Friday, September 17, 2010

Tell, don't show: Amarjit Sidhu's No Way Home

There are reasons to want to like Amarjit Sidhu’s novel about a young, emotionally reticent Sikh man drifting from India to America, then back to India and again to Canada, in the early 1980s – No Way Home is earnest and introspective and well-meant. But oh, the heavy-handedness.

On page one, it’s raining on the day that Dave (short for Davinder) goes to pick up his visa, so the third-person narrator tells us that “for him that afternoon, the rain became an obvious symbol of regeneration, of rebirth”. Is Dave always so preoccupied with the “symbolism” in the quotidian details of his life, one wonders. But perhaps he is: later, in America, when a woman dying of cancer pulls him onto a dance floor, “Victoria became a sudden assertion of life”. Peacocks perched on the wall of his family’s old village fort are “a symbol of its final absorption into the rural landscape”. (Never mind that the very next sentence mentions that the servant quarters now have television antennae and modern amenities.) When Dave gets a postcard from two friends, it isn’t merely a postcard, it’s also a confirmation “that the first movement in the performance was coming to an end, that lives around him were changing” (italics mine).

At other times we are pelted with observations about (among many other things) the nature of officialdom in India, the various types of national holidays, government-school education, the parent-child relationship in conservative families, and the differences between Punjabi and south Indian women. But these aren’t fluidly integrated into the plot – they are presented as discrete chunks of information, as if the narrator, suddenly bored with Dave, had begun conducting a private tutorial on the side.

Tucked into all this is a red herring: the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the anti-Sikh riots, which provides a marketing peg for the book, but which only makes up a fragment of the plot and doesn’t seem crucial to Dave’s story anyway; his unsettled state owes more to individual character than to external events. But the external events do provide a pretext for banal truisms like “No matter how fond one might get to be of an alien land, it could never be home” and musings such as “Was there really sufficient reason for so much anger in the world, reason for so much disapproval, disagreement, conflict and violence?”

In an age when mid-list books are assembly-produced with little or no editorial guidance, one has to sympathise with an inexperienced novelist writing a semi-autobiographical story – such writers need a good, firm editor more than most others do. Consider just this one sentence: “Names in the Sikh community are not gender-specific, and Dave often wondered how that came to be.” Simply modifying this to “Dave often wondered why names in the Sikh community weren’t gender-specific” would have not only made the sentence crisper but also incorporated the thought more casually into the narrative, instead of first giving us a piece of information and then Dave’s reaction to it. This might seem like nit-picking, but there are dozens of such examples scattered through the book, and their cumulative effect is to make No Way Home clunky and pedantic.

Or take this chat between Dave and a lady named Lalitha:
“You’re not a very happy person, are you?” she asked. Dave was surprised.

“I’m perfectly content,” he said.

“And you?” Dave ventured. “Are you happy?”
What was the need for the “Dave ventured” when we already have the “he said” in the previous line? Couldn’t the two lines be combined? Even if it was the author’s intention to provide a meaningful pause – a beat of silence – between Dave’s reply and the question he subsequently asks, surely a “he ventured” would have sufficed (though I don't much care for the use of the word "ventured" in this context anyway - it's just as awkward as the frequent use of "opined" by Indian journalists in interviews and profiles). Again, there are many stilted passages of this sort.

No Way Home does have a couple of things going for it. When Dave first comes to America, the writing has a gentle, tentative quality that mirrors his own wide-eyed first impressions of the place, and the culture shock isn’t presented loudly or dramatically – instead, one gets the sense that he is inwardly recoiling at certain things while maintaining his outward poise (and continuing to be popular among his peers). I also thought it interesting – in theory at least – that Dave’s story, which has all the signs of being a coming-of-age tale, eventually turns out to be an account of a man permanently stultified by internal forces that are never made completely clear. Unfortunately the promise shown here is laid to waste by a dreary narrative that doesn’t follow the “show, don’t tell” principle. This book is a case of “tell, tell, tell” all the way.


  1. i have battled with myself to buy or not to buy this book SO many times in bookstores and sales i cant tell you. and there was always that "something" which made me not buy it. the pull still remains but i am leaning towards buying it just to see how stultifying it can get. :)

  2. i have battled with myself to buy or not to buy this book SO many times in bookstores and sales i cant tell you

    Piggy Little: I'm surprised to hear that you've even seen it so many times in stores - I wouldn't think this would be a high-visibility title. Would definitely never have picked it up myself if I hadn't been asked to review it.

  3. it isn't but i have the habit of turning the anglo-indian authors rack upside down everytime i go to a book store. :) and there some niche stores, in and around where i work, which stock pile primarily anglo-indian it helps .... :)

  4. >>In an age when mid-list books are assembly-produced with little or no editorial guidance

    Interesting, that's something I heard from an insider in the publishing business just the other day : that Indian books tend to get proof-read but not edited. Why is that, do you think? Is it a lack of ability, or of demand?

  5. Radhika: it's probably a combination of both things, plus the fact that many editors in Indian publishing houses are required to meet monthly quotas and commission as much and as fast as possible. Taking charge of the books once they are written is a relatively low-priority task. Classic case of quantity over quality. It also forms a vicious circle by establishing a culture where authors don't appreciate an editor who suggests substantive reworking.

  6. Could you please say what the novel is all about? That will help.

  7. Sarvan: summed it up in the very first sentence of the post. But beyond that, I thought the "how" was more worth talking about than the "what". For a more elaborate plot synopsis, check the Penguin India link I've provided.