The Story of Noble Rot, Uzma Aslam Khan, New Delhi: Rupa, 2009 (2001)


Having read Uzma Aslam Khan’s Trespassing and Thinner than Skin, two of the author’s later novels, I thought I knew what to expect from her: beautiful, ornate yet precise language combined with a complicated yet ultimately somewhat flat plot. (I’m still holding out hope that her great novel will be her next book, she’s building up to something big.) However, The Story of Noble Rot is a very different book. It’s easy to say in retrospect that this is clearly a first novel, in which the Khan found her voice and set herself on the writing path. But the style of this first novel is so very different from her later writing that it is actually difficult to see the connections.

The Story of Noble Rot is comical, in a bleak way. As one reviewer from The Indian Review of Books put it, it’s “pleasantly quirky”. This is a world away from her other novels (the two that I’ve read), which are uniformly serious, earnest even, in the way that a lot of Pakistani writing in English seems to be (OK, not Mohammed Hanif). There are elements of the fantastical and the fable in this novel, making it vaguely reminiscent of some of Githa Hariharan’s earlier writing, or even Aravind Adiga.

The Story of Noble Rot is essentially a tale of class inequalities and the middle- and upper-classes’ sense of entitlement in contemporary Pakistani society. It is the type of tale that has been told frequently in Indian English literature, because it is an issue that is just getting worse in the region. A house-servant witnesses the corruption of her mistress and a complicated game of blackmail ensues, in which the grip on reality becomes more and more tenuous.

The title is intriguing, enigmatic and clever, as it sums up so much of what this book is about—or, rather, what it explores, because it’s hard to say that it’s about any one thing. But, as a thread running through the novel is the enjoyment of wine, the title is actually connected with that: “The sweet taste of the wine comes from the muscadelle grape, and the grayish mould that it attracts. The fungus sucks water from the grape, leaving it with an unusually high quantity of sugar and glycerine. We have lovingly named the mould pourriture noble, noble rot.” (p. 121).


Delhi Calm, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, 2010

Delhi Calm, by Vishwajyoti Ghosh NOIDA: HarperCollins, 2010. Purchased in India.
Delhi Calm, by
Vishwajyoti Ghosh
NOIDA: HarperCollins, 2010. Purchased in India.

I have written before on this blog that I feel I don’t have the right vocabulary to discuss graphic literature properly. I still feel this way, but I’m trying to become more familiar with the genre, so the last time I was in India I picked up this graphic novel, Delhi Calm.

Delhi Calm is certainly a novel, unlike other works of graphic literature that I’ve read and reviewed, which are compilations or part of a series. It is set in Delhi during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency of the late 1970s, beginning just before the Emergency does, and ending at its abolition. The narrator is a young newspaper employee who finds himself out of a job when his office closes in fear, and becomes involved in underground, anti-government politics. The title comes from an international newspaper headline, the day after the Emergency was declared.

It is difficult to describe a plot as such, because so much of the ‘action’ is visual. The story itself is a fairly predictable exploration of living under the Emergency, but the visual depiction of masked characters are what give the novel depth. The masks hide peoples’ true selves, their real political identities, and what is left visible are generic faces, indistinguishable from each other.

I enjoyed Delhi Calm but I felt it was rather long, at 246 pages (and large pages at that). But then, perhaps the mode of reading a graphic novel is very different from reading text, and I wouldn’t consider a 246 page textual novel too long (unless it was very bad, of course). So I think I need to keep training myself to read this genre more effectively and appreciatively.

(I reviewed the same author’s edited collection, This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition in Kitaab several months ago.)

A page from Delhi Calm.
A page from Delhi Calm.

The Last Wave, Pankaj Sekhsaria, 2014

The Last Wave: An Island Novel, by Pankaj Sekhsaria. NOIDA: HarperCollins, 2014. Borrowed a free review copy from my office :)
The Last Wave: An Island Novel, by Pankaj Sekhsaria. NOIDA: HarperCollins, 2014. Borrowed a free review copy from my office 🙂

Pankaj Sekhsaria’s debut novel, The Last Wave: An Island Novel is fascinating for the way it depicts a part of India often ignored in literature: the Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal, just south of Burma but mostly administered by India. The only other literature I have encountered that is set in the Andamans is Marianne Wiggins’ John Dollar, and I’m not sure that this should be the place’s sole literary representation! (A ‘feminist’ Lord of the Flies).

Sekhsaria is an academic who works on the Andaman Islands—he has written two non-fiction books on them already—and also writes regular journalistic pieces on them. This depth of knowledge comes through very clearly in this novel, and a great deal can be learnt about the history of the islands, their settlement, the challenges facing the native peoples and the mainland Indian settlers from The Last Wave. But it is more than an anthropological tract, as Sekhsaria intertwines this depth of knowledge with a realistic and somewhat charming love story, running parallel to a plot about outsiders’ attempts to ‘save’ the indigenous Jawara people of the Andaman Islands.

Sekhsaria addresses the issue of how ‘mainstream’, mainland India (which generally means northern and/or metropolitan) perceives and treats the country’s minorities. The indigenous inhabitants of the Andaman Islands—of which there are several, but the novel focuses on the Jawara people—are considered savages (‘junglees’) by mainland Indians, little more than wildlife. In fact, safari-style tourism still occurs on the Andaman Islands, something that Sekhsaria discusses: “The promotion was blatant and often outrageous” writes Sekhsaria. “’See and feel the primitive dark tribe of the Andaman forests’ went one catch line; ‘A once in a life time opportunity of meeting primitive naked people’, read another.” (p. 226). Of course, as with so many instances of misunderstanding and miscommunication between cultures, women are employed as symbols. Sekhsaria writes of a Bengali tourist to the islands encountering a Jawara woman:

“Here was a woman who was what a woman should not be: a woman not conscious of her body and her nakedness, who had no lajja, no shame. Haldar’s wife held up the Jawara woman’s right hand, picked up a bunch of bangles and slipped them effortlessly over the dark bare wrist.” (p. 65)

However, it must be said that Sekhsaria’s writing is strongest when he is discussing the historical, anthropological or sociological elements that comprise the novel. He does make his language engaging, interesting and befitting the fictional genre, but the other aspects of the novel are rather weak, so I wonder if perhaps non-fictional genres would better suit the author’s talents and knowledge—creative non-fiction, for instance. The overreliance on dialogue—stilted at that—when characters are interacting with each other results in flat characterisation. Too much exposition of inter-personal feeling is left to dialogue. Further (and I give nothing away by writing this), the climactic episode of the 2004 Boxing Day Indian Ocean Tsunami, after which the novel is named, is very poorly written. The drama and devastation is not captured at all. I had to rely upon my memory of watching footage of events to picture what the author was attempting to portray, as the prose itself was not enough.

I did enjoy The Last Wave, though. It is a charming and interesting novel, and unless one is an anthropologist or a student of anthropology, one seldom has much opportunity to learn about the Andaman Islands, so I appreciate Sekhsaria’s foray into this genre.


Indian Jewish Literature in Himal Southasian

Jew Town, Cochin.  Photo: Flickr/ Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen
Jew Town, Cochin.
Photo: Flickr/ Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen

After a few weeks of politically-heavy articles at Himal, we have just published this piece on Indian Jewish literature, by Navras Jaat Afreedi.

I’ve copied the first paragraph below, and the rest can be read here.

“2013 was an exciting year for Indian Jewish literature: two works of fiction were published, one in Hindi, the other in English. Sheela Rohekar’s Miss Samuel: Ek Yahudi Gatha (Miss Samuel: A Jewish Saga) is one of only two Hindi novels depicting Indian Jewish life, and the first Hindi novel in 52 years to explore the Bene Israel community, the largest Jewish group in India. Jael Silliman’s The Man with Many Hats, on the other hand, is the first novel by a member of the Baghdadi community, the latest Jewish settlers in India, and one of the only two novels to depict Baghdadi Jewish life there. Both authors are women, legatees of a rich tradition of women’s writing among Indian Jews.”



Concern for the Destiny of the Country

I’ve just had my article “Concern for the Destiny of the Country: Indian Feminist Novels” published in the online, non-academic literary journal, The Critical Flame. It focuses on three novels: Qurratulain Hyder’s My Temples, Too (translated from Urdu), Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Vaasanthi’s Birthright (translated from Tamil, and also reviewed by me here.)

TCF came to my attention a few months ago when they announced that for a whole year, they would only publish reviews and criticism of literature written by women and minorities, to help rectify a general imbalance in reviewing practices. I’d been looking for serious, intellectual open-access journals and magazines with which to publish, and TCF seemed to fit the bill.

Update: 3 Quarks Daily reposted my article last week, a lovely and unexpected stamp of approval 🙂

The first paragraph is extracted below, and you can read the whole article here.

“Indian literary critic Meenakshi Mukherjee has said that the essential concern of the twentieth-century Indian novelist was the changing national scene and the destiny of the country. She was referring to novels of the first half of the twentieth century, but these same concerns continue to operate today. It is only the definition of what the “destiny of the country” means that has changed over the decades. The concerns to which she refers are not confined to the Independence struggle, but increasingly turn toward problems of class and gender. Three novels—Urdu author Qurratulain Hyder’s classic My Temples, Too, English-language author Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Tamil author Vaasanthi’s Birthright; all published by India’s two leading feminist presses, Zubaan and Women Unlimited—highlight the changing nature of national destiny. Though these novels differ in both style and content, their central characters face renegotiations of youth, class, and gender, in the shadow of post-Independence national identity. These works not only reveal the shifting ground of Mukherjee’s concern, but also demonstrate that there is no such thing as a representative Indian feminist novel. In these titles, diversity is privileged above adherence to ideology. Each one expresses a different India—newly independent, ruling class, revolutionary, Muslim; urban, globalising, corporate; rural, educated, tradition-bound—all with women’s experiences at their center.”



Island of a Thousand Mirrors, Nayomi Munaweera, 2013

Island of a Thousand Mirrors, by Nayomi Munaweera. Gurgaon: Hachette India, 2013. Purchased in India.

Nayomi Munaweera’s debut, Island of a Thousand Mirrors, is a beautiful, if unnecessarily complex novel. Set during Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war, and told from the standpoints of a Tamil and a Sinhala girl (amongst others), it recounts the horrific recent history in haunting and beautiful language. The novel begins prior to the war, so when its full ferocity becomes evident it takes the reader as much by surprise as it does many of the young, relatively isolated and apolitical characters.

There were echoes here and there of Rushdie, something perhaps natural in contemporary South Asian literature, but that I find a little problematic. The man has his own stylised techniques and ways of formulating fantastical plot elements so that they appear natural (almost, if you can suspend disbelief for the course of an entire book). So when I encounter echoes of Rushdie in a realist narrative, I am jarred. Two of Munaweera’s protagonists are born at the same time, to women known to each other, forever connecting their fates in a way somewhat reminiscent of Midnight’s Children:

“Shiva and I are born on adjacent beds in a large white room while the nurses stroke the thighs of our writhing, crying mothers. We enter the world on waves of our mothers’ iron-flavored blood. First, I, secretive and shy. I did not cry, they say, until he too had arrived. Purple faced, I had to be slapped into breathing. And then immediately after me, Shiva, as if he had been waiting for me to test the terrain. But when he does arrive, our crying fills the room, makes our tired and torn mothers laugh. Our fathers come rushing to claim us.” (p. 60)

Perhaps I am reading too much into this, but the connections between these characters’ fates and those of their country, of personal and national destiny, reminded me of Midnight’s Children in ways that the novel could have done without. Surely there are more inventive and plausible ways of aligning an individual’s life with the fate of their country.

The shortish novel (225 pages) was overly complicated in other ways as well. Multiple characters were used to tell the story, coming to a head in Chapter 12, which switched rapidly between narrators. I’ve called out this trait (that I do consider to be a flaw) in other, inferior works as well (such as Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed) but I think this practice of switching between narrators to tell multiple sides of a story is usually a sign of weak writing. It takes an expansive canvas or superior literary skill to pull off effectively. It is understandable that an author would want to approach a deeply emotive and problematic topic such as the Sri Lankan civil war from multiple perspectives–so as not to be seen to be siding with one faction over another, to demonstrate that in war there are no winners among civilians, the explore the many ways that violence alters the lives of ordinary people. But switching between narrators frequently but also fairly haphazardly can also come across as a sign of incomplete character development. Perhaps it takes more skill to flesh out a single character with real-life human nuances than furnish a host of characters with the spectrum.

But, Island of a Thousand Mirrors is a good book, reflective of an exciting young talent from Sri Lanka, and I think these critiques arise from the fact that it is a debut. The civil war must be an obvious, though difficult, topic for Sri Lankan authors to address, so it will be exciting to see what Munaweera does next.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors was nominated for the 2014 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.


The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri (2013)

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. (Purchased for Kindle, Amazon Australia).
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. (Purchased for Kindle, Amazon Australia).

I enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, flew threw it like I have all of her books, but was ultimately not very impressed. She creates real, empathetic though not always likable characters, yet everything within the novel is so intensely banal. Even the beautiful is banal–the renditions of little things that make certain relationships important or painful are rendered exactly, identifiably, but so much so that although one might admire Lahiri’s ability to identify such minuteness, one also wonders whether it was worth identifying at all. Romantic love, disappointment, parental care and abandonment are such universal acts and emotions that perhaps any attempt to identify their essence becomes redundant. We know those feelings already, we don’t always need to read them on paper. There seems never to be any shock or excitement of the new in Lahiri’s work.

Readers of Lahiri’s past novels and short stories will already know much of the plot and themes of The Lowland: middle-class, professional Bengalis migrate to the north-eastern US and settle in university towns; cultural dislocation, and eventually acceptance, ensues. Where The Lowland departs from this predictable narrative is that a large portion of it is set in Calcutta. Two brothers grow up in Tollygunge during the 1960s and ’70s, a politically troubled time in West Bengal with Naxalite politics on the rise. One brother leaves for university in the US; the other becomes embroiled in radical politics. Disasters occur, and one brother ends up taking responsibility for parts of the other’s life.

I have visited Calcutta several times, but some commentators more intimately knowledgeable about its middle-class colonies than I have stated that Lahiri’s descriptions of Tollygunge are spot on, that she perfectly recounts its environment and mood. There is no doubt that much of Lahiri’s writing is beautiful in its sparseness, it propels the reader onwards because there is little to get mired down in. Yet a dissatisfying aspect of her writing is that much character development is telescoped. Only details necessary for plot development are retained, which could be a strength in short stories but in a novel the practice makes some characters seem one-dimensional, even harsh at times. I am reminded of a review I read of Lahiri’s work, in which the reviewer called her a “competent writer–nothing more, nothing less”. I feel that much more care and effort has gone into her writing than the label ‘competent’ suggests, but this adjective is illustrative of the accumulative effect of her efforts.

Undoubtedly the politics that appear in The Lowland are important and have rarely been discussed in English-language Indian writing (Mahasweta Devi covers much of the same ground in her large corpus, as does a memoir I reviewed a couple of years ago, Joya Mitra’s Killing Days). I feel that the communist politics have been used as a marketing tool for this novel, in both India and the west, ‘Lahiri is breaking out of the world of professional America’. But the Naxalite movement only serves as a backdrop in The Lowland; it may be interesting to those coming to the topic afresh, but to readers who know a bit about post-colonial Indian history there is nothing new here. The main focus is the interiority of the characters, the successes, failures and nuances of inter-personal relationships. The ‘lowland’ of the title is a patch of ground near the brothers’ home in Tollygunge that floods during the rains. It is used as a metaphor for everything in this novel, but by the end becomes a tired motif burdened by the weight of its own symbolism.

I wish Jhumpa Lahiri would do something different. Yet whatever she comes up with next I will likely devour, as will so many other readers.