Saturday, September 06, 2008

Rajorshi Chakraborti's Derangements

As a book reviewer, one of my favourite chance discoveries was Rajorshi Chakraborti’s debut novel Or the Day Seizes You (review here, author interview here). Its urgent, dreamlike narrative was among the most distinct by a new Indian author in a while and it was a book very few people seemed to have heard of: writing about it was more satisfying than reviewing a high-profile, widely felicitated book that was already guaranteed space in a dozen newspapers and magazines.

Or the Day Seizes You was a very ambitious work, but Chakraborti’s second novel Derangements is even more so, and its structure is more complex. It spells out its meta-fictional intentions right at the beginning, through an “Editor’s Note” wherein we gather that a writer named Raj Chakraborti has recently disappeared in suspicious circumstances and that his editor has subsequently received a manuscript from him. What follows is the full text of this manuscript, which includes parallel stories: episodes from Raj’s own life – scattered, hazy, like many passages in Or the Day Seizes You – alternate with the first-person narrative of one of his invented characters, Charles Robert Pereira, a serial killer contacted by a mysterious clique of people who want him to work for them. (A tiny illustration of a pen or knife – the instrument of choice for writer and killer respectively – accompanies each chapter.) The connections between the two narratives – or between the lives of Raj and Charles – aren’t immediately obvious but slowly they begin to converge (in a manner that reminded me of an even stranger book, Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World). In each narrative, the line between what “really happens” and the dream-world is frequently unclear.

As this synopsis might indicate, Derangements isn’t light reading. Though Chakraborti’s prose itself is elegant, one needs intense concentration to follow the twists and turns in the stories, to make connections between one strand and another, and to process the many recurring ideas and images. Like his first novel, this is a book of vignettes, full of hallucinatory imagery (a complicated network of footpaths on a lake; humpbacked hills envisioned by a character as “gigantic whales run aground”; a vision of a bus standing in a desolate lane, which finds an echo elsewhere in the narrative), sequences that are built on impressions and barely remembered incidents (Raj’s childhood recollection of a late-night drive with his father) and moments of outright surrealism, as in a poignant scene involving a woman who turns into a cat.

Running through the dual narratives is a constant sense of paranoia, both about the world at large and about personal relationships. In fact, a running theme in both Chakraborti’s books has been that of the life that has lost its bearings; a protagonist unsure of his place in the world and, increasingly, of the world itself. Speaking about heroes from Greek and Indian epics, one of the narrators in Derangements reflects that
...though their lives resume their expected courses, they are all past their prime, haunted by losses and scars, and their best years have been spent either wandering further away from their destinies, or merely struggling to survive until they can come home. The lesson seems to be that such is the nature of life itself, composed solely of twists and derangements, and yet it is the only thing we have, to make the most of and call our own. If we refuse to accept it because it hasn’t run according to plan, that would be the true exile, as we would then be homeless in our own lives.
In a sense, Derangements is also a book-length riposte to that most clichéd (and most pointless) of questions that fiction writers regularly have to contend with: “How autobiographical is your book?” At its heart lies the question of how distanced a writer can become – in some cases, must become – from the business of living (“the infinite variety of the world – the principle to which I have paid lip service all these years: perhaps it has been decades since I was last in touch with any of its actual content,” muses Raj) and how difficult it can be to distinguish between real life and imagined life. What, after all, is a writer’s Rosebud (a word borrowed from Citizen Kane to denote the non-existent key that might unlock or conveniently “explain” a life)?

In my view Chakraborti is one of the most interesting writers now operating in Indian fiction. I find his work provocative in a similar way to that of Raj Kamal Jha – both deal with dark and subversive ideas unselfconsciously (and without making a pronounced effort to be “different”) and both are brave writers, willing to take risks (though it’s likely they don’t see it that way themselves; maybe they just write what they have to write) that can distance the majority of readers from their work. In this old interview, Jha told me:
“There will always be people who won’t get from my writing what I get out of it...Personally, I feel lucky if just 4-5 people like something in my book. Even if a single paragraph works for them, that's very satisfying… I think paras can work in isolation, pages can work, even individual lines can work in isolation. Fleeting scenes from movies leave a strong impression on me.”
I can’t claim to know Chakraborti’s feelings on the subject, but his writing shows a similar private integrity, a willingness to stay away from the safety nets that are so important to many writers. Like I said, Derangements doesn’t make for easy reading – and I have a troubled feeling that a book like this should ideally be read a second time before one ventures to review it – but it has a haunting, lingering quality that very few writers can achieve.

[Earlier related posts here and here]


  1. Please! The Editorial note is a direct rip off of John Barth's Giles Goat Boy. Or some ironic post-modernism. But surely plagiarism is more a natural Indian trait, so i'll go with that.

  2. Speaking of murakami , he has a new book. An autobiography of sorts called what I think about when I'm running. I thought his last - after dark - was a little underwhelming. But this is a great return to form - sort of like Norwegian wood and south of the border west of the sun.
    By the way a recommendation if you have not read it already - "Herzog" by Saul Bellow. Picked it up on my last trip to India at the land mark book shop in Gurgaon. It's pretty good - reminded me of bits and pieces of Virginia Woolf and Joyce. I know I sound pretentious.
    Also many cingratulations on your blogs birthday. I joined the band wagon much later but am a fan nonetheless.
    Keep it flowing

  3. You know, Chakraborti's prose reminded me of Raj Kamal Jha, one of my faves, even during his debut work. Haven't read this one, though.

    Reading Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore" right now...... jaw-dropping stuff! (In an exercise of unashamed hero-worship, I almost bought a Murakami-themed lavish diary from Crosswords, before better sense cost more than the book itself)

  4. "a writer named Raj Chakraborti has recently disappeared in suspicious circumstances and that his editor has subsequently received a manuscript from him"

    Sounds very Austerian. Someone else has mentioned a direct rip off from John Barth's book.

    Even so, the novel (both this one and the debut novel) will have to go on my will-read-someday list!

  5. On an entirely separate note, I am eagerly awaiting a post in light of Federer's recent win. I hope he carries this form in to the next major!

  6. On another entirely separate note, I am eagerly awaiting a post in light of the released shortlist for the Man Booker prize.

  7. Pranav, Neha: doubt I'd want to write about either of those subjects. The Federer win wasn't unexpected where I was concerned: I had him pegged as the favourite to win, especially after his likely semi-final opponent Djokovic had a couple of tough matches followed by that bizarro tantrum in front of the Arthur Ashe crowd after beating Roddick. And I didn't buy into any of this overwrought "end of the Federer era" talk that's been doing the rounds lately. But yes, it was a very important win for him. Playing at a slightly lower level, he could easily have lost to Andreev in the 4th round.

    About the Booker shortlist... I can't bring myself to get excited about these lists/awards, though of course there's always some amusement value in discussing them. Also, I haven't read most of the books on this year's longlist. I thought highly of both the Amitav Ghosh and the Aravind Adiga (and have written about them on this blog), but that's about it - am certainly not getting into relative merits/demerits and the tedious "this book should have been shortlisted, that one shouldn't have been" argument.

  8. I immensely enjoyed Or the day seized you, particularly for its non-linear narrative and little significant incidents like the scene in the alley with his wife. The passage you quote from Derangement could well explain Niladri from Rajosri’s first novel as well.

    Rajosri thanked his editor Karthika for the design of ‘Or the day seizes you’. VK Karthika moved to HarperCollins recently. I wonder how much of a role editors play in authors shifting publishers. Is Karthika been acknowledged again by Rajosri?

  9. Sundhar: yes, Karthika was the editor for this book too, and I think this was a case of Raj moving with his editor.

  10. Has scythian empires read Chakraborti's novel? How can he then call the The Editorial Note a rip off? Isn't he implying that once an idea has been used it cannot be used again? Isn't scythian empires indulging in a familiar trait himself by deciding on the contents by merely reading a review ( which incidentally is fair and balanced) and making up his mind? A natural Indian trait, so I'll go with that.

  11. Anon: true, and I'd add the old reviewer's adage to what you've said: it's not the what, it's the how.

  12. I'm almost positive Raj moved with his editor as during class he always said nothing but good about him.