Thursday, May 27, 2010
(BOOK REVIEW FOR BIBLIO/ MAY 2010)
Way To Go
Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)
Rs 499, 359 pages
Life is nasty, brutish and at 359 pages, not short, in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s sequel to his 1994 novel, The Last Burden. In the intervening 16 years, India has become more corrupt, more vicious, more consumerist and stayed as grimy as it was in the first book. Chatterjee’s cast of characters have moved on, too, and not necessarily for the good: Jamun’s divorce has yielded a cheerful child and a long-running TV soap opera produced by his ex-wife that reveals their lives together in grim, but TRP-grabbing, detail. His father, Shyamanand, has gone missing for reasons that remain murky until the end of the novel, and his brother Burfi faces his own set of dismal vicissitudes.
It is now understood—after The Last Burden, Weight Loss and Mammaries of the Welfare State—that the relatively gentle humour of English, August was just Chatterjee’s opening shot across the bows. Upamanyu Chatterjee is perhaps the only contemporary Indian writing in English who belongs firmly to the school of Jonathan Swift and Rabelais, but his irreverence encourages quotation from an all together more plebian source, the hashing song Life Presents a Dismal Picture:
“Life presents a dismal picture,
Dark and dreary as the tomb,
Father’s got urethral stricture,
Mother’s got a prolapsed womb.
Uncle James has been deported
For a homosexual crime,
Nell, our maid, has just aborted
For the forty-second time.”
This, in a nutshell, would be the quintessential Upamanyu Chatterjee world; dysfunctional, darkly comic, but adhering to the social conventions of a predictable order. For many readers, Way To Go (like Weight Loss) should come with a statutory warning: this is not for the squeamish. Most of Chatterjee’s reviewers have reacted with a kind of Brahminical horror to his merciless exposition of the more unpleasant facts of life: turds, suicides, corpses, uncongenial sex, shitters on train tracks, bad breath, sweat and the body’s other emanations, autopsies, morgues with “frozen putrid flesh”, “chemical effluent, slag, ordure, garbage, sewerage”, and assorted stenches.
As I read Way To Go in the company of another friend, one of us counted the number of times turds were mentioned in the text, while the other counted the number of suicides, corpses, the suicidal and the homicidal. Both figures were impressive, and it may be worthwhile noting that Chatterjee doesn’t write in order to shock: he writes with a kind of impartial observation, editing out none of the ordure and sewerage of the world.
The first chapter of Way To Go is one of the funniest and darkest in Indian writing. “For not having loved one’s dead father enough, could one make amends by loving one’s child more?” Chatterjee begins, and having softened us up with sentiment, gets to what he does best. As Jamun reports the facts of his father’s disappearance to a bored police officer in a depressing police station, the exchange moves into the realms of the surreal.
“Any hobby of Missing Person?”
“He and I played chess on weekends. He watched TV and, being constipated, while waiting in the mornings for the urge to visit the toilet, wrote poems in Bengali.”
The constable incised one word on his page. Jamun guessed it to be ‘TV’.”
Having established that the Missing Person is an eighty-five year-old gentleman, widowed and given to a fixed, stable routine, the constable proceeds:
“Bad Company had Missing Person fallen into before/ever/from time to time?”
“Missing Person failed his school/ college exams and therefore left home?”
“Was fed up with studies in general?”
“He loved books, the older and mustier the better.’
“If Missing Person stayed in hostel, perhaps its atmosphere was vitiated?”
“Such was not the case in the present instance,” replied Jamun, feeling—on seeing the constable nod his head in slow and steady approbation—that he had at last begun to speak his interrogator’s language.”
These are the skills that made Chatterjee’s English, August such a popular, critical and enduring success: he lays bare the fundamental bizarreness and strictly ritual nature of political, bureaucratic and social systems, and does so with his trademark black humour and impeccable comic timing. Unspoken in this exchange is the understanding that little will be done, and that the nature of the situation will not change—the reporting of the Missing Person is a meaningless, but necessary, ritual.
As the novel proceeds, Chatterjee continues his exploration and excavation of the orifices of Indian society. The relatively circumscribed world that Jamun and Burfi belong to is a world of tedium, despair, violence and spectacular dysfunction. A tenant renders a building unrentable by committing suicide within its premises; the presumption that his ghost will be a co-squatter dissuades most prospective tenants. Lobhesh Monga, the builder who “fucks anything”, stands for the vicious, corrupt, unstoppable energy of the new India Shining. A neighbour plagued by leucoderma will try to find a cure in the blood of a freshly-decapitated chicken. And Jamun’s former life is summed up in the “bilingual banality” of his wife’s TV serial, Cheers Zindagi.
The landscape fits the general tenor of the novel: the rank mangrove swamp near Jamun’s neighbourhood is “Nature’s lush pubic hair”, buildings exhale the sweat of decay and waterlogging into the atmosphere, the morgue (where a stomach-turning but brilliantly observed autopsy scene is set) is located in the wonderfully named Popat Kaka hospital.
And nothing works as it should. The “blue-and-white, electric, dual-chambered, musical, ultraviolet-rayed water filter and purifier” in Shyamanand’s home hasn’t been dusted for four years. Jamun’s sex life has “dwindled to a sort of dry, rotting peanut”, giving him leisure to examine the “wretchedness of his carnal life”. “It was hurried, stinking, dry and gave more dissatisfaction than pleasure to the participants.” Even suicide is compromised, as Jamun wonders whether those who place their necks on the railway tracks recall the products of the morning shitters’ efforts. “Surely, just when it was too late… just before their skulls became blood and mincemeat, they wept and climaxed out of fear and depression at how sinfully they had abused the gift of life.”
Before the novel ends, there will be more deaths and more disappearances, but the real flaw in Way To Go isn’t the darkness of Chatterjee’s vision, or even the relentless scatology embedded in the prose. The most powerful themes in Way To Go are death, old age, and tedium, and in many ways, this is the age-old rant against the dying of the light: why must we grow old, why must all of us become bleached bones, why is the body such a sack of bile, guts and shit?
This is a more or less universal protest against the human condition; it isn’t tragedy that overtakes most of us so much as indignity, and even that will be meted out in small doses of humiliation as our will to live dwindles. In this, Way To Go is consistent with the body of Chatterjee’s work—he is the quintessential novelist of protest, and his black humour masks, in a way, a kind of idealism. Only a writer who believed that life was intended to be more than banality and corruption would be able to dwell with such accuracy on the rot within, or would resent it so deeply.
But Way To Go is overtaken by its own tedium, and the sharpness of the opening chapters gives way to a kind of despairing lassitude. The jokes get duller—the lead character in Cheers Zindagi is called Ashwamedha Ponytail; the prose sinks under the weight of its own despair, as Chatterjee chronicles the rush of builders, like vultures on a corpse, to acquire a house in one scene. He is reduced to banalities: “Words conceal rather than convey meaning…” on the way to genuine insight: “…The written word was coinage, the currency of another economy, of interest mainly for negotiating a literate country.”
The average reader, however literate, will struggle to finish Way To Go; it seems to lose interest in its own concerns and offers up a string of unoriginal observations. Death is all around us; life is corrupting and filled with disappointments; most people live lives of desperation (noisy rather than quiet, since this is India); love and sex have nothing to offer; most relationships are failed ones; God is dead; we are all rotting corpses on our way to the morgue.
Literary failure is sometimes far more interesting than literary success, though, and if you step back from the dank terrain that Way To Go inhabits, what is really of interest about Upamanyu Chatterjee is his refusal to occupy the same sphere that his contemporaries do. His novels are rarely about the grand sweep of Indian history, or the epic mythologizing of the great Indian family, or the confused angst of the diaspora. His focus is, like that other genius poet of dysfunction, John Kennedy O’Toole, on the inescapable failures of our lives, the fact that most of us are unmoored by history and unable to hold on to either the old certainties or the new promises of India Shining.
John Kennedy O’Toole wrote a masterpiece in Confederacy of Dunces. In what is now a kind of quartet of dysfunction, from Mammaries of the Welfare State to Way To Go, Upamanyu Chatterjee hasn’t yet found his masterpiece. And while this is not a novel I would recommend to the reader in search of light entertainment, or to those already on the brink of depression, Chatterjee makes good on one of his guarantees. He will always explore the underbelly of the Indian family and of Indian life, and it will, in his vision, almost always be repellently flaccid, wrinkled and flatulent.