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

Column: Raat ka Reporter

The third instalment of a column for Time Out Delhi, about books set in Delhi.

Signs of the Times

Nirmal Verma’s novel Raat ka Reporter, set in Delhi during the Emergency, was published in 1989. Unimaginable as it may seem, that Delhi was a city where it was easy to be completely alone. Not just on the ridge beyond Jhandewalan, where Verma’s protagonist Rishi goes running every morning, but in the midst of the city. The very emptiness of the city’s streets gives Verma his perfect milieu: he couldn’t have found a better metaphorical locale for Rishi’s slow descent into paranoia than New Delhi’s deathly calm.

An atmosphere of menace is established almost before anything happens: Rishi is watching a young girl rolling a tyre down the road when she suddenly disappears from view. “This sort of thing happened often in some parts of New Delhi. Something could be seen for a moment, a clerk riding a bicycle, a slow-creaking cart, an odd crippled beggar, but before the eye could register it, it would vanish, swallowed by some dark lane, and the street would be desolate and lifeless as always, as if it were impossible for an event or an accident to take place there.”

In this portrait of a vast, silent city, there are occasional glimpses of peace, of normalcy. As long as Rishi is running, the world seems to pass by in a yellow haze, punctuated only by the sound of distant bullock carts or the bells of Birla Mandir: as Verma so pithily puts it, “Nothing can go wrong with the life of a man who can go for a run in the morning”. But it’s clear that the running is an escape into routine, from an outside world whose certainties are beginning to crumble under the burden of suspicions and half-truths. The Gole Dakkhana church signboard, on which a new Biblical quotation appears every day, seems to Rishi an augury. The interrupted ring of the telephone, the kites hovering in circles over Urdu Bazar, “like dark rumours” – everything is a sign. The city is transformed into a series of hidden inscriptions, a text whose meaning he must decode in order to survive.

The uncanny thing about this cityscape is how much of it is still with us – the nightly thhak-thhak of the watchman’s stick, the sudden nip in the autumnal air, the sharp, acrid smell of burning leaves – these are as familiar to us from last week as they were to a Delhi resident of the 1970s. There are new signs, too, if we wish to read them – the eerie neon glow of hoardings at night, the gleaming outlines of BRT bus lanes, the blast of air-conditioned air when the automatic mall doors open. What we seem to have lost, in fact, is our capacity for disbelief – and with it, any ability to perceive the city that lies pulsing beneath this thick coat of signs.

Rishi lived in strange times: even as he sank deeper into a morass of unnamable fears, he became more convinced that every report written “is a proof, not of their truth, but of your lie”. But our time is stranger still. We believe everything we read, or pretend to. The fear has become part of our skin, we wear it as armour, proudly.

Raat Ka Reporter, by Nirmal Verma, Rajkamal Prakashan, Rs 125
Translated as Dark Dispatches, by Alok Bhalla, HarperCollins,Rs 70

Back of the Book, Time Out Delhi, Vol 2 Issue 17, Nov 14-27, 2008

3 November 2008

Roadside Romeo Review




A TILED ROOFTOP on a moonlit night. Our hero, enchanted by the unknown voice wafting down to the street below, climbs up to find out more — and falls instantly in love with the pretty girl who’s singing. He takes her in his arms, matching his steps to hers, and when the dance is over, leans forward expectantly for a kiss. At which point she turns away, mid-pout, flutters her eyelashes and says, “Main vaisi ladki nahi hoon.”

Would you be disappointed to find out, at this point, that our hero is a dog called Romeo and his love interest a ‘girl dog’ called Laila? You shouldn’t be. Because this is a Yash Raj film, and there is not the slightest difference between dogs and human beings — or rather, Bollywood beings. Every self-respecting dog here struts on two legs, and the super-curvaceous Yash Raj bitches could give most item girls a run for their money. Romeo’s coolth is really all Saif, while the coy Laila is the worst of Kareena poured into canine form.

Even if one grants that successful animation films, especially Walt Disney productions, have traditionally anthropomorphised the non-human species they depict, Roadside Romeo isn’t a patch on recent achievements like the superb futuristic Wall-E (2008) or such doggie classics as Lady and the Tramp (1955), even in the animals-aswindow- into-human-world department. It’s probably a comment on our times that Romeo’s plot inverts that of Lady and the Tramp, where Lady, a spoiled, upper-crust dog who runs away when her owners have a baby, is saved by a Butch, a tough dog who shows her the possibilities of a free life without constraining leashes. In Jugal Hansraj’s world, the pampered upper-class dog has nothing to learn from the street dogs. It’s the poor, unsophisticated goons who need lessons in grooming from Romeo. Even Anna Charlie, the don of the dog world (voiced with gusto by Javed Jaffrey), can’t win Laila’s heart — not because she has a problem with what he does, but because he’s fat and bespectacled. In fact, the film turns on the premise that girls only fall for guys who look ‘cool’. For a film that a lot of parents are likely to take their children to, that’s a bit of a pity.

But the locales are generally well-realised (despite a suspiciously New York-like skyline), there’s some funny dialogue for Anna’s sidekick Chhainu (voice: Sanjay Mishra) and some smileable references to Ek Duje Ke Liye and DDLJ. With those, we shall have to be content.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 44, Dated Nov 08, 2008