Monday, July 26, 2010

Curfewed nights in Bangkok

After landing in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, I remembered Bangkok’s old airport that I had once transited through. Compared to Suvarnabhumi, the old one had more character, a wicked charm. The new one was huge and awesome but it looked utilitarian.

We were received by my brother-in-law who works in a regional non-profit. His office was closed due to the political unrest.

Outside, Bangkok didn’t look like a curfewed city at all. Buses, cars and taxis plied on the road. Only the trains were out of service.

As we entered the city, I began to love it. Bangkok was sprawling and chaotic but it had a beauty about it. It was what I wished Delhi and Kolkata to be—clean and functional. Bangkok has a great road and expressway network and its river is, unlike Delhi’s Jumna, navigable. Later, from my sister’s 9th floor flat, I had a great view of the city. Unlike Singapore, Bangkok is not minutely designed and manicured but it exudes a spirit of independence, a sense of wild beauty.

By this time, I was told, the protestors had been flushed out of their protesting zone. The Red Shirts’ had set fire to Bangkok’s biggest mall, Siam Paragon. On the way from the airport, I had seen the charred skeleton of the mall. Only night curfew was imposed in the city. Bangkok’s other malls were open and it was business as usual, I was told.

Next day, we set out in the morning to see the floating market (Suaq Al nahr, said an Arabic sign) at Ratchaburi. We hired a taxi and it took us more than an hour to reach the place, over one hundred kilometers west of Bangkok. Taxi to and fro cost us 2000 bahts.

The floating market is spread over an area of several kilometers, crisscrossed with canals. We hired a boat with a driver for 2000 bahts and spent nearly an hour in the market, buying things from local fruit sellers on boats. According to my wife, the experience would have been better but for the stinking water of the canal. Perhaps Western tourists, coming from sanitized places, would like that organic stink, I thought mischievously.

Next day was Sunday and we wanted to see the Grand Palace. We reached the area (that reminded me of colonial Delhi) after lunch but we were stopped at the main gate by authorities in civilian clothes. “The Palace will open at 3pm,” a burly official informed us. Since we were one hour early, the man advised us to visit Wat Po first and then come back to the palace. “We can’t, we just let our taxi go,” we protested. He hailed a tuk tuk for us and at an unbelievable fare of 20 bahts, he sent us for a ride to Wat Po and back.

At Wat Po, we admired the Reclining Buddha and took some pictures. Then the tuk tuk driver took us to an emporium of art and craft. The place had a great collection of gems and jewelry but what was most impressive was the courteous behaviour of the staff. We did some shopping there.

Finally, we returned to the Grand Palace. It was mind-blowing— sprawling, beautiful and magnificent. It offers a colourful vista of gold and silver, of shining spires, mosaic-rich columns and intricate murals. The afternoon being hot, we took a quick tour of the palace but actually to do justice to it, one needs to spend hours in the complex. Within the complex, the Wat Phra Keao, the temple of the Emerald Buddha, Chakri-Mahaprasad Hall and Amarindra Vinchai Hall are a must see for tourists.

We spent three nights in Bangkok, each night under curfew. But in the condo where we stayed, we never felt anything amiss. The city looked peaceful and calm and there were no rising columns of smoke to be seen in the skyline nor were there any wailing police sirens renting the air. But when we switched on the telly, we saw news about the unrest in Bangkok. It seemed so surreal—beyond the patina of calm was news of troublemakers that the television brought to people’s drawing rooms.

The condo, in the heart of Bangkok, eerily seemed like a Green Zone, with its swimming pool and tennis court on the fourth floor and salons, restaurants and massage parlours on the ground floor. So self-sufficient.

The night before we returned to Singapore, we had our first foot massage of the trip. I and my wife, sitting beside each other were being fawned over by the masseuses. We didn’t know that the foot massage would extend up to the upper thigh. On the flight back, my wife said: “The massage was good but next time we go for it, we must tell the masseuse not to move beyond the knees.”

I nodded with a smile in reply. I didn’t know when that next time would be. As we moved away from Bangkok, we hoped that complete peace would soon return to the city. This magnificent city, the city of Emerald Buddha, deserved it. And I also told myself that Bangkok was not an ordinary city: there was something about it that needed more exploration.

Back in Singapore, I remembered Bangkok as a girl to whom I had said only hello. I knew I needed to converse more with her.

Read the first part of this travel piece, Postcard from Phuket here.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Inception: Inside a Borgesian dream

Chris Nolan’s Inception could well have been written by Argentinean short story writer and poet Borges, with inputs from Freud and Jung. Formatted as an edge of the seat thriller, this film is a surrealist meditation on the nature of time, of guilt and redemption, of a father-son relationship and of the origins of our motivations and desires. The story of a heist inside the brain of an individual has been told like a philosophical riddle with a sophistication which is the hallmark of Nolan’s work, as seen before in his earlier ventures Memento and The Dark Knight.

The film starts within a labyrinthine dream, in which the main characters keep plumbing up and down the many layers of dreamworld reality. The protagonist, Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), is a dream-catcher, a superb manipulator of dreams. He is the world’s best extractor of trade secrets from industrial czars. He invades their dreams and steals the secrets from their subconscious.

At the start of the film, we see Cobb washed up on a sea shore. For a moment, I thought, hey, are we back in Shutter Island? I pinched myself. No, we are in a Nolan film. After the opening sequence, the film goes into a flashback or travels to a different layer of reality, whichever way you want to see it, where the story is set up: Cobb is given a challenge by a tycoon (Ken Watanabe) to implant an idea in his business rival’s son’s mind—an act of “inception”. Due to his own past, a guilt-ravaged Cobb accepts the job to invade the subconscious of Robert Fischer junior (Cillian Murphy)—his only way of getting back to his real world, where his two children await his arrival. Hmm, shades of Audrey Neffengger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.

From that point on, begins Cobb’s hero’s journey along with a set of dream manipulators, assembled from various parts of the world. The film’s third act is the final sequence, the actual act of ‘inception’, when Nolan goes completely blockbuster. The subconscious of Robert Fischer junior is a snow capped rugged landscape, that could well have been from a James Bond film, with gunfire to match.

The film’s strongest point, after the brilliant idea of ‘inception’ of course, is Cobb’s character. DiCaprio is so believable in his role, focused, determined and emotionally vulnerable. And so is Marion Cotillard who plays DiCaprio’s wife. If you could distill red wine into a female form, it would take the shape of Marion. Her sensuous vitality, her love, her idea of to-die for romance, is the emotional pivot of the movie, which defines the level of Cobb’s guilt. However, Ariadne (Ellen Page), who plays a brilliant architect of dream world landscapes, seems a bit jarring in the film—a teen among the adults. Perhaps the Juno girl was penciled in to appeal to the teen audience (you know how Hollywood hedges its bets).

The film appealingly deals with concepts of time and the nature of the subconscious, the way we dream, and so on. The film works on the premise that dream-world time and real-world time act in a different calculus. Ten hours in real life can be equivalent to a week in our dreams. There is a sequence in the final act of the movie in which a van falls off a bridge and between the van’s skidding and hitting the water, time in the dream world stretches on and a lot happens there in those few seconds.

Clever, isn’t it? But this is not entirely a novel idea. In Gabriel Garcia’s Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, as Colonel Aureliano Buendia faces the firing squad, the whole history of his family flashes before his eyes. I also could not resist remembering Prophet Mohammad’s night journey to the heavens, as described in the Quran: In the 7th century, Muhammad (PBUH) riding the mythological steed Buraq, was taken to the various heavens, to meet first the earlier prophets, including Moses and Jesus, and then God. The Buraq then transported Muhammad back to Mecca. This journey was completed at the speed of light, and between his flight to heavens and back, in our world, it took him only a few seconds—an example of real time and cosmic time calculus.

Though the film was riveting, near the end, I was looking at my watch. I had the feeling that I was playing a video game where there are characters with clear psychological profiles, there are rules of the game, and there are different levels of gaming. I won’t be surprised if the movie, after its success, is followed by video games.

Also, if I were Nolan, I would have got rid of the mysterious dream-inducing suitcase (which The Economist calls a psychic Rube Goldberg contraption) that wires the dreamers up. Did you not hear of nanotechnology and mind control Nolan? Instead of Dileep Rao (Yusuf) playing a potion maker, the alchemist, I would have made him a neuro-architect. But never mind the wires. The audiences already love this movie (even in India, Inception became the number one at the box office, beating three new Bollywood releases).

In the end, for all you know, this movie is a crime thriller. It’s all about corporate espionage, an Italian job, but at a brain level. This is a bit of a disappointment for me. Has Hollywood got bored with saving the humanity or the aliens (as we saw in Avatar)? After all that hype, Nolan, you disappointed me but I am glad you tried. This is way better than The Transformers for my ticket price.

I loved the last scene, though. When Cobb is back with his family in the real world, he spins his totem. When the spinning stops, the film is cut to the end credits. I thought that Nolan was having a joke at our expense: suckers, this was the real world and now you go back to your phony, dream world, waiting outside the theatre for you.

As I exited the multiplex, I was wondering if we and our physical world, the universe, are really parts of a maya jaal, the Hindu concept of a web of deception, a mere dream inside the head of God. What if we just don’t exist in real reality? What if we are just projections of God’s imagination? It’s an idea worth exploring, isn’t it?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Postcard from Phuket

[This is the first part of my Thailand travel notes]

A trip to Phuket and Bangkok was waiting to happen. I’ve been living in the South East Asian region for the last 5 years and yet I hadn’t travelled to these tourist clichés on the map of Thailand. Perhaps one main reason why I was not eager enough about visiting these places was their commonplaceness—everybody goes to Phuket and Thailand. From Singapore, going there is as clichéd as being a heterosexual.

I’ll give you an example. Just before I was to start for Phuket, one of my colleagues rubbed it in: “You are going to Phuket? Huh, I’ve been there twenty-five times!”

Got it?

Seriously, I guess one can’t beat the argument in the age of low cost airlines (just like you can’t beat tweeting and watching pirated DVDs—almost everybody is at it). As Naipaul has remarked, travel has become so plebian now. Tourism is so much part of our globalised lifestyle that anyone who saves a penny or two or owns the wondrous credit cards travels once or twice a year to arrogate to oneself the status of belonging to that global jet set that regularly rubs its bum on the leathery smallness of low cost short-haul flights.

So, when an opportunity (to attend a regional tech event which later on got cancelled) to visit Phuket and Bangkok arose in May this year, I said enough was enough. Even clichés needed to be struck out of my travel diary. Earnestly, tickets were booked one month in advance.

When the time to fly came, it suddenly didn’t seem like a good time to visit Thailand: The Red Shirts had been protesting against the present government in Bangkok for more than a week and one of their rogue generals had just been shot. Bangkok was under siege and the city was under partial curfew. To my chagrin, the tech event that I was supposed to attend shifted its venue from Phuket to Singapore. But I was in no mood to change my plans. Given this background, my colleagues were a bit suspicious of my sanity when they came to know that I was travelling to Thailand, and was not paying enough attention to the news.

And what was I thinking? Dude, what is the fun of travelling if it was not laced with a bit of danger? My philosophy is that travel mixed with a bit of a danger makes it an adventure. For me, the curfew and the protests did it. So, one sunny morning, off we went to Phuket on a Jet Star flight.

The Sea, The Sea

When the plane was about to land in Phuket International Airport, I looked down the window and the surface of the Andaman Sea that spread beneath us presented itself like an immobile expanse of boredom, a blue bedspread, rumpled as a grandmother’s creased cheeks.

At the immigration, the visa officer looked bored and stern. No swadika, no smile. Hello, is this Thailand, I wondered. Thankfully, visa was free (The Red Shirt’s troublemaking in Bangkok had hit tourist traffic throughout Thailand) and it straightaway meant a saving of 3000 bahts for me. I suddenly felt lucky and wallet-wise, marginally closer to Donald Trump (remember I am a journalist married to austerity, not a banker or a businessman). The queue at the immigration was small and it didn’t take much time to clear immigration and collect our luggage. I love the breeziness of small town airports!

Outside, it was a bit warm. A hotel taxi was waiting for us. The taxi driver was amiable. Once inside the air-conditioned cab, I asked him a few questions and he said a lot of yeses with smiling nods. It simply meant that the conversation was flowing in only one direction—mine. It took us forty-five minutes to reach our hotel which was near Patong Beach, fifteen kilometers west of Phuket town. The road to the town was in great condition which coursed through the hill-like greenery-filled landscape of the island. My wife felt a bit pukish but I and my daughter were okay. Sporadically, the road was flanked by single-storied houses, shops and business establishments. On the way, interestingly, I saw more mosques than temples.

We had reached the airport around nine in the morning and by the time we checked into the hotel, the first thing that demanded attention was our hunger pangs—a uniformly felt family experience. I changed into shorts and a T-shirt and came down from my hotel room to recce the area for food outlets. The whole place was infested with big and small inns and hotels and western style brasseries, coffee shops, restaurants, and hawker outlets. Given the heat and lack of choices, I settled for a pepperoni pizza and some fresh fruits and beat a hasty retreat to my hotel room. A little rest and then we ordered lunch. The lunch was standard Thai food from the hotel’s kitchen: the order was misunderstood, the chicken meat was harder than usual and the portions were, maybe, let’s put it this way, good enough for ladies but not sufficient for a grown up Indian male with a moderate to good appetite.

In the afternoon, we took a stroll on Ao Patong—a three kilometer stretch of sandy beach. Some Western tourists were relaxing on chaise lounges, barbecuing their bodies or sipping their drinks under colourful parasols, a book spread on their knees. Clichés I know but what do you expect on a beach? Young couples and surfers played with the waves in the shallow waters, their smiles and laughter adding mirth to the somber sea.

On the beach, my wife thought the Andaman Sea was a bit darkish and I quickly remembered its devastating tempestuousness during the Asian tsunami. Thousands had perished. I didn’t want to think about the tragedy, so I turned my attention to my four-year old daughter. She was the happiest: she loves the sea and the sand and she rolled about in it for a while. And I thought, children were usually happy because they had little memory. I bought a fresh coconut and we shared it “as a family,” the way my daughter loves to put it.

A thin and turbaned middle aged Muslim man, with a dark beard, sat on the sand behind me. He was with a young boy. They looked straight out of a madrasa. What were they doing on the beach, I wondered. Were they enjoying the dancing waves or were they there to soak in the pleasure of beach revelers, to be in commune with them, indulging in a vicarious pleasure? How would I know? “Where are you from?” he asked me. “From Singapore,” I said, adding a wan smile. Would he ask for money, I feared. The man did not talk much. He looked rather sad. I kept an eye on him. The man and the boy left in less than half an hour. I felt a sense of relief but I immediately questioned it: why did I feel relieved? The man had every right to be there (there was a Muslim cemetery bang opposite the beach); he was like everybody else except for his dress. He could even be one of the original inhabitants of the area (this being the South of Thailand), but now he looked more alien than others there. An oddity! The image burnished in my memory, headlined, an oddity.

A little later another man came. He was a Thai. “Where are you from?” The same question. I replied. He showed me a piece of paper. He was collecting funds for Tsunami victims. I had my doubts. He could be a fraud. I apologized and waved him off. It is easy to dismiss a request when you talk to a man from behind sunglasses.

In the evening, the lights came on and the streets magically came alive with people—in cars, in tuk tuks, on scooters, on foot. There were touts everywhere: men and women asking us to buy stuff, dine at sea food joints or get massages. Every few steps, a tuk tuk driver or his agent would offer us a ride. A mini truck passed by slowly, with young boys on board in shorts mocking a Muoy Thai sparring, advertising for a super championship match in town. There was music and noise everywhere, the sheer liveliness of a place that thrived with human interaction, energizing the participants and onlookers alike. And I thought, dude, where are the protesters? Where is the unrest? Later, I saw a story in the Phuket Post (30 April- 13 May): Phuket backs the PM. “More than a thousand Phuket people delivered a handwritten letter to Go Wichai at the Provincial Hall on 19 April (hoping)…that the letter will encourage PM Abhisit (Vejjajiva) and his party not to resign and dissolve parliament…” In short, the Phuketites were for business and for normalcy.

Taking in the festiveness, we walked up to Jung Ceylon, a modern shopping complex where all your StarBucks, MacDonalds and Carrefours are. I experienced an effusive sense of relief but at the same time was struck with a sense of smallness—what a little world of brands made my mental universe. “Daddy, I want to eat junk food,” my daughter whispered in my ears when she found herself magically transported into this mini Singapore. She craved for a Burger King meal and that’s what we bought her. Surely, a guilty pleasure. We did some shopping in Robinsons and Carrefour and grabbed our dinner in the Jung Ceylon’s food court, and that’s where I made my greatest discovery: an Indian food stall named Bismillah Kitchen.

Amid all kinds of Thai food represented there, I was glad to find Indian food represented too. Also, this was the only food joint that displayed a halal sign, indicating that their food was kosher. Coming from Singapore, we were spoiled as Singapore has hundreds of halal certified food stalls and eateries. The stall was being manned by a young Pakistani man, Hassan. We ordered our dishes in Urdu and felt quite at home. The microwave-heated food was miraculously delicious (rice, dal, potato with peas and a bowl of meat with gravy; the pudina chutney was amazing) and so inexpensive that I decided to come there for all our subsequent meals. A single Burger King meal cost us about 250 bahts--and here we were getting nearly home cooked food for the whole family for just about 200 bahts. It was unbelievable.

Over the next few meals, I got to know a little bit more about Hassan. He was from Punjab and instead of venturing to Dubai or London as most of his countrymen do, he moved to Thailand. “There are lots of opportunities here,” he said. He was happy to see someone from the subcontinent. “Saheb,” he said, “I hardly see any Pakistanis come here. They seldom get out of the country.” “True,” I said, “There are reasons for it”. Then we talked about politics. “What is sad is that in Pakistan, Muslims are killing each other because of politics,” he said. Hassan was not much educated but he knew what was going on in his country.

Changing the topic, I asked him, are there a lot of Muslims in Phuket? “Oh, yes,” he said, “and they are very strong.” How, I further pressed him. “They are strong in business and they have a lot of clout.” Perhaps that explained why I saw so many mosques in Phuket.

Then he complained about a neighbouring stall owner who sold Thai food: she sold both chicken and pork and yet had the temerity to brandish a halal sign on her stall to attract Muslim tourists. “How could she do it?” Hassan said. Are you going to complain to the authorities? “No,” he said, “But next time they come on inspection, they will take action against her.”

I promised Hassan that I would write about his food stall. He was thankful. On the last day, he gave a free treat to my daughter: Milkmaid poured over a hot parantha. “Yummy,” my daughter declared.

For our remaining days in Phuket, we avoided the tourist traps and did more of the same—walking around, shopping and more family bonding over food and siestas. We even gave the Phuket Fantasia, a nightly dinner buffet with a Las Vegas-style show, a miss. Each ticket costs around 1800 bahts.

The night before we moved over to Bangkok, I took a stroll down the Soi Bangla, Patong’s liveliest party zone. The road is flanked by drinking holes and was crowded with tourists and street performers. Amid pulsating music, I could see mostly Western tourists drinking beer in bars and young girls and ladyboys pole dancing for the patrons. Some touts tried to entice me to free sex shows that I refused with my polite nods. The market-like open air atmosphere on the Bangla Road gives one a totally different experience, unlike the closed door revelry of Singapore’s Duxton Hill or Hong Kong’s Wanchai district. Good for those who like this kind of stuff.

A shorter version of this travelogue was published in The Daily Star, Dhaka.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

'Love and Lust in Singapore' cover

The cover of 'Love and Lust in Singapore', which features one of my short stories, is out. It looks fabulous. The book should be in the bookstores by August/September 2010. Look out for it!


Monday, July 12, 2010

The Death of the Indian Dream

In a brief essay on India, Aravind Adiga gets into the heart of the matter:

... The 300 million or so Indians living in acute poverty are being crushed by inflation. If they thought washing the floors, driving the cars and cleaning the windows of the middle class would open the doors to a better life, they know now that they were wrong. With prices rising, their savings are being eaten away. Higher food and fuel prices are being driven by big changes in the global economy that look set to continue. Even the most cheerful optimist in the past decade has seen the huge divide between the haves and have-nots, but the hope has persisted that it would somehow go away. Inflation has set like cement into that divide, solidifying the gap between the two Indias. The future for the country is two futures: rosy and grim. Indian companies will buy more foreign businesses and more Indian children will starve. In economic terms, India has become neither the U.S. nor Sudan, but something in between — a Latin American republic with an entrenched class chasm. Higher levels of crime and social unrest are almost certain to follow. For years or decades to come, we will not be able to talk of one destiny for all the people of the country.

Read More

Friday, July 09, 2010

Bengal's Balzac

When I was asked to review Rajat Das’ debut novel (Paper Boat, Flame of the Forest) I approached the offer with skepticism. Why? I had little experience of reading a novel as long as 800 pages. Believe me, I have considered Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy many times in libraries and bookstores but that novel’s heft has always come in the way of my reading pleasure (and I prefer doorstoppers from Ikea). Man, don’t get me wrong. I love Seth, I love that Golden Gate man. What a charming writer! But I am happy having read his From Heaven Lake.

Similarly, I have great respect for grandpa Leo Tolstoy. But War and Peace? That’s for a time when I feel more grown up and a little less like Anthony Bourdain—intellectually footloose, carefree, and a little less ready for suffering—of any kind. Ditto for Don Delillo’s Underworld and Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games (I tried the latter; it reads like well-written Bollywood kitsch).

I am one of those people who think a novel should be as long as Camus’ The Stranger. That novel is of an optimal length, a benchmark for me, apt for our attention-deficient generation. Look at some of the best loved novels by J M Coetzee, Hanif Kureishi, Bruce Chatwin, Junichiro Tanizaki and Ismail Khadare. They are not heavier than a Starbucks bagel. But they are great literature, good stuff to read. A good story is like a life well-spent: not how long it is but how good it is what matters.

You think I am just making some catty remarks, leaving my prudence in the basement of my foolish mind. But the fact of the matter is that I am trying to be honest. This brief detour of my toe-deep knowledge of literature, or my approach to reading, was warranted. I am no James Wood. Accepting one’s shallowness is humiliating but at the same time it’s liberating.

Now you know why I was so skeptical. Also, in an age when Joyce’s Ulysses is being read in twenty tweets flat, how can one save one’s brain from not developing a schizophrenia of sorts, attention divided between work, email, multimedia and social media (if you don’t believe me, read Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid?). To tell you the truth, before this internet era, I was able to read Tagore’s novels. In translation. There, I have said it.

Coming to Paper Boat, my expectation was for a saga in the pre-Independence India, set in the undivided Bengal of the early 20th century. It already sounded boring because so many novels have been written tracing family histories in different parts of India. However, the novel’s title was intriguing. Paper Boat! Hmm…it sounded like a mini Titanic.

The novel claims it has been written in the Uppanyaas tradition of vernacular India—a novelty in this time of cheap thrillers and quick metro reads (though they have their own market, I admit). Clearly, here is an author with some gutsy ambition, I thought. The guy does not want an easy walk into the sunset, a rite of passage for many well-read and well-travelled Indians who find time to pen a novel or a memoir in their post-retirement days. Nothing wrong with that. Nirad Chuadhuri published his first novel when he was in his 50s.

So, with some expectation and with some trepidation, I began to read Paper Boat. I dipped in and out of it over weeks, even months (I am a slow reader and I read 3-5 novels simultaneously). What blew me away was the passion and hard work with which Rajat had put together this sprawling story. Even the language and diction that Rajat has employed in this work are in tandem with the era with which he is dealing in the plot—a pre-television era story with a pre-television era writing style. I could see his blood, sweat and sinews in the work.

In terms of plot, the story is about Nalini, a strong-minded feminist, who lives in Birat Gram. She is a beauty, a brilliant student, a fine debater: she is a perfect specimen of womanhood, flawless (that makes the character less realistic). There is a school romance, a near romp in the classroom and lots of talk among aunts and cousins about finding suitable grooms or brides. Then tragedy strikes and Nalini is on her death bed. But her daughter Rani tries to save her mother by performing an unusual feat. The story goes back and forth in time, narrating the story of Nalini, and at the same time, noting the social changes that take place in and around her in undivided Bengal.

This is a quintessentially Bengali novel: the author makes gentle observations, the characters are chatty, sometimes naughty too and there is enough intellectual banter to engage the reader.

What the novel suffers from is over-description. The novel starts with the description of the setting, the village of Birat Gram. It reminds me of Balzac. But Rajat’s Birat Gram is more complicated than Balazac’s Paris, in say, Old Goirot. Clearly, Rajat has overdone it and that richness of description, though beautiful, mars the flow of the story. The storm scene in the first part of the novel is marvelously written, but it tests one’s patience as it has been written in great detail.

This problem persists throughout the book. At one place, Rajat takes two pages to explain Bengali cuisine, and how it is different from European cuisine and so on. And here is an example of how meticulously Rajat describes a cottage: “The property was square-fenced, by razor wire in front, by brickwork at the back. The fence had horizontal rows of wires a foot apart. Columns of wooden poles, placed at intervals, took the weight of the fence. On the left, the fencing ended perpendicular to a sidewall; and on the right it ran six feet away from, and parallel to, the other side wall, ending further down at a wall that formed an L shape with the sidewall” (page 119).

Reading this passage, even a Martian would know what the writer is talking about. This level of description shows Rajat’s eye for detail but somehow it disregards the reader’s imagination.

Perhaps deliberately employed but the choice of Rajat’s narrative style makes readers like me go slow on the reading. We are used to reading novels in contemporary idioms. Read this: ‘Somnambulating to a washbasin at a far corner of the room, he splashed cool water on his recoiling face. He straightened up, to eye himself in the mirror hanging by a reluctant nail…’, page 55 (italics mine). Somnambulating? A reluctant nail? How about a shot of a reluctant tequila?

Another example: ‘To an informed, particularly from close range, mind, this gobbledygook palace was a cacophony in architectural noises,’ page 73. This stuff is deep fried in metaphors.

And this one is almost funny: ‘This aspect of her personality put the school’s code of discipline under pressure it hadn’t the hind experience to parry,’ page 92.

The novel is not just overwrought; it could have hugely improved with a healthy dose of editing (For example, ‘This lot was for those could not read…’, page 54; ‘He came to because rain, goaded by ferocious winds, was splashing his face’, page 57)– typos in the book that distracts one from the reading experience (Here is more: ‘But he not that someone’, page 59; ‘Her giggle was the single excess did not irk him spontaneously,’ page 115).

Nevertheless, despite its heft and turgidity, Rajat’s first novel is a remarkable work of fiction—it takes you on a tour of a time and a place that reads like a legend, with a cast of characters whose gentleness seem surreal in our insensitive times. Only you have to have the stomach for it.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Taste of Rejection

I was reading some articles on John Le Carre when I came across this piece in The Guardian by Robert McCrum: Dear Mr Orwell, we regret to say ….

This is a good piece for new writers who are looking for some hope. Read it and you will stay optimistic about getting published (of course, after you have done all that needs to be done to write a good book, that is exhausted yourself in the process).

Here it goes:

Spotting new and original literary talent is not as easy as it can look with the benefit of hindsight. I can think of several well-known contemporary names whose work drifted hopelessly round literary London before finding happy homes.

There are some famous examples of books that were misunderstood or overlooked. One reader for JG Ballard's Crash wrote: "The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help." Someone else wrote that Norman Mailer's novel, The Deer Park, "will set publishing back by 25 years".

A classic is often a new tune and new tunes can be difficult to pick up. After a first reading of Lolita, one in-house reader wrote, in some perplexity: "The whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy ... I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years."

Sometimes it is the authors who get buried by rejection. John Kennedy Toole committed suicide before A Confederacy of Dunces saw the light of day, in a massive launch (slightly helped by the manuscript's backstory) in 1980. Many other celebrated writers, including Beatrix Potter, Joseph Heller, George Orwell, Stephen King, John le Carré and James Joyce, have all experienced the bitter taste of rejection at some point in their literary careers.

This game is not, and never has been, for softies. Thirteen publishers rejected ee cummings's No Thanks, until it was finally published by his mother. On the dedication page, cummings wrote: "WITH NO THANKS TO ..." and then listed the publishers who'd turned it down.

From time to time, literary journalists have fun anonymously submitting badly typed copies of first chapters by Jane Austen or Virginia Woolf, invariably scoring a near universal rejection. According to one biographer, Samuel Beckett kept a neat, handwritten list of the 42 publishers who rejected Murphy in his wallet for years. Beckett said that he kept the list because it comforted him to know that so many people were wrong about his writing. In Worstward Ho, he coined the perfect credo for the literary world: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."