India Ink

The Literary Coming of the Second Continent

Back in the Seventies, I had a girlfriend who was a devotee of the guru Meher Baba (of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" fame). She roomed with her sister, who had actually been to India on a spiritual pilgrimage, and their house was a virtual shrine. For a few heady months, while I delivered mail and stumbled through graduate school, we ate chapatis and curry, read the Bhagavad-Gita, practiced yoga and chanted, reeking of sandalwood and patchouli. We tossed around words like "karma" and "dharma" as casually as Frisbees. We were grooving, we felt, on a higher plane. While some elements of this experience have survived the ravages of time -- the kathak dance performances of Chitresh Dass, accompanied on tabla drums by Zakir Hussein, timeless stories told with hands, feet, and rhythm, were unforgettable -- there was, in retrospect, something awfully inauthentic going on. The India of my mind was a not-quite-real place, and our mimicking of its customs and culture a roughly stitched con job.

Now it happens that India has come back in style in the late Nineties through its literature. Both Granta and The New Yorker have done special issues on Indian writers, The God of Small Things by Arundathi Roy (Random House, $23 hard) is on the bestseller list, and we seem to be in what The New York Times calls a full-blooded "Indo-frenzy." Because of my Seventies experience, though, I have found myself approaching the second coming of the subcontinent with some suspicion, even a puzzling sense of shame.

Nothing about the hype surrounding The God of Small Things eased my misgivings. For a while, Roy's face seemed to be everywhere: those black, elliptical eyes, her face a dark orchid framed by wisps of untamed hair, lips Cupid could only dream of, an insouciant diamond in her right nostril. The supposed censorship controversy surrounding the book, a lawsuit in her home state of Kerala based on a love-scene between a high-caste woman and an Untouchable, felt trumped-up. Even Roy's background was a bit much: architect, aerobics teacher, actress, living in the jungle with her filmmaker husband. Oh, sure.

Guardedly, I gave the first page a try:

May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.

By early June the monsoon breaks and... the countryside turns an immodest green.... Pepper vines snake up electric poles. Wild creepers burst through laterite banks and spill across flooded roads. Boats ply in the bazaars. And small fish appear in the puddles that fill the PWD potholes on the highways.

Sometimes in a striking opening a new voice seems to announce itself to the world. I found this passage, with its animistic physicality, fatally persuasive. Amazingly, most of the rest of Roy's story sustains the opening's pitch (there are moments of excessive verbal cuteness, but these are minor). The voice is so original, commanding, yet oddly adolescent at times, emotionally squirrely, the schizy, regressive way you feel when you visit your parents: "A carbreeze blew. Greentrees and telephone poles flew past the windows. Still birds slid by on moving wires like unclaimed baggage at the airport. A pale daymoon hung hugely in the sky and went where they went. As big as the belly of a beer-drinking man."

As it turns out, the girlish ring of the prose is just right, for The God of Small Things is the story of multiple regressions. The epicenter is a fateful day in 1969 when everything went horribly wrong for young twins named Rahel and Estha and all around them, but the novel moves in great circles around its climax, whirling forward and back in time. Rahel, as an adult, is called back from America to tend to her damaged brother, who himself has been "Returned," from a kind of exile. Their single mother takes up with a childhood friend. The prime antagonist is an old woman named Baby, who clings desperately to the past ("She's living her life backwards," Rahel observes) while she succumbs to the charms of her new satellite dish. In Ayemenem, things are backsliding.

The novel is exotically foreign, replete with kathak dancers, strange moths, and pet elephants, but at the same time it feels surprisingly familiar, proximate somehow to American experience. Part of the reason has to do with how India itself has changed. As Granta editor Ian Jack put it in his introduction to the special India issue: "Villagers in the remotest part of India know who Bill Gates is.... America is the model now; slowly, inevitably, the old Indo-Anglian upper class... is retreating toward its pyre." Five decades of independence have produced a middle class in India, people with computers and cell phones, people, for better or worse, like us.

In a review of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's (the Anglo-Indian screenwriter for films like Merchant-Ivory's Room With a View) recent novel Shards of Memory (Bantam/Doubleday, $11 paper), Barbara Grizzuti Harrison complained that "I do sometimes wish that Mrs. Jhabvala were capable of some slight expression of vulgarity," and bemoaned Jhabvala's "excursions into shabby gentility that belong to another era." In that sense, Arundathi Roy represents a new generation of Indian writers, who wear a distinctly un-British vulgarity as a badge of honor.

In her prose at least, Roy has balls. Early on, Estha's dog, the "beloved, blind, bald, incontinent seventeen-year-old mongrel" Khubchand is dying. As he watches the dog's demise:

Estha could see the bedroom window reflected in [Khubchand's] smooth, purple balls. And the sky beyond. And once a bird that flew across. To Estha --steeped in the smell of old roses, blooded on memories of a broken man -- that fact that something so fragile, so unbearably tender had survived, had been allowed to exist, was a miracle. A bird in flight reflected in an old dog's balls.

Subsequent passages reveal even more balls, including those of the local Communist Party leader "silhouetted against his soft white mundu"; "giant cockroaches that scurried around like gofers on a film set"; a luridly described penis; precious bodily fluids; underwater flatulence; and several steaming mounds of dung, both elephant and human. Passage to India, this is not -- more like Passages of India, the uncensored version.

In his review of The God of Small Things, John Updike worried over the roundabout way of Roy's telling, how she works "as hard to avoid as to reach her destination." He concluded the book was "one more example of William Faulkner's profound influence upon Third World writers... in stratified, unevenly developed societies that feel a shame and defeat in their history."

Roy herself has publicly sniffed at this interpretation, wondering, "How could a woman from Kerala write like Faulkner?" And it does seem that Updike missed an important point. Less out of shame than from delight in the telling of story and belief in its redemptive power, there is a tradition of circularity in Indian literature, in embedding stories within other stories, in creating concentric spheres of narrative, in the tradition of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights and the Mahabharata. Of the new Indian wave of writers, none exemplifies this better than Vikram Chandra, who studied writing at the University of Houston and now, at age 36, divides his time between Bombay and Washington, D.C.

Love and Longing in Bombay by Vikram Chandra (Little Brown & Co, $22.95 hard), as in his celebrated debut novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain -- about a poet who is reincarnated as a monkey and forced to tell entertaining tales to stay alive -- story is salvation. Like Gita Mehta's important 1993 novel, A River Sutra, Love and Longing in Bombay is a series of linked stories, told by an old retiree named Subramaniam to the young, uncertainly jaded Ranjit Sharma, who has just begun working at a software company. The subtext of the frame story is that Bombay has a familiarly American ring, overpriced beer in trendy bars (one of Sharma's friends can't believe he's abandoned the chic Crimson Cheetah for Subramaniam's dumpy dive, the Fishermen's Rest), wildly inflated real estate, and cyber-economics. (Incidentally, Bombay has been renamed Mumbai by the Hindu fundamentalists who now control that city's government, so Chandra's insistence on the old name is interesting.)

Each of the five stories serves as an Indian twist on some genre: "Artha" (wealth) is a ghost story; "Kama" (desire, pleasure) a mod-noir detective piece; "Shakti" (strength) is a morality tale of social climbing; "Dharma" (faith) has a whiff of Jay McInerney and Brett Easton Ellis, a Gen-X tale of a gay software de-bugger caught for a moment in the big city's underworld. Last is "Shanti" (peace), the least classifiable of all. In it, the interior stories begin to multiply, like nested information, or hypertext.

In "Shanti," Subramaniam tells Ranjit about a man named Shiv, who was in despair over the death of his brother, about to throw himself in the path of a train, when he met a woman who was waiting for that very train. The woman, named Shanti, began to tell Shiv stories in a series of visits, wild stories about meeting the most evil man in the world, about a woman whose feet were pointing the wrong way and was going to "leap back into tomorrow," and more, stories upon stories. Shiv in turn relates these to his friend Frankie, and by and by the redemptive power of listening and telling heals Shiv and he falls in love with Shanti. It's something like what happens in the Raymond Carver story "Where I'm Calling From," where the simple act of story-telling between fellow patients at a rehab clinic jump-starts the process of recovery.

At times, the new India of these writers seems not just quasi-American, but eerily Texan. In his new book, Light of India, Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz makes the case that India and Mexico are sister countries, two places for whom the past looms larger than the future, and where chilies and other spices dominate the cuisine. Texas may be just as good a cousin-candidate, though, with its mix of tradition and high-tech future, the extremes of wealth and poverty, and, most of all, the polyglot patois of language here.

As Salman Rushdie has noted, most of the best Indian writers, like Chandra and Roy, are writing in English, leftover tongue of the colonial past, which has come to serve as lingua franca for this land where some 19 different languages are used. The English these writers use is a hybrid, though, "Hinglish," as Rushdie calls it, like the Spanglish of the border, a masala of coinages, borrowings, and sudden bursts of regional tongues.

In The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie (Random House, $13 paper), for example, a family trait of the da Gama/Zogoiby clan is to add the suffix "-ofy" to words, as when famous painter Aurora da Gama holds forth on sex and personal hygiene: "Speaking for myself, however, I tubbofy, scrubbofy, I brush, I groom, I fill-o the room with fine perfume." With Chandra, slang mixes in with the old words, and the uninitiated are forced to guess meaning from context. "A dingy bar that far away, a bunch of old guys," Ranjit's girlfriend Ayesha gripes, "and one oldie telling stories? Stop phenko-ing, yaar." One of Roy's characters speaks English like the local tongue Malayalam, where the last syllable of one word joins with the first syllable of the next.

Despite all the buzz of Indo-frenzy, it is not true that every book about India or by writers of Indian descent is of equal strength. In a few cases, it seems, the zeitgeist may even be seducing some writers down the wrong path. In her latest book, Leave It to Me (Random House, $23 hard), the talented Bharati Mukherjee seems to be working too hard to capitalize on the "Indian thing." The first-person narrator is a young woman, Debby DeMartino, who, while searching for her birth mother, transforms herself into the vengeful demi-goddess, Devi Dee, while overusing the word "karma" more than I did in the Seventies. Devi/Debby's too-glib faux-Gen-X voice becomes nearly unbearable by novel's end.

A more affecting try is The Mistress of Spices (Bantam/Doubleday, $22.95 hard), by California poet and writing teacher Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni. The novel, a kind of Indian Like Water for Chocolate, has a tasty conceit, that the old woman who runs a California spice shop is really an immortal sage with psychic powers. The prose and the plot, though, end up as servants of the central metaphor -- the herbal cart gets placed before the narrative horse -- and the essences of cinnamon, fennel, and fenugreek lose their pungency after a while.

What a few of us failed to realize a couple of decades ago is that the heart of the matter is not in the trappings. You can dress up like Gandhi and nibble chapatis, but you're no closer to the secrets of the universe. In books, truth, story, and enchantment are what matters. The best of the new Indian writers have learned to let their stories find the old forms, whirling in circles, while mixing in a contemporary grittiness, bare reality redeemed in a wildly vital melting pot of language. As the central character in Vikram Chandra's Red Earth and Pouring Rain learns from Hanuman, the monkey-god: "Straightforwardness is the curse of your age, Sanjay. Be wily, be twisty, be elaborate. Forsake grim shortness and hustle. Let us luxuriate in your curlicues."

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