Thursday, January 13, 2011

metro mundanities, random classics

Versions of these short reviews appeared in Mint Lounge on January 8, 2011.

A brief and irritable note on the following:

The Premier Murder League, Geeta Sundar
With or Without You, Partha Sarathi Basu
Close Call in Kashmir, Bharat Wahkhlu

Penguin’s Metro Reads series is tagged with the line, ‘Every life has a story.’ Truth this may be, but justification it is not. In much the way commercial Hindi cinema serves up fanciful stories about improbable situations by disclaiming it as what ‘the public’ demands, the Metro Reads books dish up a slop of genre conventions – romance, suspense, action – in familiar Indian locations. There the implicit claim of the Metro Reads tagline, that these books are about people whose stories may not be otherwise heard, begins and ends.

And like their Bollywood counterparts, the novels are guilty of a host of narrative sins. In Wakhlu’s military-academic thriller about terror and a secret treasure in Aishmuqam, Kashmir, there are pleasant stretches of potted history in which readers are told – sometimes through clumsy expositionary dialogue – about Kashmir’s dazzling syncretic past and the Mughal intrigues that shaped it significantly. These chunks of information play out in a plot where an academic and a CBI bureaucrat attempt to outwit an unprincipled professor to a possible treasure, while in a related sub-plot, a beautiful young scientist attempts to escape her terrorist kidnappers (and with good reason. An Afghan mercenary who cannot ‘help noticing that she was well proportioned and full of youthful promise’ is hardly salubrious company).

If Close Call in Kashmir transplants Dan Brown to the subcontinent, then Partha Sarathi Basu’s With or Without You travels a much shorter distance, by taking the MBA-hero genre of Indian writing in English to its one true home, Gurgaon. Its cavalier attitude to workplace sexual harassment may be easily ignored by some readers. But how many will delight in page after page devoted to the minutiae of advertising agency politics? Great literature has been created out of plots in which there is seemingly little at stake, but With or Without You is more successful in mapping malls with coffee shops than the inner lives of its characters.

Geeta Sundar’s The Premier Murder League is probably the pulpiest of the three, with a delicious plot involving political murder and cricketing corruption, but even as it delves into different strands of public life – cop protagonists, cricket board shenanigans, middle-class crimes of passion – it ends up being about none of these in particular. Sundar’s book has more shape than the other two, but it is also prone to more bizarre narrative revelations that can throw readers out of the plot. Early on, police visiting the scene of a murder say to one another, ‘Lovely, isn’t it? …It seems unlikely that any crime could have been committed here.’

This sort of banality makes free through the pages of all three novels to such a degree that one is forced to wonder: do Penguin’s editors believe that readers on the Metro are somehow less demanding, or more easily pleased, than their stationary counterparts? This commuter feels bound to point out that even a distracted train traveler can generally tell the difference between easy reading and easy writing. By conflating the first and second, Metro Reads’ small, well-produced volumes come perilously close to being objects of annoyance. Like FM radio in written form, they make you want to change the channel.

Random Classics: Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay's Durgeshnandini and Rabindranath Tagore's Three Women

Random House’s new series of translations opens its account with two beautifully-produced Bangla-to-English works. Translator and series editor for Bengali, Arunava Sinha, presents Anglophone readers with Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Durgeshnandini (The Chieftain’s Daughter), often remembered as the first novel ever written in an Indian language. Bankim adopted a high Romanticism familiar to readers of Walter Scott in his fervent, epic historical story of love and war in Mughal-administered Bengal. Modern readers may delight in Bankim’s playful elegance as much as the chance to read a cornerstone of modern Indian literature.

Sinha’s confident, unobtrusive translations not only shed light on Bankim but also succeed in one of Indian writing’s most fraught endeavours, translating Rabindranath Tagore. Three Women groups together three famous Tagore novellas, The Broken Nest (Nashtaneer), Two Sisters (Dui Bon) and The Arbour (Malancha). Each is a poignant consideration of women stifled and complicit in their deeply gendered societies, and together they recreate a powerful sense of Tagore’s artistry and his humanism.


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