Penguin’s Metro Reads series is tagged with the line, “Every life has a story”. This may be true, but the series doesn’t justify it. 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 a slop of genre conventions—romance, suspense, action—in familiar Indian locations. It is there that the implicit claim of the Metro Reads tag line, 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 Bharat 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. These chunks of information play out in a plot where an academician and a CBI bureaucrat attempt to outwit an unprincipled professor to a possible treasure, while in a related subplot, 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).
The Premier Murder League, 229 pages, With or Without You, 211 pages, Close Call in Kashmir, 232 pages, Penguin India, Rs150 each.
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 Youis 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 cricket 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 is more structured than the other two, but it is also prone to more bizarre narrative revelations and lazy, clumsy sentences that can throw readers out of the plot. For instance, early on, policemen visiting a murder scene say to one another, “Lovely, isn’t it?…It seems unlikely that any crime could have been committed here.”
This sort of banality runs free through the pages of all three novels to such a degree that one is forced to wonder: Do Penguin’s editors believe 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 traveller 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 bad FM radio in written form, they make you want to change the channel.
Random House’s new series of translations (whimsically called Random Classics) opens its account with two beautifully produced Bengali-to-English works. The 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. Chattopadhyay adopted a high Romanticism familiar to readers of Sir Walter Scott in his fervent, epic, historical story of love and war in Mughal-administered Bengal. Modern readers may delight in Chattopadhyay’s playful elegance as much as the chance to read a cornerstone of modern Indian literature.
Random Classics: Penguin, Rs299 each.
Sinha’s confident, unobtrusive translations not only shed light on Chattopadhyay but also succeed in one of Indian writing’s most fraught endeavours, translating Rabindranath Tagore. ‘Three Women’ groups together three famous Tagore novellas, ‘Nashtaneer’ (‘The Broken Nest’), ‘Dui Bon’ (‘Two Sisters’) and ‘Malancha’ (‘The Arbour’). 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 humanism.