(Did this for the Indian Express. I’ve found that I don’t enjoy writing unfavourable reviews as much as I once used to. In my more wanton days I would relish the opportunity to be sarcastic and over-clever about a book/film I didn’t like. But now, with time always at a premium, the thrill of writing a smart-assed, cocky review isn’t adequate compensation for having wasted so much of one’s time on reading something mediocre in the first place.
Another factor is that as one gets drawn into the literary circuit and sees what a struggle the writing process is, one sympathizes much more with writers, even the bad ones: it’s depressing to realise how much sweat and toil can go into putting together even five pages of mediocre prose; how much work writers put into their first and second and third drafts, and at the end of it all produce something that still doesn’t hold together. I’ve experienced this firsthand – I poured everything I had into my first attempt at fiction, a short story; agonised for days over it; and when it was done I could immediately see how dreary and unexceptional it was.
Of course, all this doesn’t mean that the reading public must not be warned not to waste their time/money on something that isn’t worth it – but it does greatly diminish the fun of trashing a book.)
Wading through the drabness of The Patiala Quartet, the question that comes to mind is: why would a leading publisher print this? It isn't exactly a bad book – there's an acceptable story in there somewhere and the writing is okay, a little ponderous at worst – but it's so trite and unremarkable, it's hard to believe it can possibly be any better than dozens of manuscripts that are routinely rejected every month.
Maybe it has something to do with the recent trend involving fiction set in smaller cities, and attempting to capture specific milieus – like in Patna Roughcut, The Sari Shop (Amritsar) and Sikandar Chowk Park (Allahabad) among others. But apart from a few scattered passages, The Patiala Quartet fails to create an involving portrait of a particular place in a particular time – something it sets out to do before it even begins (with the author profile purposefully stating that Neel Kamal Puri "grew up in the erstwhile princely state of Patiala amidst remnants of grandeur and a generation of idle rich still clinging to the past").
The story, such as it is, centres on two sets of siblings - Monty and Minnie, and their first cousins Karuna and Michael - growing up in the Patiala of the early 1980s. We get personality sketches, capsules of information on them and on various members of their families. Contrast is the key: Monty has a penchant for mathematics and for thinking too hard about things, but Michael is "a man of action" and spends most of his time riding around on his bicycle; Karuna is timorous and silent, while Minnie is prepared to face the world and learns that "the best way to confound an opponent is to confront him".
The problem is, rarely does this information flow naturally from the plot; instead, it's presented to us academically. An author can of course establish certain things about key characters when introducing them, but once that's done they have to be defined by their actions within the narrative framework. Here, however, well into the story we continue to get tedious observations like this one (in the context of Michael's love for obstacle-racing): "No wonder Michael felt at home here; from going around in circles on his cycle as a child to doing the same on the bike as an adult offered him a kind of comforting continuity." (The sentence is in parentheses, no less, performing the function of a ready-at-hand footnote.) The narrator pedantically points things out to the reader, the way a teacher might draw a student's attention to what's written on the blackboard.
The story plods on – key elements include the meek Karuna providing the family its first scandal, and Monty being traumatised by a terrorist encounter – but the characters never really come into their own, and it's difficult to maintain interest. The numerous stilted sentences ("All these and more were memories the echoes had nurtured for a while, bouncing them around and keeping them in play till the walls began to peel") don't do much to help.
In fairness, The Patiala Quartet occasionally succeeds in evoking the old-world charm of a setting where young women are chaperoned on their way home from college and young men cycle surreptitiously behind them. There's a funny passage detailing the complications of a "wedding in reverse", and an unexpectedly poignant ending. But these bits are few and far between and you have to get through a lot of dross to find them. It isn't much of an endorsement when the best thing you can say about a book is that it's only 170 pages long.