|CURRENT ISSUE MARCH 12, 2007|
|SOCIETY & THE ARTS: BOOKS|
The India depicted in this more-epic-than-necessary first novel is both incredible and unbearable
By Brinda Bose
There is an essential, head-scratching paradox about this mawkishly-titled first novel that I have been unable to resolve. The paradox is this: It is uniformly well-written, yet not a page-turner. Disappointed expectation dogged my reading of the opus and crystallised into disillusion by the time I came to the glossary. (A glossary! What an absolutely vile idea, in a post-colonial novel of the 21st century. It consolidates one's belief that sunny California, where the novelist lives and works as a research scientist, is indeed another planet.) More seriously, it reinforces one's discomfiting sense that the novel, a more-epic-than-necessary hardly-veiled historical treatise on socio-political goings-on in India in the recent past, was written for THEM, not the US. For the second generation Indian-Americans, perhaps, and for the rest of them who live on the other planet and know not much about India other than vague notions of peacocks and thrones.
Saraf's sombre mission-to chronicle a modern India devoid of lightness or levity-is never compromised for a moment. The novel, in fact, apes history textbooks, given its sober divisioning into five parts, each under an ominous year of entry: 1984, 1990, 1992, 1996 and 1998. The anti-Sikh riots, following Indira Gandhi's assassination, the Mandal Commission protests and the Babri Masjid demolition are the obvious historical flash points that Saraf works around, and woven through them is the charmed, if not charming, tale of the consolidation of the Hindu Right by the end of the 20th century. But no political party, right, left or centre-and indeed, no "political" person, be it Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, MP, MLA, chaivala or NGO chief in pristine white cotton sari-is spared an unflinching, intractable critique of character and conduct. Modern India, contained microcosmically in its capital's filthy and overcrowded Chandni Chowk, is on Saraf's canvas darkly and depressingly charcoal-grey, swamped by its own dingy inhumanity, unrelieved even in its briefest encounters of heart and hand and soul. Its intimacies are confined to lurid heterosexual escapades in red-lit kothas and homosexual transactions in stinking cupboards. Friendships or loves have nary a chance to bloom in this putrid, proliferating hell. Gopal Pandey/Das, who is Everyman at the focal point of Saraf's decrepit universe, is merely a minor character, more acted upon than acting. Kartar Singh, Sohan Lal, Suleman Mian, Ibrahim, Gauhar Muhammad, Harilal Gupta, Naresh Aggarwal, Chitra Ghosh, Gita Didi alias Gulmohur-all belong to a predictable multi-cast which embodies incredible, unbearable India.
Read it for its searingly accurate portrait of a politically degenerated India: for its intricate tales of betrayal and loneliness; for its sodden stories of petty ambition and puerile stakes; for its acute delineations of the malevolence of modern Indian history. It will certainly tell you why escaping to sun-flicked,(sea-kissed California seems like such a bright idea.