Thursday, 31 March 2011

Karma in the Bookstore

Once upon a time I used to enjoy hanging about bookstores. Wandering junkie-like for hours through the piles of books – picking one out, mentally criticizing something about it – mildly, dispassionately – and putting it down. Ferreting out a delish-looking book in a eureka moment, then finding it priced beyond my purse, and leaving it carelessly on the table. Etc. You know the routine. I would be relaxed inwardly,  looking forward to spending an hour in the glass-panelled cafeteria upstairs with the books I would eventually purchase. So I took my time with the foreplay.

No longer such joys for me.

The beginnings of my misery might be located, unhappily, in what some consider crippling good fortune.  The novel I had pounded away in grave secrecy for months had found a publisher. And before you ask, the advance was minuscule. But still – it was official – the manuscript had sold, and thereafter I walked about bookshops with the burden of my phantom pregnancy.  Every now and then as I inhaled the smell of new covers and paper and books, I was assailed by an unreasonable but intense terror that someone else had somehow already written my novel  and beaten me to its publication. Then, of course, there were petty – and completely ridiculous jealousies – on my part that is, about other newbie authors.

Anyway, in the middle of this phantom indefinite pregnancy (the book would come out some time, they told me, in the near future – make what you will of that), the husband’s book was published. It’s called The Upside Down Book of Nuclear Power – and is a fabulous, path-breaking book on the subject. Well, what do you expect me to say? I’m a dedicatee.

Fresh from the printer’s oven, six copies were sent home by post. After beholding the book from every conceivable angle, I slid on some shoes, grabbed an auto and rushed madly to the nearest bookstore. It was one of those shiny chains in a fashionable mall uptown – but for the moment it would do. I panted up the stairs hysterically, the husband (henceforth referred to as TH) following sheepishly in my wake. I charged in, went straight to the ‘New Releases’ section and, to my crushing dismay, did not find it displayed gloriously in the middle of an applauding circle of avid non-fiction (and nuclear energy) enthusiasts. It was afternoon. The store was empty save for lovers looking for quiet spots. The book was not there.

I went to what was misleadingly called the ‘Help Desk’ and asked about the book. I spelt it out a few times and hinted that it was a very important contribution to human knowledge.
‘What? The Upside Book? Of what??? No, no such book exists. It does? You are sure? Well, we don’t have it.’
‘May I place an order?’
‘If you insist.’
I may have picked a fight at this point but TH dissuaded me and suggested I call the publishers.

In five minutes I had recovered my poise and bounce. I hung up the phone importantly. With the air of somebody in the know explaining to somebody not, I told TH, ‘Oh, the author’s copies are sent straight away from the warehouse. The books have just been dispatched to distributors. It’ll be at least two weeks before they get to stores.’

All was right with the world again. In all the excitement the phantom pregnancy was forgotten and I happily bought some books.


The two weeks went off slowly. Very very slowly. Then came D-day, and after many forays of hysterical eyeball exercise, scanning the ‘New Releases’ section and subsequently the shelves of umpteen bookstores, I found the book.  A largish pile, with my name on the dedication page. It was an anti-climactic feeling.

Outside it was summer in Calcutta; people were milling about the floor in their lazy Saturday morning looseness of limbs. I was on my own. TH had refused to entertain my sadism any longer and did not accompany me on these outings. More fool he, for missing the pile. I admired it moodily. Whenever groups of people drifted towards the ‘New Releases’ section, I picked up the copy on the top purposefully and began leafing through its pages. As if the secret recipe to the elixir of life was contained therein. Not one person was impressed by my acting. They hemmed and hawed and bought other things.

Finally, crushed, I took matters in my own hand and took the top-most book to the counter. At my chatty best, I went through the process of buying it. ‘So,’ I asked jokily, ‘how is the book doing?’ ‘Very well,’ the guy replied sweetly. My heart soared. ‘I sold three copies myself. Yesterday.’ My mouth became bitter and dry instantly. It couldn’t have been true. I had popped into the shop late last evening to pick up some gum. Till closing time, The Upside Down Book hadn’t been there.

I drank my coffee in bitter silence. Why don’t people buy books? We are a country of over a billion people – and no one wants to know anything about nuclear power? In spite of what James Lovelock says – that’s it’s the only practical way of combating climate change?

I ordered a pastry and came up with some wildly ambitious marketing ideas that naturally were far too original to be implemented. Mildly cheered up I made my way towards the exit. And perhaps, if one were to be hopeful, maybe the guy at the counter had been wrong about the day. Maybe he sold 3 copies today! Except, a sane voice told me, it was eleven in the morning. The store opened at ten. What were the odds that 3 human beings interested in nuclear power would come to the store within an hour of the book’s display? But who knows, stranger things happen.

While leaving, on the spur of the moment, I casually asked a fresh-faced assistant in a red t-shirt who was wandering about vaguely looking for work, ‘Hi, do you have any books on nuclear power?’ (The already purchased book, you would note, was safely hidden in a packet.) What the hell, I was suddenly feeling magnanimous; I would buy another copy if required. That is, if she hung around me after directing me to the pile. How many times does one get to be a dedicatee?
‘Sorry,’ Ms Red shirt smiled professionally, after I repeated the question. ‘No such books.’
She flounced off to show some people where the Chetan Bhagats were kept.

Pragmatically I decided against clawing my hair or bursting into tears or shouting at the nincompoops. Instead, I went downstairs and got the bill and the book matched against each other. The owner was walking around. He was a bald man with a happy face. ‘Hello,’ he said, and looked at my purchase. I wasn’t in the mood for any conversation.  Naturally, he was.

‘This is a new book.’ He pointed at The Upside Down Book that I was now re-packing into my bag. ‘Yesterday, we’d got three copies on trial in the morning, and you won’t believe it, all three sold out!’ I looked at him in amazement. ‘So we ordered twenty copies after that.’ Oh God, ohgod, ohgod!!! The man was rambling on, ‘Chetan Bhagat, also doing very well! You didn’t buy?’ ‘No thanks,’ I replied, and scattering smiles left and right, went into the sun. It’s a rare world - three strangers had come and bought the book.  People who didn’t know TH or (the dedicatee) – from Adam!

So now, while my phantom pregnancy stretches languidly, I still go to bookstores and buy books. But no longer is it the same; no longer am I what I once was. I still pick up books casually but no longer do I discard them as thoughtlessly. As each book whispers to me, ‘Buy me. Only 7.5 per cent royalty will go to the author. And you know the years she’s spent on this?’ Meekly, I apologize to the book and gently keep it down, ‘I know, I know. I wish I could take you home with me. But my advance was too small. Sorry. Really genuinely sorry.’

And then the next book starts talking.

(I wrote this last April when Saurav's book was just out. This year, events repeated themselves with great synchronicity, a few changes here or there!)

Monday, 28 March 2011

Witness the Night: a Review

 How does one avoid the tyranny of dreams? The footsteps that keep taking you back to a house full of ghosts, where every window has a face staring from it, each face once beloved and known, now with bloodied eyes and grey lips, their hands drooping, bodies limp, yet yearning. They are all silent.

Of the eight principal rasas that Bharata enumerates in his Natyashastra, the vibhatsa rasa is perhaps the most difficult to render effectively in literature, especially in a text as long as a novel.  But the primary rasa of Kishwar Desai’s powerful novel Witness the Night (HarperCollins 2010) is undoubtedly vibhatsa – roughly translated as ‘the odious’ and traditionally represented by the colour blue and  the deity Mahakala.

The book begins on a chilling, almost surreal, note. Inside a palatial mansion in the posh Company Bagh neighbourhood of Jullundur, an entire family of thirteen has been brutally murdered. Fourteen-year-old Durga, the sole suspect, is found tied to a bed with signs of abuse on her body. Even as the ‘legal’ system tries to pin the murders on Durga, and she, in the aftermath of extreme shock refuses to talk about that night altogether, a social worker, Simran, is summoned from Delhi. Indeed, it is the only concession made for the minor Durga by the Inspector General of Punjab, Amarjit.   

Simran, Amarjit’s old flame, and the rather radical whisky-swigging, chain-smoking ‘khadi-clad NGO-wali’ – as she calls herself – in her early forties, is a misfit of sorts who immediately arrests the reader’s attention with a sharp original voice. Simran is a sparkling character, the likes of who are rather rare in contemporary genre fiction. Her self-deprecating humour and her phone calls – reported and otherwise – with her socialite mother obsessed with marrying her off – offer comic relief in an otherwise dark tale.

Simran has her own difficult history with Jullundur, the now no-longer-very-small town that she had outgrown and left in her early twenties. And while she battles with Durga’s difficult case - where every breakthrough is followed by a wall of complicitous silence and sordid secrets - she finds her own personal angst resurfacing, even as the murky politics of collusion between the police, the media and the judicial system suck her deeper and deeper into a mire of horrifying truths where nothing is what it seems.

The larger cast of characters are well-drawn and ring true – Harpreetsir, the handsome green-eyed tutor who had taught Durga and her sister Sharda (who seems to have disappeared without a trace a year or so ago) with his quasi-mystical influence on all women including Simran; Binny, Durga’s pregnant sister-in-law, a British national and her only other surviving relative, who displays great fondness for Durga and hardly any for her dead husband; Ramnath, the villainous police inspector who seems bent on obstructing Simran at every step. If the last is a bit of a stereotype, it works well as an element in a novel that is structured like a thriller. As Simran begins to probe deeper and ask uncomfortable questions, hoping to understand Durga’s truth better, a reality emerges that is so horrifying in its dimensions that only the vibhatsa rasa can render its searing tale.  A tragedy that is born as a consequence of extreme pain and humiliation that has been inflicted over long generations.

And that is where Witness the Night becomes something else – from well-written genre fiction it becomes a haunting chronicle of the unspoken – gendercide. In a country where girls can go missing at any stage in their life – as foetuses, infants, and young women who might have made the mistake of falling in love with someone of their own choice – and in many cases, when they didn’t go missing, when an extreme death sentence was not pronounced over their heads, but they were made to live their entire lives as the less valuable ones in a society obsessed with male children, Desai’s book fulfils an imminent need – of making the subject of academic books and sporadic news flashes into the theme of a work of popular fiction, and therefore accessible to many more.

Saying that is, however, not to take away from the novel’s craft. Built neatly, it successfully walks the tightrope between crime fiction and psychological novel, with the voices of the three women directing the narrative; principally, Simran’s first-person account, then, Durga’s prison diary and finally, emails from Binny in the UK. This is a clever strategy as the suspense works on two levels – one, the whodunit; two, as the reader has access to Durga’s prison diary long before Simran does, it is very engaging to watch Simran trying to piece the truth – and the reader, always a step ahead, is rooting for her to not falter or give up. 

The backdrop is disturbingly real. Figures indicate that in urban Punjab and Haryana, the sex-ratio at birth is dangerously skewed and Chandigarh, one of the shiniest, newest, best-planned cities of modern India, has a sex ratio of 777:1000. The conclusion is self-evident: it is the rich who often with the help of technological advances are killing their girls far more than the poor. Another angle that Desai weaves into her narrative is the close cousin of gendercide – female trafficking, usually of minor girls from poorer states of India. Thus, the stark image of the rich landlord’s country house on the outskirts of Jullundur with a private harem of underage Bihari girls who are kept in semi-captivity and regularly give birth to illegitimate children. ‘The more I wrote,’ Desai says of her debut novel, ‘the angrier I got!’

In spite of Desai’s strength – and experience of 30 years – as a journalist though, the telling of the tale does not descend into reportage; and that is primarily because Simran is a very engaging protagonist. Her anger, her despair are both finally transformative – and that is how the novel manages to reach a space of comparative calm – from where the strains of  vibhatsa changes colours into karuna rasa. By avoiding a tidy ending and imagining one which offers possibilities for individual redemption Witness the Night, not only draws to our attention some of the deeper cultural malaises that we Indians need to confront and redress, but also creates an exemplary protagonist who offers strange optimism in cynical times.

Desai is currently working on Simran’s next – and one definitely looks forward to it.    

(Published in December in The Bengal Post.)