There are two ways to parody a genre. One is to make a genre piece that continuously winks at the audience by breaking the prevalent rules, like the ______ Movie franchise. The other, superior, way is to make a piece that sticks slavishly to its rules, taking them to their logical extremes, as done most memorably by Samit Basu’s GameWorld trilogy (fantasy) and the movie Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (Hollywood buddy comedies); breaking rules is the job of genre artists (artistes?) who want to extend the genre.
When I use the word genre, most people will think of science fiction/fantasy (it’s just one genre, popularly known as SF/F) or crime fiction, and with good reason, for these are the biggest ones, the ones with the most devoted cults. There has recently, however, cropped up a new genre, which tends to write books that sound like J. M. Coetzee and T. S. Eliot having a joint colonoscopy; which is, down to every last example, heavily post-modern; which, in other words, has been desperately calling out for a parody. Even those that we enjoy, we enjoy because they make the colonoscopy sound mild. The genre is the ‘identity’ branch of Indian English literature, and the parody is Prashant Bhawalkar’s Unruly Times.
“Prashant Bhawalkar was” – as is written on the back of the book – “born in Mumbai and studied English Literature at St. Xavier’s college. Upon graduation, he worked briefly as a journalist and went on to study journalism at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in Sydney, Australia. A naturalised Canadian, he has lived and worked in Sydney, Toronto, Singapore and New York where he currently resides. He enjoys reading the classics in translation (Greek, Latin and Sanskrit) and playing truant from work to go to the museums.”
Dushyant, the protagonist of Unruly Times was born in Mumbai, did his post-graduation in Sydney, is a Canadian national, lives in New York, and … enjoys reading the classics in translation (Greek, Latin and Sanskrit). I was wondering why there was no mention of Singapore or museums. Which is beside the point; the story is about him writing a novel which stars Advaita who does his college in Mumbai and post-grad in journalism in Sydney, gets Canadian citizenship … and enjoys reading the classics in translation (Greek and Latin only, but wants to branch out into Sanskrit). Thankfully, Advaita isn’t writing a book. If he is going to, it’s after the end of Unruly Times.
There’s three sorts of parts of the narrative at the Dushyant level, the parts where he’s writing, the parts where he’s reminiscing about his life, and the parts where he’s being criticised by an unnamed American woman-friend. In his writing moments, he is joined by the colourful and imaginary pair of Bhavabhuti, Dushyant’s fictional ancestor, and Macrobius, a symbol for Greek/Latin classic writers. In his comparatively rare reminiscing moments, he is… well, reminiscing about his experiences to get himself clear for writing his book. It is the third sort of part where Prashant (I feel like I’ve broken some unnamed barrier by calling him this, but I’m determined to, even if just for fun) really shines. His relationship with the woman is, down to every last detail, real. The fakeness of their political discussions, the hypocrisy of their acknowledgement of their hypocrisy, the metaphorical sense replacing logical sense for no other reason than to support one’s argument, I’ve been (note tense) these two. Take a look at the time when she first appears in the book.
They greet each other in French.
‘Bonjour, Mademoiselle’, he greets her.
‘Bonjour, Monsieur’, she responds, seemingly charmed that he has called her mademoiselle. Not only does it have more syllables (anything that has more syllables in French is charming), but it also makes her appear younger.
Dushyant begins with a diatribe against the unfortunate nature of modern civilisation and modern literature in particular.
‘You’re too young to be cynical. Lighten up’, she teases.
‘That is the problem with everything. Everyone has lightened up a little too much. It is why the world is in the mess it is in. Everyone feels entitled to their two-bit opinion, however stupid it may be.’
‘Stupidity – that great equaliser. It is what makes life worth living. If there wasn’t so much of it around, we wouldn’t appreciate the rare glimpses of brilliance.’
It is her criticisms of Dushyant’s writing (Dushyant hates the idea of having to produce post-colonial literature) as ‘not Indian enough’ – she repeatedly urges him to include a wedding –, and not in his ‘true voice’ (“It’s somewhat hoarse…”, he weakly replies) and his conversations with the ancient pair in which the satire really comes out (the book is a parody; the points are satirical). It is after one of these criticism sessions that the line that formed the title of my review came.
It is also her criticisms juxtaposed with our experience that brings out a deeper theme in the book, which also runs in the dialogue: how we relate to our fiction. I won’t say anything more about this, because anything anyone learns here is intensely personal.
The rest of the book, especially Advaita’s story – written in a different, more rounded, font –, is a direct parody of the writing I mentioned. It uses a similar voice, the points made in all the discussions are a perfect mockery of what you get to see there, and Dushyant’s book veers into a more and more post-colonial mould as time goes on, though the ending gives hope for the future.
The structure is of Advaita’s story intercut with Dushyant’s tribulations during writing it. As I went further and further into the book, I was reminded of the Kurosawa quote “Take me, subtract movies, and the result is zero.” Finally, it is the last fifty pages, when Advaita’s story gets increasingly ponderous whereas the cutting to and from Dushyant’s story gets more and more hurried, that really got me laughing, with wierd situations, blind alleys and great misquotes (the pinnacle being one of T. S. Eliot’s about pants).
While there is a lot to be said about the book – chief being that his parody of the rather irritating style is never allowed to go on for too long –, there are problems. The first is the editing; I understand that the publisher Rupa is dedicated to providing cheap novels (this one cost around Rs. 200/$ 4, and it’s one of the most expensive I’ve seen them sell), but that shouldn’t mean that they don’t provide their writers with editors, though I do have to commend the cover they provided; a better edition to own than read. The second is that parts of the end are too preachy; the mockery is left behind to ‘seriously’ articulate some learnings about identity, which didn’t really connect. Of course, this may just be me because I read the book in four widely-spaced bursts and missed out on some continuity.
You must be thinking, ‘I thought it was a parody, why are there serious teachings about identity?’ The answer is that because it is the superior type of parody; the type of parody that is a quintessential example of the genre. You know, too quintessential. And, after all, Prashant only wrote it to write an Indian identity novel that wouldn’t be ignored by readers, like me, who are jaded and cynical about ‘identity’ novels. And you know what? It worked.