Tag Archives: India

The City of Devi (2013) – Manil SURI

The recent tensions on the Korean Peninsula remind us that the flashpoints of the future are not in Europe or America—they are in Asia. From North Korean tinpot tyrants to Taliban insurgents in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it seems likely that the next major international conflict will come from the developing Asian world. So it’s interesting to see a potential future from an Asian writer.

Mumbai. The city of Devi. A city on the brink. As news of an imminent nuclear attack hits the streets, so too does Sarita. Her husband has been missing for a few days, and she has decided to find him. But someone else is trying to find the same man. Jaz is following Sarita in the hope that she will lead him to Karun. As they weave through the battered streets of Mumbai, though, both begin to realise that bigger problems are looming.

Taking this on board, Suri paints a world where this has happened. Just like Tarun J Tejpal in The Valley of Masks, Suri uses a uniquely Indian context to create speculative fiction to revitalise many of the tired clichés dragged out by other writers. One film which takes the Hindu god Devi and turns her into a modern-day superhero, aptly named Superdevi, has taken India—and the rest of the world—by storm. As the local government in Mumbai decides to use Devi as a symbol of the city—despite the secular nature of said government—the local Muslim population find the use of a Hindu symbol to represent them less than ideal. Egged on by extremists in Pakistan and anti-democracy protestors in China, violence rapidly erupts, a road that once taken can’t be unmade.

Mumbai, then, is transformed into a city teetering on the brink of complete annihilation. As the purported deadline for Pakistan’s impending nuclear attack comes closer and closer, people begin to act more irrationally. Bombs and violence become an almost daily certainty, so by the time we as readers arrive on the scene, Sarita finds herself hiding in the bomb shelter of a hospital. People are terrified—though the internet is no longer working, word of mouth has spread rumours that  Pakistan is planning on dropping a nuclear bomb on Mumbai in the next three days. Needless to say, people are nervous, and even in the small confined space of a bomb shelter, Muslims are being hunted down by Hindus. And how do you know when you find a Muslim? Same way you can tell someone is Jewish.

Unbeknownst to Sarita, Jaz, our other narrator, is also present. But Sarita has more pressing concerns—she thinks she knows where Karun is, and begins to run through the desolate streets of Mumbai to find him. As she runs, we get flashbacks to the beginning of Sarita and Karun’s relationship. Both in their early thirties, their families willing them on to find someone to settle down with, they find themselves actually falling in love. But Sarita feels that Karun is holding something back, particularly when they try to consummate their relationship. Even after they marry, it takes Sarita a lot of time to get Karun to perform sexually. She feels that something is holding him back, but she can’t work out what it is.

When we shift to Jaz’s perspective, everything crystallises. Karun’s secret is hardly surprising—anyone with half a brain can guess he’s having an affair with a man from about 30 pages in. So it’s kind of frustrating that it isn’t confirmed by Jaz until almost 100 pages later. It makes Sarita come off as less than the naïvely-in-love woman she is supposed to be, and more of an idiot. Though perhaps this is an Indian thing? I know the Indian take on homosexuality is not the most positive or prominent, so perhaps this more like the case of the 1950s housewife being genuinely surprised that her husband like dudes.

The treatment of sexuality in India—particularly in Muslim communities—adds another dimension to the novel. Suri paints the isolation and persecution faced by gay men in India well, and Jaz’s coming to terms with his own sexuality is made simpler by the fact that he is brought up in Europe, where attitudes are a little more liberal. His transformation from sex-crazed teenager forced to skulk in parks to find partners to a man in love and in a mature relationship is nicely realised, and really makes you feel for Jaz. Having found someone to love in a society that frowns upon it is hard, and the fact that Karun is skittish about the whole thing makes it seem even more unfair.

No doubt Cory Bernardi would be unimpressed by the ending of this novel. As signposted fairly early on, Suri presents us with a future that does not rely on contemporary ideals of family and relationships. Karun becomes the centre of a relationship between three people, with him in the middle—literally and figuratively. Haring back to the alternative Hindu holy trinity presented at the beginning of the novel, Suri suggests that each of us needs not just one other person in our lives, but two, to provide a more balanced approach to life. It’s an interesting idea that actually qorks quite well in this context.

Perhaps the most important job of a speculative fiction writer is to make sure that the world they create never becomes too unbelievable. It’s a fine line, and only occasionally does Suri falter. There are one or two moments where Suri has to write his way out of dead-ends he has written himself into. But for the most part, this is an excellent post-apocalyptic novel with an arguably more realistic take on potential future conflicts.

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Another Country (2012) – Anjali JOSEPH

Moving away from China, and indeed, all of East Asia, I’m continuing my journey down the Man Asian Literary Prize. Anjali Joseph is from Bombay, though went to university in England. Unsurprisingly, then, her fiction deals with the migrant experience in England, exploring the ways in which identity is created by those around you, and by those who raised you.

Leela doesn’t know what to do with her life. Stuck teaching English in Paris, she sleeps with men, but doesn’t feel the need to go anything further. Finding her life in Paris unfulfilling, she returns to England, where she went to university, to see if she can reconnect with her friends, but there is nothing there for her. She decides to move to Bombay, where her parents live, to see if she can reconnect with her homeland. But  nothing is ever as easy as it seems.

Why do we write fiction? To tell a rollicking good story? To tell people about history? Do we do it to explore the human condition? It’s probably a combination of all of these things—and more—but if Joseph is trying to tap in to any of these, she seems wildly off the mark. Certainly this is not what I would term an action-packed novel. Almost nothing of any consequence happens. And it’s not an historical novel, so we’re not looking at the ways in which history mirrors the present. So we’re left with the human condition.

If this is an exploration of the human condition, then it’s a damning indictment of young people today. Though her friends seem to be nice enough people, with stable jobs and stable relationships, Leela finds herself outside the mainstream, because she cannot deal with settling down in either a job or a relationship.

But this isn’t an angry novel. Joseph isn’t aggrieved at her fellow Gen Y kids—or if she is, she doesn’t show it in her writing. Leela is not portrayed as a figure to be pitied or one that should enrage us. Just like Leela, the writing seems apathetic. Joseph is concerned with the minutiae of Leela’s daily life, down to the conversations with her friends about what kind of drink they should get from the bar. We don’t get grand, sweeping statements, and though that’s not what I necessarily look for in a novel, some hints as to what the whole point is would have been nice.

In many ways, the three sections of the novel are informed by the three men Leela finds herself involved with: Simon in Paris; Richard, in London; and Vikram, in Bombay. Each one gets closer and closer to a real relationship, but each time, Leela pulls back at the last minute, unable to commit to any man, or indeed, any other person. She has trouble communicating with anyone in Paris, seems isolated and distant from her friends in England, and spends much of her time in Bombay ill.

Her relationship with Simon starts as something spontaneous and exciting, but all too soon, Leela finds herself wondering and stressing about the boundaries (or lack thereof) in a relationship that has never been defined. Certainly, a modern problem if ever there was one, and a situation that could easily be mined for dramatic fodder. But Joseph pulls back,

An unspecified time jump brings us to London, where Leela has taken up with a man named Richard, though at the beginning, Simon still seems to be in the picture. Richard, unlike Simon, seems to want a serious relationship, though Leela remains unconvinced, to the point where she breaks up with him late one night, unable to explain what it is that went wrong. Needless to say, Richard isn’t impressed with this, and though he tries to fix what is wrong, ultimately, she cannot explicate what it is that she doesn’t like.

We move time and space again, this time finding Leela in Bombay, doing some secretarial work for a small Indian company. In spite of living in an all-female dorm (once again finding herself unable to communicate with the people she lives with), she finds Vikram, and strikes up a relationship with him. It seems to be going well—Leela is introduced to his over-protective, horribly wealthy mother, who doesn’t seem to like Leela at all. In fact, it gets to the stage where they are engaged, but in the end, Leela breaks it off.

Despite her physical movement, Leela remains restless and isolated. In Paris, this can be attributed to her inability to speak French. She cannot talk to people on the street, leaving her with few friends and acquaintances she can call on in times of need. In London, she has been away long enough for her friends to have moved on from her, not in an unkind way, but enough time has passed that they simply find each other to be strangers. Questions of racial identity are brought up—something that we have certainly come to expect from authors that move around the globe like Joseph has done—and while any other author might explore the ways in which race disconnects us in the modern world, this doesn’t seem to be a factor in Leela’s listlessness. It’s decidedly odd. Like so many members of Gen Y, Leela’s formative years have been shaped by movement, and Joseph seems to be suggesting that it is this, not race, class or gender, that has created a generation of people who are more disconnected from one another than ever before. On a personal note, I would politely disagree with this sentiment.

Another Country is not a difficult book to read, but it’s also not really very interesting. I can deal with a book that has no plot, but to then not have much character development either? Leela doesn’t feel any different at the end as she did at the beginning. She hasn’t learned to work at a relationship, she hasn’t come to any great discovery about a modern global identity, she (if we’re going to go all retro about the role of women in fiction) hasn’t even met someone to settle down with. It doesn’t feel like she’s learnt anything about how to live in the modern world, no matter where she finds herself.

It’s all deeply unsatisfying, really.

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Narcopolis (2012) – Jeet THAYIL

I should start by giving full credit to Mark from Eleutherophobia for pointing me in the direction of Narcopolis. Jeet Thayil is a well-respected Indian poet, whose own history with drug abuse seems to have inspired this, his debut novel. I don’t read a great number of drug novels, for no other reason that it’s not the 1960s anymore, and people don’t seen to write that many? Or maybe I’m just not looking hard enough.

In the chandu khanas of Shuklaji Street, Mumbai, opium is the drug of choice. Among the hundreds of dens offering people a good time is one belonging to Rashid, where our story takes place. As we follow the lives of his employees and his clients, we uncover a part of Indian history that many people would like to forget – a time when opium was king and where prostitution was the past time de jour. As time passes, though, other drugs begin to make a move, and everything changes.

There’s a danger, I think, when you write a drug novel that you go too far in trying to make the whole thing kind of like a trip. I worry that Thayil has gone too far in that direction for Narcopolis to have a really punchy effect on the reader. One kind of meanders through some scenes that seem to have little to do with each other, and then all of a sudden, we’re thirty years on, at the end of our journey. Maybe this isn’t just a drug novel problem – I wonder if Thayil’s history as a poet meant he spent more time crafting the (admittedly gorgeous) language at the expense of a clear through line.

Bonus points, though, to Thayil’s evocation of Dimple as a protagonist, though. She is a hijra, a man who has become a woman, and the gender politics at play whenever anyone new encounters her are subtly played, but (I can only imagine) well-evoked. It must be tiring to be asked whether or not one’s genitals are still intact, and Dimple manages to make the best of many bad situations. Though we are introduced to a narrator early on, it is Dimple who quickly takes over the story, becoming out eyes and ears in a world where morality is not quite what we might expect. She has ideas above her station, and her attempts to educate herself in both philosophy and the ENglish language are an endearing reminder as to the dire situation in which all these people find themselves.

It is, as ever, a depressing evocation of a part of India that so many writers seem willing to ignore. It is not hard to read only a few pages, and already feel like you need a bath or shower, the grime from the dirty crack dens and seedy men sleeping with prostitutes somehow coming off the page and into your own life. These are characters that, despite probably being good people, have been sucked into a world where they can do nothing but take drugs and fall into habits that die hard.

There is almost some redemption for some of these people near the end – people find their way into rehab, but it never sticks. One character remarks that the choice between rehab and prison is like a choice between syphilis and gonorrhoea. It’s a charming simile, but it really highlights just how much these characters are addicted to these damaging drugs. There doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel.

A shift in tone near the end sees a particularly poignant scene. We have moved into the twenty first century, an India I find easier to recognise, full of young professionals trying to make more and more money, trying to get rich quick. They have assembled at a party in a fancy skyscraper in their fancy suits and dresses, and they are all getting higher than the Empire State in the bathroom on cocaine, MDMA and ecstasy. Thayil show us that drugs are never going away – they will simply change and evolve with time, and for some people, they will always be attractive, no matter how much they get fucked by them.

In the end, Narcopolis is less than the sum of its many promising parts. The beginning monologue is blisteringly good, and though Thayil’s style is nice, the plot loses some of its way through the middle of the novel. The end returns to the promise of the initial pages, but it ends up being too little too late. A good, but not great, debut from a poet who has the potential to marry a beautiful prose style with some deeply unbeautiful subject matter.

I also heartily approve of the Colin Hay cameo.

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Rebirth (2010) – Jahnavi BARUA

This is my last review for the Man Asian Literary Prize Shadow Jury – I know I said I’d review The Colonel, but I gave up halfway through, and have no desire to power my way through the rest of it, particularly since I now don’t have to. But yes, Rebirth. This has been comically difficult to source, since it’s not published outside of India, and Penguin India were less than forthcoming about helping us out. But here it is!

Kaberi is pregnant. Over nine months, she tells us of her life before and during this experience. She tells of her childhood friend Joya, always so headstrong and enthusiastic. She tells of her family, still living in the country, far away from her new life in Bangalore. She tells of her new friends, willing to help her out, but so caught up in their own affairs they often don’t notice when she doesn’t ask. And she tells of her husband, the father of her child, the man she was forced to marry. The man who hits her.

The role of women in the land of fiction has lately become something of a hotly contested debate in Australia, for those playing overseas. And I think a lot of it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of this suggestion of “women’s fiction” – that there are some books written for women, as though men have no interest in books about women, and what it means to be a woman.

Which is, you know, complete bullshit. It makes about as much sense as saying women don’t read novels written by men, because they don’t want to read about what men think. But the stigma remains. We celebrate so many male authors for their insight into what it means to be a man, what masculinity means, and how one fits into or is forced outside of these ideals. Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes – all of these authors have been (rightly) celebrated for their portrayal of masculinity in the twentieth century. But there does seem to be something of a dearth of female writers that are celebrated for their exploration of what it means to be a woman, what it means to be “feminine.” And that is why Rebirth interested me in so many ways, and why I enjoyed reading it.

This is a “woman’s book,” in the sense that it deals with something no man can ever understand, no matter how much we try – being pregnant. Carrying a child within you for nine months, and how that affects your own values, morality and world view – this is something I am never going to experience, even if I really want to. So from that perspective, yes, this is an important and revelatory novel. I’m pleased, too, that there’s a sense of universality here – though there are touches of Indian culture, particularly the arranged marriage situation, having children is not an exclusively Indian past-time. Neither is domestic violence, and bad marriages.

On the downside, I don’t think Barua gives it the kind of punch I personally look for in my reading. Perhaps because I tend to find passive protagonists frustrating in their inability to escape the shackles that bind them, so too I found Kaberi something of a wet blanket. This is (mostly) made up by the end, as she finds a way to live without her husband. I was particularly pleased that Barua didn’t take the easy route, and have disbelieving parents and friends on the domestic violence front. It was a pleasant change to see Kaberi’s friends and family believe her, and take steps to help her.

Ironically, perhaps, considering her violent marriage, there is a sense of calmness and serenity in Kaberi’s world view. Her language is never strong, never sharp, rarely angry. It would be easy to say this is a feminine way of writing, but I don’t think that’s quite the case here. Rebirth is a deeply introspective novel – it is a perfect example of how to best use the first person voice. Just as Kaberi herself is cool, calm and collected, so too are her thoughts, and therefore, language. There is, of course, another layer to this interior monologue in the truest sense of the word – she is narrating not to us, but to the unborn child within her. Perhaps this, too, connects to the language choice – one is not likely to yell or scream at a newborn.

Rebirth is not perfect by any means. The supporting cast is almost uniformly more interesting than the narrator, and it feels too short and slight to have any kind of major impact. But it’s a solid debut, and marks Barua out as an author who is willing to tackle issues that are not fully explored in what might be described as mainstream literature.

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The Sly Company of People Who Care (2011) – Rahul BHATTACHARYA

Woo! The penultimate book on the Man Asian Prize shortlist. I don’t know when my copy of Rebirth will arrive, so normal programming will resume soon. Though I should still really get around to writing about The Colonel, because if I don’t, my OCD won’t approve of my not having done the entire longlist. Sly Company interests me for a number of reasons – the main one being the fact that this is the only book on the shortlist (and longlist) not set within Asia. It’s nice to see Asian literature looking outside its own borders.

A young Indian man packs up his life as a cricket journalist in India, and moves to Guyana, hoping to find something more in his life. As he slowly acclimatises to the both the weather and the markedly different Caribbean way of life, he discovers that this equatorial paradise is more dangerous and disturbing than he originally envisioned.

So, the first 50 pages of this did nothing for me. I was sitting there thinking it was going to be a long slog. And I couldn’t tell you what it was about this section that put me off so. Perhaps it was simply that the language and style employed by Bhattacharya is a unique reading experience, and takes some getting used to. Suffice it to say, he does things to the English language I didn’t think possible, and he manages to catch the patois of Guyana in a surprisingly non-patronising way. It takes skill to do something like that.

One learns an awful lot about Guyana in this novel, and a lot of it is presented as slabs of history. This is particularly evident at the beginning of the second section, where Bhattacharya launches into his own history of the place, which is fine, and informative, but maybe could have been more evenly spaced throughout the rest of the piece, instead of ending up as some kind of infodump. But these asides are fascinating, and it is clear he has done his homework on this place. Of particular interest to me was the slow realisation of the difference between the two groups of ethnic Indians – those born and raised in India, like our narrator, and the diaspora in Guyana, who have moulded Indian culture to their own experience. If anything, I had hoped he would push this angle a little further.

There is a sense of unease throughout the novel, and as the narrator moves from place to place, dealing with circumstances he no doubt never imagined finding himself involved in, one cannot help but feel the rawness and – I hesitate to say “danger” – of living in a developing country. There is a particularly brutal sequence in which the narrator joins a local man looking for gold in the rainforest for several days, and when a deal goes horribly wrong, we are witness to a shocking scene of revenge. This is pretty much par for the course here – to say this novel is plot heavy would be a vast overstatement. We are instead treated to glimpses of people’s lives, apparently based on the author’s own experiences living in Guyana, similar to our unnamed narrator.

I have only a few bones to pick. The first is that the narrator is a bit of a nothing character in and of himself – he remains something of a passive observer, an outsider in this society, and I never really warmed to him as a person. Written in the first person, this is both problematic, and understandable. He is free to simply recount his observations to us, the reader, in order for us to make up our own minds about the events that take place. And have no fear, almost all of them are morally ambiguous enough to leave you wondering if anyone is doing the right thing, or if everyone is simply going along with the flow, happy to not upset the careful equilibrium of a country brimming with racial tension.

The ending degenerates somewhat, and I’m not sure how I feel about the “twist” near the closing pages. The last section is a definite move from the previous, but in some ways, this is the strength of the novel. Rather than telling one tale, Bhattacharya gives us something of a survey of Guyana, giving us a taste of many of the different ways of life that are contained within, and sometimes without, the borders of this tiny nation.

This is assuredly a strong, assured debut novel. I am particularly keen on the idea of an author from a culture with which we usually associate postcolonial literature in which it is the oppressed dealing with the diaspora of said culture, and dealing with an even less developed country. And while this does feature, it is the evocation of a place, and of the sense of immediacy, that Bhattacharya creates in this novel that makes me understand why The Sly Company of People Who Care is on the Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 shortlist. Check it out.

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River of Smoke (2011) – Amitav GHOSH

I was both excited and annoyed when I found this novel on the longlist of the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. Excited, because I had wanted to read it long before its appearance, but annoyed, because I had planned on waiting until the third in the Ibis trilogy – of which River of Smoke is the second, and Sea of Poppies is the first – had been released, so I could do them all in one go. So it was with some trepidation that I began this novel, hoping I wasn’t ruining a rather anticipated reading experience.

Coming in as someone who has not read Sea of Poppies, it was somewhat dismaying to read the opening sections, which appeared to deal with the events of that novel. Fortunately, that sense of displacement doesn’t last long, and Ghosh pushes us head first into what is the bulk of the novel: the degradation of the relationship between the British and Chinese Empires, the beginning of the First Opium War, and the eventual creation of Hong Kong as a British outpost in South East Asia. And once Ghosh gets the story proper going, though – wow. Perhaps the thing that struck me most about the entire endeavour was that is was clear he has done a vast amount of research into this time period, with even the most basic details of everyday life for this group of foreigners living in Canton clearly and vividly presented.

Ghosh provides an exhaustive list of references at the end, but it is his gift that, apart from one or two passages, you do not feel like you are reading a dry history textbook about the period. He really makes each and every character come alive, and in this instance, I am including Canton as a character. There is a real sense of place here, from the sights and sounds of the bustling boats moored to the docks, to the food consumed at every meal. It is clear Ghosh is something of a gourmand, because he really does go to great pains to make you want to eat the meals provided.

Canton, too, is a place to be celebrated. A truly international trading city, the melting pot of ethnicities who make their living in the shipping industry provide a huge cast of characters and caricatures from which Ghosh can draw. Here are the early signs of globalisation, or internationalisation at work – a combination of early free trade capitalists, bringing their business to an Asian nation that is still unwilling to make full concessions to the new ways they are being strongly encouraged to adopt. It could be anywhere in Asia in the 21st century, but here it is, a good 170 years early. The only mutually understood language by all of these people is a kind of Creole, formed out of the marriage between Cantonese and English, and it is a testament to Ghosh that he not only uses this for huge chunks of dialogue, but makes it easy for his audience to understand.

Our two main characters – Bahram and Neel – are Indians caught up in the opium trade. Bhram is the master of a company that ships opium into China, and Neel is his newly acquired assistant. Between the two of them, we are allowed a glimpse into the ways in which foreigners (by which I mean, the British Empire and the Americans) were conducting the opium trade. On the one hand, they were fully aware of the fact that opium was not a Good Thing, having banned the stuff in their own lands, but they were more than willing to exploit the Chinese market, and sell it there, despite the trade restrictions. I love the indignation of everyone – including Bahram – when the Chinese do an about face, and tell them that, actually, those restrictions will be enforced, and if you don’t comply, heads will roll. Literally. There’s a nice poetic justice to it, though as it turns out, it is not perhaps the best news for Bahram, who is already deep in debt with his investors in India.

I don’t know if Paulette features heavily in the first novel, but in River of Smoke, she seems little more than an excuse for Ghosh to write the letters of Robin Chinnery. I am not really complaining, because these letters are absolutely brilliant, but it does mean Paulette does get sidelined fairly early on in the action. From her promising start as a cross-dressing botanist, to her burgeoning friendship with Fitcher Penrose, a charmingly gruff Scottish botanist, she very quickly disappears off the page, and her name is reduced to nothing more than a destination for Robin’s letters.

But those letters – oh, what a gift they are. There is nowhere else in the novel that highlights the kind of mastery Ghosh has over the English language. Through language alone, he manages to conjur up a (hilariously) camp artist from the 1830s, whose love of men is at once flamboyant and tragic. His quest to find Paulette’s golden camellia sends him on a wild adventure around Canton, meeting a wide variety of people outside of the merchant houses that form the somewhat claustrophobic setting of the other two narrative strands. It also provides him with several potential “Friends”, as he so coyly calls them, and his retellings of his attempts to woo them actually made me laugh out loud on several occasions.

There’s no point in me banging on about how wonderful this novel is any more. Suffice it to say, I’m sold on the Ibis trilogy. I’m sad that I didn’t read them in order, but I will now go out and find Sea of Poppies (once John Murray have given it a better cover), and devour that, too. And I have now joined the long list of people eagerly anticipating the final volume of the trilogy, whenever that may arrive. Needless to say, I hope (and suspect) River of Smoke will make its way onto this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist.

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The Valley of Masks (2011) – Tarun J TEJPAL

After a brief break, I’m back on track with the Shadow Man Asian Prize project. After some initial trouble in sourcing this novel, I ended up with two copies on my doorstep last week. More than any other novel on the longlist, The Valley of Masks has fascinated me – a high-concept dystopian novel not especially concerning itself with Indian identity. Truly, this is the black sheep of the list.

Our narrator – a man with many names – is living in hiding in an unnamed Indian city. He fears for his life – the terrifying Wafaders are coming for him. His previous life – born into a cult hiding in a valley in the Himalayan mountains – is catching up with him, and his last act is to tell his tale. This is the story of a child born into love, a boy educated with religious fervour, a young man taught to kill, and an old man who must make a terrible choice.

This is the third book on the longlist to deal with cults, but while Murakami and Yoshimoto did so indirectly, Tejpal gives us the whole kit and kaboodle. In sheer terms of world-building, he has given us an entirely alien society – in an attempt to ensure a lack of selfish, personal attachment, children are raised by a group of women – they never know who their true parents are. They are given one of six names as a child, but in order to become an adult, they must give it up and receive a collection of letters and numbers. In the ultimate sacrifice of personhood and individuality, each member of the society wears the same mask, perfectly moulded to one’s face.

Just as the framing device is our narrator explaining to us his way of life, we get snippets and suggestions about the history of the cult. At the core of every religion, of every system of belief, are myths and legends from history that shape values and world views, and there is no difference here. Its figurehead – Aum, or the first sound in the universe – is he chosen one, and his uprising against the heathens, and his ability to bring clarity and salvation to people is exulted in these tales. His two sidekicks, Ali and Alaiya, also feature heavily. Stories and rumours, too, of people who did not do the right thing, people who broke the rules, are taught to our narrator, who laps them up in his fervour. Attempting to unravel these stories is half the fun – Karna himself admits that his own story has holes in it, because it’s easier for him to tell it this way.

The path of our main character, however, is that of the Wafader – a group of elite warriors, trained to protect the valley from outsiders, from non-believers, and ultimately, from the menace within. These cult symbols are taught to be living killing machines, and their education in the ways of death are exquisitely detailed by Tejpal. Their use of wooden needles to make their victims bleed slowly, but not to death, is covered extensively. There is a definite physicality and masculinity that pervades this novel, and there is only one scene in which this is more apparent than in these training sequences.

As with all good religious orders, the Aum supporting nutjobs here are not what we would describe as enlightened when it comes to the rights of women. They tend to fall into two main categories: the ever present Madonna/whore dichotomy. Madonna in the sense that many of them are given over to raising children in a commune environment, no one ever knowing who is biologically whose; and whore, in the sense that many nubile young girls are sent off to what are essentially brothels (the Serai of Fleeting Happiness, and the Kiln of Inevitable Impulses, for those playing at home) to service the young, and old, men of the community. Rather than reject sexuality as base and degrading, Aum recognises that this is necessary, and so allows men to simply have their way with women in these rooms. Charming.

There is a definite gear shift in the last third of the novel, as things in paradise begin to take a turn for the worse. It’s not until it’s too late that you realise just how truly brainwashed everyone here is. It’s perhaps a long bow to pull, but there are echoes of North Korea here – a personality cult taken to extreme levels, with people willing to do anything for their Gentle Father. I hesitate to use the word brainwashed, but in both situations, the ability of those in charge to manipulate their followers into thinking they are doing the right thing is terrifying.

I’m not going to spoil it for you – it would rather ruin the entire thing – but Tejpal pushes his already disturbing tale into almost horrific territory. Actually – and I’m worried this is going to make me sound like a monster – I thought he was going to push the envolope even further, and was slightly disappointed he didn’t. After a litany of events and decisions that would leave any sane and rational person quivering at the knees, Karna is sent . And at the final hurdle, he fails. Of course he fails – and perhaps this is Tejpal’s point. There is a line in all of us where some kind of inherent morality or sensibility takes over from any kind of religious indoctrination, even if said indoctrination has the weight of 45 years behind it.

There’s so much more I want to talk about, but I’m going to leave it there, because I rather think I’m beginning to ramble. I loved The Valley of Masks. Purely as a world-building exercise, Tejpal proves himself a master – his cult is perfectly formed, and while perhaps pushes the boundaries of believability, it does it in a recognisable setting, making you forget your questions. But his insights into belief, into faith, and the boundaries of those things that make us who we are, probe deep into an uncomfortable question we must constantly ask ourselves.

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The Folded Earth (2011) – Anuradha ROY

I imagine being Anuradha Roy would be a frustrating experience. No doubt people constantly think she is Arundhati Roy, and while positive comparisons may be flattering, the ineviable “I’m the other Roy” would be soul crushing. Of course, with The Folded Earth, Anuradha has beaten Arundhati for number of novels published, so that’s nice. But is this novel good enough for Anuradha to become the famous Roy? Certainly the judges of this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize think so.

An horrific event sends Maya from her life in the city to the foothills of the Himalaya, to a town called Ranikhet. Slowly, she builds a life amongst the other people already living there – from Diwan Sahib, an eccentric old academic with whom she helps organise papers; Miss Wilson, the principal of the Catholic school at which she works, and Charu, a young girl who lives in the neighbouring cottage. But life in the mountains is never as peaceful as Maya had once hoped, and a new arrival will force her to confront her past.

First things first – Roy has an excellent command of language, and her descriptions and evocations of a part of the world where few people live and where the natural world reigns supreme are gorgeous. More than anything else, this contributes to a sense of space that I felt keenly. Rainikhet, too, is brought to life with verve, and the clash of ramshakle tradition with people from new money with new ideas is highlighted in the geography of the town, complete with a little map in the front flap so you can easily follow the action.

The people that populate Ranikhet, though, are what make it what it is. This is a town full of eccentrics – starting with the old man himself, Diwan Shaib. As the stereotypical old man, he manages to yell at a lot of people, though it is clear he has a soft spot for Maya. When his nephew, Veer, comes back into town, it is clear Diwan is looking for a relation to lean on. The (and I use this term very loosely) mystery at the centre of the novel is whether Veer is simply using the old man to get at his supposed fortune, or whether he truly wants to get closer. There is also an awkward romance with Maya, and there is (again, a loose term) a twist at the end of the tale which reveals both Veer’s true intentions, as well as the discovery of a link to Maya she didn’t know existed.

I wanted to love Maya as a character, honest. Those opening pages, with her dealing with Michael’s death, and the complete rejection by her parents simply because he was Christian (an important reminder that, a lot of the time, racism goes both ways), highlight just how much potential Roy has as a writer. In many ways, you could take those opening few chapters, turn them into a short story, and have a solid, good story. Unfortunately, though, the rest of the novel fails to live up to this high standard. The plot becomes fractured, and while the majority is written in the first person, from Maya’s perspective, there are occasional jaunts into omniscient third, where we follow Charu. These are unnecessary and, in the end, jarring. There aren’t enough of these third person chapters to warrant a two narrator novel, and they stick out like a sore thumb.

Questions of love, and of female identity, are somewhere in here. Maya and Charu both fall in love with men that have the unfortunate honour of being intensely disliked by their lady friend’s parents simply because of their standing in society. For Michael, this is a question of religion, and for Charu, it is a question of employment. Apart from Maya, and one female cop, the female characters in The Folded Earth are constantly put down, highlighting the “traditional” role that women seem to play in this culture. It is up to people like Miss Wilson to educate the young women of the town, but the unfortunate political climate pits Christians against Hindus, and her work is less than admired by the external politicans blowing in.

As I said earlier, the strength of this novel is the writing itself. Anuradha Roy clearly loves language, and I love reading her language. But her characters and plot are messy, and fractured. The Folded Earth suffers from trying to be a widescreen novel in a 4:3 ratio. The vast cast of characters are never given enough room to breathe on their own, and as such the message of the book is lost. I’m not usually one to advocate longer novels, but if this were twice the size, it might be better. Alternatively, had Roy separated out her narrative strands and given them their own section, each one may have been stronger. Nevertheless, I’m curious to see what she does next.

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The Marriage Plot (2011) – Jeffrey EUGENIDES

Jeffrey Eugenides’ previous novel, Middlesex, rightly won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 – it’s an excellent novel, and you should all check it out if you haven’t already. But that was eight years ago, which is a long time between drinks. I didn’t even know he’d written anything new until a reading copy turned up at work the other day, which was a pleasant surprise. I finally got around to reading it, and proceeded to lose a whole load of sleep, staying up and reading this rather excellent novel.

It’s 1982, Madeleine Hanna is about to graduate from Brown University. Her obsession with Victorian literature is derided by her classmates – this is the time of Derrida and post-modernism, there’s no room for traditional love stories here. Her boyfriend, Leonard, is having something of a breakdown. And her friend Mitchell has decided that he wants to marry her. As the three of them graduate, they must begin to face the real world, and real decisions that will have a lasting impression on their lives.

The title is a literary term that describes the plot of a whole raft of nineteenth century novels which are concerned with a young woman marrying the right man. Inevitably, they end with the young woman finding her man, and getting married like she should. With the advent of feminism in the 1960s, as well as the increasing divorce rates, it is something of an ironic title. There is one marriage in the novel, though it does tend to subvert the traditional marriage plot. This is not a happy ending kind of novel, either, though there is a sense of hope in the closing pages.

By splitting the characters up for the majority of the novel, Eugenides allows at least two and a half discrete plots to take place. Perhaps most interesting is Mitchell’s, who decides to take a gap year after graduation, and travels to Europe with his best friend with the intention of slowly making their way to India. For Mitchell, religion is something at once to be studied and to be lived. He is ostensibly Christian, though his constant questioning of both his own faith, and others’, means he is not defined by his belief. Indeed, when he finally does make it to India, he volunteers at a charity hospital run by Mother Teresa, though as he soon discovers, doing good in the world is not as easy as it sounds. He is the epitome of the recently graduated university student trying to find himself by travelling the world, and the fact that he fails time and time again at this quest is refreshingly honest.

Madeleine seems the most grounded of the three characters,  and the anchor of the novel, she gets the most point of view chapters. Her falling in love with Leonard is nice, and her feelings of betrayal when he is unkind to her are keenly felt. Her decision to stay with Leonard after finding out about his condition is clearly motivated by good intentions, though whether it is good for her remains another matter. Despite the advice from her hilariously rich parents, (or indeed, perhaps because of it – there’s a lot of parent angst from the three leads) she stays with him because she feels responsible for him. She is a fundamentally good person, and her quirky old-school love of Victoriana is a pleasant contrast to the wall of post-modern pretentiousness that her fellow classmates spout.

Eugenides covers a lot of ground stylistically, too. The Marriage Plot opens as something of a campus novel, complete with weird lecturers, annoying classmates, and drunken hijinks at college. Slowly, though, we shift away to a far wider reaching narrative – both physically and thematically. We travel from Brown University to New Jersey to New York to Paris to Athens to India, and each one is there for a reason. There are echoes of Franzen’s The Corrections here, too, partially because of the wide canvas they both have, as well as the themes of family and love in modern America, but I think Eugenides manages to tie his overseas sections with the overarching American themes better than Franzen managed in his novel.

This novel spoke to me at a particularly personal level – I, too, am about to graduate from university, and so seeing these three characters try and deal with leaving that safe bubble, and moving into the real world was something I really connected with. The speed with which the trio are plunged into real-world issues is frightening – Madeleine doesn’t even make it to her graduation ceremony before something far more important takes place. All of a sudden, the ridiculous conversations she has had with people in tutes about whether love is a construction, about whether life is really real, become shallow and unreal. Her choice – Leonard or Mitchell – cannot simply be based on theories of love and societal constructions of love, it must be done with thinking about the real-life implications of all three people involved.

The Marriage Plot confirms Jeffrey Eugenides as one of the most interesting American writers of our time. From the minutiae of English literary criticism – along with a LOT of references to other texts, to big themes of love, family and religion, he has written another thoroughly excellent novel. Check it out – it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry.

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Netherland (2008) – Joseph O’NEILL

This novel has been, in certain circles, at least, making waves as the favourite to win the Booker this year. While it was longlisted, it didn’t even make the shortlist in the end. What, then, was the hype all about? Why was this the post-Septermber 11 novel we’d all been waiting for? Why is this the ‘great American novel’, when it was written by an Irishman? So many questions…

When Hans van den Broek, a Dutchman living in England, receives a call from American police, he is informed that a friend of his Chuck Ramkissoon, has been found dead in a river. For Hans, this brings back memories of the few years he spent in New York City with his wife and young child in the early 2000s, when everything changed. Apart from his fractured marriage, he also begins to remember Chuck – a man who truly believed that cricket was, and could be again, the national sport of America.

This book is very clearly delineated into three sections. The first deals with the collapse of Hans’ marriage, the second with his growing friendship with Chuck, and the last with his eventual return to England. The first section is amazing – the prose is beautiful, and there are some amazing character and plot moments. Hans’ movement into NYC, and his young marriage, which are presented as flashbacks, are nicely juxtaposed with his current life in a hotel, living with some of the most fantastic characters ever written. I particularly like the Turkish angel – a Turkish man who dresses as an angel, and haunts the corridors of the hotel. While the other two sections of the book are also pretty good, it does seem to peak very early with this first section.

For me, as soon as I hit the second section, it was as though something had changed completely, even though the plot itself didn’t. Which is a shame, and I can’t quite place my finger on what it is that changes, or why I didn’t like it as much, but there you go. Maybe it’s because I hate cricket, and it’s not until the second section that it begins to become a focus. Not that this is a sporting novel – on the contrary, cricket becomes a way for all of these immigrants to come together and celebrate being different, which for Hans is particularly unique, considering he is the only white man on the cricket team. I suppose people who look like they should fit in are perhaps treated differently, and as such, have a very different experience in regards to what it means to be an outsider. For Hans, though, he always seems to have been an outsider – even in his own marriage. He is the strong but silent type, that keeps everything bottled up, and is content to plod along at life. This, of course, turns out to be the reason his marriage falls apart so quickly.

What I think is done really well is the character of Rachel. While I agree with her politics, she does seem to embody everything that was wrong about the reactions of people to the attacks of September 11. Granted, her early lingering fear is thoroughly and understandably justifiable, especially considering she is a new mum, but the fervour with which she tries to attack Hans for not having an opinion on the whole thing, when the American (or Bush administration, at least) reaction is clearly ‘wrong’, is so great that her refusal to see Hans’ reaction as normal breaks their marriage. Similarly, though, Hans’ inability to feel anything, to tell Rachel what he is thinking is nicely done. It is interesting that Hans then moves to a close male relationship – that with Chuck – to try and deal with this. In times of crisis, men come together and play sport to forget both their own troubles, and the troubles of the world, this book seems to be saying. Which is pretty true, I suppose – this stereotypically masculine thing of either ignoring the problem completely, or keeping it inside and refusing to discuss it.

Netherland is good, but it’s not mind-bogglingly great. It does, however, show signs of greatness – particularly that first section. And while this is certainly touted as a post-September 11 novel, and while the attacks are a catalyst for many of the things that take place, this is, in the end, a book about relationships, about masculinity and about marriage. And about cricket.

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