Thursday, August 19, 2010

Adrift but tied to the world: a review of Balloonists

[Did this for Biblio]

“I love the world of dreams,” the author Rajorshi Chakraborti told me during an interview a few years ago, “I love their density of unexpected surprises, the askew angles, the stretching of limits. And I try to tell stories through situations and images, especially those that seem powerful and evocative enough to suggest many possible readings.”

This was no idle claim. With its dreamlike narrative, Chakraborti’s debut novel Or the Day Seizes You, published in 2006, was one of my favourite chance discoveries as a reviewer. In this vivid, hallucinatory book, a man named Niladri abruptly leaves his wife and little daughter, goes to London by himself and returns five years later, only to get entangled in a drama involving his father and a ganglord. That synopsis makes the narrative seem more linear than it is, but the book’s real tone is summed up by the two Dali paintings on its cover – “The Persistence of
Memory”, with its melting clocks, and “The Sleep”, with a giant sleeping head precariously tied to the ground – both of which point to a sense of temporal and spatial dislocation; of time being both stretched out and compressed, and uncertainty about where dream-life ends and waking-life begins.

In the second novel Derangements (2008), a writer named “Raj Chakraborti” disappears in suspicious circumstances and his editor subsequently receive a manuscript that includes episodes from Raj’s own life as well as a first-person account by one of his invented characters. Like its predecessor, Derangements is full of vignettes and imagery that don’t belong to the world of the realist narrative. Here, Chakraborti revealed himself to be the sort of writer who obsessively reworks the themes and structures that interest him, even if it means risking allegations of repetition. “I like exploring the predicaments and limitations of middle-class, urban Indian masculinity within rapidly changing social conditions,” he said during our conversation. Indeed, his first two novels centred on men who are, in different
ways, adrift: from the security net of families and the responsibilities of daily life; ultimately, perhaps, even from themselves.

And so, I wasn’t at all surprised to find that his new novel is titled Balloonists and that its droll cover image has two pairs of men’s legs floating in mid-air, amidst a flock of birds.

The shortest of Chakraborti’s books so far, this is also in some ways the most accessible, and certainly the funniest. The plot seems suspiciously simple at first – after the fast-paced opening twenty pages, I thought I was reading some other author. This is roughly what happens: a young British-Asian writer named Dev panics when he learns his girlfriend Jo is pregnant. He travels to Germany for a brief meeting with an ex-girlfriend Heidi (spending some time with her ninety-year-old great-aunt along the way), but the encounter is too brief and mundane to be of any real consequence.
I was going to build up to telling Heidi that I’d staked my visit on the possibility of change, of both of us being able to set aside the voodoo dolls we’d made out of one another, and move beyond the comfort zone of freezing someone once and forever in our minds. But I’ve told you the way it turned out. Where was the opportunity?
A few days later, Dev somehow finds himself traveling to north-east India in search of Heidi, who has mysteriously gone missing. His companion on this trip, and its instigator, is another of Heidi’s former beaus, an incorrigibly cheery and therefore (to the moody, withdrawn Dev) intensely annoying man named Rodrigo.

This is the foundation of a plot that gets increasingly strange as it progresses. In Calcutta, when Dev’s persistent mama-ji emotionally arm-twists him into accompanying him for a meeting with a loan-shark (“not your usual consumer-loan or credit-card types, slightly more assorted and unorthodox than that”), we realise that the Heidi trail is going to be spotted with narrative detours. By the time the meeting – which the overenthusiastic Rodrigo also ends up attending – takes place, high up on a desolate, uncompleted shell of a building, we sense something shifting beneath the surface of what had so far seemed like a straightforward tale. And when Dev and Rodrigo reach Shillong and find themselves (possibly) being targeted by a couple of hitmen dispatched by an indeterminate someone whose motives are not clear, and when they spend two days on a large rock watching their watchers, we start to wonder how much of this is taking place inside Dev’s head.

Reading Balloonists, I got the disorienting sense of moving into the “inner space” of Dev’s mind, so that one can't sure what to take at face value. The self-referential tone that marked Derangements (now published as Shadow Play in the US) is present here as well. At times Dev gives the impression that he’s figuring out how and what to write in the process of writing it, almost as if the novel is being created in collaboration with its reader. He addresses us directly, and more often than most fictional narrators do. At one point he considers providing us a full transcript of the “crazy, one-sided rant” directed at him by Heidi’s mother on the phone, but then decides, “Fuck it, it’s just too boring. There’s no way Mrs B deserves that much airtime. She can write her own story and take the leading part.” At another point, after describing a conversation with his uncle who addresses him by his nickname, he tells the reader, “And no, you won’t learn from me what the pet name Buro means, and why it was bestowed upon me. Get off your arse and make an effort if you want to know so bad.”

One way of looking at these asides is that Dev is trying to be cute, and not doing a particularly good job of it. But the interpretation I prefer is that these little moments are our pointers to his shaky hold on reality. There’s a hint of hysteria in these passages. Is he the sort of man who is given to speaking to imaginary people – and, by extension, hearing voices in his head? In which case, can the details of his story be trusted? Does Rodrigo, for example, really exist or is he a projection, a much more extroverted alter ego who can take initiatives and plunge headlong into the crazy schemes that Dev is too emotionally bottled up to work out for himself?

Read in that light, much of the book – especially the chapter “Limbo” in Part One and “So Far” in Part Two – takes on a different shade. “Limbo”, Dev’s account of his torturous plane journey with Rodrigo, is one of the finest bits of sustained funniness I’ve read in a while, deriving its effect from the contrast between the two men. Dev’s sullenness manifests itself in numerous sarcastic, stream-of-consciousness observations about his co-traveler.
This was it, a new high even for him in ludicrousness. He was like Sergey Bubka, raising his own record for the pole vault one centimetre at a time, to a stratosphere far above, where he reigned alone. Rodrigo was the Bubka of bullshit ... Being a moron was like his pigmentation: he had been this way and no other from the moment I’d met him. Holding it against him would be tantamount to a form of racism.
But at the end of this rant, Dev asks himself a question: if Rodrigo is so intolerable, why is he voluntarily in his company?
Because I wanted to reach Heidi. I, who claimed to want nothing and tried to be portable and weightless, without baggage or possessions, who actively sort to make no mark or wave within the goings-on of the world, and never to raise his voice, who just wished to pass through his own life undigested and untransformed like a stone or a shadow, still evidently had another layer of desire I’d overlooked to shed, the last stubborn pound.
This is a poignant admission coming from a man who is a social misfit, drifting loose – and ultimately, despite his claims, perhaps not all that happy about it. “I can’t bring myself to believe in permanence,” says Dev late in the book, a remark that returns us to the event with which his story began. On one level, Balloonists can be read as an allegory for the paranoia of a man who isn’t ready to be a father, terrified that this life-changing event will tether him to the world. By the end, it also reveals the traces of a surprisingly moving love story about someone who has been so damaged by an earlier relationship that he can no longer trust himself or feel attached to anything.

But it feels wrong to provide a neat summation of a book that is more about a state of mind than about a beginning, middle and end. In any case it’s tricky to review a work like Balloonists after reading it just once, because you’re left with the nagging feeling that there’s something here that has just eluded your grasp. Already I feel the need to read it a second time, because I have a mild suspicion that the plot and the characters don’t really exist – that they are all creations of Dev the megalomaniac writer, bound to nothing but his manuscripts.


  1. Got stuck in the initial phrase of the post, and I am trying to reason out can there be "expected surprises" as well?

  2. can there be "expected surprises" as well?

    Sunil: didn't really think about it until you asked the question, but yes, an "expected surprise" could be the sort of surprise a reader might get while reading a book in the crime or suspense genre - where you sort of know there's a twist in the tale or a big revelation around the corner, even if you don't know what it is. There's an expected trajectory for such a book. Whereas the kind of writing Rajorshi is talking about doesn't provide readers with those cues.

  3. There's a scene in "I'm Not There" where Jude Quinn floats over a city skyline like a hot air balloon but tethered to the unseen ground.

  4. Anon: didn't mention it in the piece, but I was also reminded of the opening scene of Fellini's Eight and a Half, with the movie director floating off into the air and being rudely pulled down by people who wanted him to stay "grounded".