fiction Posts

Chitra Banerjee Divakurni “Oleander Girl”

Chitra Banerjee Divakurni “Oleander Girl”

 

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni

Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni

Oleander Girl. Chitra Banerjee Divakurni’s latest novel. It is about Korbi, who was orphaned at birth and is brought up by her maternal grandparents in Calcutta. She is a bhodra Bengali, while studying in college meets Rajat, a rich young man. (His parents own a very well known art gallery in the city and in New York.) They are engaged and to be married soon. It all seems to be moving correctly when Korobi’s life is suddenly thrown out of gear. She chooses to investigate her past since she would like to begin her married life knowing the truth. It involves her travelling to America soon after her engagement. A move that does not go down very well with her immediate family but she is determined. Korobi or Oleander (as she is named after the flower) is true to her name– “beautiful but also tough. Also knows how to protect herself from predators.”

Oleander Girl is a very readable novel. At the superficial level it is a love story with its moments of heartache. It is gently and charmingly told by Chitra Banerjee Divakurni. It is set against the backdrop of the Godhra riots and the events of 9/11. Frighteningly these events have an immediate impact on even bhodra families like that of Korobi. These unpleasant events also unmask the prejudices that exist in individuals too. It is an intricate web woven by the author and done without making it seem complicated.

A characteristic trait of all of Chitra Banerjee Divakurni’s novels are the number of women characters she has. The protagonist is always a woman but she is surrounded by women of all shades. Incredibly the author manages to make every girl and woman in the book a strong personality. They are memorable. In Oleander Girl, there is the grandmother Sarojini, Rajat’s mother, his younger sister Pia and Seema Mitra in NYC. Also not forgetting the late Anu Roy, Korobi’s mother. To put it blandly these are women who struggle, make their choices and survive the consequences. But the joy in reading the novel lies in understanding these women better. I am not surprised that Chitra Banerjee Divakurni writes the way she does. Some years ago when I met her she told me of her involvement with Maitri. http://www.friendsofbooks.com/blog/evening-with-chitra-banerjee-divakaruni )

In 1991, Chitra co-founded Maitri (http://www.maitri.org/ ). It is an NGO based in the San Francisco Bay area that helps battered women of South Asian origin. I asked Chitra if her experience at Maitri had in any way influenced her storytelling and the choice of prose. It seems that Chitra first began writing and publishing poetry, but after four years of working at Maitri, she published her first collection of short stories, Arranged Marriage. In fact, one of the stories in it is based on a true incident and so are some of the sketches in the later books. She also realized that writing prose was a far easier medium to communicate and tells stories than poetry. Yet, the rhythm, discipline and diction of poetry did and continues to influence her prose.

Oleander Girl is a must read. Junot Diaz calls Chitra Banerjee Divakurni “A brilliant storyteller”, which she is.

Chitra Banerjee Divakurni Oleander Girl Viking, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2013. Hb. pp. 290 Rs. 499

 

The Casual Vacancy, Rowling

The Casual Vacancy, Rowling

The more I read of The Casual Vacancy the more I am amazed at the power of Rowling’s storytelling. How can she make the most mundane, incredibly dull and at times narrow and very class-conscious English life that too in the countryside so fascinating? Why would anyone want to read every single word that graphically describes a run down Council housing estate? Why would anyone be interested in knowing about the silly political wranglings for a silly, inconsequential Parish council seat? Well, it is not inconsequential to the locals.

Rowling for mastery in telling a good story and etching each character with incredible detail and force. Like Hardy before her she has created her own fictional landscape called Pagford. (A combination of Pagnell and Chagford/Forest of Dean.) Her experience in writing the Harry Potter series and writing for young adults has obviously stood her in good stead. The shades of characterisation, the nuances come through remarkably well. While reading the novel you can practically hear the voices, the dialects that so clearly demarcate the people, and immediately discern their attitudes towards each other. She obviously plots her stories well since the characters are well connected and if they ever come in contact with each other (however briefly) there is a transformation that helps in moving the story forward.

The novel is in the good old tradition of an English novel (particularly in the second half) the reader begins to yearn for a good bit of editing. Of course the novel lends itself to be adapted for ( or rights to be sold) the stage, television, radio and cinema. There is scope for serialisation too. Novels like this written by Dickens would be acceptable since they were first published in serial form and then compiled into a book, so the length was accounted for. Whereas in this case to have so many little details, conversations and minor plots intertwined can begin to get tedious. In India 80,000 copies of this novel were printed by Hachette India. Apparently it is the highest run for an (expensive) adult hardback (and its not a thriller or mass market genre). But the story (coming from Rowling) was probably unexpected since her fans wanted more of Potter. This is diametrically opposite. A tragi-comedy set in a nondescript and typical English village.

PrintWeek India did a photo-essay on the printing of these copies. Here is the link by the group editor, Ramu Ramunathan. http://www.printweek.in/Feature/318531,manipal-technologies-first-print-firm-in-asia-to-print-a-j-k-rowling-bestseller.aspx

12 Oct 2012

Sachin Kundalkar, “Cobalt Blue” ( Translated by Jerry Pinto)

Sachin Kundalkar, “Cobalt Blue” ( Translated by Jerry Pinto)

Cobalt Blue

I have just finished reading Cobalt Blue. It is a stunning novel. Jerry Pinto’s translation is exquisite. I have no idea how to explain it, considering I cannot read Marathi.

The story is extraordinary. Not just in the basic premise of the paying guest being a lover to both siblings, but even in the way it has been written. The author has to be highly skilled to experiment with two voices ( Anuja and Tanay), two characters, siblings and tell the same story from two points of view…and yet be so different! Anuja’s attempt in maintaining a diary at the behest of the doctor comes to nought, quite rapidly but it does not seem to interfere with the structure of the tale at all.

The creation of the nameless paying guest is a bit discomforting. Here is a young man, an orphan, who very rapidly learns to manage his life. I am not sure if you can call it Bohemian, but he certainly has pretensions of being cultured. He strums a guitar, idolises Dali, Picasso. Husain, Van Gogh and is unable to grasp the paintings of Anjolie Ela Menon. He is fascinated by cobalt blue, much in the way these painters had their blue phases — literally and metaphorically. His search for finding companionship, and disrupting the equanimity of the siblings lives is cruel and dare I say, infectious? His coming in contact with the siblings is a point of transformation of the brother and sister. He passes on the bug of loneliness, ironically with it a sense of a burning desire to seek and strive for what they desire.

Sachin Kundalkar is best described as a writer though he is better known as an award winning film director, screenplay writer, dramatist and novelist. Kundalkar wrote this novella when he was 22 years old. For ten years it remained accessible only to those who spoke Marathi, till Jerry Pinto, at Shanta Gokhale’s request translated it into English.

The English translation of the Marathi novel, does not say much about the original. For instance, when was it published, by whom, how was it received etc. There is a brief note about the translation process. Jerry Pinto (who learned Marathi in order to translate this novella) has acknowledged Neela Bhagwat for helping out with the trickier bits of translation, especially in the sociological implications of phrases. Or for that matter to Shanta Gokhale for “listening” to the drafts. Teresa Lavender Fagan, translator, says, “A translator must absorb the essence of a work, feel the author’s soul and do what she can to minimize what must necessarily be lost. The paradox of translation: the desire to replicate a work in one’s own language while knowing it can never truly be done.” And this is what has been achieved by Jerry Pinto in Cobalt Blue.

Sachin Kundalkar Blue Cobalt Translated by Jerry Pinto. Penguin Books India, Hamish Hamilton, Hb. R. 399. Fiction

Abdourahman A. Waberi, “Passage of Tears”

Abdourahman A. Waberi, “Passage of Tears”

waberi passage of tears

So I read Passage of Tears. My introduction to Abdourahman A. Waberi. What a writer! I am not sure if he worked on the English translation, but after a long time I felt as if I was reading a novel, not a translated piece of literature. It was originally written in French and has been translated brilliantly by David Ball and Nicole Ball. It is a novel set in Djibouti, told by Djibril. He opts to live in Montreal, from the age of 18, but returns to the country of his birth, to prepare a report for an American economic intelligence firm. The story unfolds from there in two dimensions…one of the events happening to Djibril and the second, the life of Walter Benjamin that gets written instead of the testimony he has been asked to note down.

Waberi lulls you into expecting a straightforward novel. The beginning is classical, in it being an ordinary narrative, plotting, placing the framework etc. And then he slowly begins to spin a web around you of different narratives and experiences. And yet are they really? Before you know it, you are sucked into a frightening world where money reigns supreme, in the name of God (call Him by any name you will), relationships are ephemeral. Literature remains a constant. You discover it, you use it, you create it, but words depending on how you view them, they can be inspirational, they can convey stories and histories or they can be viewed as “agents of contamination”.

Waberi’s relationship with Walter Benjamin is extraordinary. How on earth does he vacillate in the narrative from a discovery, to a personal relationship, to being in awe and then coming closer to Walter Benjamin resulting in a conversation bordering on the confessional to that of a disciple with his God/mentor to writing a biography of the man? When Waberi realises some of the similarities in their lives, there is a perceptible calmness that infuses his jottings about “Ben”.

Fiction where the creative license blossoms from reality or a sharp understanding of it, retains a power that cannot be matched with any other. Waberi is such a brilliant writer. Sparing with his words but packs quite a punch. It is not surprising to discover that he was twice a jury member of the Ulysses award for reportage. Now he is due to publish a new novel early in 2014. A book worth buying.

Abdourahman A. Waberi, Passage of Tears Seagull Books 2011, Hb. pg. 200
English translation by David Ball and Nicole Ball.
Jacket design by Sunandini Banerjee

Namita Gokhale, Priya: In Incredible Indyaa

Namita Gokhale, Priya: In Incredible Indyaa

Namita Gokhale

Originally published in the BusinessWorld Online. Here is the link: http://www.businessworld.in/en/storypage/-/bw/politics-of-society-life/394770.0/page/0

Priya Kaushal is “just an ordinary housewife. A woman who has climbed up the ladder, step by determined step, with her husband’s unexpected luck helping things along.” She is immersed in the political and social milieu of the capital, where “everybody in Delhi knows everybody-everybody who matters, that is. As a jumped-up, middle-class girl from Mumbai I still cannot figure out these equations. Seek out the current lot of ‘useful’ people, scorn the hangers-on and despise those who might need you. That’s the formula for Delhi social networking.” But she is somebody now. “My husband Suresh Kaushal is the Minister of State for Food Processing, Animal Husbandry, Fisheries and Canneries. Maybe it’s not an ATM ministry, like telecom or power, but agriculture is important to modern India, and Food Processing is crucial to agriculture. That’s what Suresh says.” They have twin sons Luv and Kush, who are diametrically opposite to each other in their personalities. Luv is laid back, who believes he is destined to be an artist and “challenging his creativity”. Kush is an ex-investment banker turned budding politician who “knows how to grovel. It’s an essential skill in party politics.” To complicate matters, Lenin or Avinendra from Chhatisgarh returns to Priya’s life. He is an activist fighting for the release of Binayak Sen from jail, by proceeding on endless fasts, whereas his successful politician-wife, Geeta Devi, is achieving prominence. They become closely intertwined with Priya’s family, when her son Luv falls in love with Lenin’s daughter Paromita.

All through the novel, Priya is confident that she “must act the part, and be supportive” of her husband, irrespective of whether their values meet on the same plane or not. For instance, her husband carries a residual loyalty to the idea of the Indian Woman, the Sacred Sati Savitri, and his advice to their son while looking for prospective brides was that “your mother is a True Indian Woman, the personification of a Bhartiya Nari. If I died, I very much doubt if she would want to continue living! Would you, Priya?” Priya is appalled. “My jaw dropped. What could I possibly say? Tell him it would be like reincarnation without dying? But no, I am an Indian woman. I stared at him speechlessly as he continued, a dreamy look playing upon his plump, superficially distinguished face.” To say this at a time, when honour killings and sati are rampant in “this new India, half dream, half nightmare, from which we might collectively awake”.

But it is also an India where women like Geeta Devi stand “tall in every sense. How times change, how life changes, how people change. I could never have imagined the Geeta of yore, the subjugated small-town bride of my friend and rakhi brother Lenin, would transmute into this power-savvy politico. Of course she had a determined chin even then, but the cast of a jaw is not enough to propel someone into the political stratosphere. Her father had been an ex-chief minister, I recalled.” This is the same country, where mammon is god, borne at any cost, even violence. Priya is out shopping with her social butterfly friend Poonam who “tried on the latest style in outsize diamond danglers, all astronomically priced, completely out of range as far as I am concerned. Her hair got into her eyes, and she had to take off her Bulgari shades to readjust it. There was an ugly swelling in her perfectly made-up face, the blue and black bruises blending in perfectly with her shimmering green shadow. I turned away, pretending not to have noticed.” Maybe as Priya expresses it so neatly, “A lie in the interest of one’s family is not an untruth, but one’s dharma. As an Indian mother, I am aware which side of the truth my duties fall.”

Violence exists at every level of society. The insidiousness of communalism makes its presence felt even in the life of Ghafoor the driver. Yet, Priya feels “safe with Ghafoor Bhai. Maybe it’s the Bombay influence-Bombay, before it was Mumbai. The city used to belong to everyone, and Allah’s chosen were visible everywhere, as the rest of us. In Delhi one tends to see them only in Purani Dilli and Nizammuddin, unless they are one of us, if you know what I mean.”

Priya: In Incredible Indyaa is about the life of Paro, a generation after Priya. It is Namita Gokhale at her best, with her tongue-in-cheek genuflection to all the activisim of the 1980s and early 1990s-feminsim, communism, Maoists, revival of Sati, honour killing etc. Post-liberalisation, it changed, but it did leave its indelible impact on society. The other sad fact that she stresses is that social mobility is still important. This is a novel that cannot be dismissed lightly. Some of the most interesting debates and documentation of capturing a moment in time are being done by women writers, but with confidence about the changing trends. A book like this demands of it a sequel, preferably an annual affair?

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is a publishing consultant and literary consultant

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