Books

Farewell Exotica

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Granta’s second India issue brings together a new crop of writers who don’t quite up the ante
Granta India: Another Way of Seeing | Edited by Ian Jack | Granta Books | Pages 304 | £12.99
Ian Jack’s very promising introduction to Granta’s second India issue (the first appeared in 1997, marking 50 years of Indian Independence) quotes Amitava Kumar : ‘One critique of Indian writing in English is that we translate too much…the humble samosa is described as a savoury food item… all too often our writing is an act of translation on behalf of the West.’ (The Caravan, May 2014). Jack goes on to say, ‘ This seems to me much less true than it once was…India has developed a bustling publishing industry…The Indian writer need no longer look over his shoulder at his imagined audience abroad.’ And indeed, Granta has been good at keeping the exotica at bay in this issue. Alas, that doesn’t rescue it from being drab and dreary, by and large.

Booker-nominee Neel Mukherjee’s story ‘The Wrong Square’, the prologue to his novel The Statue of Freedom, is about an Indian expat bringing his six-year-old son for a visit to Fatehpur Sikri, the father’s fear of his son’s boredom is all too relatable . The highlight is a wonderfully macabre moment when they drive past a construction worker falling to his death from a scaffolding. It’s an unsettling scene and one wishes Mukherjee had lingered on for a page or so longer here to fulfil our more voyeuristic expectations and perhaps meandered less through Fatehpur Sikri.

Amit Chaudhuri’s ‘English Summer’ is also an extract from his forthcoming novel. It opens with the protagonist making his bed and smoothing down a sheet stiff with ‘a shiny patch of dried semen’. It took some fortitude to keep reading. The protagonist Ananda is a struggling writer in London musing over class and Marxism while awaiting a response from Poetry Review. He is just the sort of person one goes out of one’s way to avoid at dinner parties.

If Chaudhuri had played it for more laughs and embraced the fact that Ananda seems insufferable, it might have been fun. Instead, I got the impression that one was meant to like him. One is at least meant to like him enough to enjoy his observations of, say, a butterfly: ‘A butterfly had settled on the upper window. It had closed its wings, simulating a leaf, or engendering a geometric angle, perfect as a shadow, but now wavering and bending to one side—not out of any obedience to the breeze, but according to a whim.’ It makes one want to swat the next butterfly one sees, really, out of sheer frustration at the amount of detail one finds within Granta India that appears to have no narrative purpose whatsoever.

By contrast, Vivek Shanbhag’s ‘Ghachar Ghochar’, an excerpt of a novella translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur, gets directly to the point. A charming little story about honeymooners, its most striking feature as compared to much of the rest of the fiction in this issue is that the plot is up, up, and away within two sentences, without dithering or sightseeing along the way; ‘I didn’t put up a fight when the family began efforts to get me married. None of my attempts at romance had got anywhere.’

Another engrossing read is Hari Kunzru’s ‘Drone’, also an extract from a forthcoming novel. ‘Drone’ follows two different characters, first an elite ‘Seth’ and at the other end of the spectrum, an impoverished miner facing certain death. The ‘Seth’ appears more convincing and Kunzru is unsparing in his biting satire of, among other things, the religiosity of the Indian elite: ‘…the Seth’s seventh wife, was headhunted from an isolated rural community, where she’d grown up under the supervision of a disciplinarian aunt. Only after compliance with stringent genetic and astrological tests did the Seth’s agent offer her the position of vessel. She was, of course, a virgin, whose pristine caste background demonstrated, on the part of her ancestors, an impeccable lack of interest in the wider world.’

Too much of the fiction (and non-fiction) in this issue is competent if utterly mundane; I’m hard-pressed to remember it two days after reading it. I’d venture that it isn’t a sign of the much-ballyhooed Death of the Novel or any particular crisis facing Indian literature at the moment; it seems to me a matter of poor selection—more work in translation for example would have been great—and the same problem Raymond Chandler wrote to a friend about in 1947: ‘Undoubtedly we are getting a lot of adept reportage which masquerades as fiction and will go on getting it, but essentially I believe that it is lacking an emotional quality. Even when they deal with death, and they often do, they are not tragic. I suppose that is to be expected. An age which is incapable of poetry is incapable of any kind of literature except that cleverness of a decadence. The boys can say anything, their scenes are almost tiresomely neat, they have all the facts and all the answers, but they are little men who have forgotten how to pray.’

Chandler may be a tad harsh, but he’s not wrong. There is a gaping hole where there should instead be real feeling, and excessive verbosity like nervous babbling filling in an awkward silence where there ought to be meaning. The poetry with the exception of Vinod Kumar Shukla isn’t wildly exciting, and with a few exceptions, the reportage isn’t much to write home about either. Raghu Karnad’s ‘The Ghost In The Kimono’ suggests his forthcoming book will be really rather good. Sam Miller’s ‘Gandhi the Londoner’ is fun, especially given that every possible aspect of Gandhi’s life has now been analysed and parsed in every conceivable way. This essay is not about Gandhi the Mahatma, Gandhi the symbol; here, he’s another broke student trying to get his laundry done without breaking the bank, trying to make the most of an exciting city, and facing problems London still hasn’t entirely resolved, like where to find a good vegetarian meal. ‘Some of his hagiographers’, Miller writes, ‘seem a little uncomfortable with Gandhi’s antics in London, that he showed so little interest in Indian nationalism, or in politics in general—and that he took dancing and violin lessons, that he professed a desire to be ‘an English gentleman’, that he flirted with young women. But not Gandhi himself, who was always keen to reveal to the world his mistakes and peccadilloes.’

The finest piece in this collection is perhaps Samanth Subramanian’s sharp, droll essay, where he uses Bombay’s Breach Candy Club as a microcosm of India’s elite. The swimming pool is ‘excavated in the outline of undivided India, such that Kashmir lies right below your feet as you stand atop the diving platform…In vivid contrast to the rest of the country, the pool is nearly always thinly populated.’ The Breach Candy club refused for years to open admission to Indians, and in 1947 ‘the club insisted that it would continue to restrict membership to Europeans only, not quite ready to hand India—the pool, the country—over to its people.’

When Indians gained ‘ordinary’ membership, there was then the matter of only Europeans being allowed the privilege of serving on the managing committee. ‘This is a deliciously shocking situation’, Subramanian writes, ‘so fat with political incorrectness that a brawl seemed proper and justified. But then the matter took on broader contours… There were signs of the old elite rattled by, and ready to be contemptuous of the brazenness of new money. There were rumbles of fraud and corruption, of a mania for land and of politicians flexing their muscles in the shadows, until we appeared to be talking not of the Breach Candy Club but of India herself.’

As the quote suggests, the battle of the elites is nowhere near as simplistic as it may seem; everyone appears to come to it with an ulterior motive, their own values always questionable. Subramanian’s style never flags. One can only hope the next Granta India—and I’m in no hurry, to be perfectly honest—features a few more pieces of this calibre.

(Faiza S Khan is a critic and editor based in New Delhi)

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