‘In Custody’ by Anita Desai

71qai7hvu+LAnita Desai’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel is possibly the most frustrating reads I have had the misfortune of encountering in a very long time. To say I disliked it is a complete understatement.

A craven, weak-willed, poorly-paid lecturer of Hindi at a northern Indian city outside of Delhi, Deven is an infuriating metaphor for the downtrodden everyman, constrained by his lowly station and limited opportunities in life.

When Deven is offered the opportunity by a former schoolfriend to interview Nur, the greatest living poet in the Urdu language, he grasps at it, daring to dream of publication and escape from the ‘stagnant backwaters’ of Mirpore. Although a dying language in India since Independence, to Deven it is the lyrical language of poetry and a memory of the literary aspirations of his long-deceased father. But it’s Deven’s timidity and inertia that proves such an undertaking as a disaster.

Populated by a series of unseemly, grasping individuals, In Custody is unpleasant throughout. There is little love in Deven’s marriage to Sarla and everyone encountered takes advantage of him – whether it is the ageing, alcoholic Nur, himself trapped by acolytes and hangers-on, the publishing-school friend, Murad or fellow lecturer Mr Siddiqui.

Bills mount as he tries to follow his dream, but instead of interviews and recitals, demands for rum, biriyani, kebabs, room rental, tape recording purchases arrive. But, ever the eternal victim, at no point do we witness a proactive Deven vaguely attempt to turn things to his advantage (however slight). His obsequiousness towards the hero-worshipped poet over the course of the (thankfully) short novel wears the patience.

There is a great deal of symbolism within Desai’s writing, some of it more obvious than others. The title itself is indicative of the lives of all the characters: each is entrapped, imprisoned, held captive. And, to the initiated, political commentary is likely, touching as it does on linguistic, political and cultural issues. But that does not alter the fact that In Custody is an infuriating and unlikeable read.

Anita Desai was shortlisted for the 1984 Booker Prize but lost out to Anita Brookner and Hotel du Lac.

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‘A Fine Balance’ by Rohinton Mistry

61yx2cz9dml-_sl1231_-1In my mind, one of the finest novels ever written – a sensitive, humane yet deeply political commentary on the India of the 1970s during the government-declared State of Emergency along with the accompanying levels of corruption and abuses of power. Sobering, devastating yet deeply haunting, A Fine Balance may be a fiction, but it’s not made up.

Central to Mistry’s narrative are four individuals whose lives become deeply entwined, all poor and surviving (just) on the edges. It is through Dina, Maneck Ishvar and his nephew, Om, in both their current connected lives and separate backstories that the panoramic sweep of the decade moves forward.

Their histories are all tragic yet seemingly commonplace in a desperately poor country of close on half a billion people.

Having escaped her overbearing and expectant brother and married for love, Dina finds herself widowed after just three years. Only the common sense of retaining the tiny, dingy, rent-controlled apartment in central Bombay prevents her from returning to a life of benevolent slavery to Nawaz, his wife and two young sons.

Struggling financially over the years, she takes to renting out her bedroom to Maneck, a student and son of a former school friend. His family has fallen on hard times. Living in the Himalayan foothills, owning extensive lands, the stroke of a British colonial pen placed the family holdings on the wrong side of a border. Only the General Store remains. The advent of tarmacked new roads, tourism and multinationals are the death-knell for small family-run businesses: his father pushes Maneck into looking beyond the shop for his future.

But the saddest histories belong to Ishvar and Om, victims of a caste system deeply rooted in social inequity and injustice. Untouchables in their village, the two are forced into a life of destitution following the public murder of their extended family at the hands of the local head honcho.

The four become unlikely companions and friends as they eventually find themselves living in the Bombay flat.

Initially, Dina employs Ishvar and Om as tailors. But their frequent unexplained absences make her suspicious of their commitment and motivation: it’s only a quiet word here and there from Maneck that balances her sentiment and prejudice. Yet it is in these moments of ‘absence’ that the true horrors of the State of Emergency are revealed – the rounding up of beggars and enforced slave labour schemes, the demolition of shantytowns through the Beautification Scheme, the rampant corruption at all levels. And it is those at that bottom that suffer every time.

Ishvar and Om are constant victims – they lose their mud and corrugated iron shantytown home: they’re forced to attend a prime ministerial rally with hundreds of thousands of others on the edge of town: they find themselves enslaved in a quarry for ‘food’ and lodging. They have no choices – the two are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. They’re two of the millions born poor and therefore voiceless.

Yet, at times, in spite of the trials and travails, the four also manage to find some happiness. It takes a while in coming – similar in age, Maneck and Om become firm friends: Ishvar is a benevolent, indulgent uncle. A panicked Dina, desperate to avoid turning to her brother, is the thorn in the side. But her loneliness and exposure to others’ sufferings soften Dina’s attitude towards her employees.

But the horrors of injustice are never far away and A Fine Balance is full of apprehension – nothing good lasts forever (or, here, for very long). The narrative continues unabated.

Names may not be named (even Bombay is only ever referred to as the City by the Sea) but the corruption of Indira Gandhi’s power-hungry regime and the inexplicable actions carried out in her name are captured in Mistry’s second novel. It’s 600 plus pages of the ugliness of human behaviour when power is presented or provided. But it’s also 600 pages of a deeply humane story of enduring and surviving, living or dying, of human endurance. A fine balance. And one of the finest novels ever written.

Inexplicably, whilst shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize, it lost out to Graham Swift’s good but not as memorable Last Orders.  

‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga

the_white_tigerOn first reading a few years ago, I found Adiga’s debut novel informative, well written and immensely entertaining. But sadly, from an entertaining perspective, The White Tiger does not pass the test of time.

An epistolary novel, with self-proclaimed murderer and modern Indian entrepreneur, Balram Halwai, our unreliable narrator, writing long letters to His Excellency, Wen Jiabao, premier of China and soon to be distinguished guest of the Indian government.

Spread over seven nights, Balram describes his rise out of poverty to managing director of his own fleet of taxis in the emerging southern Indian city of Bangalore. His is a story of ambition, corruption, power and murder – a personal story that is also a reflection on contemporary India that remains mired in the traditions of the caste system.

From his feudal village, where landlords control everything and every wage earner pays his dues, Balram uses his wits and cunning to rise above the ordure. A chance appointment as a driver to Ashok, a landlord’s son newly returned from the States, leads him to the corrupting influence of the country’s capital, New Delhi. It’s a very different world to Balram with its exclusive shopping malls, hotels, restaurants and clubs out-of-bounds to most Indians.

Whilst his brother and father continue to run the family business in their village, Ashok is the trusted family delivery-boy, paying out millions of rupees to politicians and government workers in bribes and donations. But a few too many conversations take place inside the car and within earshot of the ‘trusted’ Balram. And gradually, as Balram becomes more and more angry about his servitude and his treatment by his employers, so a plan unfolds.

Mordant satire abounds in Adiga’s novel – Balram can be cutting with his views on Indian politics, the caste system and his extended family, controlled as they are by the paternal grandmother and living in penury. His other ‘family’, the landlords, also come under the proverbial hammer.

But it’s also Balram who is the problem in The White Tiger. Or, more specifically, Balram is essentially the only character in the story who is, in anyway, fleshed out. Thus we are fed a limited, two-dimensional perspective as events unfold, events that have already been revealed early in the novel. The result is there’s no sense of depth, no sense of suspense to Balram’s confession (if, indeed, it is a confession).

The White Tiger is an easy read (it’s seemingly effortlessly written – certainly a point in Adiga’s favour). And the early half of the novel, set in Balram’s village, is incisive and humorous. But as the narrative unfolds, so it loses something and, ultimately, becomes a disappointment. The White Tiger was awarded the 2008 Booker Prize, beating out Sebastian Barry’s exquisite literary magic that is The Secret Scripture.

‘Such a Long Journey’ by Rohinton Mistry

15sena3Eloquent and assured, after a slow start Such a Long Journey develops into a riveting narrative set in 1971 Bombay on the eve of the Indian-Pakistan war and the birth of an independent Bangladesh.

A gifted storyteller, Mistry focuses on ordinary people, introducing a gamut of characters centred round the Noble family and residents of the down-at-heel Khododad Building.

Patriarch Gustad, as his surname suggests, is a respected, upright, devoted father of three working at a local bank as a clerk. From a family of bankrupted wealth, educated Gustad is the man of reason amidst his neighbours and work colleagues. But he unwittingly becomes involved in fraud and dangerous political machinations when he receives a letter from an old friend.

Layers of story and symbolism, philosophy and political gossip, theology and superstition are woven together as Gustad works to keep his family out of the poverty trap and understand the potential repercussions of helping Major Jimmy ‘Billiboy’ Billimoria. But he is also dealing with the everyday politics of living in the compound, the unexplained illness of his 8 year-old daughter, Roshan, and the refusal by his eldest, Sohrab, to attend the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology. As the rift between father and son widens, so Gustad’s wife Dilvanez turns to the help of old Miss Kutpitia and her remedies of lizards’ tails, toe nails and chillis.

Rich in detail, Such a Long Journey dwells momentarily on the poverty of Bombay neighbourhoods – the overcrowding, open sewers, fetid garbage, a chronic shortage of freshwater – before moving on to the corruption of the Indira Gandhi government or the cost of visiting a local GP. And always seen from the perspective of ‘everyman’ – primarily Gustad or his friend and bank colleague, Dinshawji: Such a Long Journey is a commentary, not an overtly political preach or exposition.

It’s a beautifully written amble of a journey, compelling in its telling, intricate in its composition. Like Gustad’s overnight train journey from Bombay to New Delhi, Such a Long Journey is crowded, full of energy with unexpected twists and turns which, quite simply, need to be dealt with.

There is an air of overhanging melancholia, a sense of powerlessness for the ordinary person in the street – whether it be a damning indictment of the Indira government and American foreign policy or the demolition of the wall protecting the Khododad compound by the local Municipality. But there’s also a sense of hope – the independence of Bangladesh, Miss Kutpitia finally free of her past.

Yet, ultimately, Such a Long Journey is Gustad’s journey. He loses Billimoria and Dinshawji, but he learns a great deal about himself and his family becomes stronger. And as a result, he becomes stronger.

His debut novel, Rohinton Mistry was shortlisted for the 1991 Booker Prize but Such a Long Journey lost out to Ben Okri and The Famished Road.

‘Heat and Dust’ by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

heatanddustTwo parallel stories run side-by-side as the 1923 downfall of Olivia during the British Raj in India is explored through a series of analepses by the (unnamed) granddaughter of Olivia’s ex-husband some 50 years later.

Propriety and social constraints are jettisoned in favour of rebellious passion as Olivia, newly arrived in India, becomes suffocated by the boredom of being a British Raj administrator’s wife.

Young and beautiful, she soon attracts the attention of the local Nawab, a minor Indian prince. In spite of her love for (boring) husband Douglas and the Nawab’s association with the daicots terrorising the local villages, Olivia is drawn to the thrill and excitement of palace life.

Fifty years later, Douglas’ granddaughter arrives in the town of Satipur looking to understand Olivia’s decisions and motivations – and like her, she becomes embroiled in the squalor and heat and dust of India: like Olivia, she becomes pregnant, uncertain of the father.

Heat and Dust is a short novel (180 or so pages) and is relatively straightforward, narrated as it is by the 1970s family member. Jhabvala is an assured and confident writer (as well as novels and short stories, she won two Oscars for adapting A Room With a View and Howard’s End for the screen) but there’s something lightweight about Heat and Dust.

It’s full of the smells and textures of India – and the racism of the Raj is succinctly portrayed. But there’s no real analysis or judgement – it’s a keen observational novel without any overt emotion. Like the social constraints of the 1920s, it’s controlled and distant.

Jhabvala’s novel won the Booker Prize in 1975 beating the only other shortlisted book, Gossip From the Forest by Thomas Keneally. It remains the shortest shortlist in Booker history (and excluded Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man and Robertson Davies with his World of Wonders – the final book of The Deptford Trilogy).

‘The Inheritance of Loss’ by Kiran Desai

9780141027289High in the Himalayas, a large, decrepit house is home to three people (and a dog) and their dreams. Thousands of miles away, a young illegal immigrant sleeps on the floor of his workplace kitchen in a Harlem café.

Different backgrounds and ideals separate them – yet they are at the centre of revolution and change as The Inheritance of Loss uses the Gorkhaland movement and the civil and ethnic unrest of the 1980s in the Darjeeling region as its background. The loss of identity, personal and collectively, in a post-colonial India is the central theme of this powerful (albeit, to my mind, rambling and patchy) winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize.

The two central characters are Biju and Sai. He finds himself as an illegal in New York desperately attempting to escape the poverty of his life at home but, instead, finds that squalor of poverty is global. Sai, as a 16 year-old orphan, finds herself reliant on her maternal grandfather and his unkempt crumbling home high in the mountainous Kalimphong.

A retired Cambridge-educated judge, Jemubhai Patel is everything the civil insurgency is moving against – more English than the English (in spite of him never being accepted, as an Indian, by the very people he aspires), he abhors his own country’s customs, to the extent he eats chapatis with a knife and fork. He treats his ageing dog, Mutt, better than most of his neighbours (and certainly his now-deceased wife, whom he sent back to live with her family, so disgusted was he with her ‘India-ness’).

The Inheritance of Loss is littered with a snapshot of characters reflecting the various political and social thoughts of the day (with an overt bias towards ‘British Indians’): the young Nepalese, Gyan, tutor to Sai and drawn towards the revolutionary ideals but in need of the blossoming relationship with his student; the Jane Eyre reading, marmalade eating sisters Noni and Lola; the traditional cook, father of Biju and indentured employee to the judge. Their lives are threaded throughout as the narrative unfolds – but here’s the problem.

There are so many lives, backwards and forwards in time, that too much of The Inheritance of Loss remains unfocussed and unresolved. In attempting to be all encompassing and casting a wide net, Kiran Desai takes on too much. Political commentary and social family saga intertwined are not new. But somehow, there are times when she slips into polemic that, whilst interesting, the execution falls short.

And there’s just no joy!

‘The Lives of Others’ by Neel Mukherjee

819-ACedOCL._SL1500_A long (505 pages), meandering story of an upper middle-class Kolkata family in the 1960s, Neel Mukherjee’s second novel is, like the city, crammed to overflowing with stories and characters. But, unfortunately, few of the central characters are actually likeable.

A once proud, successful family living in the elite northern suburbs, the Ghoshes have been forced to up sticks and move to a four storey home in the less ritzy Bhowanipore to the south. The problem is that the family – and the patriarch, Prafullanath, in particular – has been ignorant of the tides of change going on around them. A botched modernisation programme of their successful printing business along with shifting political sands and the rise of trade unionism has left the family fortunes in a downward spiral.

With Prafullanath now left infirm due to a series of heart attacks, it is left to two of his sons, Adinath and Priyonath, to try and make sense of the business. Home life is overseen by the ageing matriarch Charabula from the top floor of the Bhowanipore home, with the living arrangements of her adult children and their families arranged according to rank on the lower floors.

Life in the Ghosh home is strained at the best of times, with petty jealousies, rising frustrations and deeply felt anger rife within the family unit. Three brothers (and their families), an unmarried sister and the widow and children of the deceased youngest – a total of sixteen plus permanent servants and casual staff all live under one roof. But it’s the disappearance of the eldest grandchild, Supratik, and the discovery of his involvement with the extremist politics of the Naxalites that highlights the fractures in the family and their lack of understanding of the evolving world outside the front door.

Structurally, Mukherjee has chosen, once Supratik has left home, to present three interwoven strands – the present tense is Kolkata, the past tense filling in the family’s back history and the third as a series of (undelivered) letters from the rebellious Maoist explaining to an unnamed recipient his motivations in having chosen to live in the rural areas among people at the lowest rungs of social order.

The dynamics of a country in change are reflected in the Ghosh family dynamics. The old order of the British Empire and its demise is very much represented by the infirm patriarch and the (pre-independence) business. Confusion reigned for years post-1948 with decisions being made without access to all the details and ramifications of decisions (Adinath and Priyonath desperately trying to keep the company afloat). And, as the 60s moved towards the 70s, the massive global political shift of a younger generation fighting poverty and injustice is placed firmly in the lap of Supratik and the Naxalite rebellion. Behind closed doors, the women in the family attempt to maintain tradition and social order.

The Lives of Others joins many sagas on the bookshelf of the struggles of post-independence India. The chapters written ‘by’ Supratik are stylistically different to the rest of the book – matter of fact and to the point fictionalised characterisation of real events. It’s through him we are introduced to the socio-political situation of West Bengal in the 1960s. It is through the stories of the unmarried Chhaya, the clashes between the matriarch and her daughters-in-law, the pecking order of the teenage cousins and relationships to the servants that provide us with an understanding of an upper middle-class family in Kolkata (still known as the anglicised Calcutta).

It’s a fascinating insight. Sadly, however, there are two major problems. The first is that lack of any sympathetic and empathic central character. The young widow, Purba, is possibly the closest, packed off as she is by Charabula with her children to one room on the ground floor after the death of the youngest (and favourite) son. But, like her station in life, Purba is too much on the periphery of the story to have much impact. Even the idealistic Supratik is proven to be a hypocrite.

And then there’s Mukherjee’s love of words. There are just too many of them! Why use five words? Use thirty or forty instead.

Over the last few years, instead of excitedly anticipating what lies ahead, he has fallen into the enfeebling habit of returning in his thoughts to a juncture in his recent past that he identifies as a turning point. But every time the hope for a neat, single locus, where the bend marks the before and the after, defies him, and what he had hoped was going to be apparent as a clear turning point dissolves into something resembling an estuary, the unitary flow of events fracturing into a prodigal multiplicity of streams of cause and effect, so that he can no longer identify what or who to blame for everything that followed….

That was at page 81 – and there are 505 of them. Occasionally, just occasionally, I wished his editor had been a little more judicious.

Although the favourite to win the 2014 Man Booker Prize, The Lives of Others lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.