When you read the phrase “the glittering space between science and fiction” within the first three pages of a novel, you’re both expectant and worried. Surely a phrase-smith of such inventiveness will provide continuous pleasure through the remaining 345 pages too! But what if, beneath the glittering surface, there is more surface?
Canvas: One of the stories unfolds in the hurly-burly of Hyderabad. P. Anil Kumar
As you go deeper into Rupture, the first full-length novel by Sampurna Chattarji—who already has a reputation as a translator, poet and short story writer—the writing begins to get in the way of the story. The premise of the novel, which runs through a pre-catastrophe 24 hours in the lives of nine people across five different Indian cities, is exciting enough to make you want to find out, in the oldest of old-fashioned ways, what happens next. However, that premise is only revealed in the back-cover blurb. The hints in the text are too hysterically overwritten to create cogent suspense. This unbridled outpouring of detail upon detail, state of mind upon state of mind, pockmarks the entire novel. In themselves, the passages radiate energy and dexterity, forcing admiration from those who love the craft of composition. But what do they have to do with the story? It is only much, much later that your suspicions are confirmed: There is no story. What there is, instead, is every kind of writing style: omniscient narration, internal monologue, straight storytelling, fable, diary, letter, newspaper headlines.
Rupture: HarperCollins India, 348 pages, Rs350.
The events, such as they are, happened in the past. What’s not clear is how the individual strands of personal history are meant to ultimately weave a single pattern. Nor do the nine individuals in the novel get to the kind of explosive intersection that, say, film-maker Alejandro González Iñárritu has perfected in films such as Amores Perros (ripped off weakly by Mani Ratnam in Yuva). Sure, the novelist was under no obligation to meet such expectations. But why create a canvas and populate it with characters if they’re going nowhere eventually?
Here you’ll meet, inter alia, a retired—and doting—father; a translator endowed with some extrasensory perceptions; an advertising executive with nothing very special about her except her name; a lonely government service executive who could have come out of an Upamanyu Chatterjee novel had he had a sense of humour; a rural family with global dreams and pointless incidents in their lives; a young—or is he old?—man in a tender love story; and another less-than-tender sex story. They wallow in a combination of self-pity and personalized myth-as-history that leaves you cold. The motivations behind their past actions are not clear either. And ultimately, the bits of their pasts that do float up remain random pastiches, without provoking confrontation or closure. The links between them are revealed as watery concoctions that fail to offer the high of unexpectedness. As for the climax that they’re innocently heading into, it does not flow organically from the narrative. That externally imposed climax could have been used to elicit powerful reactions from the people of Rupture.
Not surprisingly, the most readable segments of the novel are the ones where the story shines through transparent prose. There are poignant accounts of love, lust and longing, told simply. With two of her characters named after poets—Tennyson, Nazrul—and the piling on of comma-separated images and metaphors, Chattarji comes through as a prose-maker strongly under the influence of poetry. Unlike poetry, however, a novel does need a story.
Arunava Sinha is a Delhi-based author and translator who translated Chowringhee by Sankar.
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