Friday, May 30, 2008

Queasy Quicksands

For reasons I won't go into (much), I've decided to spend the weekend reading a random selection [1] of new 'Indian' fiction - novels and short stories from the last three or four years either published in India or by Indian writers. I keep hearing about the massive surge in new fiction coming out of India but I've read very little of it, because a) it's hard to find out here in Philly, b) between catching up on the classics and keeping up with new work by voices I already know and like I have too much to read anyway c) I always feel a little parochial reading something just because it's Indian and d) the few recent books I have read (or tried to read) have been appallingly bad.

Still, it's unfair to ignore an entire body of work based on a few hastily formed impressions, and it's possible that there are writers out there who are doing great work that I'm missing out on, so I've decided to devote the weekend to checking out the new Indian fiction scene (only cheating a little by dipping into Coetzee's tantalizing new book on the side). I think of it as a sort of penance, a sort of literary Lent, with the prospect of reading The Enchantress of Florence (which, from all accounts, is a genuine resurrection) to follow.

It's probably unfortunate, therefore, that the first book I happened to pick was this thing called Shifting Sands by Dominique Varma (Penguin, 2004) a book so excruciatingly painful it makes having your teeth extracted seem like a day at the spa. I've read some bad prose in my time but Ms. Varma's writing is so viscously awful it makes Kahlil Gibran read like Hemingway. Consider:

"The tranquil camels glide between thorny bushes unmindful of their prickly barbs, leaving in the sand the imprint of their undulating footsteps. A greater peace in the world than this landscape of yellow dust glowing with the iridiscent orange of the receding dusk is impossible to find. The desert acquires a wealth of colours and thick forests of clouds cast their tormented shadows over the wavy dunes."

or this:

"Leaning over the parapet, Eliya contemplated the cascading terraces descending towards the dunes pierced with trees falling over the horizon. The bitter tea turned lukewarm on the guardrail, and her senses, sharpened by the ardent fever of the sands, wrenched languorously under the spell that had held her in its thrall right from the very first time she'd felt its poignant harmony."

or this, my favorite of all, describing the anxiety of a group of prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp:

"they were all going berserk, ready to give up this derisory thread of life which sometimes seemed so precious that they would have gone down on their knees to beg it be left unbroken, to save even a tiny fragment of this fabric which was unravelling before their eyes, like a carpet whose framework was being eaten by moths. And the invisible insects nibbling at the woollen threads masticated with quiet equanimity, abandoning one edge of the carpet to attack, from inside, a more solid thread that took their fancy."

I'm not making this up. Honest. And this is a published novel - not some faux-poetic little brochure from the Rajasthan tourism department, not the blurb to some Hindustani Classical recording, not some cheesy manual from some ashram or the other - but a real novel published by Penguin whose "evocative prose" we are told "is an ode to the indestructible spirit of the human race."

And it's not like the book makes up in ideas what it lacks in style. The plot, such as it is, is a hodge-podge of storylines, each one parboiled to the point where it slips into bathos. If we're not in some commando comic version of a concentration camp, hearing about the Nazi's devious plan to turn lead into gold with the help of a crackpot old Jew obsessed with Babylon, we're sharing the oh-so-languorous sighs of the dancer Eliya, a kind of Madame Bovary meets Anarkali character, with the emotional depth of your average Mills and Boons heroine, who chooses to live (and ultimately die) in the desert fortress of Neemera for the sake of Love [2] (the object of her affection being, of course, a Rajput prince of the Siyaram suitings variety - are you gagging yet?), or we're hanging about in Paris with a trio of dubious researchers who seem to spend their time in a haze of sentiment and amorous intrigue and whose 'intellectual' speculations have all the scholarly coherence of your average undergraduate thesis. Why these stories belong together (except for the tenuous artifice of a family connection) or why it was necessary for Ms. Varma to intersperse them in the manner of an Inarritu film are questions I won't even bother to ask. Let's just say that when a novel is so bad that it leaves you physically nauseous you have to wonder what the editors were thinking. If all the other books I've picked up are even half as bad as this one it's going to be a long, long weekend.

Meanwhile, in other news, don't you just love Anthony Lane. Can you imagine a more damning comment on a film than comparing it unfavorably to Funny Face?


[1] Well, technically a random selection from what new Indian writing has made its way to the UPenn library - but if anything, I would think this biases my sample towards a more favorable view of what's being published.

[2] Ms. Varma writes:
"Should we not vow never to hate someone we have once loved, even if he becomes hateful? Out of respect for that beautiful love which was once our reason for living, and which so quickly becomes our reason for dying. Dying for love is perhaps the only desirable death, because it snatches us from the banality of dying from old age, accident, sickness. At least we know why we are dying. Because we had believed we had seen the abysses of heaven open up before us."


km said...

Flame wars in 5..4...3...

//just when I thought I'd forgotten all about Siyaram Suitings....

sonia said...

I couldn't even finish reading from the excerpts you shared. But I do think, from the footnote, the line "Dying for love is perhaps the only desirable death, because it snatches us from the banality of dying from old age, accident, sickness." has promise.

I hope one of the books you picked up was "Generation 14" by Priya Sarukkai Chabria. I'd be curious to read your thoughts on this one. Particularly the stories halfway through, where she breaks from the main narrative plot.

Anonymous said...

That was harsh

Space Bar said...

Wait. Weren't you the one defending Audrey Hepburn in Faunny Face some months ago?

And I loved 'hormonal hobbits obssessed with a ring'.

Space Bar said...

funny. i meant funny.

Falstaff said...

km: No, come on. Surely no one is going to defend prose this bad?

And ya, I had too.

sonia: sorry, Generation 14 isn't available in the Library system, so I'll have to give it a miss.

And I disagree - I don't see why dying for love is any less banal than dying from old age or an accident. If anything, I'd say it's more of a cliche. And I won't even start on why a non-banal death is desirable.

anon: Perhaps (though you should see the jibes I left out) but deservedly so.

SB: Ah, but defending Hepburn in Funny Face is not the same thing as defending Funny Face. It's a fairly painful film, even if Hepburn is magnificent enough to rise above it. It's like Cary Grant in a Touch of Mink - terrible movie, but Grant is as breathtaking as ever.

Preeti said...

so I take it you've made a decision?

Gammafunction said...

talking about books out of India in the past 3-4 years....maybe Above Average is worth reading.It is not as appalling as some of the other books....

Anonymous said...

Interesting would be to have your views on books by Chetan Bhagat. How much of it would be objective rather than subjective. The reason seems quite obvious. Right Falsie.

Falstaff said...

preeti: No.

gammafunction: Actually, I have read that. See here

As a matter of fact, the Above Average site actually links to my review, though in true blurb-quote fashion it strategically picks the best thing I say about the book.

anon2: Not going to happen. I tried reading one once and gave up in about one chapter because the writing set my teeth on edge. And that's speaking objectively - or as objectively as any aesthetic judgment ever is.

Anonymous said...

Ah come on Falstaff! Do attempt something on the darling-of-the-critic Chetan Bhagat! I know I know it has nothing to do with our alma mater connection but do give it a shot!:)

Anirudh said...

Try 'The Sari Shop' by Rupa Bajwa and Anjum Hasan's 'Lunatic in My Head'

Anonymous said...

How about Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra?

Falstaff said...

anirudh: Thanks - will look those up.

anon3(?): See here

Anonymous said...

If you haven't already read Kiran Nagarkar's Cuckold - it's brilliant.


Supremus said...

Parva and "The Uprooted", both translations from Kannada to english are some of the best novels i have read by an Indian author. Give them a try.

I am sure you must've read the likes of Tamas, Phaniyamma, and the likes so won't suggest them ;)


Anonymous said...

It's not exactly new, but how about The Romantics, by Pankaj Mishra? It's a classic.

Also, I'd be wary of The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa. It's full of unexplained angst.


Falstaff said...

ano: Thanks. Have read that - a long time ago.

Supremus: Thanks. My current focus is more on original writing in English, but will keep Parva in mind.

anon3: Haven't read. Have only read Mishra's Non-fiction, though that has a tendency to read like fiction as well. Will try and find.

Piper.. said...

Fabulous post! The excerpts had me in splits! I`v been reading yr blogs for a while now but have never left a comment,until now..
Btw, I read someone`s comment on Chetan Bhagat`s books and I must say(pbly at the risk of causing much irritation - cos it seems you guys are IIT undergrads!) -I`m so sick of these books on IIT! I read one...and then read another,hoping it`ll be better or atleast a lil different. No Joy!!

sushumna said...

hahahhahah...yeah, it's funny!!!'s is unfortunate that you had to start out reading that. I'm reading quite a bit of Indian fiction too. You can try AMitav Ghosh, he's excellent. So is Samit BAsu.I love Rabindranath Tagore. Ok, I can see a pattern here :). Anyway, you can try some new fiction here
They are listed out for an award. The jury is also quite distinguished. Good luck on further adventures ;)

Anonymous said...

Rupa Bajwa's The Sari Shop is quite good. I didn't find thew anngst unexplained. Was also funny.