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Pain of a first birth

Pain of a first birth
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First Published: Fri, May 22 2009. 10 22 PM IST

Updated: Fri, May 22 2009. 10 22 PM IST
Wit attack
Among the most jarring bits of any TV sitcom are the dialogues in season-opening episodes. When the writers make the actors spew long, unwieldy lines just to help viewers catch up with proceedings: “Rachel you have a call from that guy who cheated on you last Christmas because he thought you guys were on a break when in reality you were just spending a little time away from each other.”
It can make the most ardent fan switch channels. Most times, these continuity lines are completely out of character for the actor involved. The less they have to say them, the better. But alas, the new viewers won’t “get it” otherwise.
Such awkward unevenness is really the problem with Abir Ganguly, the protagonist in blogger and journalist Amit Varma’s debut book My Friend Sancho. That and the elusive shadow of a plot.
At the beginning, Ganguly plays his snarky side—a bitter, cynical yet oddly ambitious tabloid journalist—perfectly. Ganguly’s lines, which are unmistakably Varma’s if you’ve ever read his blog India Uncut, are enormously witty. And they are witty in a trite, sometimes cruel way. Ganguly is like the psychotic biology teacher who insults you with shotgun one-liners that make you cry, while everyone else in class is in splits:
“Chota Sion is a mid-level don known for extorting money from builders. Was there an interesting angle to this somewhere? I wouldn’t know until I got there. Maybe a lot of ransom money would be recovered from them. (Ten Crore Recovered in Ten-Rupee Notes as Sion Gangster Breaks Down After Arrest.) Maybe I could speak to one of them after the arrest. (Sion Gangster Reveals Childhood Sexual Abuse by Priests.)”
This is wit that encompasses elements of surprise, timing and a certain cadence in the prose.
But behold a very different, whiny Ganguly when he falls in love—gradually, of course—with Muneeza Iqbal. Muneeza is the daughter of the victim of a dubious Mumbai police encounter that Ganguly was witness to. The Afternoon Mail asks Ganguly to prepare a profile of the deceased —classic “human story”—and this means spending long hours with the daughter, gathering facts. He cannot reveal to Muneeza that he stood by watching while the police gunned down her innocent father. So he is shifty around her. And then he begins to fancy her. Cue, more shiftiness. And when Ganguly gets shifty and thoughtful, he gets very boring indeed.
A third Ganguly hovers in between, trying to hold the plot together and move the simple, rather one-track story along.
And then the book is over.
Well, not as much over as it just runs out of plot, and book and reader decide to part ways amicably. After all nothing really happened. At first I thought this was the biggest joke in My Friend Sancho. The fact that the whole book was about Seinfeldian nothing. Perhaps it was a zen thing; I would get it if I thought about it long enough.
Urban affair: Amit Varma’s novel revolves around two youngsters in Mumbai, and some of P.K. Mehrotra’s stories deal with love and longing in the city. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Or perhaps My Friend Sancho is the kind of book that is to be enjoyed a chapter at a time, a joke at a time. (Like a blog you say?!) The bigger picture is irrelevant. You read, laugh, forget and move on. A collection, then, of Abir Ganguly’s thoughts to himself. In which case, it is best to wait for more Ganguly books to be written and then to buy an anthology of Ganguly’s musings.
Oh, and four references to the author’s real-life blog in his book is four too many.
— Sidin Vadukut
Deviation point
Reviewing Amitava Kumar’s Home Products (2007) for Mint’s sister publication Hindustan Times, Palash Krishna Mehrotra signed off: “It seems that Kumar had a tremendous urge to write a novel but this was not accompanied by any compelling need to tell a story. He might take heart from the fact that he is not the only Indian writer suffering from this affliction.”
Surely Mehrotra didn’t have to compile a whole anthology of short stories to shore up his argument? His debut collection Eunuch Park: Fifteen Stories of Love and Destruction has got to be one of the most uneven fictional buffets to be served in recent times. Self-consciously preoccupied with the so-called fringe elements—the book’s blurb says “Mehrotra writes about prostitutes, cross-dressers, murderers, drug addicts, students (huh?) and stalkers”—the author shows himself to be an ace observer of the seamy side of life but is all too often unable to meld those observations into anything beyond pretentious reportage.
Consider the very first piece (it seems a gross overstatement to call it a short story), Dancing with Men. An account of a young man’s evening in a small town, nothing really happens here. In terms of literary device, that’s a common enough postmodern approach but—unlike, say, Waiting for Godot or Cormac McCarthy’s novels or Raymond Carver’s short stories—nothing much happens in terms of ideas either.
Our protagonist bar-hops, dances on a crowded floor, loses his spectacles (but still manages to discern piles of garbage and read cinema hoardings) and watches goldfish being placed in an aquarium. If you don’t turn the page expecting more, you’re obviously Mehrotra himself. The same could be said of The Teacher’s Daughter: Both seem to exist solely to record the author’s observations on certain sections of society and, once those are conveyed, collapse abruptly on to themselves.
After threatening to run the same self-indulgent path, Okhla Basti—recording the teeming life of the slum, from the reticent drug lord to the garrulous truck driver—graduates to a more rewarding level when Angad, who has shoehorned us into the basti (slum), goes for a walk on a winter morning and is mugged and left for dead. No million-dollar rewards for this slum, but the cynicism manages to hold true and rise above the verbiage.
As a rule, Mehrotra fares much better when he keeps his ambit small and his focus sharp. Rubber Band, barely four pages long, succeeds in stretching taut the protagonist’s tortured relationship with a girl given to epileptic fits and infidelity; The Nick of Time, about a cross-dressing desi student in Oxford, too builds up the tension and the discontent to a fine arc; as does Fit of Rage, the story of three losers who conspire to kill an elderly widow and make off with her money.
However, it is with the school/university settings that Mehrotra is most at ease—something due possibly to his teaching stint at Doon School. Pornography, Eunuch Park, Bloody and the Friendship Club, The Farewell and Freshers Welcome are easily stories that stand out in the collection, each demonstrating a familiarity with the pulls and pressures of student life in a way the family stories or the solitary protagonist do not.
After making rather a point about “owning” the deviant, and variously showcasing the homosexual, the eunuch, the addict, the sadist, the collection ultimately disappoints, however, in its inability to look beyond the surface or use the word “deviation” as something more than a shock-value add. Just as being elected a member of Parliament doesn’t make one a parliamentarian, or getting a tattoo and a Harley doesn’t make a biker, so sex-in-the-bushes, climaxes-on-the-quiet and gay fantasies need something more substantial to make the next grade. They need a story.
— Sumana Mukherjee
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, May 22 2009. 10 22 PM IST