Author : SOMAK GHOSHAL
Genre : Fiction
Publisher : Fig Tree
A small book packs a big punch as it examines life’s rough ride and how we must all eventually make our exits, even the filthy rich.
MOHSIN Hamid’s new novel, a slick affair spanning a little over 200 pages, begins with “you” cowering under a bed, suffering from hepatitis E. “Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral,” says the sardonic narrator, “Yum” (we can almost hear the snigger).
At once intimate and jarring, “you” is not exactly a direct address to us, readers of English-language literary fiction. Rather, “you”, it seems, is someone who is a cross between the generic Everyman and a rags-to-riches hero, a character almost entirely unlikely to read a novel – unless, of course, it is one that’s calledHow To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia and is structured like a typical self-help book.
The relentless persistence of the second-person voice throughout the narrative does throw off the reader from time to time. It blurs the distinction between Us and Them, the profound and the pulpy, the lofty and the light. “You”, that cleverest of devices, is the great mock-leveller. It brings us decently close to the “other”, but also keeps us at one remove, giving us a ringside view into their lives from the pages of a book, a bit like the vicarious pleasures offered by celluloid.
We get a sneak peek into the squalor in which the rest of the world lives, without getting our hands soiled in the process, and our consciences are quietened. Of course, the omniscient narrator has the last laugh (we have met a version of this narrator before, in Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but a less acerbic one, without as much of a ghoulish sense of humour).
Hamid’s story, a bildungsroman that chronicles his unnamed hero’s rise from poverty to prosperity, and his eventual ruin, has a cinematic energy to it. Its levity, Rablesian grittiness, a heady indulgence in the baser instincts of human nature, fit beautifully into the scheme of a Bollywood blockbuster. The plot has a Dickensian linearity, a clear beginning, middle and end. It’s also about the commonest of things, the stuff of which the human life cycle is made – the grisly business of being born into want, learning to cope with the vagaries of fate, and then striving to attain the ultimate goal of every existence: how to manage a dignified death. “Have an exit strategy,” the narrator gently chides us in the finale, which crawls in with more of a whimper than a bang, as it mostly does in real life.
But it’s the simplest stories that often have the potential to go disastrously wrong. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger, Booker Prize notwithstanding, made a mighty mess of the same formula that Hamid uses so expertly, partly because Adiga tried to ape, not just imagine, the voice in which the subaltern speaks. We had Balram Halwai, Adiga’s protagonist, sounding utterly unconvincing, if not ludicrous, trying to live up to what his creator thinks he should be like. In contrast, Hamid gives very little speech to his characters – they usually have laconic, functional and pithy exchanges – and focuses instead on describing what goes on in their minds.
His god-like narrator does not second-guess much, but tells us – or rather, “you” – what “you” are feeling at any given moment. What makes “you” tick, what gets “your” goat, why “you” are the way “you” are. The progression is abrupt, self-consciously clunky, like jump cuts in a movie, but gripping nonetheless.
It’s the reckless confidence of the narrator that generates an infectious appeal about the prose. We are exhilarated by its protean cadences, aroused by its joie de vivre, and just as easily crushed by its morbidity. Romance, tragedy, comedy and farce are all seamlessly rolled into this magnificent and hard-to-define literary monster. Its brevity, like that of a miniature painting, is deceptive, and only serves to encourage fantasy. A mini-epic is perhaps the best way to describe it.
The unwavering breeziness of the narrator’s tone might give the impression of a hearty superficiality but it’s actually a refreshingly original veneer from which to convey the most hard-hitting truths. When “you” finally meet the “pretty girl” “you” must meet in a story of any worth, and she lets “you” deflower her, “you” discover, with a start, that “You are the sort of man who discovers love through his penis”. However, she is not one to reciprocate your feelings with equal earnestness and would rather blunder through life before “you” and she are reunited at a point when you are both bruised and battered, damaged goods that are pale imitations of their past fullness.
The “pretty girl” is a familiar type, though lovingly fleshed out into an individual by the narrator’s sharp imagination. The romance between “you” and her, if it can be called that, blossoms over your shared passion for the cinema. “You”, before “you” become a filthy rich tycoon selling bottled semi-pure water in an unnamed city, are a delivery boy at a DVD renting outlet, and the pretty girl is an assistant at a beauty parlour. Her head is full of celluloid dreams and “you” are the facilitator of her fancies.
The sex between “you” and her, when it happens, is more sedate than steamy, but has its odd satisfactions, especially when “you” and she have a go at it again, decades later, in the winter of your lives, like a couple of Lucien Freud nudes, entangled in your flab, poked by the bony angularity of your sagging skins, a pair of 70- and 80-year-old bodies with weak hearts desperate to rekindle their erotic frisson, before finally giving up and collapsing helplessly into a fit of the giggles.
Written from an unmistakably male perspective, Hamid’s novel also manages to explore the inner world of its female characters with a humane empathy. The feisty, foul-mouthed, oversexed mother, an archetypal fighter till the end, is a marginal though memorable presence. Her gruesome death, of cancer, and her family’s struggle to keep her alive, recall Noor and his dying mother in Mohammed Hanif’s Our Lady Of Alice Bhatti.
The sister, another cardboard creation, is the girl whose education is interrupted by marriage and childbirth, one of those who live out their years, patiently waiting to be defeated by life. The wife, a progressive girl intrigued by her husband’s gradually diminishing interest in her, is more elusive and layered.
Like “you”, each of these characters is looking for a quick fix that smoothens the rough ride. But the going always gets tough, even for those who manage to get filthy rich. They usually exit trailing more filth than riches. – Mint/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services