Saturday, August 18, 2012

The hills are alive (but only just) - on Kalpish Ratna's new book

[Did this review for The Sunday Guardian]

“Who would want to imprison a hill?”

The question might seem to come from the fantasy genre – from something like the story of Tolkien’s tree-like Ents, sundered from their kin, their gardens destroyed by the forces of evil. Like many such fables, Kalpish Ratna’s Once Upon a Hill is a cautionary tale and an elegy for the natural world, but its silent hero is a real hill – or rather, something that was once part of a hill: a 60-metre-high column of rock in Mumbai’s Andheri, a surreal presence (for someone who actually looks at it instead of taking it for granted) in the heart of a dirty, crowded urban settlement. And Gilbert Hill isn’t imprisoned only in the sense that it has been separated from its hill friends and plonked into a city: when the author views it early one Sunday morning, it is literally behind a gate – “barred, padlocked, grilled”.

Make that “authors”, for Kalpish Ratna is the lyrical pseudonym used by Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed, who write together (this can sometimes be confusing: the book’s narrator mentions “my daughter Afaaf” – the reference is to Syed’s child – and there are incidents that read like a single person’s experiences). Even if you don’t know that they are professional surgeons, you might guess it from some of the descriptors they use: the east face of the hill is a “dry ulcer, an ugly keloid of crumbling tissue that will never be repaired again”; from one angle, it “looks like an über-scar”.

Their intention, however, is to discover what Gilbert Hill really is, what it tells us about Bombay’s geological past and about ourselves. How did its distinctive hexagonal columns form? What of the shrine – to a mysterious goddess named Gaodevi – at the top? What of its modern history – its sale and subsequent quarrying? These questions are addressed through much research (including a study of the papers of the 19th century surgeon Henry John Carter), the consultation of old maps, and many dead ends. There is a hint of detective story here; like the protagonist in Swaminathan’s Lalli books, the authors rigorously work things out, conducting an investigation that reaches back to 65 million years ago, when the landmass we now call India had not yet collided into Asia; they scrutinise the whys and hows of rock formations, peck at the exact meaning of “basalt”.

One sees here a trademark of Kalpish Ratna’s work: obsessive attention to detail and a propensity to cut through – or fold back – the surfaces of things to discover what lies beneath them (the reviewer’s pen trembles for trite analogies involving surgery and scalpels). But another quality – one I admire greatly – is a visible love for the nuts and bolts of writing. This duo has never been content to run with a good plot (or, as in this case, a worthy non-fiction subject) – their writing, at a sentence by sentence level, is rich, inventive, full of sharp imagery (“a tinsel arc of water shivers in the air as an autorickshaw gets its morning sluice”) that sometimes steers close to over-descriptiveness.

Thus, inanimate things are given life – a large construction crane becomes a steel tyrannosaurus, tearing away the pavement with its “titanic mandibles”. There is humour (“a one-headed dog” rises from a guttery Styx; an archaeologist “has a bright future and is equally illuminating about the past”), there is poetry (“flatten the hills, push back the sea, make even more space for the builder and me”), and even a whimsical firsthand account by a fossilised turtle whose memories stretch back to a time the authors themselves can barely imagine. Mostly, these are cases of form enhancing content – the language shakes up the reader, giving us new ways of looking at things that might otherwise be tediously familiar – though there are stray passages where the flair is overdone and the serrated narrative becomes a barrier to a clear understanding of the issues involved.

Flowing beneath the stylistic playfulness – like the rock-forming magma often mentioned in the text – is a deep anger about our ravaged ecology and the planet’s future. “To flatten a hill is the very acme of arrogance, but to leave it rotting thus in its flayed layers is psychotic,” the narrator observes. “Your fossil name is homo sapiens sapiens, the creature who can think about thinking,” the turtle chides the narrator, “Isn’t it time you thought about that?” Once Upon a Hill is a testament to forgotten landscapes that now host manicured urban settlements; a reminder that the lives of even very old cities would barely register on the geological time-scale, and that human beings – whose hubris and dominance is just another blip on that scale – have responsibilities.

The denser, more jargon-ridden passages of this difficult-to-classify book may test the patience of even the engaged reader (quick, what’s the difference between a batholith and a lopolith?), but it occupies a special place in the ever-growing library of literature about Bombay – and it should be just as relevant to those who aren’t from that city. I have lived in a south Delhi colony for 25 years and Gilbert Hill has never loomed on my horizon; but now, each time I look at the little mound – barely a few feet high – in the park near my flat, with a newly built Metro station running directly beneath it, I wonder what this terrain was like before the sapiens arrived with their construction cranes – and what it will be like a hundred years from now.


  1. So...(and I think you've been asked this before), do you recommend the book? Is it worth my time and money?

  2. Anon: and like I've replied many times before, I don't give blanket recommendations of that sort - I have no way of knowing whether this book is worth your time and money. (I don't know anything about "you" anyway, except that you seem to enjoy being anonymous!) I've expressed my own feelings about the book - which were largely positive - here, and hopefully provided enough information for a reader to make up his own mind.

    That said, a quick "objective" observation: I continue to be surprised by how highly the big publishers price their non-fiction titles. Surely they could have made this one available for less than Rs 500, even if it is a good source of specialised information.

  3. A slightly unrelated comment. In Jewel Thief theres a scene when Tanuja tells her pop that she is going to Powai. Then theres a song which has Dev Anand chasing her. Now I dont know whether what they showed in film is Powai or some other place. But i was thinking if that indeed was Powai, how much the place has changed.

  4. Hi Jai. Old reader of the blog; commenting for the first time. Since you mention that this book is highly priced, do you also wanna comment on the buying habits of readers nowadays?

    For eg. Shashi Tharoor's "Pax Indica" is priced at 799 but on Flipkart and Infibeam, I can buy it for almost 300 bucks less. And most people nowadays do their book shopping from Flipkart. Do you think that has changed the tradition of going to bookstores and buying books? And do you think there is any downside to this habit of not visiting the bookstores anymore (just to save 200-300 rupees)?

  5. I've liked a few Kalpish Ratna (how do two people write in conjunction? Is beyond me) pieces in the past, but don't seem to have the requisite (in my opinion) patience for wading through their work anymore. And Rs. 500?! That sort of settles the issue.

  6. Himanshu: oh, there's enough to be said on that subject. Won't discuss it at length just now, but I have to say that my experiences with Flipkart have lately been quite mixed. The only books I buy from them are older (usually non-Indian) publications that I haven't seen in local bookstores. But it has occasionally happened that I get something through the site and shortly afterwards find it available in a physical store at a lower price. Maybe the big-discounts thing applies only to contemporary Indian writing, including books by high-profile/popular writers like Tharoor that are ridiculously over-priced to begin with.

  7. how do two people write in conjunction? Is beyond me

    Radhika: yes, personally I find the idea of two people doing book reviews jointly a little unsettling. I'm sure they have an internally worked out process, but that isn't something I would be able to do (or want to do) even with someone whose feelings about a book exactly matched mine.

  8. Just to say that the price of the book depends a great deal on format. Hardbacks are always more expensive and when you need to have photographs in the book, the paper quality needs to be different, which means a higher pub cost. It's got nothing really to do with fiction or non-fiction. And anyway, isn't it time we started to assign some value to several years of research and hard work?

  9. Karthika: point taken (and I realise I didn't mention the photos in the review), but I hope the authors who do some of that research get to see a bit of the dough too! Doesn't always happen, as you and I both know.