I believe reviews are essentially personal things and the best ones will tell you as much about the reviewer as about the thing being reviewed (never understood the “be objective” shtick dished out by editors with Buddha-like smiles). And usually I’m quite comfortable writing what I feel about a book or film, irrespective of what others have said about it. But ever so often a difficult case comes along where I have to wonder whether it might be better to take a coolly academic approach; to tiptoe around my own (undoubtedly warped) ideas about a work and try instead to imagine how it might have affected most other readers/viewers. This usually happens when a book or film leaves a strong impression on me but I still can’t really argue with the negative things others are saying about it.
Does that make any sense? The latest instance is Upamanyu Chatterjee’s Weight Loss, which I started nearly a month ago and have only now brought myself to finish. I’ve been ambivalent about it all the way through: the first 70-80 pages were very promising, and funnier than anything I had read by an Indian author in at least 3-4 years (this could be the Indian Portnoy’s Complaint, I was thinking excitedly at that stage). But then it started to drift and get tedious. Around the halfway mark I put it away, got terribly busy and didn’t read anything for a couple of weeks apart from Jaipur tourism brochures, which were also funny. Then I returned to it yesterday and to my own surprise finished the remaining 200 pages quite easily.
I know at least 5 people who disliked this book intensely, and at least one (someone whose judgement I have very high regard for) who thought it was middling at best. Plus I’ve read three scathing reviews that made some very good points. And yet I can’t shake the feeling that for all its unevenness there’s much in it that’s good – and that in particular it hasn’t received enough credit for its subversive humour and for the way it brings a degree of believability, even poignancy, to the actions of a protagonist no reader would otherwise be able to identify with (and no mother would be able to love).
Weight Loss is about the strange life (from age 11 to age 37) of a sexual deviant named Bhola, whose attitude to most of the people around him depends on their lustworthiness. Bhola’s tastes are not, to put it mildly, conventional. Sex is a form of depravity for him and he fetishizes everyone from teachers to roadside sadhus to servants; he progresses from fantasizing about the portly family cook Gopinath to falling “madly in love” with a vegetable-vendor and her husband. This last obsession spans the length of the book and most of Bhola’s life – he even ends up studying at a college in an obscure hill-station hundreds of miles from his home because he wants to be near the couple. At various other stages in his life he get expelled from school for defecating in a teacher’s office, participates in an inexpertly carried out circumcision (one of the book’s many manifestations of the “weight loss” motif) and engages in sundry forms of debauchery. Agastya Sen would have barfed at some of this. Portnoy would at the very least have blushed.
And many readers will understandably be disgusted. As you might have guessed, this isn’t a particularly accessible book. From the first, it sets out to make things very difficult for the reader. The subject matter is unpleasant and gratuitous in places, and it’s easy to be put off. (I don’t have delicate sensibilities myself but I was still disturbed by some passages, and this was one reason for the two-week break in reading it.)
And yet, much as I was personally repulsed by Bhola’s twisted obsessions, I thought him convincing on his own terms: given how the author sets up and defines the character for us, I found it completely believable that he would behave the way he does; that he would, for instance, make a crucial life-altering choice on the basis of a single twisted obsession. If one of the chief purposes of fiction is to provide us a window into another way of living or thinking, Weight Loss does succeed in doing that to an extent.
The more pertinent question then is, what can we possibly gain from following the misadventures of such a grossly unbalanced character, and there’s no easy answer to that one. I don’t want to go out on a limb defending this book, but I have to point out here that it’s futile to take Weight Loss at face value. The entire premise is so extreme that the best way to approach it is to think of it as a deliberate distortion – the exaggeration of characters and situations to draw attention to the pathologies of our own lives. To this end, Chatterjee’s humour is an incredibly effective device. He’s better than almost any contemporary Indian writer at being irreverent about our sacred cows and showing us what comical little creatures we are at precisely those times when we are taking ourselves most seriously. The humour, admittedly over the top at times, also serves as a buffer, shielding the reader from some of the depressing things he has to say.
One criticism of the prose is that it’s laborious and overdone. But this very quality often helps him achieve a very specific comic effect founded on the gradual building up of hysteria. When he uses a long string of words machine gun-style to describe something, it’s done very deliberately – the effect is very different from, say, a florid writing style where adjectives are indiscriminately over-used. For instance, early in the book, when Bhola is caned by his physical education teacher, we are told that “one of his classmates, Anantaraman, a pale, sensitive, shy, nervous and complex boy, passed out”. You might argue that the simultaneous use of “pale”, “sensitive”, “shy” and “nervous” amounts to overkill but I think it gives the sentence a hysterical effect that fits very well with the overall mood of the passage. And it nicely leads up to the knockout blow provided by the last adjective, “complex” – a relatively unspecific word but a wickedly funny one in this context, and one that perfectly fits the character of the distressed Anantaraman.
Another example – after Bhola asks his wife to do something with a vaguely sexual connotation: “Embarrassed, terribly shy, faintly excited, almost happy, uncertain, she complied.” (But I’m going to stop dissecting humour now, it’s no fun.)
P.S. After all that pontificating, let me stress that I’m not giving Weight Loss my highest endorsement – only suggesting that it’s a more interesting book than it first appears to be, and worth reexamining. And no, I still have no idea what I’m going to write in that blasted official review I have to do now.