Two Indian Novels
Two Novels about Contemporary India
Everyone knows that India is different. That, in fact, is one major reason why many people (we included) always come back to this country. But what exactly makes India so different and why is it different?
The shortest (and most honest) answer is: Go there and look for yourself. There's just no way how words alone can explain the marvel and the horror that is India. No amount of reading, learning, describing, interpreting can do that.
However, fiction has always been able to transcend boundaries and it is fiction that can help with getting to grips with some of the harder-to-understand aspects of life in India. There are many great novels about India: Salman Rushdie has written a few very good ones and there are others, like Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy. Here, I want to higlight two novels which I found utterly compelling and illuminating. Both make for harsh, even brutal reading, but both repay the effort many times over.
Let me start with the following general observation about these two books. If you've never been to India, both novels will seem to be way over the top; there will be numerous occasions when you shake your head and say to yourself, No, this must be wildly exaggerated. Or, This can't possibly be true.
No, it is not exaggerated and it is true. These books describe realities that are so harsh, so bleak, so alien that cushioned readers from the West will have trouble in accepting them at face value (just read some of the reviews at Amazon). But take it from someone (me) who has in total spent more than a year in India over the last twelve years: there is no exaggeration, what you read is the (fictionalised) truth.
Mistry must have had an inkling how (some) readers would react to his tale because he prefaces his novel, without further comment, with the following quote:
“Holding this book in your hand, sinking back in your soft armchair, you will say to yourself: perhaps it will amuse me. And after you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well, blaming the author for your own insensitivity, accusing him of wild exaggeration and flights of fancy. But rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction. All is true.” Honoré de Balzac, Le Père Goriot
This same cautionary note could just as well prefixed to Mukherjee's novel.
Rohinton Mistry: “A Fine Balance”
This brick of a book is actually in my Top-Ten of Best Novels. It follows the lives of its four protagonists: a student, a widow, and two tailors. Mrs Dina Dalal, the widow, comes from a well-off Parsi background but has, after the untimely death of her husband, fallen on hard times. She is forced to take in a student lodger and also two tailors, originally from rural India but now trying to survive in Bombay, who produce clothes which Dina then sells on. The lives of these four people (and a host of other characters) intertwine in a fashion that perfectly illuminates life in India from independence to around 1975. However, most of the book's observations about Indian culture and politics, the caste system and religion are almost timeless in their stark depiction of a lifestyle and traditions that have developed over thousands of years.
It is often a bleak, unsparing book which sometimes borders on the barbarous, but it is always redeemed by Mistry's humanity and sense of humour both of which pop up in the most unexpected situations. He loves his protagonists, he feels with them as they try to cope with various disasters and tragedies and, most importantly, he makes you feel with them, even understand them. The main characters are all invested with a typically Indian ability to stand-up after a fall and continue regardless, after being repeatedly hit by catastrophe. Ishvar and Omprakash, the two tailors, possess deep reservoirs of an almost preternatural cheerfulness which always returns to them, no matter what horrors befall them. Maneck, the student, although his life seems on the surface to be the most straightforward of the four, has, towards the end of the novel, more trouble to keep his perspective.
Mistry's novel can easily sustain comparisons with the great Dickensian masterpieces or the profound works of writers like Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy. A must-read for anyone interested in India.
Neel Mukherjee: “The Lives of Others”
This novel is not really what I would call a novel. It is more an extended parable that throws up deep (and hard to answer) moral and practical questions. The story has two intertwined strands: one follows the Ghoshs, a well-off Calcutta family (grandparents to grandchildren), through the decades from around 1910 to 1970. The second is the diary of a Communist/Maoist revolutionary planning and executing uprisings in West Bengal and Calcutta. The connection between those two strands comes from the fact that this revolutionary is the oldest grandson of the Ghosh family. The juxtaposition of the petty and often vicious family life (the whole extended family shares a big house with four storeys in typical Indian fashion) with the activities of the grandson offers Mukherjee much scope to investigate and analyse both.
This book is shorter and more compact than the Mistry novel. That notwithstanding, it will be a more difficult read for many. Mukherjee is, like Mistry, unsparing and brutally honest. Alas, he lacks the former's humanity and sense of humour. Also, the almost complete lack of likeable characters doesn't help the reader.
Nevertheless, this book is a real eye-opener in its portrayal of a deeply traditional and (in Western eyes) corrupt society and its problems of adapting to a new world. The descriptions of rural life (and death) in 1960's West Bengal are exceptionally well written. Though sometimes a difficult read, it pays to perservere: the grand finale is well worth the occasional protracted chapter in the middle. The final chapters pose some hard and disquieting questions that many readers (me included) will not be able to answer. However, it is exactly this inability to solve an intractable dilemma that gives the reader an insight into India and the way it functions.
$updated from: Background.htxt Mon 03 May 2021 16:08:34 trvl2 (By Vero and Thomas Lauer)$