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Archive for the ‘Chandra, Vikram’ Category

“I am, he thought one day, part of the twentieth century.”

Posted by Ronak M Soni on December 22, 2009

Cover of Vikram Chandra's 'Sacred Games'

You might have read or heard Indians telling people to “think deeply” about something. In fact, if you are an Indian, you are probably wondering what point I could hope to make with this. We Indians are bombarded with this phrase so often that we don’t notice that it actually sounds somewhat clunky in most sentences; most Western texts prefer to perform an “involved inquiry” or something similar. If you aren’t Indian, forgive the next one who says that, because it’s just the literal translation of a popular Indian idiom which isn’t clunky in our language. Translations from Indian languages are full of these, which make novels which try to translate everything into English sound either unbearably clunky (for a well-handled example, read Raja Rao) or, if you change over to more common usage, unbelievably artificial. Vikram Chandra, in his latest book Sacred Games, has found a way out of this quandary in a remarkably simple way:

Her Hindi was accented, functional and fluid, but improvised, it stumbled confidently past feminine possessives and tenses. Sartaj was sure her English was better, but his own English had rusted into awkwardness. They would get by in some knocked-together mixture, some Bombay blend.

When I read this, I noted down the page number because I thought it sounded very nice. It is only now that I realise how perfectly it describes the style of the book, and how it anchors it in what is obviously the book’s point: to Bombay. Which means to describe it, to serenade it with an ode about it.

Every Hindi/Marathi word in the book, of which there are plenty, is sufficiently comprehensible; we mostly don’t get what exactly the word means, but we always get the sense of it. For Chandra, to sprinkle these words in the book was downright necessary, because he has taken on the task of describing Bombay, and he chose the underworld because cops and robbers between them make their way around every level of life in the city. And if you’re choosing the underworld, you have to use the local slang (imagine a Scorsese movie in immaculate English). You can’t translate it because for a gangster to describe a woman he’s taken for a night as a “to be beaten” (“thoku”) is a way to make Stephen Hawking’s publisher say, “Every translated piece of slang means hundred less copies sold.” For a nine-hundred page book, that would be in the negative infinities.

But saying it’s necessary doesn’t mean that Chandra doesn’t enjoy it. In his previous outing Love and Longing in Bombay, he managed to keep the language by providing translations after the word. Most of the time, that is. For this new book, he went back to those instances of no translation in that book and copied the method to every page of this one.

Focusing on this fact so much makes it sound like this was the best thing about the book. Let me assure you, no. This was just a part of the style, like diary entries or psychedelia. It just gains importance when you are writing about the book. The best thing here is the characters, and the world they live in.

The world is brought to life with painstaking verisimilitude. Take, for example, a moment when an inspector – Sartaj Singh from the story ‘Kama’ in the last book – and his constable partner – Katekar, also from there –  bond while

Katekar drove with an easy grace that found the gaps in the traffic with balletic timing. … You went forward, and someone always backed off at the last moment, and it was always the other gaandu.

Or take how within one dialogue we can see the influenc e of Bollywood and Hinduism (the modern form):

‘So don’t choose that one. Make a shortlist. Then we’ll consider family background, education, nature of girl, horoscope, and move on from there.’

‘Move on?’

‘See the girls, of course.’

‘We’ll go to her house? And she’ll bring in tea while her parents watch?’

Or how alien Sartaj finds the West (if you look closely enough, you can also spot alienation from his own culture):

Some entertainment could be exactly what would fix him up, and revive him like a good morning walk in Buffalo. Where in America was Buffalo? And why was it called Buffalo? Sartaj had no idea. Some more of life’s mysteries.

Now that I’ve overdone that, let me give short shrift to the characters (hey, at least I’m giving them some shrift). There’s Sartaj, who’s not as interesting as he was in ‘Kama’. There’s too much happening in his parts, not giving us enough time to get into his head. He’s just like a pawn for the plot. We catch him himself thinking that he’s a pawn for bigger events; ironically, this gets less and less true as the events progressively blow up. There’s Gaitonde, one of the city’s two biggest gangsters who’s narrating his life story to Sartaj from what would seem at first to be beyond the grave (he dies in the second chapter itself). This narration takes up nearly every alternate chapter. And there’s Swami Shridhar Shukla, who doesn’t mind people not believing in God, who is taking Hinduism back to its philosophical roots in the Vedic texts, who answers at least two of the big questions in Waking Life. And there are a multitude of others, but these are the ones that stick most strongly in the head.

I said that these characters and their world was the best thing about this book. True, but also extravagantly false; from another perspective of ‘thing’, the best thing is the ‘insets’, little vignettes that in some way relate to the main story. These could be short stories in their own right, and lovely ones at that. It is in these that Chandra exercises his enjoyment of portraying a multitude of different voices, and since this is one of my favourite things about his writing, I loved the insets.

All in all, I would recommend the book, but I strongly feel that this is his worst book. While this is unmistakably a Chandra book, it is too… conventional. Take away the insets, and I would say that the job could have been done better by someone else. His love of storytelling, as done by his characters, only comes through sometimes. Oppose that to Red Earth and Pouring Rain, which is 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(and some divine intervention). Or Love and Longing in Bombay, which is a set of stories told to one well-rounded character by another. I have come to love Vikram Chandra books for being different, completely madcap. About Red Earth and Pouring Rain, I wrote “The only accurate word I can think of to describe this book is big. Not in terms of length, not even in terms of scope and imagination but in terms of the realistic universe Chandra creates. Here, by realistic, I mean rooted in reality: it could very well have happened and we don’t know about it because we just didn’t see it. Every new element of fantasy he brings in first looks like it is only there to satisfy Chandra’s sense of humour. Then, we eventually get to see the self-wrapped ness, so to say, of the universe he’s created and how every element fits in.” Sacred Games, by contrast, ends up having the plot like that of a Hollywood action movie. Yes, considering the plot, the book is remarkably good, but… I want to say to Chandra about Sacred Games what Ebert said to Tarantino about Reservoir Dogs, “OK, now you’ve shown you can do this, now go and do something better.”

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Posted in Book reviews, Books, Chandra, Vikram | Tagged: , , , , , , | 17 Comments »

My First Reviews

Posted by Ronak M Soni on November 14, 2009

Today, entirely by accident, I found my IMDb review history. I realised that these two were the first two reviews I had ever written. Then, I realised that these two were the first symptoms of what would later develop into this blog. So, I’m posting them.

First, on the twentieth of August 2009, I posted a review of Sudhir Mishra’s brilliant Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (literally Thousands Such Wishes; sorry, I can’t come up with a better translation). Honestly, I need to watch it again and write some more about it. I should warn you that there is the general idea of a spoiler here, but I feel that you can enjoy the movie nevertheless.

A movie that raises many questions and answers them in an inevitably simple way

Have you ever watched a movie with one girl and two guys, one guy a stud and the other a nice guy at heart, and in which the girl tries to have a relationship with the stud and ends up realising that she should be with the nice guy?

I’m guessing, yes. Well, imagine a movie with a problem at its heart. The characters: one girl(Chitrangda Singh), two guys(Kay Kay Menon and Shiney Ahuja). The girl loves the man who tries to solve the problem(Kay Kay). The other man(Shiney) – who’s poorer – feels that those are all rich kids’ games. He is, at heart, a nice man, but a practical man. I won’t say any more, but you should have figured out by now what the title of this review means.

It isn’t, however, just about the characters. It’s also an insightful treatise on society. For example, very near the beginning, there is a scene where Kay Kay’s character realises the weight of tradition, an idea that comes back later in the film. The landlord’s son has raped a lower-caste woman and the untouchables are all up in arms, when the landlord gets a heart attack and is cured, by the untouchables.

But what really struck me about the movie was that the characters spoke English like…well, human beings. In most Hindi movies nowadays the characters’ English accents makes me cringe, bringing up words in my mind that I won’t reproduce here.

So, on the whole, a very very good movie with a lot of brilliant scenes in chronological order that don’t feel like part of the story – though they are -, as being part of an overarching story would ruin them.

The second, on the twenty-eighth of August 2009, was of Iron Man. This one, I feel, is a complete review.

A bloody comedy!

‘Iron man’ is the first superhero movie that is mostly a comedy. Sure, there are lots of fights and all, but it’s all about the dialogues and the characters – there were, I think four action sequences in the whole movie.

The movie, refreshingly, doesn’t take itself too seriously: Stark stops and explains himself a sum total of one time, for about two sentences. And it makes sense. You see the weapons you have made in the hands of the terrorists, you don’t sit back and philosophise, you bam.

It’s as simple as that. A man who thinks he’s helping the cause of peace finds out he isn’t and tries to rectify it.

Yes, the other characters. Well, they are never established. Need I give Favreau a bigger compliment?

Now that I think of it, I wrote a few short reviews of books before these, on World Literature Forum. Here’s the first one, posted on the thirtieth of April 2009, of Vikram Chandra’s Red Earth and Pouring Rain (original thread here):

The only accurate word I can think of to describe this book is big. Not in terms of length, not even in terms of scope and imagination but in terms of the realistic universe Chandra creates. Here, by realistic, I mean rooted in reality: it could very well have happened and we don’t know about it because we just didn’t see it. Every new element of fantasy he brings in first looks like it is only there to satisfy Chandra’s sense of humour. Then, we eventually get to see the self-wrapped ness, so to say, of the universe he’s created and how every element fits in.
I absolutely love the way he layers story-telling upon story-telling to create a web of stories within stories(most of the book is a monkey telling a story about a man telling a story about someone telling him about the monkey’s previous life). This circle of stories also adds to the impression of bigness that you get.
His writing is remarkably accurate, modelling most of the narrative style according to the style of the narrator at that point, which tops off in the war scenes where there are sentences spanning pages; this is how people talk in that sort of epic excitement.

The only problem with the book that I could find was that it was too verbose in some parts (that is, more verbose than the style of the moment demanded).

PS: I’m sorry I could not give specific examples here, but I read the novel almost three and a half months ago(couldn’t write the article sooner because of a series of exams).

Posted in Book reviews, Books, Chandra, Vikram, Favreau, Jon, Mishra, Sudhir, Movie Reviews, Movies | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

“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.

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