‘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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‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel

lifeofpiA young teenager afloat the Pacific Ocean in a 26-foot long boat with only a Bengal tiger for company: Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel, late of Pondicherry in Southern India, the only human survivor of the shipwreck of a cargo boat travelling to Canada.

Having sold the family zoo, the Patels are fleeing the corruption of India for a better life in the frozen wastes of North America. Aboard are a few of the animals bound for American institutions. Only they do not make it. A storm two days out of Manila sees the boat sink – and Pi along with an injured zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and Richard Parker, the tiger, survive.

But not for long. Hyena soon dispatches the zebra, quickly followed by the orang-utan. But Richard Parker dispenses with the hyena. Now tiger and boy establish an uneasy routine for survival.

Life of Pi is told in three sections (and precisely 100 ‘chapters’) with the middle section by far the longest and which details the extraordinary journey of 227 days aboard the lifeboat. It’s rich in explanation of Pi’s survival techniques and his gradual training of the tiger to enable the two to reach an uneasy truce.

Such a story inevitably pushes the boundaries of believability. But then Life of Pi is full of metaphor and symbolism. Born into a Hindu family, the intelligent and curious Pi adds Catholicism and Islam to his beliefs, seeking out answers to his questions of faith in Pondicherry prior to the family’s departure.

“A germ of religious exaltation, no bigger than a mustard seed, was sown in me and left to germinate. It has never stopped growing since that day.”

Through him, Yann Martel finds harmonious common ground in the three religions. Through his fantasy adventure novel, Martel looks to encourage belief in the unbelievable – one of the major hurdles to faith and believing in God.

But an alternative is provided by Pi in the third and final section of the novel – the ‘human answer’ he gives to officials from the Japanese shipping agents, owners of the cargo boat. Pi’s mother becomes the orang-utan, an injured seaman the zebra, the crazed cook from the boat the hyena. Pi himself is Richard Parker.

The ‘truth’ of Pi’s story is of little concern – the issue is the reader’s preference. Interpretation is, of course, subjective and its intention here is theological reflection. Do you need concrete proof or can you take things on faith?

‘Everything was normal and then…?’

‘Normal sank.’

Life of Pi is unquestionably overwritten at times – the first section in particular left me frequently impatient with its descriptions and long-windedness. But, theological symbolism aside, life aboard the lifeboat is fascinating and engaging reading. And, oddly, verging on believable. There are a couple of significant exceptions – the floating island of acidic algae populated by millions of meerkats and meeting the alter ego, also adrift. But by then Pi had been alone for some 200 days so an element of madness is excusable (although these incidents did feel like excuses for Pi to descend into paroxysms of theological wonder and divinity. From the outset we are told that this is a story that will make you believe in God).

That particular objective failed to materialise in me personally but as a yarn set on the high seas, with the exception of that tendency to overwrite and slip into philosophical and theological musings, Life of Pi is an engaging read.

Yann Martel’s second published novel was awarded the 2002 Booker Prize.

‘Viceroy House’

Viceroy's_House_(film)Lord Mountbatten arrives in Delhi as the last British Viceroy to India. He’s to oversee the transition to independence.

Director Gurinda Chandar (Bhaji on the Beach, Bend It Like Beckham) somehow manages to reduce partition and its associated violence into an episode of Downton Abbey – even casting Hugh Bonneville as Mountbatten. Lots of hooded stares and pushing among the Hindu and Muslim servants in Government House: lots of love struck stares between Jeet Kumar (Hindu) and Aalia Noor (Muslim) in the servants quarters.

In all, the film aims to be epic in its telling, but lacks emotion or authenticity. It is only Gillian Anderson (The X-Files, The Last King of Scotland) as Lady Edwina Mountbatten who stands out in what is essentially a boring and tedious film.

Rating: 40%

‘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.  

‘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).