I seem to be getting trashed a lot lately. I don’t know if that’s a good sign or not. Well, at least people are reading my books. I have to admit that I am not satisfied yet with anything I’ve written, so I tend to agree with the negative reviews. Interestingly this reviewer liked the inset short stories of Black Light, while every publisher I showed it to disliked them and preferred the frame narrative.
But then what do publishers know? Oops, here’s one that doesn’t like the stories, just in case I was starting to wonder. The image that is posted with this review is an early draft of the drawing accompanying ‘Kalinga’, and it’s off this blog. The final book had a different drawing.
However, this review in the Daily Bhaskar by Kritika Kapoor was different. I suppose if I listened to reviewers and tried to correct all the things they find wrong with my work I would have to stop writing. Sometimes of course a picky reader can help an author a lot and they should be treasured. The reviewers that really bug me are the ones who clearly read only the blurb, the first page and the last and dashed off something anodyne in their lunchbreak, in which the book occupies one paragraph and the rest is about their pet peeves.
People who do take the trouble (and it is a considerable trouble: sorry) to read my books tend to have a lot to say about them and tend to have strong reactions for or against. That has to be good, right?
Stop Press: Here’s another one in the Sunday Tribune by Shalini Rawat. Again, largely positive but with some puzzlement. I clearly have a long way to go in making my writing easy to read.
And here’s Anjana Balakrishnan’s review in Deccan Herald.
I had no idea all these reviews were out. If my publisher is keeping track, they certainly aren’t telling me.
And this is from Kankana Basu, about the discussion at Oxford Bookstore.
Rarely does a review take my stuff apart like this.
Actually I’m quite flattered. Adi, whoever (s)he is, is a person with strong opinions. By and large, I agree with what Adi has to say about the book. Reading it now myself, parts of it do seem to be self-indulgent and overlong, and if I do a republish as I did for Signal Red, I will probably cut these passages or redo them. I remember at the time of writing wishing I could squeeze in another sea voyage and more of the exciting cloak and dagger stuff that surrounded Sher Shah’s taking of Bengal, but deadlines were looming and I couldn’t scrape together the energy. Also Adi’s point about the Peshwas is well taken. I wish more of my readers read with that kind of attention and caught me out in errors.
I was gratified to see Adi likes Mridula Koshy as much as I do. He’s got me wanting to read Manu Joseph’s Serious Men, which I’ve been prevaricating over whether to buy for a while. I was vastly entertained by her/his fictional interview of Namita Devidayal. adi’s blog is well worth mining for original, sometimes shocking but always intriguing oinions on literature. This country hasn’t really managed to establish a really top class culture of book reviewing, and I wonder if Adi gets to review for print media. But (s)he is definitely a voice worth listening to.
I’ve been reading and rereading Appupen’s Moonward (Blaft, Rs 395, paperback, ISBN 9788190605670) for some months now, always intending to post on it, but always finding something new in the next reading that changes my perception of it. It’s a book that’s very hard to describe, let alone evaluate. But one thing that hits you between the eyes when you open it, is the fact that you’re dealing with a formidable mind here.
The trees weep, and capitalism is born in Halahala
I’ve been a fan of Appupen (alias George Mathen) for some time now, having come across his stuff on his blog. He has a wide variety of styles which he uses in this book to telling effect. I could probably dig up and list a few influences (I wouldn’t be surprised if Robert Crumb was one of them), but that wouldn’t tell you anything useful about his work. Like Crumb, Mathen’s lines radiate a kind of cosmic anger. They leap off the page and grab you by the throat.
The little tale that bookends Moonward and gives it its name is a case in point. Deceptively simple, it features only the moon and a moon-faced creature. The creature is happy only when he can see the moon, but the walls grow until the moon is caged, leaving the creature with only one option. A tale about the death of dreams? Maybe, but who is the little creature? What is the moon to him?
The curtain raiser gives way to the main act, which starts in some undefined origin-time in a place called Halahala, populated by strange animals that prey upon each other. This state of nature persists until a mountain erupts, raining death from the skies. Frightened, the creaturs go to the wise old Tortle who lives in a tree to ask him what this means. Tortle tells them about God, and how God is angry with them for behaving badly.
So the creatures become moral, and treat each other with consideration. Since they no longer hunt/are hunted, they have little to occupy their time but worshipping God. Tortle told them God was everywhere, in the trees and stones and rivers, so the creatures worship wherever they find a convenient place. Then one day a worshipper makes a slight alteration to his worship stone: he gives it a face. Pretty soon this innovation catches on, and each group of cratures makes a God in their own image.
The Prophit dines on his favourite food
War breaks out. The various factions are all fighting for the glory of their God, and it looks like the war won’t end till they’ve all killed each other. So Tortle intervenes again. He makes a God unlike anything ever seen in the valley, and sets this God up for all the creatures. This God has two legs, two arms and a head. The war ends, and the creatures are at peace again.
But not for long. A man comes, a skinny ascetic who falls asleep in the valley. His name is Ananthabanana, and the creatures see him and note how similar he is to their God. So they leave an offering of fruits and vegetables for him. He is delighted, and for some days they worship him in this way. Then one day he kills and eats one of the creatures. He likes meat. So now each offering is accompanied by a sacrificial volunteer.
Things go rapidly downhill from there. Ananthabanana becomes Mahanana, the tribal God, and then the Prophit, who eats money. Religious tltalitarianism segues seamlessly into state capitalism. The satire, er, bites harder as a new cast of characters arrives on the scene, Tiku the painter, who has a secret: he makes magic paintings with his own blood. The Prophit rewards him with gifts and power, and then finally he gets a taste of the diet of the gods: money itself. Until the blood dried up, and then Tiku must hit the road again. He gets off lightly.
At a very basic, back-of-the-book level, this is a creation myth issuing from the mind of a fantasist, wrapped in mordant wit and terrifying art. It’ll take you all the way from protozoic life to late capitalism in one breathtaking, death-defying swathe of brilliance. Much of the book is no-copy, but believe me you won’t need the words.
Strange Boy Fails to Kiss Helicopter Girl
For those of us who despaired of Indian comics after a dose of this, Appupen is a knight in shining inky armour. He’s a man of many talents: he also paints and plays drums for Lounge Piranhas in Bangalore. His art is complex and wacky and courageous, and he’s willing to take risks. In Moonward, his visualisation mixes horror and wonder in equal measure, whether he’s describing the republic of monsters of Halahala or the ‘Supa Kola Walk of Life’ in one of the alternate endings of the book. He clearly comes at a story from the visual angle; the words turn up later. This gives his artwork great strength of metaphor and economy of meaning. He’s not afraid to stand aside and let the images speak for themselves either.
This is not to take away from his storytelling skills. He shows an Eisner-like ability to create a character in a few panels and give it depth by just one or two takes of its face (I say ‘its’ advisedly, because some of his characters are very strange indeed, and working out their gender is the least of your problems). His style for this book draws heavily on caricature, but there’s also a lyricism in the way he exploits the properties of paper and ink, water and white paint. He is very very good at fucking with your mind.
Perehaps this is one reason why the Indian public have not risen in a body and acclaimed him as their chosen son. So far, the audience for Indian comics has been timid and sheeplike, afraid to stray very far from the well-watered banalities of Amar Chitra Katha. Appupen’s anti-religious tone in the first part of the book will have come as a slap in the face for them, and he only makes it worse by then skinning the faces off all the little godlings of modern existence, from consumer culture to television to sex to urbanization. Actually it’s all one big mass of evil in his book, and it plays games with the characters until it gets bored and opens its hands, letting them fall into the abyss. The abyss was once a nice place, but they harvested all the thela (oil?=tears of the trees) and no one has any tears left to waste on it now. The machine has consumed us and spat out the bones.
Halahala becomes the city
Kudos to Blaft for having had the moxie to publish this book. However, they clearly don’t have much of a budget for publicity, for there was very little attention showered in this book outside of Appupen’s home range (typical). Journalists tend not to care about a comic book unless it has morons in spandex on the cover. In fact, I doubt if they even know its a comic book without the morons: I mean, it’s practically diagnostic, right? And speech bubbles: this book only pops one out way after the number of pages they usually read before giving up.
A pity, because this book cries out for rabid viral promotion and bites your ear for good measure. All you young idiots who think X Men is cool, go out and buy this book and glue it to your face for a day. If you don’t have a religious experience akin to having fire dropped on you from a height by a mountain, you need a new brain.
But you don’t need to hear this from me. Look upon this face. And then tell me how many comics artists can produce an image that is profoundly moving and tragic in context, and would still look kickass on a t shirt? Eh?
This is my review of Escape, by Manjula Padmanabhan, a post-apocalyptic sci fi story published by Picador India. It came out in the American Book Review 32(2):5, January/February 2011.
My review of Manjula Padmanabhan's Escape in the American Book Review. Click to read in larger format.
I was bellyaching about the lack of reviews of Black Light, and then i found this.
Honestly, I am truly gratified to see that Black Light has received some awesomely kooky reviews, of which my favourite so far is Rocky Thongam’s in Mid Day. I am posting them here since I know from bitter experience that articles and reviews on news sites go out of circulation after some time, and then I end up with a bunch of dead links. So they’ll be here minus their graphics and layout if you want to read them.
If anyone spots anything else, send me the link.
And lastly, if you’re planning to send in artwork, please do so soon. The deadline for the competition is September 20. If you know any artists or have access to artists’ chatrooms or listservs, please circulate my notice.
Can’t run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Says who?
By: Rocky Thongam Date: 2010-09-03 Place: Delhi
If you a journalist reading Black Light, it feels like working your daylights off on a difficult case and yet you enjoy the workout
Rimi B. Chatterjee’s science fiction Signal Red was like sitting down among the boys with six packs of beer. There were secret laboratories hidden in the wilderness, bio weapons and microwave cannons. Then came The City of Love set in 16 th century India with its Arakan Pirates, Sufism, tantra and the whole shebang.
[My four old sketches which are on this blog]
These sketches, done by Rimi herself, are clues the protagonist has to
put together to solve the puzzle
But for me, the third, Black Light, surpasses the previous two. The book is like being at work in a spa where you get massaged by your boss (long-legged hot one) and get paid at the end of it. Since it is the revised version of her first unpublished book Live Like a Flame, its pages smell of the fondness an author has for the first work.
The novel opens with the pandemonium revolving around a newspaper office, the late night shift and the mad rush for deadlines. This is routine existence for young journalist Satyasandha Sarkar which is shattered by a phone call from his mother informing about his strange and eccentric aunt Medhasri Sen’s suicide.
What follows is Satya’s quest to follow the clues she has left behind that will unravel more about her. The attractiveness of Black Light lies in the fact that one packs his rucksack and accompanies Satya as he hunts down art works and souvenirs she has left behind for him.
One ends up sitting next to him reading the five interconnecting stories that finally help him put together to solve the puzzle. When the stories are finally revealed, they break the rhythm transporting us to a different plane. But it keeps coming back to Satya and trying to comprehend what he is going to do with the clues is all the more fun.
However, the hidden philosophical undertones in the novel distracted me from sticking to Satya. Blame it on the Signal Red hangover, I wanted to skip the ‘heavy stuff’ and play Satya and keep it a simple
riddle solving exercise.
Price: Rs 299
Afternoon Despatch and Courier
When truth is stranger than fiction
Monday, August 23, 2010
Black Light by Rimi B. Chatterjee is a superb mystery novel that was ten full years in the making. It started off with a different title, â€˜Live like a Flame,â€™ and since then the book and the author have come a long way. Understandably, the story and the skills got honed, and Black Light is really an excellent book.
Satyasandha Sarkar, ace journalist turned news desk man at a English daily in Kolkata, is busy putting stories together and releasing the pages, when he gets a call from home.
His distraught mother informs that his aunt, Medhasri Sen, who is her elder sister, has been found dead under mysterious circumstances. Though the family has managed to get her out of the morgue and to the crematorium, without the hassles of a post-mortem and a police enquiry, evidence points out to suicide. The family is however content to speculate that Medhasri must have slipped and fallen from the veranda while watering her plants. The fact that she didnâ€™t have need to water the plants because it was raining is overlooked. She was after all an eccentric. But Medhasri turns out to be anything but that.
This becomes clear when an envelope is discovered atop a refrigerator, addressed to Satya in Medha mashis flourishing handwriting. The cover contains a card advertising a BNR Hotel in Puri and a piece of paper with â€˜a pencil sketch, startlingly lifelike as only a pencil sketch can be, of Satya sitting in an old-fashioned easy chair on a veranda, condensation beading on a cool drink by his side, and in the background a spray of bougainvillea, an ancient locomotive fixed in a concrete bed, a portion of curving beach. In the drawing, a breeze lifted his hair and ruffled the curtains of the room just visible through the open doorway behind him, next to a framed picture on the wall.â€™
A puzzled Satya wonders whether his aunt has been trying to communicate with him through her notes and sketches. Is there a secret, the edge of an enigma? He decides to go across to Puri to find out.
The trail of clues leads him to five different places, where he finds fantastic artworks revealing her artistic genius. They also unravel the secrets of her life and her death.
Black Light by Rimi B. Chatterjee
The Book Lovers
Review: Black Light
By Rimi B Chatterjee
This has been a novel that has been sometime in the making. A decade, to be precise, and in the interim, it has got itself a title different from what it was born with.
The story is deceptively simple at the outset. Satyasandha Sarkar, a 30 year old desk editor with a newspaper, is informed by his mother that his maternal aunt, Medhashri Sen, has been found dead. Medhashri is his motherâ€™s elder sister, and the maverick of the family. The death is a suicide, which could be a blot on the familyâ€™s reputation and needs to be hushed up. Medha is the eccentric who was never really understood by her family. As the author says, Medha’s “Life is in conflict with her art which leads her to implode.” Her husband left her, taking one of their daughters with him to the US while leaving the second daughter, the one afflcted by cerebral palsy behind with Medha. Medha was an artist and she leaves a series of clues to her internal mind, through a letter addressed to Satya. Through the clues left behind for Satya to piece together, he sets out on a cross country trip which leads him to five different places, where he unearths the artistic genius his aunt was, and the secrets behind her eccentric life and her self inflicted death. Through his search, he comes a little closer to understanding himself and the questions that he has been grappling with.
This novel takes an incisive look at what constitutes the social stereotype, and how people who defy being stereotyped get branded as being different, eccentric and therefore, people who are viewed as threats to society.
Published by Harper Collins
Posted by karmickids at 11:47 AM
Black Light: Through a glass, darkly
Debashree Majumdar , ibnlive.com
Posted on Aug 31, 2010 at 14:55 | Updated Sep 02, 2010 at 14:07
â€œHit backspace to delete what has been stereotypedâ€ â€“ the interesting phrase that appears on the nameplate of an alternative art studio that features in the book, more or less sums up the premise of Rimi B. Chatterjeeâ€™s novel Black Light. For in this book the protagonist and its narrator are both victims of societal stereotypes in more ways than one.
Satya Sadhan Sarkar, a-30-year-old journalist from Calcutta has slowly gotten used to his uneventful life of editing stories, churning out headlines and adding a bit of sensation to every story that makes its way to the newspaper on a day-to-day basis.
Satyaâ€™s unremarkable life continues in its unremarkable way until his auntâ€™s sudden death shakes up his whole inner being and consequently, the dull life he had known for so long. Medhasri Sen, Satyaâ€™s aunt commits suicide. And in order to salvage the familyâ€™s reputation from being associated with anything scandalous like a suicide, her brothers are more than relieved to pass it off as an accident.
However, Satya doesnâ€™t quite doubt this till he comes across some of Medhaâ€™s cryptic works that serve as clue to unveiling the real woman that Medha was.
As we read we discover that Medha is no â€˜normalâ€™ woman with a â€˜normalâ€™ set of wants or desires like most of us otherwise normal chaps. And her misery stems from the cruelty of her fate that places her in â€˜normalâ€™ circumstances where everything she does or says is viewed as an aberration.
If our society is a model of stereotypes, then Medha is an individual who goes against the very intrinsic nature of our society. Consequently, her rebellious voice is stifled and gagged every time she tries to make herself heard.
Her husband, who abandons her, calls her a â€˜dreamerâ€™ with a hint of disdain in his voice. And he is right for a dreamer she is. The free-spirited Medha trapped in a marriage with two children, and tired of strangling her inner voice, finally starts leading a double life, thereby giving vent to those screams that have been suppressed for long.
Placid on the outside, Medha gradually starts giving expression to her inner life rich in images, colours, visions, hallucinations and a curiosity to uncover the deepest secrets of religion that rule the world. And whatâ€™s more, she secretly travels to obscure locations across eastern India to get to the core of various religions â€“ from Buddhism, Hinduism to Islam and spiritualism.
But no one has any inkling into the rich inner life of Medhasri Sen or no one would have known that Medha was much more than just a woman with â€˜weirdâ€™ ways, unless her nephew Satya stumbles upon a trail of clues that traces the sheer brilliance of her being.
Satya, in search of answers to the conundrums that Medha has left behind, is transported from Chhattisgarh to Mirik and across the length and breadth of eastern India. Finally he unearths all the clues and as the jigsaw falls into place, Satya discovers the life and works of a remarkable artist, whose voice and talent would have been lost otherwise, thanks to our societyâ€™s stereotyping her as someone crazy and delusional.
Rimi B. Chatterjeeâ€™s novel lends a voice to the unheard cries of those brilliant minds we keep choking with our set perceptions. Chatterjeeâ€™s novel is an attempt at exploring the life of those who live beyond the black and white lines and strokes that our society represents and inhabits a world that is thriving in colour and imagery.
However, in doing so, Chatterjee often turns out to be obscure and cryptic in her writing, trying to elevate anything unusual to the level of profundity â€“ which may not always be the case.
Black Light, true to its title, hardly emanates any light and is a dark meditation on human condition â€“ of the desire to be heard, precariously, balanced against the compulsion to fit in to societal mores and norms.
Brace yourself for a taxing read if youâ€™re picking this one up. Chances that youâ€™ll be prone to pangs of depression in the process of reading it are also quite high. Chatterjeeâ€™s style is brooding, true to the nature of the book. The plot also runs the risk of being contrived in parts.
One last word though, the sketches that appear in the book are worth taking a look at because it adds to the grain of complexity this novel overdoses on.
(Black Light by Rimi B. Chatterjee is published by HarperCollins, Rs 299.)
Here’s an early review at Curious Book Fans.
Epileptic, published by Pantheon
We had a fabulous chat with David B on Tuesday, with fit audience though few including many of the Drighanchoo team. David B is his pen name: he was born Pierre-Francois Beauchard, but in a series of significant steps changed his name.
I was surprised and gratified to know that he has authored more than 30 books: in the English-speaking world, the single work by which he is primarily known is the epic comic book series L’Ascension du haut mal, literally ‘The rise of the high evil’, translated as Epileptic. This originally came out between 1996 and 2003 in six ‘albums’ in the characteristically large European page format, and for the English translation was reduced in size and published as a 700-page behemoth. This repackaging somewhat dampens the impact, because David B often produces a very intricate page which suffers somewhat in the smaller format.
The cover (or rather dust jacket) shows the stark black and white signature style that David B has developed and the tessellated patterns he frequently uses. The yellow patch is actually a window in the dust jacket through which the two characters peer out.
The two characters are David himself, going by his birth-name Pierre-Francois (his change of name allows his child-self to become a character in the story) and Jean Christophe, his brother. The epileptic of the story is his brother; this is meant to be his brother’s story, but it also takes in the blast radius of Jean-Christophe’s effect on David, his sister Florence and his parents. Jean-Christophe suffers from an extreme and debilitating form of the disease. It started when he was seven, and he would have major seizures several times a day. When one imagines what this must have meant in real terms for the family, one is struck with wonder that they were able to cope with his problem at all.
The story opens with the two main characters already young men. Jean-Christophe is enormously fat, his teeth are broken and his body scarred from his many seizures. He is befuddled by strong medication, struggling to do something as normal as brush his teeth. The authorial voice comments that this was the first time David really saw his brother, saw what the illness had done to him.Â He’s able for the first time to see Jean-Christophe objectively as a person, rather than a ‘brother’ in the way a child sees someone who’s a fixture in his life. This opens the door on the past, when this objectivity was yet to develop.
David B transcends autobiography in this work, for many reasons. One is the nature of the challenge which the disease presents to Jean-Christophe and the other siblings. It is a disease of the brain, but also of the mind, it preys on ancient fears fo death and dissolution, and the fear fo sleep that all children have at some point in their life. David B brilliantly portrays this in a number of striking visual metaphors: the disease is a man-sized monster that follows the children around, or a huge coiled dragon. David himself often appears as a knight in armour: the boy who wants to save and protect his brother and be a hero, as boys will.
The High Evil
But the armour also symbolises the distancing he must achieve from his brother’s illness in order to save his sanity. As a highly imaginative, dream-prone artistic person, the ghost of epilepsy haunts him too; when very young he fears he will catch it. At the same time, there is deep and painful sympathy in the way he portrays his brother’s attempts to build a life for himself, an attempt which finally fails. The section which shows Jean-Christophe walking the streets of Paris, having a seizure and getting beaten by the police who assume he is a junkie, is heart-rending.
The startling energy of the artwork clearly stems from a very young child’s attempts to make the monsters go away, or failing that to give them a space where they will be happy and won’t spill over where they aren’t wanted. David does what artists have always done with intolerable things: he puts it in the art.
The story traces the long drawn out battle waged by the whole family on the disease: the exhausting search for a cure which becomes wilder and wilder as the more rational options crash and burn. New drugs are tried: they either don’t succeed or, stopping the seizures, turn Jean-Christophe into a raving schizophrenic.
David’s parents believe in New Agist wisdom, visit lots of gurus and try all kinds of alternative cures on Jean-Christophe, with little success. They even indulge in planchette, looking in their troubled family history for an answer. Finally David loses patience with all of this. He identifies his mother’s obsession with a cure as a desperate attempt to avoid facing the fact that his brother was sick and would never get better.
The really terrifying part of the story is how it looks pitilessly into the nature of the mind, into the cavernous dungeon of horrors we all carry around within us, and puts faces to those things.
David B’s personal search for meaning leads him to become an artist: the motive power behind it is the looming threat of his brother’s fate. For David the choice becomes ‘draw or die’. However, in the 1980s, there are few venues for him to showcase his work, and to that end he teams up with a group of artists and writers and forms L’Association in 1990. From then on till the epic split in the group in 2005-6, L’Asso published all his work. Other artists include Lewis Trondheim, Joanne Sfar, and the incredible Patrice Killoffer.
Patrice Killoffer's tribute to David B. on his leaving L'Association. This is scanned from the Comics Journal, but the res doesn't do justice to Killoffer's style.
L’Association had a clear mandate to shake up the comics (or BD — bande desinee) culture of France. Always ahead of America in the sophistication of themes and artwork, France’s comics scene got ready to launch the next wave. L’Asso really made their mark in 1999 with the epochal anthology Comix 2000. This was literally 2000 pages long with more than 300 creators, arranged like a dictionary, and is now worth its weight in gold.
However, shortly afterwards, one of the original founders, Jean-Christophe Menu, had disagreements with the others, including David B. David left in 2005, followed by Trondheim and others.
The world, alerted by coverage of the controversy in the French media, woke up to the story and showed new interest in David’s work. Pantheon published Epileptic, and the Comics Journal scooped everyone else with an exclusive interview with David B. Actually it was an even better scoop: the first part of the interview was conducted by Matthias Wivel at the Angouleme International Comic Arts Festival in 2002, where David B won a prize for volume 4 (the books had been nominated repeatedly before this). The second part was conducted in 2005 just months after David B left L’Association. In the second half of the interview David declined to comment on the split, ranging instead over his life and work. He spoke in detail about the difficulties of writing autobiography, and his interest in the occult and in dreams.
Dreams provide the material for Babel, one of his most disturbing series, which takes the iconic style he developed for Epileptic to a new level. We saw breathtaking images of this at the JU talk. In addition there was an account of the Biafra war that hit you between the eyes. It’s only to be hoped that more of David’s work becomes available to us in the future.
Many thanks to the French embassy for bringing David B. over to India as part of the Bonjour India series of lecture tours.
Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Generation 14, Zubaan Penguin, Rs 295, paperback, ISBN 81-89884-06-9
I’ve been meaning to review this book for a while, not least because it claims (with justice) to be the first full-fledged sci fi novel published in India (I guess Signal Red didn’t go far enough into the future to claim that position.) Chabria is already well known as a poet, and her background in poetry is evident from the economy and evocativeness of her style. The novel is set in the twenty fourth century, and immediately piqued my interest (Antisense is being set in the twenty sixth, so I figured this would be a useful trip to the future while working on it.)
The story revolves around a clone, Clone 14/54/G, who is a fourteenth-generation copy of a writer called Aa-Aa. As she says in the beginning of the novel, ‘something has gone wrong’ with her: she is haunted by ‘visitations’, rather like dreams, which are either snippets of past lives or fictions created by her original, Aa-Aa: we are never entirely sure which. The process of her dealing with these visitations and unravelling the mystery of her Original’s life and her mission make up the bulk of the story.
The society in which the story is set is economically yet vividly set out, as are the various personages, the strange Fireheart who helps her, the Original who befriends her and becomes her lover, and the mysterious yet powerful figure of Aa-Aa herself. This is a totalitarian society but not in the way that sci fi buffs have come to expect, and Chabria’s playing with the genre is what makes the book riveting. Here are all the usual set pieces of sci fi writing: the gladiatorial combat before the aristocrats by lowly clones and condemned prisoners, the disposable people, the secret memory banks and encrypted histories that must be sought out and decoded, the discovery of treachery within, and the final showdown and desperate flight. Along the way, the character of the Clone unfolds in a psychologically credible and interesting way, and her idiosyncratic way of thinking and talking makes her world just strange enough to intrigue yet not so alien as to be intimidating. The book builds well to the climax, and the action never flags. Pace is hard to produce in a first novel, so the expertise of this is doubly impressive.
However, the book’s weakness lies in the feature it shares with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas: namely the embedded stories, the Clone’s ‘visitations’. These are told at too great a length to hold attention. After most of the stories have been foreshadowed in the main story, they appear again as appendix-like chapters in the end, in full and without interruptions. This strikes one as gilding the lily. It also runs the risk of seeming, like Cloud Atlas, to be trying too hard to please.
Cloud Atlas, for those unfamiliar with it, is a sci fi novel of six nested stories. In the centre of the book is the tale of Sonmi 451, an artificial human who becomes the founder of a future race: a figure very like Clone 14/54/G. The other tales in Cloud Atlas bounce back and forth in time, like the Clone’s visitations, but appear too much like set pieces to compete with Sonmi’s story.Â There are connections between the tales, sometimes rather thin, but these tend towards the clever rather than the satisfying. ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’, a dark and rather slapsticky comedy wrapped around Sonmi’s ‘Orison’, is particularly weak. It’s the kind of thing that excites lit crit types but leaves the general public yawning.
Chabria’s inset stories have a little more point and bite than Mitchell’s, in that they contain clues to the character and thought of Aa-Aa, something which is essential to the story, and would have worked better if she had left out the appendices, and trusted the reader to get it without a map. Apart from that, she is largely respectful of the reader’s intelligence. It is not possible to read this book without being moved by it, and that draws us deep into the fantasy setting and the unfamiliar world, which Chabria to her credit does not over-explain. If this is the first Indian sci fi novel, then we’re off to a good start.
Mridula Koshy, If It Is Sweet, Tranquebar, Rs 295, paperback ISBN 978-93-80032-12-2
Reviews have been few and far between recently, because of work and health problems, but I absolutely had to review this book before Mridula Koshy visits Calcutta on 19 October, that’s next Monday. Another reson why the review was delayed is that I had to read the book twice, a task which I undertook with the greatest of pleasure. It is so rare to find a practitioner of the short story who is so accomplished and so unafraid.
This book is a delight to read. Koshy is a wonderful stylist; her style is exactly right for the short story: evocative, finished and allusive. In her plots, she is not afraid to be twisted, and she mixes the surreal and the gritty with aplomb. However, do not mistake these stories for that much maligned genre, magic realism. They lack the exhibitionism and self-conscious playing to the western galleries that has unfortunately marked many practitioners of the form. To get an idea of this, just contrast these stories with, say, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies. Koshy traverses some of the same terrain: the lost NRI, the woman stuck in an unfulfilling relationship, the gaps and voids in communication between two souls. But Koshy does not have the self-conscious I’m-so-Indian grandstanding, and the middle class shying away from the nastier terrain on these maps.
Instead, she gives everything she’s got to the stories, letting the characters unfold like roses. Koshy seems at home with any kind of character, male or female, child or adult, animal or human, rich or poor; she covers many points in the possible spectrum of voices. Each of her characters has an impressively large internality out of which the reader is invited to look out upon their world and observe its strange wonders.
All of the stories are outstanding, but if I had to pick one as a must-read, it would be the second-last one, ‘Passage’. This tale of a woman coming to terms with the death of her sister is mindblowing. It conveys the character’s grief and the upheaval that the death causes in her mind and life without a shred of sentimentality, yet you come away from it shaken and flayed.
Another story that deserves mention is the extremely twisted ‘Companion’, or the darkly funny ‘Jeans’. These stories have Delhi in them, but not in a tour-guide kind of way. Delhi is the headspace where the characters’ dramas play out, and sometimes it gives their stories a nudge in the requisite direction. You can feel the gritty concrete and the straggly grass under your feet.
I would be very interested to see where Koshy takes her writing in future. We don’t see enough short story writers out there, and this is strange because one would think that the short story is the quintessential art form for today’s always-in-a-hurry society. The art of the short story is different from the novel, and in some ways harder. Every word counts, and style and plot are naked to the reader; you can walk around the tale like it is an exhibit in a show. Koshy’s seams stand up to scrutiny from every angle. Tranquebar are to be congratulated for bringing this book out, and Gynelle Alves has designed a cover worthy of the contents.