Book # 25 Ruchita Misra’s The (In)eligible Bachelors

If I had passed by The (In)Eligible Bachelors in a shop window, I probably wouldn’t have looked at it twice. Some people call that being a snob; but honestly, it’s just a time-saving measure for me. My ‘To Read’ list runs into hundreds and I would rather just pick up something recommended by a critic I respect. However, the flipside of reading in this manner is that while one is protected from truly awful books (One Night at a Call Centre, anyone?), one also misses out on books that everyone else seems to have read and is passionately talking about. It happened to me with The Immortals of Meluha (which I finally read last week and WILL blog about!), The Help, Eat, Pray, Love and The Shadow of the Wind. I don’t know if you agree, but it’s important to sometimes climb down from the ivory tower and get with the zeitgeist.

All of the above is just to make clear my reasons for reading and reviewing The (In)eligible Bachelors by Ruchita Misra. No, I don’t have water in my brain. I just think it’s fair to give new authors a chance, no?

So, The (In)eligible Bachelors is a romantic comedy, written in the form of diary entries and  has a fairly run-of-the-mill plot. Kasturi Shukla is a recent MBA graduate who has bagged a great job in Delhi. Kasturi is keen to be the young, ambitious career-woman, with no time for romantic dalliances, but her mother has other ideas. She thinks that her daughter, who is 24 years old, needs to get married and so she pushes her into a series of disastrous dates with “eligible” bachelors.  Kasturi herself, however, is falling head over heels in love with her boss Rajeev, and he seems to reciprocate her feelings.  It then becomes a question of how she can convince her mother to let her marry Rajeev.  Along the way, Kasturi and her friends Varun and Ananya have a number of adventures, including office PPT disasters, a road accident and kidnap and assault. They become friends with the quirky ‘Pita Ji’ and Purva Dikshit, the brooding doctor with a painful past who seems to harbour romantic feelings for Kasturi.

The book’s biggest strength is it’s pace. Misra has thrown in any number of office gags, romantic scenes and twists in order to keep the reader hooked, and it works. I finished the book in one sitting, because I really wanted to know exactly how Kasturi finds the true love of her life. I already knew who it was going to be – that became pretty obvious in one of the early chapters. The other thing I liked about the book was the depiction of Kasturi’s work life. As a new recruit, she naturally dreams about successfully handling major responsibilities and rising fast to the top of the ladder. Much to her chagrin, however, most of her work seems to require digging up old PPT slides and tweaking them in order to make presentations to the company’s top brass.  It’s no wonder then that Kasturi decides to make better use of her time by mooning over her unbelievably good looking boss and getting up to tricks with her friends Varun and Ananya. There’s some good humour in the office scenes, especially the one where Varun and Kasturi seek permission to use the company’s conference room for a finance workshop. What they actually want to do is discuss their mutual friend Ananya’s mysterious new boyfriend, and Varun has even created an elaborate slideshow for the occasion ( the details are killer, including Humko Tumse Pyaar Kitna, which is playing in the background).

I won’t complain about the plot, clichéd though it is. After all, the same story has been used a number of times by other writers and filmmakers. I also won’t complain about the language, which could do with a LOT of polishing. What I will complain about is the execution. The book is all froth, with no real substance beneath it. With a topic as clichéd as arranged marriage, Misra could have attempted something more different and individual by giving greater insights into the concept itself and approaching the romance from a different angle. As I said, she really shines in the parts that are set in the office, but the ‘Greek God’ boss is a stereotype she could have easily avoided.  As soon as it is mentioned that Kasturi’s boss is on leave when she joins the company, we  know that he’s going to be a dashing sort of fellow who sweeps Kasturi off her feet the moment they meet. And that is exactly what happens. And when a person with a scarred hand – whose face Kasturi doesn’t see – helps her to her feet in one of the first few chapters, we know that hand is going to be playing a major role in the plot, and will turn out to be Mr Right.

But the biggest irritant for me was the tone of the book. None of the ‘diary entries’ actually read like diary entries. They don’t have the appropriate structure or the right kind of intimate voice. Sample this opening  paragraph of one such entry:

“Hmm,” said Rajeev sir, thoughtfully.

I looked at his handsome face. I saw his eyes follow an attractive looking girl walking past us. We were again standing near India Gate, the sky was a dark shade of inky blue with stars twinkling all over.

Who writes diary entries that begin like that, with a quote? This is the opening of a story chapter! Another diary entry is from a discotheque. We know this from Kasturi’s habit of providing time and date for each entry. So on November 13, 2009 at 9 pm, she writes about her friends inviting her to a discotheque. Then at 9:30 pm she writes that she is in the hallway outside her room. At 10:30 pm she writes that she is at the ‘theque and that everybody is sweaty and the music is too loud. At 10:32 pm, her heart stops beating for a second because she thinks she sees someone familiar. At 10:45 pm, she hears a girl squealing. At 10:46 pm, she hears the girl giggle. At 10:48 pm, she sees a singular sight and is shocked into silence. At 10:49:30 she clears her throat before she addresses the couple she has caught in flagrante delicto.  Now unless Kasturi has her diary and a pen attached to her arm, there’s no way she can be giving us a minute-by-minute account of her night at the discotheque. It’s not like it’s Twitter.

Misra should have avoided this format. Diary entries in fiction can be tricky, and should only be attempted by an accomplished writer (Bram Stoker did this wonderfully in Dracula). If Misra wanted to retain Kasturi’s unique voice, she could have simply used a more traditional first-person narrative structure.

Overall, though, I don’t hate the book. It could have done with tighter editing, and a more insight, but at least it takes only about four hours to finish.  If you feel four hours is a lot, then avoid this book. But if you enjoy fluffy, no-brainer sort of fiction, by all means read it. In fact, from the reader reviews I checked on Goodreads.com, the book seems to have touched a chord with a lot of young Indians. That should be welcome news to Ruchita Misra.

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at BlogAdda.com. Participate now to get free books!

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Just another Banned Books post

Why Can't I Read This?

Image by Pesky Library via Flickr

IT really is astounding how much a day can veer off course, no matter how well you plan for all contingencies. For a long, long time I’ve been promising myself that I will be posting about four times a week, to catch up on the long list of books that I have read as part of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, while also taking off into any pleasant digressions that may occur. Alas, I’ve allowed real life and its various demands to sweep me away. And yes, my own laziness is also to blame.

But some things, fortunately, do go off as planned. Ever since I found out about ‘Banned Books Week’, I’ve been longing to part of the global discussion that takes place each year from September 26 to October 1. But to be part of that discussion, I would of course have to read a Banned Book which, you’ll be surprised to know, I haven’t done so far. I mean, I have read Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but the ban on these books was lifted long ago. What I should be reading, of course, are books that continue to be banned, especially in India, which has a long, inglorious history of such literary persecution (Salman Rushdie‘s The Satanic Verses and Hamish McDonald’s The Polyester Prince, are examples that spring to mind).

We’ve all debated ad nauseum about the narrow-mindedness that prompts people and governments to decide what everyone should be reading. We’ve all laughed at the anti-satanists who have preached Holy War against the Harry Potter series and have wondered aloud at the imbecility that prompted the withdrawal of Such a Long Journey from the Mumbai University syllabus. The wonderful, whimsical worlds that these works of fiction (and non-fiction) open up to us seem to hold no magic for moralists and political opportunists, and more than outrageous, it is just a tragic state of affairs. And just how tragic it is can be illustrated by the wicked, delightful little poem below, which was sought to banned from libraries by parents who claimed it encouraged disobedience, or even that it was too morbid. This is how I add my two-bit to the global discussion. Enjoy!

Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony

by Sheldon Allen Silverstein

There was a girl named Abigail
Who was taking a drive
Through the country
With her parents
When she spied a beautiful sad-eyed
Grey and white pony.
And next to it was a sign
That said,
FOR SALE—CHEAP.
“Oh,” said Abigail,
“May I have that pony?
May I please?”
And her parents said,
“No you may not.”
And Abigail said,
“But I MUST have that pony.”
And her parents said,
“Well, you can have a nice butter pecan
Ice cream cone when we get home.”
And Abigail said,
“I don’t want a butter pecan
Ice cream cone,
I WANT THAT PONY—
I MUST HAVE THAT PONY.”
And her parents said,
“Be quiet and stop nagging—
You’re not getting that pony.”
And Abigail began to cry and said,
“If I don’t get that pony I’ll die.”
And her parents said, “You won’t die.
No child ever died yet from not getting a pony.”
And Abigail felt so bad
That when she got home she went to bed,
And she couldn’t eat,
And she couldn’t sleep,
And her heart was broken,
And she DID die—
All because of a pony
That her parents wouldn’t buy.

 

Mirror Worlds in Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart

Japanese writer Haruki Murakami

Image via Wikipedia

*Warning: Long post, filled with spoilers*

I’m a bit of a Haruki Murakami nut. I only need to read the blurb on the back of the book jacket to fall – hook, line and sinker. It doesn’t matter to me that most of his books feature pretty much the same characters and themes: a passive narrator, an unattainable woman, a quest, a pervading sense of loneliness, endless musical references and cats which do weird things, like talking or disappearing into trees. Sometimes, I think it would be fun to create a ‘Haruki Murakami Plot Generator’, much like the ‘Chetan Bhagat Plot Generator’. One only needs to change the names of the characters, the exact nature of the quest, the kind of music the protagonists listen to and the number of cats featured in the story and voila! A Haruki Murakami novel is ready.

I hope you can tell that I’m only half-serious here. I do genuinely adore Murakami. His plots, with their enigmatic women, mobius strip plots and unresolved storylines have the ability to fill me with melancholy and dread at the same time. There’s never anything overtly menacing in his stories: no malignant ghosts and monsters with faces that could turn people to stone, and no gory, graphic scenes of violence. But he maintains, throughout, a sense of incipient threat – not of physical harm, but one that can cause minds to unbalance. He does this by rarely having lucid explanations and clear endings. To the human mind, there is nothing scarier than doubt and uncertainty (which is why we invented God and his/her supporting cast), and Murakami is a genius at throwing his characters into a Godless, nameless blank – a void or a doppelganger of life as we know it. There are dark hints that worlds and dimensions exist beyond our knowledge and comprehension, and these worlds are separated only by a mirror, as one of the characters in Sputnik Sweetheart says.

And that nicely brings us to Book # 24, Sputnik Sweetheart. It’s a sweet, short book – even a slow reader can finish it in about a couple of days, and it’s gripping from start to finish. The story is narrated by K, a typical Murakami protagonist with his love for cooking and jazz and his overwhelming attraction to an unattainable woman. Said unattainable woman is Sumire, a Kerouac-quoting, chain-smoking, budding novelist in an oversized men’s coat and boots, who is herself in love with an unattainable woman, Miu, a businesswoman. Miu is 17 years older than the 22 year old Sumire, and the two women form a warm bond the very first time they meet. Sumire, is at that time, struggling to write a whole novel. As K, her best friend, says:

“Sumire wrote some works that had a beginning. And some that had an end. But never one that had both a beginning and an end.”

K consoles himself by having an affair with the mother of one of his students, a relationship that doesn’t give him the love that he’s looking for, but offers a degree of comfort and warmth.

Miu, meanwhile, offers Sumire a job as her secretary, a decently-paid, undemanding job that will support the latter’s desire to write without having to worry about money and time. From Sumire’s point of view, the job also has the added attraction of Miu’s company, with whom she’s already violently in love. It’s a love that shakes her world and sweeps her off her feet. In the wonderfully evocative opening paragraph, K says:

“In the spring of her twenty-second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life. An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains – flattening everything in its path, tossing things up in the air, ripping them to shreds, crushing them to bits. The tornado’s intensity doesn’t abate for a second as it blasts across the ocean, laying waste to Angkor Wat, incinerating an Indian jungle, tigers and everything, transforming itself into a Persian desert sandstorm, burying an exotic fortress city under a sea of sand. In short, a love of truly monumental proportions.”

He isn’t exaggerating. This love compels Sumire to abandon her directionless, undisciplined lifestyle. She gives up smoking, starts keeping regular hours, wears high heels, makeup and matching socks and does a good job of being Miu’s secretary. The only problem is that she just can’t seem to write anymore.

Sumire and Miu take off for Europe on a business trip, where they become friendly with a British writer, who invites them to make use of his cottage on a tiny, sparsely-populated Greek island. The duo are only too delighted and spend four blissful days of eating, taking long walks, swimming in the clear water and basking in the sun before things go horribly wrong. Sumire disappears, “like smoke” and Miu asks K to come and help figure out what happened to her. Once he gets there, K finds that Sumire has indeed vanished without a trace and the key to her disappearance is an incident in Miu’s past.  As he finds out from Sumire’s private documents, Miu is frigid: she has not had sexual relations with anyone since a singular, frightening incident fourteen years ago. Miu was living in Switzerland at the time and one night, having been abandoned on a Ferris wheel at closing time, she looks at her apartment in the distance and sees the light is on. Inside is Ferdinando, someone she has met recently and whom she abhors, and this man is naked and sitting on her bed. Then there appears a woman, and to Miu’s horror, she sees that it’s herself. The two – Ferdinando and the other Miu – proceed to have sex in a slow, deliberate manner and Miu – the one stuck on the Ferris wheel – goes into shock. When she’s rescued the next day, she finds that not only is she covered with mysterious abrasions on her arms and face, but ever single strand of hair on her head has turned white overnight. Since that day, Miu has been incapable of giving her body to anyone, even her husband and Sumire finds that this is irreversible when she tries to make love to her, only to find her stiff and unresponsive. It’s not that Miu doesn’t like her; she’s willing to try whatever Sumire wants, but her body refuses to respond to Miu’s caresses.

Perhaps that is the clue to the mystery of Sumire’s disappearance. As she notes:

“I’m in love with Miu. With the Miu on this side…but I also love the Miu on the other side. The moment this thought struck me, it was like I could hear myself – with an audible creak – splitting in two. As if Miu’s own split became a rupture that had taken hold of me.”

What is Murakami trying to say through this weird, wonderful story? Perhaps that we should be true to ourselves and our natures, instead of trying to mould ourselves to certain expectations? Sumire has always been a free spirit, doing and saying exactly what she wants. Then she meets Miu and tries to fit into her world and become more like her. She causes her soul to split, and she finds that she can no longer write, the one thing that she can do almost instinctively. Similarly, Miu’s split can perhaps be explained by her life before the incident. She had forced herself into a certain disciplined lifestyle because she badly wanted to be a concert pianist. She refused to give in to her impulses. And then she met Ferdinando in Switzerland, someone she realized was trying to sleep with her and her brain instantly warned her off him. But maybe she was, deep down, attracted to him, and what she saw from the Ferris wheel that night was her other self making love to the man. The split of her soul had occurred – her impulsive, natural self had gone off to live in a world where it could do as it pleased. And it was in search of this natural, sensual Miu that Sumire too went off into the other world.

There could be another, slightly different interpretation too. Perhaps Murakami is writing about the unreasonableness of love and how we can’t govern our desires and make peace with them. Miu desires and abhors Ferdinando in equal measure and she can’t reconcile the two. In Sumire’s case, her love drives her to lose herself in Miu and forget who she really is. K too, briefly struggles with getting lost in the other world, but he manages to stay, unsplit, in this world. This may be because he had accepted that his love for Sumire will remain unrequited and he has somehow managed to live his life with that fact.

Then there is the question of loneliness. All three characters are lonely in their own ways, their unique experiences with this feeling making them even lonelier. Miu has lost part of herself and nobody else can comprehend what it’s like to live like that. Sumire feels lost and lonely despite being with Miu, because she misses living her life naturally and instinctively. K is lonely because he was an over-sensitive boy neglected by his family and who eventually built emotional defences around himself. Only Sumire ever managed to breach that wall and then, she too disappeared.

I suppose this post can go on and on…in fact, I know it can. My copy of Sputnik Sweetheart is covered in scribbles and pen marks, and I haven’t mentioned her half the things that I noted down on the back of the book. I don’t want to drive off the few readers that I have, but if anyone does want to discuss this book further and nitpick and point out the holes in my theory, I’m only to happy to oblige.

Readers Meet & Greet

I’ve been trying to read and write more ever since I quit my job a couple of weeks ago, but life keeps getting in the way. I’ve still managed to find a wonderful community of writers/bloggers/readers at SheWrites.com, and I’ve stumbled upon some great blogs through this website. The whole point of SheWrites is to encourage an exchange of ideas between different writers (men are welcome too!), and as part of that effort they’ve set up the SheWrites.com Blogger Ball #7. It’s a great way to read some new blogs and also encourage traffic on one’s own blog. So without further ado, let me welcome new readers to Bibliofanatique, while old faithfuls of this space can click on the bookshelf image below to go to a page that links to some really awesome blogs. Read and enjoy!

Welcome to the SheWrites Blogger Ball!

The Bright, Brittle World of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies

There are moments in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies when you don’t know whether to laugh or despair.  The darkly comic novel does a scathing take on the 1920s London’s culture of hedonistic living and near-anarchic levels of partying. The ‘Bright, Young People’, as they were christened by the media of the period, were mostly men and women from the aristocracy and the upper classes, bohemians and artists. Life for them was one round of parties and balls after another, and if they weren’t having an impromptu picnic at someone’s country house, they were living it up at races or guzzling champagne at art openings. You would laugh at their antics, if you weren’t so afraid for their health and sanity. Waugh’s novel captures perfectly the ‘carpe diem’ attitude of these young people. It strings together the absurd events that dot the life of a young writer Adam Fenwick-Symes in the inter-war years, and characters that populate this period of his life are among the most richly comic to ever appear in literature.

Briefly, the novel follows the travails of Adam, who has just returned to London after two months in Paris, where he finished the manuscript of his memoirs. He’s engaged to the beautiful Nina Blount and the money from his book is expected to support him and his future wife in the style they’re accustomed to. Unfortunately, custom officials are offended by the ‘dirt’ they perceive in the book, and informing Adam that their job is to prevent “works like this coming into the country”, burn the only existing manuscript. After this disaster, it’s an on-again, off-again engagement for Adam and Nina, as the former wins money off a drunken bet, loses it when he hands it to a drunk Major for ‘investment’, gets more money when the horse he has bet on wins a race and loses it all again when the Major disappears with his money. In between, he visits Nina’s eccentric father, Colonel Blount to ask for financial help, begins writing the ‘Mr Chatterbox’ gossip column for a newspaper, has surreal conversation with his landlady Lottie Crump, and has a day at the races where his friend Agatha Runcible gets drunk and drives a race car off the tracks. It’s one bizarre thing after another,  the characters are all memorable – even those with little cameos like the car-owning rector and the Prime Minister Mr Outrage – and the pace of the action never flags.

Actress Clara Bow in her Flapper look

Bright Young People, photographed by Cecil Beaton

The harum-scarum plot and high-living characters make sense if one looks at the context. The world has just suffered through the most devastating war in history, and it seems like the status quo has been restored in politics. The 1920s were years of sustained economic prosperity (they were, after all, The Roaring Twenties) and saw the rise of such cultural phenomena as Jazz music, Art Deco and the Flapper. All these – the seeming formlessness of Jazz, the modernist and functional lines of Art Deco and the unfettered sexuality and cocktail-swilling of the Flapper – flew in the face of conformity. The Bright Young People were the very embodiment of these unorthodox attitudes, as reflected in their decadent lifestyles. In fact, Waugh himself was a member of this set, along with novelist Nancy Mitford, heir to the Guinness brewing fortune Bryan Moyne and his wife Diana, photographer Cecil Beaton and novelist Anthony Powell. Their all-night parties, hard drinking, elaborate pranks – the’ Bruno Hat Hoax’ art exhibition is practically legend – were only fuelled by widespread tabloid coverage.

Yet, there’s a hard-bitten cynicism and brittleness in Vile Bodies, the kind that knows these people live in the moment, because they know the good times can’t last forever. Like I said at the beginning of this post, often you don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. The Bright Young People seem to lead such hopeless existences. It’s like they’re in shell-shock and the only way they feel alive is when they’re drunk and dancing and creating mayhem. Even their attitude towards love is bewildering. Perhaps Waugh is exaggerating for comic effect, but his depiction of the romantic exchanges between Adam and Nina is very telling. For instance, when Adam informs Nina that he has no money on which to marry her, Nina replies, “Oh Adam, you are a bore”. Nina eventually marries someone else, although this doesn’t stop her and Adam from continuing to sleep with each other. They’re perfectly cool and brazen even when spending Christmas at Nina’s house after they tell her forgetful father that Adam is her husband. Blasé is what their attitude is.  Waugh’s tone too changes from light-hearted to bitter by the end of the book, by which time the Second World War has begun. Nowhere is the author’s despair clearer than in this passage:

“Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties at St. John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and nightclubs, in windmills and swimming baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…Those vile bodies…”

So what starts out as a comedy, ends as a tragedy – a bit like Black Adder, if you’ll forgive the comparison. Just like that wonderful television show, Vile Bodies is a sharp comment on a society and an era, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for more than a few good laughs.

Slices of Feudal Pakistan in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

In Saleema, one of the more heart-wrenching tales in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a young woman makes the mistake of trying to rise above her station. At a disadvantage due to her background (she was born into the Jhulan clan, blackmailers and bootleggers), youth and gender, the protagonist Saleema dispenses sexual favours to make a better life for herself. She eventually falls in love with the Rafik, long-time valet to the master of the house, KK Harouni, and he with her. A brief, loving relationship and a baby follow, but the inevitable happens. Rafik returns to his family, and Saleema is left to fend for herself.

Other characters are similarly punished for trying to fulfil their hearts’ desires in this book, which features stories about the family and household of a Lahore landowner, KK Harouni. In Provide, Provide Chaudhry Jaglani, Harouni’s manager at his family estate in southern Punjab falls in love with Zainab, the driver’s married sister. Jaglani is a canny man, who has over the years acquired weath and the power and respect that go with it. His whole life has been the result of careful planning and he feels he owes it to himself to take Zainab as well. He justifies to himself and Zainab’s husband, “I have so much because I took what I wanted.” In A Spoiled Man, Rezak, abandoned by his family and barely managing to subsist on odd jobs, finds himself on Harouni’s estate and being offered a job there. His luck holds well, as he gets a small patch of land on which to park his portable hut and settle down.  It seems only natural that he should get himself a young, new bride to keep in company. The titular protagonist of Lily too wants to settle down, after a life of hard-partying and irresponsibility. She marries Murad, a well-to-do American-educated young Pakistani who takes her to live on his farm in southern Punjab. Lily works hard to fit in with her husband’s lifestyle and tries to care about the farm as much as he does.  In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, the poor, young and ambitious Husna becomes Harouni’s companion and mistress, and tries hard to win the acceptance of the household servants and Harouni’s family and friends.

None of these stories have happy endings. Jaglani abandons Zainab while on his deathbed, Rezak’s wife goes missing and he ends his days alone and uncared for, Lily finds herself suffocating in her marriage and Husna is forced to leave Harouni’s house after the old man’s death. We, the readers, know that Mueenuddin isn’t writing fairy stories where everything ends well, and the blow is just as hard for us as it is for the characters when things begin to go awry. And yet, Mueenuddin’s skill is such that he doesn’t allow himself or his characters to wallow in their misery. His distilled, clear prose is as contemplative as an afternoon cup of tea and imbued with gentle wisdom and humour. With a less talented writer, Saleema and Zainab’s stories would have developed into melodramatic plots about the unjust hand dealt to underprivileged women and how their only currency is their sexuality. Mueenuddin stops short of making these moral pronouncements. He lays out the stories as they unfold, allowing the reader to take in everything at her own pace.

This is an ambitious book which seeks to throw into sharp relief the various slices of life that make up modern Pakistan. Mueenuddin has successfully fleshed out the machinations of a divided household, the sexual politics that pervade both above and below the stairs and the various ways in which life queers well-laid plans. One could perhaps say that the writer is better when he is depicting life below the stairs, in the servants’ quarters where the cook lords it in the kitchen and where the women seek the sexual patronage, and protection, of the more important domestics. One someone as monumentally unlikeable as Hassan the cook is sketched in lines that feel firmer and more assured, while characters like Saleema, Jaglani and Nawabdin Electrician are simply delightful. Above the stairs, however, the characters all seem a trifle flat in comparison and their inner turmoils simply do not engage the reader as much. In fact, one of the least memorable stories in the book is Our Lady of Paris, where Harouni’s grandson Sohail and his American girlfriend Helen feel the distance growing between them after they meet Sohail’s parents.  There’s tension woven throughout the story and you do become invested in the lives of these characters, but it lacks the gentle humour that marks many of the other stories.

This in not to say that the book is dissatisfying at any point. Even the weaker stories are far better than the works of many other writers. With its measured narration and acute observations, this book announces itself as a classic from the very first page.

 

Desperate Lives in Book #21 Ian Rankin’s The Flood

I came late to the cult of Ian Rankin. I had no idea that popular fiction could be so well-written and thrilling until I read Mortal Causes.  As I wrote back when I blogged about Mortal Causes, I was perhaps more impressed by Rankin’s careful and seamless incorporation of the portrait of a society into a police procedural novel.  That is why, when I spotted The Flood at the Strand Book Sale in June this year, I scooped it up.

As it turned out, The Flood is quite different from the crime novels with which Rankin has made his name. It is suspenseful and once again, portrays a society in flux, but the similarities end there. This is the novel that marked Rankin’s debut and his rawness – some would, rightly, call it ‘freshness’ – is evident. The prose, for instance, is not quite made up of the tautly drawn sentences, vibrating with tension,  that one finds in his Inspector Rebus novels. The plot too, is less cynical: there are a lot of horrible happenings, one’s faith in humankind is shaken more than once, but in the end, there’s hope.

The story is set in a small coal mining community in rural Scotland, and the protagonists are a mother, Mary Miller, and her son Sandy.  It kicks off with an incident that becomes the turning point of Mary’s life: when she’s a little girl she falls into a hot burn – a stream composed of hot waste water from the washing plant of the coal mine. She’s half dead when she’s pulled out and her beautiful hair turns white overnight. Then, when the boy who pushed her into the hot burn is killed in a mining accident, whispers of Mary’s powers start doing the rounds, and the villagers begin to look on her with fear and suspicion. Things take a turn for the worse, when she finds herself unmarried and pregnant. In the second part of the novel, Sandy finds himself developing feelings for the homeless gypsy girl, Rian, who seems to reciprocate his feelings. But he can’t be sure because he’s been brought up in a community that ostracizes gypsies, and ironically, his outcaste mother herself has a fit when she finds out that her son is in a relationship with a gypsy. In the final part of the novel, both mother and son have to deal with some harsh truths: Sandy, about the nature of his relationship with Rian and Mary, about her son’s paternity and the true story of his conception.

The novel draws on many different themes to power its narrative.  In exploring the psychological and emotional growth of both Mary and Sandy, the book positions itself as a Bildungsroman. But it is also an amazing portrait of life in a small Scottish village, which has seen better days. In describing the economical and social decay of the village of Carsden, with its defunct coal mine and grubby houses, Rankin  paints a depressing picture. It gives us a sense of the hopelessness that envelopes the village in general, and Mary and Sandy in particular. The titular flood, when it comes in the end, is almost Biblical in its fury and threatens to wipe out the village. It ends up washing away the lies and secrets that had damned existence for the mother and son. In the end, life offers them fresh hope and they have the chance to start their lives all over again.