Thursday, January 29, 2009

An Indian Love Affair


You can fall in love with a country, its people, culture and idiosyncracies through its writers as Abby Wong discovered when she delved into modern Indian fiction

I HAVE A PECULIAR reading habit. From time to time, I get besotted by a country and all I want to read are books about it; all other books become oddly uninteresting.

So when India became my obsession, I devoured Indian literature and history for more than a year. I even travelled to Mumbai, only to find myself lost in the crowded streets that were as chaotic and wretched as they were depicted in A Fine Balance, the book that got me started on this tempestuous Indian love affair.

Voted recently as one of The Australian’s Top 100 Books of All Time, A Fine Balance is a classic Indian novel written by Rohinton Mistry. Master of palpable descriptions, Mistry was likely to have moved the Australians with his portrayal of the lives of four hapless Indians who struggle in a society of injustice and hardship.

The sounds, smells and people of Mumbai must have evoked every emotion and conjured up images of destitution unheard of in modern times. Mistry is the only Asian author to appear on the list.

However, of all the Indian fiction that I have read so far, V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas remains closest to my heart, although it is not set in India. I was captivated by this tragic-comic story of Mohun Biswas, an ethnic Indian born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad.

Declared at birth as a bad omen by a Hindu pundit and devoid of opportunity his whole life, Biswas suffers belittlement as a result of his marriage into a wealthy and domineering Tulsi family. His dogged attempt to achieve autonomy and respect by owning a house ends up disastrously, no thanks to an incompetent carpenter.

Naipaul is flawless as a storyteller. So mesmerised was I by his lyrical prose that I often felt as if I was being read to by the poignant Biswas. As shocking as it was riveting, my first encounter with the Indian caste system through this book forced me to delve deeper into the culture of Mother India.

Naipaul deservingly received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.

Other Indian authors have also managed to emerge in the crowded international market with critical acclaim.

My favourite award-winning novel is Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, a fantastic collection of nine short stories that focus on intercultural miscommunication and conflict that are often quite familiar to us.

These stories are extraordinary because of Lahiri’s consummate story-telling skills and her elegantly simple prose.The most intriguing is the title story in which the young Das family, second-generation Indian-Americans, go on a day-tour in India guided by 46-year-old Mr Kapasi. Slightly annoyed at first by the peevish Mrs Das, Kapasi finds himself later beguiled by her seductive and flamboyant demeanour.

An appealing and unique aspect of modern Indian literature is the nonchalance of its characters, despite being put through the wringer by unjust or horrific conditions. This aspect is best exemplified in Vikas Swarup’s Q&A [also published as Slumdog Millionaire], an inventive début about Ram Mohammad Thomas, an 18-year-old orphan who was given Indian, Muslim and Christian names because no one knew who his parents were.

Ram wins a billion rupees on a TV quiz show, but is unjustly sent to jail by the organisers who cannot believe he won without cheating. What they do not know is that Ram had drawn from his store of street wisdom and trivia to help him win not only the show but also life itself.

My admiration for Indian fiction waned half-way into Vikram Seth’s magnum opus, A Suitable Boy. To me, Seth’s prose seems less sophisticated than the likes of Salman Rushdie and Naipaul. Furthermore, it was a chore to read an epic so long and filled so excessively with voluble dialogue that was mundane and inane at times.

But I must concede, as I persevered until the last page, A Suitable Boy was a great panoramic representation of Indian culture because social frailties such as caste, gender discrimination, arranged marriages and incest were eloquently dealt with. It made Indian culture more accessible to non-native readers.

As I continued on my subcontinental adventure, Story-Wallah landed on my table. It was the most wonderful gift as it contained diasporic short stories written by some of the finest Indian writers, Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee and Hanif Kureshi.

A humble book, Story-Wallah does what books do best—tell stories that are simple yet extraordinarily moving.

I particularly loved Bharati Mukherjee’s piece titled “The Management of Grief,” which dealt with the sorrows of the grief-stricken Shaila Bhave who loses her sons and husband in a plane crash. While managing her pain, she finds solace in writing her late husband a love poem.

Rushdie’s prose is uncustomarily simple and playful in his story about an Indian family who emigrate to London. New in a foreign land, they encounter a number of challenges, one being the language barrier. “Yes, fleas,” their old nanny replies when asked if she would like to have tea.

It has been years since I finally made my way out of this Indian spell but the books I had the pleasure to read have remained with me.

Since then I have gone on to explore other lands via the written word. Recently, I happened to choose the beautiful, hardcover Cairo Trilogy. My subsequent Arabian adventure which married ancient fantasy with modern truths is another story.

Reproduced from the The Sunday Star of January 25, 2009


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