A few more odds and ends from my weekly column for The Sunday Guardian:
I was vaguely aware that Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code had unleashed a minor cottage industry of books dealing with conspiracy theories, secret societies and searches for Biblical artifacts, but I didn’t realise how closely the actual format of these books adhered to the original until I read Boyd Morrison’s The Noah’s Ark Quest. You’ll recall (and no, don’t pretend you haven’t read it!) that Brown’s book began with an elderly museum curator doing a very complicated series of things in his dying moments, including arranging his nude body in the shape of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing – all with the intention of leaving behind clues for his granddaughter. Well, Morrison’s book begins with a Prologue where a dying man ruefully contemplates that an “inky black chamber, a room hidden from the world for millennia, would become his tomb”. And he didn’t even get to lay his eyes on Noah’s Ark! Never mind, perhaps his archaeologist daughter Dilara will find it.
What follows is a series of adventures involving Dilara, an army engineer named Tyler, and a group of killers who are in search of the relic. The action scenes and cliffhanger chapter endings quickly get tiresome, but there’s some unintended humour here, not least when Dilara and Tyler have an earnest conversation about parameters. Samples:
“There are thirty million species in the world, which means Noah would have had to load 50 pairs of animals per second to do it in seven days.”
“One elephant alone eats a hundred and fifty pounds of food a day. So if you have four elephants, two Asian and two African, for just forty days that’s 24,000 pounds of food, which also comes out the other end.”
“In a raging storm like the Flood, wave oscillations would have snapped the Ark’s frame like a twig.”
Someone should tell these thrill-seekers that there are better arguments for the non-existence of the big wooden ship. And that if they do decide to believe in its existence anyway, they should perhaps stop worrying about mundane real-world phenomena like “wave oscillations”.
(For a much more entertaining take on what really went down in the Ark, read Julian Barnes' A History of the World in Ten and a Half Chapters. Also see this old post.)
In the Foreword to Why We Don’t Talk, a collection of stories built around the theme of lack of communication, Shashi Deshpande contemplates the differences between short-form and long-form writing. “The short story requires the focus of an archer or a sharpshooter, the craftsmanship of a miniaturist, the ruthlessness of a saint in shedding the unwanted,” she writes, “A novel can be fat and bloated; even when it is oversized a reader can still read it, skipping what seems unnecessary ... [but in a short story] the flaws cannot be concealed, the flab shows.”
Short stories – especially those by authors who aren’t already heavyweights – have been marginalised in Indian publishing, but signs are that this is changing. This year saw a few solid collections, among them Kalpana Swaminathan’s intense, no-holds-barred Venus Crossing, which explored the darkest corners of the human experience (in “Incident at Abu Ghraib”, a woman explains her morbid identification with an American who humiliated Iraqi prisoners of war), Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s Eunuch Park and Parvati Sharma’s The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love.
Why We Don’t Talk is a good addition to the catalogue. Edited by Shinie Antony, it brings together an impressive list of writers including Anjum Hasan, Usha K R, Jahnavi Barua, Chetan Bhagat and Brinda Charry. As you’d expect with any anthology of this sort (there are 27 stories here), it has hits and misses, but the better pieces are fine illustrations of Deshpande’s point about compact, focused writing.
In Srinath Perur’s “The Middle Path”, a young man observes – and learns an improbable lesson from – the activities of an idiot savant in his colony. Anita Nair’s “Trespass” brings a man’s wife and mistress together in a beauty salon while the store owner keeps a nervous watch on them. Amit Varma’s “Urban Planning” lampoons the workings of bureaucracy by imagining a situation where Mumbai’s buildings start moving from one location to another, to the befuddlement of the municipal commissioner. And Moonis Ijlal’s “The Lady on the Horse” makes some wry – and discomfiting – observations about the parent-child relationship. I hope we get to see more thematic collections of this sort in bookstores in the next few months.
In The Ugliness of the Indian Male, Mukul Kesavan made the tongue-in-cheek observation that while Indian women are delicate, Indian men tend to be “coarse and squab-like”. A very enjoyable new picture-book titled Kumari Loves a Monster seems almost like a visual representation of this idea. This is essentially a bound collection of 25 beautifully drawn illustrations built around a common theme: lovely young Indian girls in the company of their boyfriends, who are depicted, literally, as grotesque monsters of various shapes and hues. The intention isn’t to suggest that the “boyfriends” are creeps or scoundrels – in all other respects, the pictures are realist and rooted in romantic tradition: the lovers are shown playing cricket, dancing, flinging snowballs at each other, even sharing the customary glass of milk on their wedding night. It’s a lovely, out-of-the-box idea, executed extremely well, and I think it makes a fine gift for someone who likes good artwork and has a sense of humour.
(Also see this trailer for Kumari)
Tabish Khair is among the most versatile Indian writers around today – apart from novels, he has written poetry, children’s books and academic studies – but there are two aspects of his fiction writing that stand out for me. One, his choice of subject and setting, which tend to be unusual by the standards of contemporary Indian novelists. And two, his playing about with narrative conventions. His 2006 novel I>Filming (which I wrote about here) shifts between a small village in 1929 and the world of the Hindi film industry in the late 1940s, and some of the characters from the first time-period resurface with new identities in the second. (The book’s “title credits” hint at double roles.) It was constructed like a jigsaw puzzle, giving us first one character’s viewpoint, then another’s, and moving back and forth in time.
Khair’s new novel The Thing about Thugs continues this knack for experimenting. In addition to its central narrative (which itself moves between the third person and the first person, including self-referential asides by a narrator who may or may not be Khair himself, telling us how he came across the idea for this “novelized history”), there are at least two other “perspective” strands. As a result, the publishers had to use four different fonts to differentiate them – “Typeset in 11/15 Adobe Jenson Pro, Wamock Pro, Apple Chancery and Times New Roman” says the book’s copyright page!
The Thing about Thugs is a strong recreation of a historical period – the London of the late 1830s, a place where civilisation and savagery not only coexisted but sometimes even formed Devil’s pacts with each other. The story centres on a man named Amir Ali, who leaves his village in Bihar to travel to England with a captain named William Meadows. Amir has passed himself off as a member of the cult of Indian Thugs (though he presents a different history of himself in love-letters addressed to a charwoman named Jenny) and he soon becomes the central suspect when a series of gruesome murders occur in London.
At one point Khair echoes a famous line from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.” The “this” in the quote refers to London, which was then the heart of the civilised world. Amir Ali’s story, with its rich cast of characters and ambiguous interpretations of “thuggery” (whether in the backwaters of rural Bihar or the lanes of the East End or even the mansions of respectable high-society types), is a reminder that no region or social class has a monopoly on crime or squalor.