Friday, 22 August 2008

Not The India Of Your Lonely Planet Dreams

Have I ever felt divided about a book as this? I had nothing against the writing. In most aspects it's a pretty good story: detailed (often, too detailed for my taste), visceral and well thought out. A good debut effort. But it's the things that the author made some of the characters do that really got to me. I think I'll leave the last verdict to readers.

And they left the "curry powder" reference in! Am I in trouble?

Stark vision of India

first published in The Star, 22 August 2008

What's with the explosion of novels from Indian writers? Could it have something to do with Kiran Desai's Man Booker Prize? Or the buzz surrounding Monica Ali's Brick Lane?

Names I would normally associate with silks, embroidery and curry powder are showing up in bookstore shelves and best-seller lists. Now, waves of hopefuls from the subcontinent are on the horizon. And many of these Indian-sounding authors don't even live in India.

One of them happens to be Sujit Saraf, who made his debut with The Peacock Throne, an impressive novel that celebrates India's turbulent socio-political climate in the dying throes of the last millennium.

We are taken on a whirlwind tour of the period between 1984 and 1998, seen through the eyes of some colourful characters. The author weaves his settings and characters into actual events, going so far as to providing a map for key areas of the story and a glossary of terms. No effort is spared in his quest to make it "real".

The curtain rises from the calm of daily life in Chandni Chowk, the neighbourhood that much of the novel revolves around. Tea seller Gopal Pandey is minding his own business when all hell breaks loose after Indira Gandhi's assassination. He hides a Sikh trader from rioting Hindus, and is later sent by the trader on a rescue mission. Our humble tea seller will eventually be lifted from the ruins of his demolished tea stall and plunged into a storm in a political teacup, but that comes much later.

Meanwhile, the story continues through the vantage point of the other characters: Ibrahim, Gopal's Muslim buddy; the Sikh trader Kartar Singh; Gopal's ne'er-do-well son; old-fashioned shopkeeper Sohan Lal; the fawning, ambitious and scheming clerk Ramvilas; prostitute-turned-activist Gita Didi; corrupt cop Inderlal Jha; Western-educated female journalist Chitra Ghosh; and a thieving Bangladeshi scamp called Gauhar.

The overly romanticised India of yesteryears is pulverised and replaced by the stark, in-your-face grimness of Saraf's vision, which exposes the underbelly of life in contemporary India, complete with lurid tales of murder, politics, sex and other bodily functions. Readers are unceremoniously ushered into various venues where all the action takes place in such gritty, blood-curdling detail, the word "explicit" barely scratches the surface. Welcome to 21st century Indian drama.

This corner of Saraf's India has no heroes - or heroines. All the key players are disappointingly human. In the novel's troubled times their virtues are downplayed and we often see them in their selfish, arrogant, cynical and megalomaniacal worst. Even the goofy, affable Gopal has weaknesses and bad habits that make me want to throttle him.

The cast's purpose, it seems, is just to move the story along, like the cogs of some huge clockwork machinery. It's not about the people as much as it is about this slice of India's history, the one we always knew existed, but wouldn't dare bring up.

By keeping our emotions at arm's length, Saraf manages to enforce the psychological barrier that allows him to do nasty things with some cast members. There are a couple of bombs. Desecration of a national monument. Forced immolation. And of course, plenty of swearing, racist epithets, political double-speak and the usual "us versus them" rhetoric.

I am in two minds about The Peacock Throne. Like its namesake, it looks pretty, but behind it lies a tumultuous, bloody history. On one hand, it's well-written and the narrative flows naturally. The backdrops and scenes are rich in detail, though not necessarily pleasing.

The human drama it showcases, however, is like a dark, bottomless pit. There are a few parts that I found repulsive, particularly chapters featuring Gauhar. Delving too deeply into the pages will erode your faith in humanity - and maybe scupper your plans to backpack around India.

In the end, Saraf does the right thing by not making the characters too likeable. Given the heavy subject matter it's amazing how he managed to complete this book. How did he manage to keep himself going?

Someone once wrote that India will either capture your heart, or repel you. It certainly is true in the case of The Peacock Throne, a heady, eye-opening adventure for those who can stomach the repulsive bits. It's not a perfect novel, but really, how many adventurers expect things to go their way from start to finish?

Peacock Throne
Sujit Saraf
754 pages
ISBN: 978-0-340-89972-4


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