Reading has been a sporadic activity these last few years. Whatever little I did read was stretched and/or left unfinished. Memorable reads have been even fewer. The Crow Eaters was one among this extremely sparse list. Others being English, August, Bridges of Madison County, Memoirs of a Geisha, Kafka on the Shore (kind of obvious), and A Fine Balance. And that is a ‘list’ spanning a little less than 6 years (hangs head in shame).
However, there were books – much hyped – which left me asking for a lot more because I read them with preconceived notions and a lot of expectations. Most of these books can broadly be brought under the umbrella of Indian English Literature.
Topping this list of ‘left a lot to be desired’ is The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee. Although it has won considerable critical acclaim and was shortlisted for many a prestigious award, it was quite a letdown for me.
A book – to me – is not just about language frills. Neither is it about showcasing one’s ‘intellect’. The Lives of Others was a rather loose and disjointed ruminations on the fall of the joint family and business class in Bengal, intertwined with that one political event – viz. Naxal Revolution – so close to every ‘left liberal and progressive’ Bengali. The book ends perfunctorily in the present. It has it’s moments. Mukherjee’s writing is visceral, jarring, and at times empathetic. But it was not an effortless or smooth read. It was – quite simply – incomplete.
At present, I am reading Clear Light Of Day, Anita Desai’s semi-autobiographical novel. There’s an innate melancholia attached to the narrative. Much like The Lives of Others, it permeates through different time lines; only in a much more organised and lucid manner. The story runs backwards but it is not disjointed. The language is at times heavy, sentences long. Partition acts as the socio-political backdrop. There’s also a smattering of poems from Frost to Eliot to Ghalib. None of all this seems unnecessarily stretched or forced. Nor does it seem like an intellectual deliberation of sorts.
Most importantly, the characters are so palpable. Just when you start feeling nothing but pity mixed with mild resentment for a secondary character like Mira Masi (Aunt Mira), you get to read about her backstory and pity turns into admiration and understanding. If you can at least empathize with the characters, if not relate, reading becomes so much more enjoyable and easy.
Desai, in my humble opinion, is one of finest Indian English Literature authors. What sets her apart from most of the contemporary (and veteran) authors in the genre is her unpretentious writing. There is no fastidiousness either. Her language is naturally complicated and languorous. Never once does it feel like she’s writing with a target audience in mind. She wrote (writes) quite simply for herself.
Mukherjee, on the other hand, seems way too concerned to impress a certain kind of audience. This overwhelming need to impress results in – among other things – unnecessary paras on mathematical ingenuity (one of the characters, Sona, is a mathematics prodigy). He introduces new characters to support ‘main’ ones which overpopulate the novel. There are plot ‘twists’ which don’t really add up to the story.
Keeping everything else aside, none of the characters are fleshed out, in spite of the novel being a human drama. I could still understand the little attention paid to character development, if it were a mystery/thriller. Half the pleasure of reading was lost because there was not a single character that appealed or was even likeable to me.
Indian English Literature authors have a tendency to take themselves way too seriously. I have seldom ever been able to read them ‘on the go’. It remains a relatively unexplored genre for me. Although I have read a few ‘cults’ (The Sari Shop, English August, The Inscrutable Americans) I am still to read some of the most iconic works viz. God of Small Things, The Shadow Lines, A Suitable Boy, and Midnight’s Children among others. This last one I found extremely difficult to read, twice over! One book I thoroughly enjoyed reading – long back – is The White Tiger. Arvind Adiga is one of those few Indian writers whose language is lucid and simple.
The unapologetic Khushwant Singh – although he doesn’t have the ‘merit’, as many say – gave his usual candid overview on Indian English Literature in this Outlook article. Maybe, I can go by the Dirty Old Man’s recommendations (along with my own preferences) although I Shall Not Hear The Nightingale – a rather recent read – was quite forgettable. But then, you don’t judge a man by his least credible work. I am a big fan of Train to Pakistan and his short stories. If not for anything, I agree on most of the parameters he opines, makes for good reads: flow of language, informational value, and ‘dollops of sex’ (which btw is not an absolute necessity, but like they say in B-town, ‘Script ke liye hai, to its fine’!).