Midnight's Children: The Novel II


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Apart from S.Mokashi-Punekar's Nana's Confession, already considered in another context earlier, Karnataka is represented by K.B. Ganapati's The Cross and Coorg (1993), with its tell-tale sub­title, "Christian Saga in Coorg" and Jaideep Prabhu's The Middle of Life (1998), the story of a large family of Roman Catholics in the coastal town of Mangalore. And Andhra Pradesh has a solitary notable representative: The Vultures (1984), a study of rural life by Vasudeva Reddy.

Goa is the scene for two novels: Angela's Goan Identity (1994) by Carmo D'Souza who tries to grapple rather unsuccessfully with a large subject: the breakdown of the feudal system in Goa after its integration with India. Victor Rangel-Rebeiro's Tivolem (1998) has a much smaller range, but a far larger share of literary values. This quiet chronicle of life in a sleepy little village in Goa in the nineteen-thirties has something of the unruffled charm of Cranford. Village festivals
Midnight's Children's Children: -The Novel - II 69

and rural superstitions, the eventful interaction between neighbours, the exploits of the village thief, and the clash between the old colonial mores and the new democratic values - all these add colour to the seemingly drab diurnal routine of the people of Tivolem.

Orissa's chief fictional spokesman is Manoj Das, whose Cyclones (1987), a study of rustic life, has already been considered. Nikhil Khasnabish recounts the troubles of Assam in his For Existence (1996).

There is a very strong contingent of Bengali writers among recent novelists, but the work of some of them like Upamanyu Chatterjee and Amit Chaudhuri can hardly be grouped under the capacious umbrella of regional fiction, since their emphasis is primarily on how their characters react to their experience, and not on the milieu as such, though the sights and sounds of Calcutta do come to life in Chaudhuri's novels. But a novel like Hen? and Football (1992) by Nalinaksha Bhattacharya may safely be classified under regional fiction, since it deals with an aspect of Calcutta which is peculiar to it: women's football clubs. The regional ambience is also strong in Mukunda Rao's The Mahatma (1992). Rao certainly gives us a feel of both the Noakhali milieu and the "moment", with painstaking attention to detail. This cannot, however, be said about his treatment of Gandhiji's strange sexual experiments during this period; he does not tell us anything new, nor does he attempt a fresh interpretation.

The North figures prominently in In the Light of the Black Sun (1996) by Rohit Manchanda and P.V. Dhamija's Beyond the Tunnel (1997). The first is set in a coal-mining town in Bihar, which is observed through the eyes of Vipul, a school boy. It demonstrates how sharp childhood perceptions are. We see with Vipul the coal-dust lying on everything like "an extra skin," and join him in his game of killing mosquitoes, and keeping the score too. Beyond the Tunnel is in a sense a campus novel, but the picture of the rural institute near Delhi here is not distinctive enough; the rural ambience makes a greater impact.



The Punjab unrest has been mirrored in Raj Gill's Jo Bole (1983), and Partap Sharma's Days of the Turban (1986), considered earlier. Less appealing is Nation of Fools (1984) by Balraj-Khanna (b. 1940), the story of the coining of age of Omi, the son of a sweet vendor, who plies his trade in a village near Chandigarh. The time is the nineteen-fifties, when the Punjab had not yet become the boiling political and social cauldron it was fated to be twenty years later. In Sweet Chillies (1991), Khanna deals with the later period, but with a
70 Indian English Literature: 1980-2000

less sure touch than Partap Sharma.

Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace (2000) annexes a new territory to Indian English fiction. Set in Burma, along with India, it tells the story of the deposition of King Thebaw of Burma in 1885 by the British, who then interned him in Ratnagiri, in Maharashtra, where he died two decades later. There are two other strands in the long narrative. The first concerns Rajkumar, a Hindu orphan who comes to Burma at the age of eleven, and rises to become a big businessman. He marries Dolly, one of the waiting maids of Thebaw's queen. In the second, we meet Uma, wife of the Collector of Ratnagiri. She later becomes an active member of the India League in London. The book is thoroughly researched, but the Thebaw story comes to life in a way the other two do not; and the chronicle aspect of The Glass Palace seems to overshadow the fictional one.

While the novel of social realism has flourished, its opposite, i.e., the fiction of the interior landscape of the mind has also had some able practitioners. Amitav Ghosh, whose versatility is enviable, has produced in The Shadow Lines (1988) a novel entirely different from his earlier Circle of Reason (1986) and the later In an Antique Land (1992). The "Shadow Lines" are the lines that divide people and nations and they are often insubstantial like shadows; but they can create a lot of misery and even death, as in the case of Tridib, the protagonist, who is killed in a communal riot in East Pakistan. The motif of the lines that divide begins with the partitioning of the family house in Bengal and is repeated with variations as the narrative ranges over four countries including India, East Pakistan, Sri Lanka and England. Perhaps the picture of family life in Bengal, seen through the eyes of the narrator when he was a child is far more evocative than the larger concerns to which he turns later.

After the mordant satire in English, August, Upamanyu Chatterjee turns to a far more inward-looking narrative in The Last Burden (1993). This is the unbearable burden of family ties, as Jamun the protagonist comes to realise when he returns home, after being informed that his mother is critically ill. Bitter and sweet memories of the past mingle with the tensions and irritations of the present. This could have made for an absorbing drama in the theatre of the mind; but Chatterjee, who had written such crisp and limpid prose in his earlier novel, now chooses, for some reason, to employ a leaden-footed style, with Latinized diction, chockfull of recondite words like "edaciously" and "crapulous".
Midnight's Children :r Children: The Novel II 71
The Shadow Lines and The Last Burden have at least a recognizable narrative framework. In the four novels he has published so far, Amit Chaudhuri (b. 1962) seems to dispense with the narrative altogether. A Strange and Sublime Address (1991) is a novella with nine short stories added to it. It is an impressionistic account of a Bombay-bred Bengali boy's visit to Calcutta during a vacation. Everything appears to him to be new and strange, and every little discovery a revelation to be recorded meticulously. In Afternoon Raag (1993), the boy is now a student at Oxford,. His sojourn at the university, and his childhood memories of Bombay and Calcutta form the staple of the book. The entire action in Freedom Song (1998), which deals with middle class life in Calcutta has perhaps been neatly summed up in these words of the narrator: "They woke, slept, talked. They eked out the days with inconsequential chatter." Some of the descriptions are certainly evocative. but the narrative seldom rises above mere notations of quotidian preoccupations.

Cast in the same mould, A New World (2000) presents middle­aged Jayojit, a failed husband, who has come home with his school­boy son, to spend a summer vacation with his aged parents. He whiles away his time doing nothing in particular; his mother over-feeds him; his father snores away and his son plays with his plastic dinosaurs. We are even given the important information, at one place, that Jayojit "had begun to feel the first movements in his bowels and was oddly grateful and relieved."

"Delicate," "lyrical," "elegant," "sensitive," "evocative," "charming," "enchanting," - are some of the adjectives which reviewers, both Indian and Western, have used in praise of Chaudhuri. While there are passages in his work which do qualify for this praise, it is a moot point whether his fiction does not ultimately suffer from the limitations which the work of Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf also betrays. Of course, unlike these two, Chaudhuri does not use the stream-of-consciousness technique, but his passion for the notation of life lived from moment to moment is akin to theirs. The difficulty with this kind of fictional fare is that it delights in small doses, but palls after larger helpings, raising the question, "What does it all amount to?" And, "who reads Richardson now?", one may ask, while Woolf, highly praised at one time is today only a minor experimenter. It will not do to invoke the name of Marcel Proust either. Its vast social range, its wealth of characters, the unity given to it by the main themes of Love and Time have made Remembrance of
72 Indian English Literature: 1980-2000

Things Past a classic of fiction in which the passing moment is turned into eternity. In the total absence of all this, the novelist is in the danger of dwindling into merely a literary Autolycus, "The snapper up of unconsidered trifles."

Two more inward-looking novels have appeared recently: A Short History of Everything (1998) by Gautam Bhatia (b.1952) and The Blue Bedspread (1999) by Raj Kamal Jha (b.1966). Ram, in the first novel is born after Independence and goes through all the normal (and some abnormal) problems and pains of adolescence, including a growing sexual awareness which produces incestuous thoughts, and the sudden realization that Atma Ram, the family servant, meant more to his mistress than a servant should. The narrative, however, has very little of the immediacy which a chronicle of childhood and adolescence should normally have. The Blue Bedspread, like A Short History of Everything, is a "memory novel," but here the memories of the narrator are sadder and even more sordid. They include being abused by a drunken father, and an uncomfortable, incestuous relationship with his sister. The "Blue Bedspread" in the title becomes a symbol of escape into a more pleasant world of imagination for both the children. Raj Kamal Jha's evocation of the past is far more sensitively done than Bhatia's, but the attitude of his protagonist to his abnormal experience remains intriguingly ambivalent, raising suspicions of masochism.

Akhil Sharna's recently published An Obedient Father (2000) has been described in the blurb as "an astonishing character study ... recalls Dostoevsky's guild-ridden anti-heroes." The "achieved content" of the novel, however, fails to justify this tall claim. The private life of Ram Karan, the protagonist, is tainted by his repeated rape of his own daughter, while in his public life he is an extortionist, collecting bribes for a political leader. Only the establishment of a firm symbolic equation between the two lives of the protagonist could have invested the narrative with adequate meaning and power. In the absence of it, An Obedient Father only succeeds in becoming, at best, an exercise in titillation.

A new genre, vi:., Science Fiction, has recently been added to the repertoire of Indian English fiction, and appropriately enough, the pioneer here is a distinguished scientist: Jayant Narlikar (b. 1938). In The Return of Vaman (1989), Vaman is a self-replicating robot; The Message from Aristarchus (1992) tells an even more exciting story, beginning with the dropping of an infant on to the earth from a dying planet. Narlikar's style is rigidly functional, but what is sauce for the

Midnight's Children's Children: The Novel - II 73



scientific goose is not sauce for the literary gander. Narlikar is no Isaac Asimov (at least not yet); but he has certainly planted the Indian­English flag on hitherto unexplored territory.

The most versatile of recent Indian English novelists, Amitav Ghosh, has produced in The Calcutta Chromosome (1996) what is in a large measure a science fiction novel. In fact, it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1997 as the best novel in this genre, though the narrative has other dimensions as well: it has distinct elements of dystopia, mystery and ghost story in it. At the centre of the narrative is Ronald Ross's well-known research on the malarial parasite. The novelist shows how an unlettered, destitute Bengali woman intuitively understands the malaria problem, and how she even goes beyond it, by using her homely remedy successfully as a cure for syphilis. The story moves from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first, the scenes dealing with which make use of computer jargon ("Let me feed a little factoid into your data base"). The sudden disappearance of Murugan, the greatest authority on Ross, on his visit to Calcutta, and the search for him add an element of mystery to this strange, many-pronged narrative.

The "Mystery novel," or fiction of espionage is also gaining ground. Earlier, the only respectable example of it was Manohar Malgonkar's Spy in Amber (1971). He has now written two more: Bandicoot Run (1982) and The Garland Keepers (1987), both against the background of Indo-Pakistan tensions. They both prove once again that Malgonkar is a superb story-teller. Notable-among other examples of this genre are: K.R. Rai's Telltale Teeth (1982); N.C.Menon's Mystery on the Mountain (1986); The Hunt for K (1992) by Ramesh Menon; Ashok Banker's Ten Dead Admen (1993); and Shashi Warner's Night of the Krait (1996), The Orphan (1998), and Sniper (1999). Vikram A. Chandra's The Srinagar Conspiracy (2000) employs the format of a thriller to study the Kashmir problem. The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes (1999) by Jamyang Norbu (b. 1944) describes the adventures of Holmes in Tibet; the narrator is Hurree Chunder Mooket jee, a character in Kipling's Kim. Norbu perfectly recreates the peculiar English Hurree Chunder would have used if he had played Watson to Holmes. This graceful literary tribute to Kipling's Kim and Arthur Conan Doyle tells us a lot about Tibetan life and culture.

Earlier, the only significant children's writer was Ruskin Bond, who has to. his credit more than thirty books of stories and poems for


74 Indian English Literature: 1980-2000

children, including The Blue Umbrella (1968) and Grandfather's Private Zoo (1969). The last two decades have witnessed a significant growth of children's literature. In addition to novels like Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Farrukh Dhondy's Poona Company and Narlikar's The Return of Vaman which can be read with profit by children and adults alike, there are a number of books specifically for children. Arup Kumar Dutta's (b. 1946) novels like The Kaziranga Trail (1980), The Blind Witness (1985), Revenge (1986), Crystal Cave (1987), Smack (1990) and Trouble at Kolongjarn (1997) can go a long way in weaning Indian children away from Enid Blyton. Partap Sharma (b. 1939), playwright and novelist, has published four children's books, including the popular series on Dog Detective Ranjha which appeared as a cartoon strip in the children's magazine Tinkle.

Novels dealing with areas of experience largely unfamiliar to the common reader include: The Flags of Convenience (1982) by Dilip Mukerji which introduces us to the world of international shipping; J.C.Bhatt's The Jagmohan Millions (1982), in which we find ourselves in the world of big business: and Deepchand Behary's That Others Might Live (1990) which is unique in the annals of Indian English fiction in that it tells the fascinating story of the problems of the early Indian immigrants in Mauritius.

Among other novels of the period may be mentioned: B.L.Vohra's The Thorn (1983); Kewlian Sio's What a Vieiv (1985), a novella, the unprepossessing title of which does no justice to its expert portrayal of adolescent experience, redolent of a mood of nostalgia, so characteristic of this author; Sanjib Datta's The Judas Tree (1985); Akhileswar Jha's Lessons in Love (1988) and The Motorcycle Mafia (1995); Aniruddha Bahal's A Crack in the Mirror (1991); Banomali Goswami's Circles of Hell (1991) and Untouchables (1994) - a novel which (not unsurprisingly) compares extremely unfavourably with Mulk Raj Anand's novel on the same subject, which is now one of the classics of the world of fiction; Dilip Thakore's Succession Derby (1991), a highly entertaining picture of the corporate world, and its philosophy of one-upmanship, which would have been a far better novel but for the author's obsession with sex; R.K. Laxman's The Messenger (1993), a novel dealing with a young journalist's dilemmas, the best thing about which is the cartoon on the cover; R. W. Desai's Frailty, Thy Name is Woman (1993), which is probably the first Indian English novel written entirely in the epistolary form; Vijay Singh's
Midnight's Children's Children: The Novel - II 75

Whirlpool of Shadows (1993); Jayabroto Chatterjee's Last Train to Innocence (1995); the travel writer Pico Iyer's Cuba and the Night (1996) set in Cuba; Tahir Shah's Sorcerer's Apprentice (1998); and A Diplomatic Encounter (1999) by S.K.Banerji. Two promising first novels published recently are: The Beauty of These Present Things (2000) by Avtar Singh, and Bombay-Wallah (2000) by Shiv Sharma, the Bombay ambience in both of which leaves a deeper impression than the characters.

Note

Rushdie, Salman. Imaginarv Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. London: Granta, 1991.

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