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Literary Review

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fiction

Readable, at best

SHEBA THAYIL

A hotch-potch of ideas, language and story, salvaged by sincere intentions.


Dahanu Road; Anosh Irani; HarperCollins; Rs 299

The stars are not always aligned, are they? When you meet your soul mate, you're married; when you get your dream job, you're taking care of a sick parent; when you read a book that's not too horrendous, you've just finished one that's sublime so it leaves you with the most fleeting of impressions. I don't know if I can blame the soufflé that is Dahanu Road entirely on Marisha Pessl's tapestried, utterly remarkable Special Topics on Calamity Physics, but here's the thing, as Tony Shaloub would say in the TV series Monk: It's still a soufflé.

Bewildering range

The ingredient I don't get in so much of Indian writing, perhaps even subcontinent writing, is the language is so collegiate. There is the grammar, but lost entirely are the rush of ideas, nuance and layers hidden in characters and dialogue that should be shown, not told (Creative Writing 101); the life force in rigorous prose is substituted by the mundane details (please note, I don't mean details) that no one cares about, and worse, is de trop in great fiction.

I open Dahanu Road and choose any paragraph: “Bumble grimaced, took his ray-Bans off, cleaned them with the bottom of his red T-shirt, and put them back on again. “It's nothing,” he said. He put his forefinger on the rim of his aviators and pushed them back.'

Another page: “When the water was hot enough, he used a thick white towel to protect his hands while he carried the copper container to the bathroom. He emptied the water into a green bucket.”

It's at this point that I usually wish for that meteor they've been promising us for years to strike the earth and put us all out of our respective miseries. I mean, what is there in those sentences that couldn't have been cut down; what is with this obsession with telling the reader every single movement a character makes while throwing in an adjective or two when it adds nothing to the story? Did I, for example, need to know that the bucket was green? Was it part of a radioactive plague that was let loose by a neighbouring Caucasian conglomerate to see how non-Caucasian humans tolerate toxic materials?

Words are the most powerful assets we have, to waste even one seems to me the most aggravating assault on the reading senses.

Now that I've got that out of the way, it can't be denied that there is a level of sincerity in Anosh Irani's novel. He wants us to know what one of India's minority communities is all about, and he succeeds. Shapur Irani leaves Iran in the 20s and sets up a life for himself and future generations just outside Bombay. The book revolves around his grandson, Zairos, who finds one of his Warli workers has hung himself ('Ganpat...asphyxiated by his own history'). Enter the worker's beauteous daughter whom Z immediately lusts after – one look and the 'blood of a landlord was swirling inside him') - and soon begins the unravelling of a long-ago mystery, worldviews and the Zoroastrian way.

The women in Dahanu Road are, like women all over India, the strong, reliable and unwavering ones. Shapur's wife Banu and the beauteous daughter Kusum (just once, could a hero fall in lust with a woman of character? Perhaps the last word on that remains with Melania Trump who retorted when asked would she have fallen in love with the Donald if he didn't have money, ‘Would he have fallen in love with me if I wasn't beautiful?' The answer is a sad indictment on evolution), have more pull for the reader than the he-men who allow passion to hold sway over judgement.

Possibilities

There is one moment in the book where the Z-Kusum story could have become a love story, when she remembers Z has a young boy who was kind to her as a frightened little girl and who tried to tuck a lily into her hair but not managing that leaves it on top of her head instead. When they meet as adults, he says ‘ Look at me', which is not what tribals are accustomed to doing with their seths, and again there is a moment. But these are squandered and all we are left with is the trite coupling between forbidden sexual partners without any tenderness as a mitigating circumstance– Irani tells us there is but it just isn't shown. The end comes anticlimactically and the reader is left with no feeling of tenderness either.

The Seth-type humour is instantly recognisable, though, as when Z's father says ‘Poverty's greatest gift to the rich is no bra' as they all enjoy the sight of Warli women bending over to wash chickoos in a tub of water. The father is the kind of character we meet in every chai-kadda in the country, (here there is no dividing line between Iranis and Malayalees), like Hosi who passes his time in Dahanu by visiting prisons. There, he waits and watches inmates who have just been released so that he can 'see the look of freedom on the man's face'. Or there's the dacoit Chambal who raises his gun and aims it at Z to show him ‘I could kill you just now and feel nothing' until his cousin Santosh distracts him with talk of underwear. Z is taken aback, wondering if this is some kind of poem, and whether it will be symbolic of his imminent death. Obviously, Z is a Tarantino and Pulp Fiction fan.A self-indulgent novel is not the worst thing one can produce, and this is readable at least. Just keep a respectable distance between Dahanu Road and Calamity Physics.

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