27 November 2008

Book Review: Dreams for the Dying

Sketch Of A Murder
CK Meena’s jigsaw-like novel turns the reader into a participant.

Dreams for the Dying is a disquieting read — and not because it’s a murder mystery. It’s not the sort of book whose world you sink into, grateful for the respite from your own. There is a world — and a deftly imagined one — but CK Meena revels in providing teasing glimpses of it; it’s a provocative sketch that forces you to imagine the rest, rather than the careful portrait you linger over.

There is a locale, middle-class Chennai, but no elaborate urban geography — just an apartment building where the murder takes place, and the bare bones of a neighbourhood: the daily clamorous din of a popular local restaurant, and the comings and goings of maids, watchmen and residents. The focus is on interior space: the insides of rooms and minds. The central character, Uma, with her deliberate vagueness, is difficult to pull off, especially when the only aid is a diary that mystifies more than it explains, but Meena knows her characters. She has a flair for the unexpected detail that brings a minor character to life: like telling you that the neighbour, Mr U Nathan, is a “stylishly clipped” version of Ulugunathan, or having him imagine a bahala bhath (“Good for those with BP also”) when he passes a waiter on the stairs.

Segments of lives past and present are scattered carefully amid the minutiae of a murder investigation. But this isn’t an ordinary murder mystery. The narrative isn’t chronological, and there are several characters whose role in the “story” is tangential — they exist solely for the reader’s benefit. The book has many of the “types” that populate crime fiction universes, but it subverts some and generously expands others. There is a police team, the methodical Mageshwaran and his head constable Ponnusami, but they are neither hard-boiled heroes nor the buffoons Indian popular cinema loves so much. Instead, we get two ordinary South Indian men into whose interaction is woven every possible police station dynamic: age, class, ribald humour, competitive masculinity.

Meena’s language is comfortingly at home with Indianisms: “When Manja was in third standard…” sounds perfectly right. Her frequently overdone analogies are harder to digest, and she isn’t very good at handling strong emotion — “jealousy towards one woman and rage towards another tore him in two”. But this isn’t a book you should look to for felicitous turns of phrase — it’s an intriguing jigsaw puzzle that’s fun to put together.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 46, Dated Nov 22, 2008

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