Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

“In the pause the waves gathered on the rocks below, and then Subramaniam spoke.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 9, 2009

Recently, for my English exam, as part of an essay about the parts of a story, I wrote that the exposition was the most orderable part of a story, as it can be anywhere, and everywhere. The example I gave then was Rabindranath Tagore’s lovely story ‘The Punishment’ in which bits of it are sprinkled all through the story. If I were asked now, I would give instead Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay (which is a collection of the things Subramaniam spoke) as the example, for it is a book in which the main part of the exposition is in the last story of five, a story which for that very reason is my favourite. The characters are of course introduced in the beginning, but all the important things are said (or, rather, implied) in that story. In keeping with Chandra, I will keep the really important part of my exposition of the book to the end too.

Each story in this collection is named after the Hindu (not Hindi) name for an emotion; Dharma, Shakti, Kama, Artha, Shanti. These names, they aren’t really for emotions (Dharma isn’t in any way an emotion); they are heavily nuanced concepts of human experience, and you’d better know that I have little idea of these nuances. They are part of that little but influential minority of the Hindu tradition that is written down. Actually, it’s only been written down comparatively recently, till then all the texts were known purely orally. Having said that, let me dive into a description of the stories, and some thoughts on them.

Dharma, in a gross over-simplification, means duty; rather an obligation to do something, and that something is pre-ordained, a function of your nature and that of your environment. In the beginning of ‘Dharma’, we are being narrated to by a young man who is feeling, and acting, a little disagreeable in a bar he has been taken to visit by one of his friends. This narrator will begin each story for us. Then, a man, a retired civil servant, named Subramaniam starts telling him a story, which begins like this (with the last sentence before this being the one in my title):

On the day that Major General Jago Antia turned fifty, his missing leg began to ache. He had been told by the doctors about phantom pain, but the leg had been gone for twenty years without a twinge, and so when he felt a twisting ache two inches below his plastic knee, he stumbled not out of agony but surprise. It was only a little stumble, but the officers who surrounded him turned away out of sympathy, because he was Jago Antia, and he never stumbled.

After this virtuoso display of character exposition, we see that this pain forces him to leave his job and go to his parent’s house in Bombay, where he finds what everyone around him is convinced is a ghost. It is in the first meeting with the ghost that I first saw one of the hallmarks of Chandra’s writing: his gift for cinematic images.

The white blaze of lightning swept across the lawn, throwing the filigreed ironwork of the railing sharply on the wall, across Jago Antia’s belly,

Seriously? Jago has a belly? You just don’t imagine a guy like that below his chest (just in case, I mean the sort of person who ‘never stumbles’), and Chandra uses an opportune moment to show us that this guy has a belly, not even a stomach but a belly. In plain English, that means he’s showing us that Jago, despite everything, is vulnerable.

Shakti is power. I don’t know any better way to say it. This one’s about a woman who’s trying to climb her way ‘up’ Bombay’s Malabar Hill (something similar to Beverly Hills). It jumped easily – I’ll come back to this later – from the glee of narrating great politics to love story and back without straining at my credulity. This was my second-favourite story, and says something really nice about the title, and shows us some more of those images, but there’s nothing more to talk about here.

Kama is desire, in the sense of lust. This is widely agreed upon to be the best, and I can see why; it is rather extraordinarily written, but that is mainly because Chandra chose an extraordinary subject. It begins with the narrator lamenting about heartbreak. Subramaniam tells him a story to relieve him. The story is about a Sikh policeman trying to cope with a newly-found loneliness. We learn that he is a dandy, and a vain man who wants everyone to love him, but is forced to keep this impulse hidden in the depths in service of his job. Now, his wife, who in college was attracted to him for exactly that reason, is leaving him. And he’s investigating a murder. Sounds somewhat obvious, but, as I’ve already said, it is extraordinarily written, and extraordinarily thought out (watch out especially for the explanation for his having to hide that aforementioned impulse ‘in service of his job’). Since I have to provide a quote to back this up, I choose to filch from this review:

In the rearview mirror, Sartaj could see Kshitij’s shoulder, the line of his jaw, and he thought, it’s always hard on the serious ones. They were always tragic with their earnestness and their belief in seriousness. He remembered two boys who were the grandsons of farmers in his grandfather’s village near Patiala. He recalled them vaguely from a summer visit to the village, remembered them in blue pants and ties. There had been a celebration of their results in the seventh class exams, and he had tried to talk to them about the test match that everyone was listening to but had found them boring and uninformed. After that he had never seen them again and had not thought of them for years until his father had mentioned them during a Sunday phone call. They had been caught by a BSF patrol as they came over the border in the dunes near Jaisalmer laden with grenades and ammunition. They had tried to fire back but had been neatly outflanked and machine-gunned. The papers had reported the death of two Grade-A terrorists and had reported their names and their affiliations. There had been a grainy black-and-white photograph of sprawled, bloodied figures with open mouths. Sartaj had never heard of their organization but had no doubt it was a very serious one.

In ‘Kama’, I began seeing something even more extraordinary; there were images that were being repeated, contrasted, used to make some sense of the scene in a way they never could have without that extra input of context. The filigreed ironwork, for example, is used as the background for a dubious confidence. There were many more, but I won’t mention them, in the interest of not spoiling the stories.

Artha is gain/wealth; I’m not completely sure which would be a closer translation. This, if you ask me, was the worst story of the five, despite a hilarious climax, because the end just wasn’t convincing. It, however, is brilliant in the fact that it takes up one more level of storytelling, with Subramaniam telling the narrator and his girlfriend Ayesha about a day in a train, when he was told a story, which itself was supposed to make a point, in the way Subramaniam’s stories do for the narrator.

And, finally, my favourite, ‘Shanti’. The word means peace, though I think but am not sure it is somewhat broader than the English word. For the first time in the book, our narrator (whose name is now revealed) meets Subramaniam outside the bar, and is taken home by him. This story is about a guy called Shiv who has just lost his brother and how he finds solace in a woman who has just lost her husband in the war Shanti, and exchanging stories with her.

All through the book, I had little bits of problem with the book, a phrase here and a comma there, but I’ll just – as a representative – point out one I found here:

Inside the door marked “Subramaniam” in brass letters, I bent to take off my shoes, and I could see the space was cool and large.

Is it just me, or does the togetherness of the last two clauses reminiscent of a hunchback? Sure, there are many ways for that to happen, but this is the first image you get, and it jars.

After that, it quickly gets better, because of Chandra’s amazing ability to modulate his voice. However big a mistake he made, I quickly forgot, because I really believed in the character who was talking at the time. Just to illustrate this, I urge you to read the quote from ‘Kama’ followed by this one:

And then she told him the story of the most evil man in the world. Shiv listened, and the words came to him through the burning of his blood and the din of his pulse. The shadows drifted in the room and then she was finished. Then Frankie came in and said the train was near, and they walked down the platform, and Shiv held her attaché case in his right hand, and walked slowly behind her. They stood on the platform until the train came, and when the train pulled away neither she nor Shiv waved or raised a hand.

Now, ‘Shanti’, Shanti and Shanti. Truly it is this story which sets for the whole book a context, and fittingly one which is probably fictional, fictional in all three universes; ours, Subramaniam’s, and his story’s. I’ve read that this book often communicates a love for storytelling. From my previous experience of Chandra (Red Earth and Pouring Rain, the narrative of a monkey telling the story of a man who’s narrating the story told to him by a woman who’s seeing the story of the monkey’s past life through a bit of water), I understand what is being talked about there. I won’t say much, but this story provides a context for the book in almost every way.

A context is given for the telling of stories by Subramaniam. A context is, simultaneously, given for the fact that these stories are in a book, a frame story at that. A context is, in fact, given for the act of storytelling itself, this one in almost the same way as in Red Earth and Pouring Rain. A context is, finally, given for Bombay, a context in itself for all this Love and Longing, a love and longing which this book made me, too, feel.

9 Responses to ““In the pause the waves gathered on the rocks below, and then Subramaniam spoke.””

  1. Sounds like an interesting writer. I am hoping to read more literature outside of the European and American traditions, which would include any perspectives (and writers) coming from Africa or Asia, or Central and South America, so I will certainly seek him out.

    On a side note, I wish Americans were exposed to more writers from other cultures and traditions on a daily basis. Books should introduce us to worlds we never knew existed, and yet, but for the fact that I subscribed to Poets and Writers magazine, and that there was an issue devoted to translators, I would not have known who Tagore or Chandra were.

  2. Yes, it is rather sad how insular your country is, considering it is the superpower, though it is a fact that a certain amount of insularity is almost inevitable wherever you are from (I myself read an inordinate amount of Indian Fiction). I wish you the best of luck in finding newer and newer writers. You could also watch out for international prizes like the Nobel, the International Booker, Man Booker, the Prix Goncourts(I think I got the name wrong), Man Asian and the Orange Prize. Publicity is, after all, what these things are intended for.

  3. The Prix Goncourt, not Goncourts, but closer than I would’ve gotten to the name. And for Japanese writers, there’s the NOMA prize. Plus there are many international prizes (besides some of the ones that you’ve named) that writers of any country can participate in (as opposed to the Booker or Pulitzer, which are only given out to citizens of the British Commonwealth and Americans, respectively). Still, I wouldn’t have thought to look up past winners, so thanks for the suggestion.

    As for how insular Americans tend to be, if not for a course in comparative literature, and several jaunts overseas, I might be slightly more insular in my reading habits, too.

    Happy reading!

  4. S M Rana said

    Modern fiction seems to be complex compared to the older stuff ( Premchand, Tagore, Tolstoy even Shakespeare ). Your own also appears to be a bit towards the cerebral. But it is great to encounter a seeking mind in today’s frenzied youth!

  5. Seriously? I studied Macbeth and we (my classmates and I) were discovering tons of new stuff even the last time we were reading it. Same with one of Tagore’s stories. Though, I agree that the trend has been towards obvious complexity. So, maybe, we should call that depth and the post-modernist stuff complexity. Yeah, you’re right.

    Thanks, by the way.

  6. Psychologically complex would be more accurate. Since Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams hit bookshelves, author’s have become more concerned with the inner lives of their characters, as opposed to their outer lives. That doesn’t mean that older characters are any less complex than newer ones (Hamlet is still one of the most complex characters in all of literature), but it does mean that we see more of the inner workings of modern fiction’s protagonists and antagonists, which gives the semblance that they are somehow “deeper” than their ancestors.

    Still, I’d go with Ronak’s view in that the writing of characters has become more complex in modern and post-modern literature, while earlier characters, while just as deep, where written about in less complex terms, leaving the reader to fill in the psychological gaps and motives based on observed actions.

  7. Psychologically complex, yes, but there’s another type of complexity that’s made its way into literature: structural complexity. From Joyce’s anything to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (which has a different story every two or three sentences), it’s got consistently harder to read the avant garde stuff.

  8. Have you read Sacred Games? I have a copy but admit that every time I look at the bulk proves forbidding.

  9. Actually, I read this one in May, and I only read it right now because I went and bought a copy of Sacred Games recently, and Sartaj Singh from ‘Kama‘ is the protagonist of that book too. I’ll be reading it in December.

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