8 July 2009

Book Review: Palash Krishna Mehrotra's Eunuch Park

My review for Biblio:

Eunuch Park: Fifteen Stories of Love and Destruction

By Palash Krishna Mehrotra

Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2009.
185 pp., Rs 250ISBN 978-0-14-309992-5

When I was in Class VIII, I went to a girls’ school in Calcutta, where it seemed to be a fact universally acknowledged that the most daring thing a girl could do was to agree to meet a boy at an Archies Gallery. She could then bring the trophy from this conquest – usually a suitably flowery card with the poor sod’s admiration for her expressed in suitably flowery language – to class, and pass it down the back rows to be giggled at. Sometimes it was the card that came first, and the rendezvous that followed, but Archies was inescapable either way.

This starring role played by the Archies card in adolescent 80s romance has only now begun to be acknowledged in our fictions. Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, arguably last year’s funniest – and bleakest – Hindi film, had a defining scene where the Hindi-speaking loutish gang – of which the young Lucky is part – pins down a padhaaku bachcha on his way to school and insist that he decode for them the mysteries of the greeting card – and why girls like it. Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s book has a story called ‘The Farewell’, which contains an uncannily similar scene. The local dada asks the English-medium schoolboy protagonist to write “some nice poetries” in a card for a girl he wants to woo: “You know how these St. Mary’s girls are: all these English types,” he says, and one can hear a wistful bafflement in the words.

There is, in fact, a great deal of bafflement in the stories that make up Eunuch Park, Mehrotra’s first collection of stories. Love in this world is a complicated game, with rules that are nearly impossible to understand – or at least impossible for men. The women – whether it’s the cocker spaniel-like Divya of ‘The Farewell’ who wants her jilted boyfriend “to pretend I don’t exist”, the frustrated Arpita of ‘Fit of Rage’ who feels her “youth slipping away from [her]”, the relentlessly self-analysing Arundhati in ‘Okhla Basti’ who has realized she “wants different things from life”, or Ashawari, the English (Hons) beauty of ‘Bloody and the Friendship Club’ who needs “time to heal [her]self” – are constantly announcing fully-formed decisions, in letters, emails and staccato monologues to male lovers who never seem to have an inkling of what was coming (and who then seem to spend an inordinately long time getting over it).

One cannot help but wonder at this opacity attributed to women: not just across the barriers of class and language, apparently, does the working of the female mind seem a mystery to men. In the superb ‘Pornography’, set in a boys’ school, Sunil Singh is genuinely puzzled when his colleague Miss Das starts to keep the windows of her classroom shut against his unwanted attentions: “This exercised him a great deal. He wasn’t sure why she was doing this. He hadn’t done or said anything to her.” In ‘The Farewell’, when even the successful exchange of cards and Cadbury’s chocolate fails to get him the girl, the heartbroken protagonist swears off love and becomes “a professional go-between”. Charging a standard rate of two Pepsis for every card passed, he taps into the vast Allahabad market of “schoolboys who had the requisite backing but possessed neither the courage nor the language skills to get their message across”.

This world of the North Indian small town, so deeply divided by gender, class and community that it sometimes seems impossible to see across the gulf, is something to which Mehrotra has clearly given a lot of attention, and the sharp yet sympathetic eye he brings to it gives this collection some of its most successful stories – which also happen to be set in schools and colleges. Mehrotra brings to these tales not just a painfully accurate memory of how it felt to be a student in 80s and 90s North India, but also an acute sense of staffroom dynamics: the entrenched, often unspoken, hierarchies, the factions, the vicious gossip, and the stifling hypocrisies. Interestingly, while Mehrotra has some experience of the inside of a staffroom (he taught at the Doon School for three and a half years), most of the educational settings in the book seem modelled on places where he’s been a student: an Allahabad boys’ school that has just been opened to girls, a college in Delhi with a chapel, a high table and a banyan tree under which the cool students gather, a hall of residence at Oxford.

What works well, particularly in the Allahabad stories, is the use of the school or college as a sort of microcosm, a prism through which the wider world is made visible, combined with an unerring – if utterly depressing – sense that ideas about the world acquired in school can often stay with people for a lifetime. The middle-aged Sunil Singh of ‘Pornography’, for example, who expresses his resentment at having to teach in a missionary school by steadfastly refusing to sing the Lord’s Prayer during assembly, has “heard that Christian girls were fast” – presumably when he was a student – “but had never really had a chance to test this theory. He hadn’t known any Christians before coming here.” In the masterful conclusion to ‘The Farewell’, the school jock turned prosperous businessman, about to marry a “Lucknow girl, my bua’s choice” makes the sort of remark about an ex-classmate that schoolboys probably make about unattainable hot girls – except it’s been twelve years since he finished school.

Very occasionally, Mehrotra lets his characters emerge from the fog of mutual incomprehension and actually see each other, with unexpectedly moving effects. In ‘The Teacher’s Daughter’, the moment of recognition comes when Tripathi finally stops wincing over all the ways in which his life is going to be made more difficult by what his daughter has done, and thinks instead of her: “he went as fast as his scooter could take, weaving in and out of the traffic in a way he hadn’t done since he got married. He was desperate to meet Jyoti. After all, she was his daughter… They needed to talk. They would work something out.” In ‘Pornography’, it is the glimmer of a possibility for identification between students and teacher that somehow humanises both: “Once the boys realized the larger reasons behind Singh’s return they were less resentful. They liked the idea of squinty-eyed Helicopter angling for the new babe in town. His laziness, his ugliness, his vaulting ambition, all served to endear him to the boys. It made him one of them.” A very different sort of moment of recognition occurs in ‘Nobody Wants to Eat My Mangoes’, a deeply affecting – if unutterably bleak – account of an evening in the life of a Gujarati law books salesman hemmed in between his wife and his sisters. The only story set in Bombay, ‘Nobody Wants…’ gets off to a slow start that barely skims the surface of the city, but settles into its skin as it moves into interior spaces, the claustrophobia of both spaces and lives building inexorably towards the distressing climax.

Another set of stories revolves around an upper middle class male protagonist (who, for reasons only sometimes made explicit) hanging out on what the Americans call “the wrong side of the tracks”. The articulation of this predicament is sometimes clunky and literal, as in the story ‘Okhla Basti’: “Angad often wondered what he was doing in a place like this – a place far removed from his own world, the world he was born into and worked in, one with whose rules he bore an instinctive familiarity. Could it be that failing to understand its rules, he was looking for a different world, with different rules?” ‘Okhla Basti’’s self-conscious attempt to create a portrait of otherness is never entirely successful: perhaps because Angad, through whose eyes we see everyone else, is so clearly just passing through. There are too many characters, all hurriedly etched, and none of them really stay with you. In contrast, the more tautly plotted ‘Fit of Rage’ takes a similar cross-class premise – an ex-techie makes friends with a rickshaw-wala and a domestic help – and manages to use it to create an atmosphere that’s simultaneously familiar and unsettling, laying open the shaky certitudes upon which our lives are built.

Several other stories in the book could be said to challenge other kinds of certitudes; they deal with men – it’s always men – exploring their sexuality. But all these stories – ‘Dancing With Men’, ‘Touch and Go’, ‘The Wrist’, ‘The Nick of Time’, ‘Freshers’ Welcome’ – hinge on a single event, a momentary occurrence often fuelled by alcohol or dope, that will in all likelihood lead nowhere. It’s almost as if these incidents are blips on the horizon, illuminating for an instance the possibility of what could possibly be, but never will. These are probably the collection’s most open-ended stories, and the lack of closure with which they leave their characters often seems unsatisfying.

Mehrotra’s sentences are studied, and he delights in the seeming non sequitur: “He has never taken a day off in his entire working career. He never gets diarrhoea.” Or “His legs do not shake, his hands do not fidget. The strongest wind will not ruffle his hair.” There is the occasional cliché – “They did kiss for a while on the carpet but the fire inside Mayank had grown cold” – or overwriting – “Surabhi is sulking. Her sulks are the stuff of legend. There is an insinuating quality to them – they crawl into corners and mingle with dust balls, get lodged in your intestines” – but on the whole, the writing in Eunuch Park has an enviable economy. The insane boredom of a college hostel at night, the desperate gentility of an Allahabad restaurant, the sordid staleness of cheap hotel rooms – all of these are deftly evoked. One may tire of the unending squalor, the oft-repeated doped-out ennui, or the deliberate desire to shock, but there is still plenty here that can get lodged in your intestines.

Published in Biblio VOL. XIV NOS. 5 & 6, May - June 2009.


Shivam said...

how come i never saw this beautiful blog?

Anonymous said...

Just read it. Lousy book! Just teenage stuff that is supposed to shock.