November 23, 2014

Akhil Sharma Weaves a Winsome Web of Despair in his Semi-Autobiographical Novel "Family Life".

I read an excerpt from Akhil Sharma's new novel "Family Life" in the New Yorker a while ago, and right then I knew that I wanted to read more of his writings; it was so distinctly different. As a result, I added Akhil Sharma on my starred 'to read' list.

Luckily for me, only a few months thereafter, someone presented me a signed copy of Akhil Sharma's  "Family Life"  bought at an 'AuthorReading' event in NYC. This is what that someone said when he gifted me this book: "He writes immigrant stories, and the reading session of his I attended was very impressive. The story is semi autobiographical and sad, but it appears to be different." There again it was the 'different' in Sharma that had gotten through.

 "Family Life" is indeed different in that it has a stagnant plot, and yet, the story is captivating. Though told in the most simplistic and matter-of-fact way, it sucks the reader into an emotional whirlpool almost with a Naipaulian √©lan. The readers are so drawn to every character in the story that there is empathy for each one of them despite their frequent mean and hurtful exchanges. Only a master writer could accomplish such a feat: to get the reader to understands and even admire a mother who emotionally orphans her younger child by blinding herself to his needs while he is growing up in a foreign country, and to not hate a father who brings his young wife and two young sons to a foreign land only to become an alcoholic in the face of a humongous tragedy.  Even the narrator, oftentimes a mean and foul mouthed younger brother who taunts his paralyzed and brain-damaged older brother by calling him names, is endearing to the reader! How does Sharma manage to do this all within a compact 200 page novel told in the voice of a young adult.  I loved each one of his characters, and even though they drew me into their all encompassing despair, I was but a willing participant who didn't want to let go. Sharma's deceptively simple narrative, a loom of lure, wove a magic of despair around me, and, quite like Ajay, the narrator, I too didn't realize I "had a problem" until the very end!

Akhil Sharma's novel "Family Life" is a must read, and it isn't just an 'immigrant story'; it's a saga of pain, loss, and helplessness in a foreign land.

November 07, 2014

Suketu Mehta's Presentation of Mumbai as "Maximum City" Carries a Diaspora Bias.

Suketu Mehta's Maximum City is a kaleidoscope on Mumbai at the turn of the century. This kaleidoscope, though vivid and engaging, appears to have a diaspora bias to it.

Mr Mehta has very deliberately selected to explore and present the most salient and perhaps the most sale able facets of Mumbai, India's city of dreams. Mehta's novel is a collage of his experiences in Mumbai that capture the daily routines of some very colorful characters that inhabit the darkest, some of the seediest, and also the high power wielding venues of Mumbai, not surprisingly referred to as 'a city in heat'? For instance, the charming dance bar prostitute Monalisa who becomes Mehta's good friend, or even the simpleton Sunil, "a man who has murdered, but is not entirely defined by it", are fine examples of how intriguing and enchanting each of these characters are. Sadly enough, their heart rending stories, be it Monalisa's or of the bad guys such as Satish and  Sunil, if housed in a work of fiction, would not have jarred as they do in Mehta's "meticulous documentary of living -- and struggling" in his native city, Mumbai, to which he returned after spending several years abroad. The characters, and even the milieu in which they dwell, often appear staged and melodramatic, and challenge the readers willful disbelief. If Maximum City is indeed a documentary, a reporting, a narrative on Mumbaikars, the residents of Mumbai, then why is it that each character and every venue depicted is a hotbed of controversy and has a dynamism to it that needs Mehta's "meticulous' reporting? Does Mumbai have no ordinary commonplace people who go about their lives without being embroiled in 'encounters' with the 'bhais' of the underworld or the partisan politics of the Nationalist Party, the Shiv Sena? Mehta has dedicated six hundred pages of brilliant writing to 'meticulous' reporting on the film stars of Bollywood, the dance bars, partisan politics, and the underworld gangs with connections to the Dubai based mafia; all of which make for some racy reading that gratifies the insatiable appetite of the Indian diaspora across the world. The Indian diaspora that no longer recognizes the new India that has emerged since they left, crave for the corrupt and corruptible India they left behind. Novels such as Mehta's and even Anand Girdhirdas' India Calling' tap into this need and write best sellers capturing the maudlin Indian diaspora that indulges in nostalgia for a homeland it left decades ago! In fact it would be no surprise if non-resident-Indians (NRIs) are Amazon's largest clientele for purchasing books by Indian writers. 

Suketu Mehta's writing is definitely a treat, and if you are an Indian living abroad looking for an entertaining and a gripping read, then Maximum City fits the bill. Mehta doles out exactly what his diaspora reading community longs for, the drama that is India in the eyes of an NRI. Although it is rather disappointing when an NYT reviewer says Maximum City is "narrative reporting at its finest, probably the best work of nonfiction to come out of India in recent years". Alas, the NYT reviewer must give due respect to the number of copies sold of the book in question, so what if most buyers of the book are NRIs!

Was it Forster who once said that a novel that is written with a select audience in mind, has already lost ground, and if it is a non-fiction piece that relies largely on its emotional appeal in order to sell, it surely rests on shaky grounds.