Lifestyles of the rich and stupid

When Penguin India sells a book as a “metro read", it’s a sign that the book is not to be taken seriously, and is intended as disposable. A book to be consumed, in one or at the most two sittings, and rapidly flushed from your system. It’s literature as laxative.

Saltwater (appropriately emetic) by Shrey (who uses only one name) is the latest novel published under the Metro Reads imprint and as such should be immune from a certain kind of reviewing. The reviewer, and by proxy the reader, is not meant to be looking for “literary" merit—that is, not meant to be looking for fresh, surprising language, for ideas, for ambiguity, for challenge, for beauty. There is no excuse for a reader to be exercised by Saltwater, except that the book sells itself as the “raw, uncut footage of an entire generation". Sounds like it wants to be taken seriously, that Shrey is a spokesman for, as the book’s website has it, “the young, fucked up and beautiful".

Saltwater: By Shrey, Penguin India, 272 pages, Rs250
Saltwater: By Shrey, Penguin India, 272 pages, Rs250

Easton Ellis’ novel was a sensation. Readers, usually safe, cosseted creatures, shivered in voyeuristic ecstasy. Shrey attempts a kind of Indian version. A more local comparison, as advertised on the website for Saltwater, is with Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, which was shortlisted for The Man Booker Prize. This is, of course, nonsense. Saltwater is tame. The young people that populate its pages—a sometimes sharp, mostly anodyne procession of mainstream brands and even more mainstream music, the preponderance of mid-1990s rock (Matchbox Twenty? Come on) suggesting that Shrey is not as down with the youth as he thinks—are more dull than they are “fucked up". There is little to their lives other than south Bombay apartments, fancy cars and incestuous, melodramatic relationships. Shrey throws in suicide and gang rape in a bid to make his novel mean something—these young people are crying out for help—but it’s hard to care when the characters are zombies. How do you kill the living dead?

Rish, the protagonist, leaves his university in the US for an extended period of vacation-recovery in his parents’ spacious Cuffe Parade apartment. He has been “scarred" by tragedy. His relationship with a treasured friend is mysteriously broken and everyone he meets keeps asking him to explain. So far, so Dil Chahta Hai. The novel is then a series of parties and overwrought confrontations. Rishi is, not to put too fine a point on it, a prick. He is endlessly self-pitying, a 19-year-old crippled by privilege and self-regard.

What makes the rich in India so easy to hate is that they almost never have to take responsibility for the damage they do. You know characters like Rish. By the end of the novel he “can now clearly see that there is no redemption to be found", but it’s typical of his entitled arrogance that he believe he deserves redemption. Is it not enough for him that whatever he does, his money is a perennial hall pass? To be able to escape his self-loathing as well is surely a gift too far.

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