notable is the ease with which Chakraborti creates the sense of a life that’s perpetually adrift. In its refusal to draw obvious connections between the various episodes in Niladri’s life, the book is, paradoxically, more effective than a conventional narrative would have been. This is a story (if you can call it that) about missed connections, about the vast spaces that can exist between people in close relationships – and appropriately, at the centre of it is a passive narrator; Niladri is like a blank slate, content to be scribbled on. ("Forgive me if I narrate nothing in order and have omitted so much that must have occurred around me," he says, "I probably represent it as if I were alone with my feelings in some underwater womb surrounded by silence.")

As a whole, Or the Day Seizes You can be a bit mystifying, but chapter by chapter (fragment by fragment?) it's one of the most engrossing books I've read in a while. It's full of dream-like sequences, some of which foreshadow others: the very prologue, with the 11-year-old Nilu being forced to go to school despite heavy rain and finding himself practically alone in the building, has no obvious connection to anything that follows – but it prepares the ground for the book's tone of agoraphobia and general paranoia. In fact, the abstract elements in the book are so striking that I found it difficult to process the more straightforward presentation of ideas: a long rant, for instance, about corruption in high places, about the hegemony exercised by the powerful over the weak, about how the world's rich are part of a perpetual conspiracy to keep the poor in their place. (This occurs in two speeches made by different characters in different contexts.)

Or the Day Seizes You is a thought-provoking first novel that hasn't yet received the attention it merits. Even if you're not into surrealism, do give a try. And though I've revealed more here than I usually do about the plot and specific scenes, flipping through it again I realised there's much I haven't touched on: the book manages to pack a lot into its 200 pages.


  1. isn't it odd that perhaps the one thing that connects a lot of the writers today, is a central protagonist who has chosen to remain passive?

    this has been on my mind for a while, this business of what a writer's or a filmmaker's concerns are--and it appears that there are none. (i'm not talking documentary filmmakers). there are no agendas, no polemics, no reforming zeal.

    and i find that very encouraging!


  2. for some strange reason the description of niladri reminds me of toru watanabe of norwegien wood - curiously absent even when he is right in the middle of something.

    looks like an interesting book, and the review is compelling enuff to give it a try. thanx

  3. Space Bar, Idiot: yes, I find the passive narrator very interesting/encouraging too. See this post I wrote some months ago about such protagonists - had mentioned Toru and Norwegian Wood in it as well.

  4. Nice review. Usually, I skim through 'em, but this one made me read. Sounds like a really interesting book. Surrealism, I like. :)

  5. your post personifies the problem with people who attempt book reviews in india these days: terms like 'surrealism' are thrown around as if they were terms you came across in a book called 'idiot's guide to literature'. you have clearly studied that book by heart.

    while i understand your need to do these reviews (money is obviously an issue), it saddens me that there is no homework put in at all.

    please understand, this is NOT an attempt to malign you in any way. your posts on most subjects are extremely interesting. it is only the ones on literature that bother me simply because it is obvious, fairly quickly, that you know next to nothing about the subject.

    another problem that creeps up is this: the more common reviewers (nilanjana roy and uma dasgupta come to mind) display the same naivety. they seem to equate fiction with literature -- a frightening idea, considering these are the only people who usually bother to freelance as reviewers. again, because no one else will pay them. also, both illiterate, btw :(

  6. "Surabjit" (also variously known as Claire/Sutapa/Anonymuss etc): just a quick note to say that the only reason I'm not deleting your comment is because of its comic value. (It'll definitely be in the running for my next year-end list of comments.) However, my patience does wear thin at times, so anything more from you will be immediately erased.

    Nice idea to link your name to LAtimes.com, btw.

  7. The most intriguing book review I've read in a long time. Thanks for drawing attention to the book, Jai. Definitely sounds worth a try, especially since -- People being repeatedly frustrated in their attempts to finish something, or even to focus on the task at hand -- is very much my plight at the moment.

  8. I liked the book and had been wondering why it hadn't received the attention it should have got. Glad that you thought it worthy of a review. The writer will be happy to know what you have written. Sometimes comments from a reader makes a greater impact than reviews of established critics.

  9. Great book. Located it accidentally while browsing at a local bookshop. Loved the language that is both clear and without frills.The characters are like people who live across the road from you. Both Indian cities acquire monstrous personalities yet they are very recognizable as cities you live in and know well.

  10. The chase in Normandy is fearful and the reunion scene with his daughter is moving. The writer moves easily between these two extreme and contrary feelings revealing his mastery over both, situation and characterization.

  11. Hi, my name's Raj, and I wrote Or The Day Seizes You. I just want to thank Jai-Jabberwock for a most perceptive and generous review, and everyone else for their responses. I'm very touched by your comments. It's also a lovely surprise to be looking up your book and falling through an unexpected rabbit hole into a wonderful discussion space such as this. I'll be a regular visitor from now on.

    PS: I hope my posting doesn't affect the integrity of this review process somehow.

  12. Hi Jai,

    With reference to the title, there is also something surreal about the author's inversion of the 'carpe diem' theme. By making the day menacing, in a sense, it sets the tone for what is to come. At least that's what I got from it...


  13. you know.. am not sure if this is about the book or about the review.. but, what is the point? What is the point of the incident in London.. or of being outside the magic circle of the ex-wife..?

  14. I think that book cover that you had mentioned in the first part of the book was the wall of Debu. His story with his wife Ava, though no similar with Neelu and Meena, kind of was the central point of the story.

    Mainly because we never know what Meena had told Vilu.. before they split. That night that Nilu spoke with Debu, was the closest I could come to in deciphering what she had said.

    Those two anectdotes about how Nilu had at the same time stood up for AND abandoned Meena was the central point of Meena's argument that Nilu accepted without question.

  15. I wanted to address this to 'How do we know': That's just it. There is or there isn't a point. (most of the time there isn't) But life's still a story. Niladri's life, in this case.