Sunday, May 01, 2005

Review: Coronation Talkies

(This was written for the Business Standard, May 2, 2005.)

Coronation Talkies
Susan Kurosawa
Penguin Viking
488 pages, Rs 475

Remember the days when patriotic Indians, struggling under the yoke of Empire, swore revenge on the Raj? We did our bit. We introduced Britain to chicken tikka masala and bhangra-rap. We took over cricket, and we did our best to unleash Lagaan on an unsuspecting world. Just to rub it in, we gave the West End Bombay Dreams and we rehashed Jane Austen into the worst kind of Bollywood musical.

But there’s a new breed of writers out there, from Barbara Cleverly to Thalassa Ali to Susan Kurosawa, who’re doing their best to ease the brown man’s burden. You want reprisal? Cleverly offers bad detective stories and the romance of the Raj. You want payback? Ali offers lurid tales of dastardly intrigue, and the romance of the Raj. You really, really want vengeance? Susan Kurosawa does to the romance of the Raj what Dr Hannibal Lecter did for the popularity of brain curry recipes. Her only weapons are an imaginary hill station called Chalaili and a touching belief in the dictum that history repeats itself twice, the second time as parody.

Chalaili is a composite made up of hill stations visited by the author. With its reputation for rain and occasional depression among the inhabitants, it’s not hard to guess that it has bits of Cherrapunji and Doolali stirred together, with a dash of Chail chucked in for good measure. This is the setting for a story at once so dreary and so preposterous that you know it will come to a bad end and probably be reincarnated as a Broadway musical. (The British shouldn’t have to suffer alone; the Americans must take their chances like the rest of us.)

Mrs Rajat Banerjee, future proprietor of the eponymous Coronation Talkies, soon to be the movie theatre that is the pride and joy of Chalaili, introduces herself in deathless prose: ‘“All the time I think of food,” she giggled.’ This, you realise just two pages along, is a blessing, because when she doesn’t, she’s given to “startling outbursts”. “As Clark Gable hung the Wall of Jericho curtain in his shared accommodation with the runaway Claudette Colbert, Mrs Banerjee let out a scream so loud that three rows from the back, caught in a still-innocent tangle of unfurling shawls and popping buttons, two visitors to Chalaili, Anita Mehta and Sonny Raman, shot to their feet and hurried in opposite directions.”

The scream is intended to be Mrs Banerjee’s way of paying homage to the beginning of It Happened One Night , and what surprised this reviewer most about it is that the film doesn’t begin that way at all—the Wall of Jericho scene happens quite a bit of the way down. But this is uncharitable-- Coronation Talkies is billed as a comedy, and we must allow the author a free hand with her imagination, even if it does extend to the plot of classic films.

Lydia Rushmore is Mrs Banerjee’s opposite number in this lengthy farce. In contrast to Mrs Banerjee’s opulent charms, Lydia is painted as a flat-chested former spinster hustled into a marriage of convenience. Her husband, a weather researcher with the forest service interrupted his obsession with the climate and its vagaries long enough to have an ill-judged affair with the wife of the visiting British Resident of Kashmir, and was ordered to return from England with a wife of his own or not at all. Lydia’s introduction to India is made fearsome by heat and dust (and beggars), and while her first visit to the local Chalaili club is turned by the other, duly snobbish, memsahibs into the day of the scorpions, her counterpart discovers that sleepy Chalaili isn’t really the jewel in the crown she thought it was when she planned to open Coronation Talkies here.

This is the point at which the novel begins to enter Cold Comfort Farm territory, in the sense that every character turns out to have a past that includes something narsty in the woodshed. Lydia’s descents into gin-fuelled depression and misguided attempt to make a friend of Anil, the sole servant in attendance at Bluebell Cottage, are explained in capital letters: “DO YOU EVEN KNOW WHO I BLOODY WELL AM?”

Never mind. We’ll be told in short but mawkish order as Lydia harks back to the days when her father used to call her the Princess Liddie Diddie while getting plastered at the pub. She seeks temporary solace with Simon Fraser-Gough, but what Simon has lurking in the woodshed is far nastier than anything Lydia might have imagined. Speaking of woodsheds, William has something narsty stashed away in his, too, a complicated tale of dark illicit passions that must never be spoken of. Anil, not to be outdone in terms of domestic drama, contributes his mite’s worth by arriving with his sister, who has been forced into prostitution in the wicked city. She has a heart of gold, but her lungs are made of lesser metal, unfortunately, precipitating another tragedy.

Meanwhile, Mrs Banerjee has progressed from her first dismayed look at the brokedown palace that’s Coronation Talkies (“Talking picture theatre, my jolly bottom,” she explains, in a fair semblance of what passes for wit in this novel). Under her careful management, it has survived a disastrous opening night that provided the author with yet another stab at comedy (comedy survived, but it was a close call), and gone on to better things. But, and this may surprise you, Mrs Banerjee, like everyone else in the novel, has a dark secret of her own. This emerges slowly and painfully through a tangle of comic romps, comic lusts, comic interludes, comic memsahibs and comic newsletters that redefine the critic’s cliché “read this and weep”.

There are some really good bits in Coronation Talkies , like the epigraphs before each chapter and the hand-drawn map of Chalaili and the very handsome book cover. Not enough, though, to prevent the sigh of relief that escaped me when this period piece finally reached the last full stop.

The BS column: The Collecting Impulse

(This first appeared in Business Standard, Speaking Volumes for April 26, 2005)

Which reminds me: if anyone knows of good books on collectors/ collections/ collecting in India, please tell me about them? I'm also looking for books about books by Indian bibliophiles (and yes, I've seen Tharoor's latest).

My prejudice against book collectors was formed in haste and repented at leisure. The first person I met who called himself a collector had a small but interesting set of first editions. These, like his other books, were carefully kept but so jealously guarded, with dragon locks and remonstrances, that I was left with two lasting impressions.

The first was that the books most beloved by collectors were ones as pristine as possible, with perfect, unfoxed pages and unmarred spines. The best book, by logical extension, was one that had never been read at all. To my mind, it seemed to set up collectors as the exact opposite of book lovers. To a true booklover, a book was only an oblong, inert object until it had been read; to a true collector, the perfect specimen was something that had remained virginal, untouched by readers, and would be kept in that state forever. The second impression was that all collectors were essentially misers, hoarders of wealth in the form of books that they seldom read but would not allow other people to read.

Over the years, this early prejudice hardened. The salary of a journalist was not the stuff that enables anyone to build up collections of their own. The books that passed through my hands were printed in the modern fashion, on indifferent paper. The ones that were loved were loved for their contents, not for the way they looked; some few, when they passed through the hands of publishers such as Sanjeev Saith and Ravi Dayal, had clearly been cherished as objects in their own right. The majority were just objects to be sold, not objects of desire. The famed bookshops in Simla and the Sunday book bazaar in Delhi yielded curiosities rather than beautiful books.

We all have our personal monuments to false arrogance. Mine lay in a claim that could either be made by a purist booklover or by an absolute philistine: the claim that what mattered was just the text, not the book. I made this claim before I had read Robertson Davies on the subject: “It is splendidly austere to say that Shakespeare is just as much Shakespeare in a paperback edition as he is in the beautiful Nonesuch Press edition of 1929 or the First Folio of 1623, but not all of us are such literary Calvinists. We value beauty and we value associations, and I do not think we should be sneered at because we like our heroes to be appropriately dressed.”

Oh, the force of that gentle rebuke. It travelled well across the gulf of years and genius that separates someone like me from someone like Davies, and I fled into the arms of that old standby, 84 Charing Cross Road . But I landed on the page for October 15, 1950, where Helene Hanff wrote: “The Newman arrived almost a week ago and I’m just beginning to recover. I keep it on the table with me all day, every now and then I stop typing and reach over and touch it. Not because it’s a first edition; I just never saw a book so beautiful. I feel vaguely guilty about owning it. All that gleaming leather and gold stamping and beautiful type belongs in the pine-panelled library of an English country home…”

I found myself sneaking over to the shelves that contain one of the very few treasures in a bibliophile but defiantly anti-collection home, where all the books are well-thumbed and dog-eared and marked by the passage of time and our love of them. Among the cheerful spines of paperbacks are the austere leatherbound spines of ‘The Library Edition of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment’. Not a collectors’ edition, but as I turned the pages, I recognised that there was quite a different thrill to reading Burton in an edition “illustrated by a series of seventy-one original illustrations reproduced from the original pictures in oils specially painted by Albert Letchford” than there was to reading him in the plain vanilla Modern Library edition.

It was at this point, when I was caught between a Calvinist’s love for books as just the text and a far more carnal love for books as objects to be devoured with the eye and the imagination as much as the mind, that Ruchir Joshi, a writer friend, called and asked if I’d like to meet Glenn Horowitz.

Glenn is something of a legend in New York circles, a book collector who assures acquaintances that he’s in the game as a businessman, but whose obvious love for books is inescapable—and contagious. His firm has dealt with and represented the collections and papers of writers as diverse as Amiri Baraka and Vladimir Nabokov, Hunter S Thompson and Nadine Gordimer, Alfred Dreyfus and Peter Carey. Many years ago, he acquired the correspondence between R K Narayan and Graham Greene, bringing to the acquisition the same knowledge and desire that he employed when acquiring Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate notes. He was among the first in his family to go to college—Bennington, where he was taught by Bernard Malamud and where, for a while, he intended to write nothing less than the great American novel. It was the deliberate extinguishing of one desire, the urge to be a writer, that kindled another kind of passion for books.

Seeing India through Glenn’s eyes was illuminating. He hadn’t met too many collectors, or perhaps he had met only the kind I had encountered—men whom he dismissed as hoarders. Horowitz, like a handful of other book dealers and collectors across the world, is more a “literary diplomat”, a broker of literary history, than a miser or a hoarder. In the brief time he was in Delhi, he raided bookshops in the way Genghis Khan might have sacked a minor kingdom or two—not an epic foray, just an exploratory excursion that served to keep his hand in.

When we met, I bombarded him with questions about collecting: how did it work, how would he make the distinction between India’s better-known English-language authors versus the sometimes more redoubtable regional language authors, where did literary archives end up, what did the ordinary reader have to gain by this strange pursuit?

His response arrived in a large cardboard box, which we opened and ravaged to discover book catalogues. Here was the Beat Generation, here was Jack Kerouac’s disillusion and frustration and creativity all muddled together. Here were Nabokov’s butterflies; here was the history of James Joyce’s Ulysses and its obscenity trials. F Scott Fitzgerald’s signature, Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s collections of books, the drawings of the Beat writers… Little pieces of literary history detonated on my desktop until finally, I thought I began to understand the impulses of collectors, who must be entrepreneur and librarian, businessman and literary historian, diplomat and cutthroat bargainer all in one.
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