Tokyo Cancelled, Rana Dasgupta (2005)

From the sublime (A Golden Age, Fugitive Histories) to the ridiculous (this). But before I demonstrate how strongly I disliked this book, I want to share my one and only Rana Dasgupta anecdote.

At the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2011, I went along to a session being chaired by Rana Dasgupta. He is, I must say, a very good looking young man, and I overheard a couple of middle aged Indian ladies sitting behind me discussing this:

“Which one is Rana Dasgupta?”

“The one chairing, holding the mike.”

“Oooh, the cutie with the mike! Kashmiri hai?” (Kashmiris are known in India as fair skinned and attractive people)

Dasgupta hai. Bengali hai.” (Dasgupta is clearly a Bengali surname, Bengal being on the opposite side of India to Kashmir)

“Nahin. Kashmiri hai.”

But, the looks of the author aside, this is a terrible book. I had previously read Dasgupta’s second book, Solo, which I really enjoyed, so had been looking forward to reading this for a while. But ridiculous and dissatisfying are the only appropriate adjectives for Tokyo Cancelled.

The premise is this: a bunch of people are stranded in Tokyo airport overnight as a massive storm descends upon the city and all flights are cancelled. They pass the night by telling each other stories. The book is divided into these thirteen individual stories, with brief interludes back in the airport. Each person’s story is more ridiculous, contorted, twisted and ludicrous than the last. An example from “The Store on Madison Avenue: The Fifth Story”:

“‘Who are you?’

‘I am no ordinary woman. I am the daughter of Isabella Rosselini and Martin Scorsese. No one knows that at the moment when the two of them separated my mother was pregnant. I am a secret to the whole world. The only people that know are you and her.’

‘Why did you tell me?’

‘Because you are not ordinary either. You can understand.’

‘But I grew up in an airport the son of immigrant workers.’

‘Nonetheless. I can see it in you. We will be friends. Come: let me teach you kung fu.’

Pavel ended his first evening with Isabella casting martial shadows on the ceiling of her apartment by the soothing pink glow of pornography.” (p. 137)

OK, Dasgupta has an inventive imagination (or has had a lot of vivid, lariam induced dreams throughout his obviously extensive travels). But the wild and whacky just ends up being tedious. A girl conceived in a laboratory grows up to have the disability of making plants around her grow at astonishing rates in inappropriate places–a comment on humans’ attempts to play god? If it does indeed contain this moral, it is too fantastical and too obtuse at the same time. A woman who can “miraculously” transform–bodily–into a high-end fashion boutique by having a glass of milk with oreo biscuits crumbled into it (!!) over her head: a comment on conspicuous consumption? A young Polish woman, thrown away by her father as a baby and raised by a childless couple, can sew quilts so beautiful and expressive that they act as therapeautic devices for the customers, and gets head-hunted by a domination business. (I almost can’t bear to describe the rest of the plot twists, but must to demonstrate that this is not an unjustified rant that I am on: the Polish woman joins the domination business, falls in love with a customer and wants to conceive his child, but knows he will not be unfaithful to his wife, so she requests that another client with supernatural powers temporarily transport her into the body of the first client’s wife. He agrees, but demands that if she is unsucessful at seducing the married man, he will take away her fertility. She is unsuccefful, he takes her fertility, she is mad. Her estranged father tracks her down after all these years. Not knowing how to approach her, he confides in a stranger at the pub. The father is advised by ‘kindly’ stranger (owner of the fertility) to pretend to be him when he contacts his daughter for the first time. He does so, daughter shoots father, father ends up brain dead. Exhausting, yes.) Another story has an overworked Japanese man constructing an artificial girlfriend from prosthetic body parts that he falls in love with. Was that not already a hideous cliche? If not, it just became one.

(The day after drafting those thoughts, I was sent an article called “She Feels as Real as My Girlfriend” by a feminist network that I subscribe to. These radical feminists were self-righteously outraged by Japanese computer games that “simulate” the girlfriend experience (whatever that is) for lonely men. I must say I’m a bit tired with this type of reporting. Isn’t this just another issue that “we” can feel moral outrage over, to show how low “they” have sunk in their treatment–no, their very idea–of women?)

Being the academic-in-training that I am, I do have to question exactly why Tokyo Cancelled rubbed me up the wrong way quite so badly. Generic non-conformity is one of the fastest ways for readers to dislike a book, but I like to think I’m generally a bit more broad minded than that. I’m happy with literary experimentation, even if such books don’t usually make my top ten. But this is a weird hybrid: not quite science fiction, not quite short story, not quite fable, not quite novel…

Still, I may not have totally given up on “the cutie with the mike”, as his second book, Solo (2009), was far superior to Tokyo Cancelled, taking Dasgupta’s creative imagination and putting it to good use in a way that just works.

A Golden Age, Tahmima Anam (2007)

Largely set during the ten months of war between East and West Pakistan in 1971, the beauty of this book lies in the mother, Rehana Haque’s, experience of the war through her freedom-fighting children. If this had remained a simple narrative of one woman’s observations of the war, it would have remained rather flat, as Anam’s prose style is simple and unadorned–attractive, but unmemorable. The beauty, therefore, lies in the details of the characterisation.

A Golden Age begins in March 1959, with the newly widowed young Rehana having her children taken from her by her childless brother-in-law in East Pakistan. As a reader, I found Rehana’s passivity and inability to fight back against this injustice quite disturbing, but it is the regret over this passivity earlier in her life that gives Rehana the drive she needs to act as she does in the rest of the novel, set in 1971.

The war of 1971 appears to spring from nowhere- there is little build up or political context included in A Golden Age. Yet this does not really matter, as it is Rehana’s response to the dire circumstances she and her family find themselves in that is the lynchpin of this novel. Rehana’s son, Sohail, and daughter, Maya, become deeply involved in the student resistance to the Pakistani occupation of Dhaka. The assistance Rehana gives to the underground movement is motivated less by any ideological fervour than by an attempt to protect her children in any way she can. (It would be tempting to liken Rehana’s maternal instincts to a tigress’, if that was not an already over-used cliche in both writing about mothers and writing on Bengal!)

A particularly interesting aspect of A Golden Age is the Haque family’s positioning vis-a-vis Pakistan/Bangladesh. Overall in the novel, the West Pakistanis are clearly the bad guys, and the Bangladeshis are depicted as fighting a necessary and noble war. But, Anam inserts a subtle critique of this binary in her characters’ use of language–an ever-present sub-theme in much South Asian literature, where language stands for culture, ethnicity, religion, caste… As Bengalis who spent a large part of their childhood in Lahore–a time that twisted their native tongue into the “peasant Bengali of Bihar”–Sohail and Maya seem to have something to prove to their peers. Rehana, too, more reluctantly adopts the mantle of a Bangladeshi patriot, though she never quite manages to reconcile this with her love of Urdu literature.

Little English-language writing comes out of Bangladesh, if compared to India, which has had a different literary and publishing development since independence in 1947. For that reason alone, A Golden Age is worth celebrating. But, as a single novel and not as a representative of a nation (as no book should be), A Golden Age is beautiful in its own right:

“The sky over Bengal is empty. No mountains interrupt it; no valleys, no hills, no dimples in the landscape. It is flat, like a swamp, or a river that has nowhere to go. The eye longs for some blister on the horizon, some marker of distance, but finds none. Occasionally there are clouds; often there is rain, but these are only colours: the laundry-white of the cumulus, the black mantle of the monsoon.

Beyond the city there are no beautiful buildings that might sink in the heat or wilt under generations of rain. The promise of the land is not in the cities–their sky-touching glamour, the tragedy of their ruin–but in the vast unfolding plains, this empty sky, this stretching horizon. Every year the land will turn to sea as it disappears under the spell of water, and then prevail again, as if by magic, and this refrain, this looping repetition, is the archive of its long, flood-turned history.” (p. 205)

Fugitive Histories, Githa Hariharan (2009)

Githa Hariharan is one of India’s finest English-language writers, in my opinion. Although well-known in India, and having received the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for best first book in 1993 for The Thousand Faces of Night, Hariharan is not really known abroad. With her last two offerings, In Times of Siege (2003) and Fugitive Histories, the reason for this is fairly clear–her fiction is fiercely political (at times it is not even fiction), rooted in the atmosphere of jingoistic nationalism and communal trouble that have intensified in India in the past two decades. It is a political problem that ‘western’ readers could do well to learn something about, but this type of rationale does not necessarily make it onto publishers’ agendas.

Fugitive Histories goes where few have dared to go in literature–yet, at least. That is, the massacre of over two thousand Muslims in the western state of Gujarat in 2002. Shifting between various narrative subjects, it largely settles on Sara, a half-Hindu-half-Muslim young woman from Bombay, aspiring documentary filmmaker and NGO worker. She travels to Ahmedabad on a  script-writing assignment, a couple of years after the massacres to learn the stories of Muslims affected by the carnage. There, she befriends a seventeen years old girl who is struggling to live up to the multiple pressures she faces after having lost her elder brother–missing, presumed dead. Sara, herself, finds that she cannot live up to the pressures of representation and of bearing witness.

Complicating Sara’s attempts to write the script is her own identity. In contemporary India, “half-Hindu-half-Muslim” is not a comfortable hybridity. Sara’s Muslim father vehemently rejects religion, and cannot come to terms with his son’s embrace of Islam as an adult. Sara is haunted by memories of a childhood friend murdered in that earlier instance of communal rage, the Bombay riots of 1992-3, because her Muslim name became known. Sara’s Hindu mother–whose consciousness we sometimes enter–feels rejected by her husband after he enters a depressed but artistically productive state after the 2002 Gujarat massacres. Sara has never “been” a Hindu nor a Muslim, but finds that with the public expressions of communal hatred and political posturing, remaining neutral, or secular, is not really an option. Society will not allow for shades of grey.

Hariharan’s skills go beyond delving into the political and social problems of her country. She produces rich and complex characters with compassion. Characters we may not always agree with, but whom we can understand. This combination of the personal and the political (yes, Hariharan is a feminist) is what draws me to her books, particularly her two most recent ones. As an India Today reviewer put it, “She can do magic.”

Esther David, a Jewish Gujarati writer, poignantly recalled experiencing extreme writer’s block when attempting to write about what she witnessed in Ahmedabad in 2002. Being a woman and belonging to a minority religious community, she felt writing about such things was too dangerous. David did, eventually, write The Man with Enormous Wings (Penguin, 2010), a collection of vignettes inspired by the idea that Gandhi returns to his home state to witness what it has become. Gandhi, “the great soul”, makes fleeting appearances in Fugitive Histories too:

“It’s a diverse crowd. It’s brought together doctors, goondas, housewives looking for god, policemen, real-estate agents in search of a killing, priests in search of new converts and ministers in search of votes. But they must have something in common. They have worked hard together, they have just finished with Nasreen’s dargah. They have just lit the matchstick in Zakia’s little neighbour’s mouth so he can burst like a firecracker. They have just shot Sabiya’s sister as she was drying clothes in her courtyard. They have just finished gang-raping Zainab’s sister as her little son cried. They have just left Zulekha’s girls with stumps of wood in their vaginas. They have just given Adeba all those bodies to wash, some of them burnt, others split down the middle. They have just brought down the pipe on Nasreen’s arm to leave a cucumber-sized mark. They have just burnt Noorjehan’s husband and father and son. They have just converted Mahrukh’s neighbour’s corpse with kerosene and cremated it.

They should be exhausted or satiated or sick with revulsion, but they’re going strong. It’s time to find the great soul, finish him off properly this time.

The rampaging mob is here, they’re in the abode of peace. The birds and the tape that wouldn’t stop running in Sara’s head have gone, but the screeching voices are back. It’s much worse than before. And this time the voices don’t just speak of the enemy, they are the enemy. They can make anything happen and they know it.

The ghost’s cymbals drop to the ground. His song stops though he is not yet done. His voice whispers in Sara’s ear, in the mob’s ear, In the dictionary of satyagraha, there is no enemy. His whisper is too insistent for a ghostly whisper.

‘Keep your soul force if you want, you Mian-lover,’ the mob roars at him. ‘There’s a more powerful force with us.’

‘You may think I’m no match for you,’ he says gently. ‘I don’t have spears, kerosene, flags or soda bottles. I only have a spinning wheel, a pair of cymbals and a few old hymns. And I’m only a ghost now,’ he confesses, though he looks far from humble. ‘But I’ll never give up. The word defeat is not to be found in my dictionary.’

‘You talk too much, and you talk too much of dictionaries,’ the mob laughs. ‘We don’t read books. We only worship them, ban them or burn them.’

I can’t watch the destruction of all I’ve lived for. I would rather drown myself in the waters of the Sabarmati than harbour hate or animosity in my heart.’” (pp. 175-6)

Zubaan Cultures of Peace Festival of the Northeast, January 2011, Delhi, India Habitat Centre

Sanjoy Hazarika talking about the Northeast