Archive for July, 2006|Monthly archive page

Terrace

A seemingly never-ending column of cars, arranged four abreast, moved at a measured, forced pace like some marching army. The mindlessness of it was comforting. A mechanical activity, which didn’t require her to come up with bullet point responses to why she should be driving that car, at this hour, in that direction.

“Why do they call this a freeway?” she wondered to herself, as traffic queued up in the toll-tag only lanes. She fidgeted in her seat, fussing with the seat belt, the rear-view mirror. If this were Delhi, she’d be changing gears, and feeling a little proud if the car didn’t stall. But this was Dallas, where one had dispensed with the old rush-hour routines. This time of the year, MG Road would be filled with drunken baarathis, leading another spooked bride-groom on another nonchalant nag to some farm house. She did not miss the traffic, though she did remember the horses with fondness. Inured to the drunken dancing and the cacophony of horns and Bhangra music, they were so unlike the grooms who twitched (too afraid to give a real jerk) at every honk.

A Hummer honked her back to Dallas. She did what the man wanted her to do, getting them both ten inches closer to their respective homes. She smiled to herself, relieved that Ravi wasn’t with her. He would have felt embarrassed to be honked at. She was still a Delhi-ite, and retained her faith that a little honking was good for everyone’s soul.

She switched on the radio. A voice sang of love, of twilight. At 6:15 in the evening, it would be twilight back home. Here, the sun blazed on. Like the insolent teenager who live in the apartment upstairs, it insulted first by not going to bed when it is supposed to, and made things worse by refusing to so much as acknowledge the end of a long day. She cooled herself by turning up the AC and returned to thoughts of twilight in Delhi.

Twilight was best enjoyed from the terrace. A few years ago, the view had stretched all the way to the DU Campus. Between the trees, you could see the tops of other houses. Her favorite was the one with the coconut trees – looking slightly out of place in South Delhi. It always reminded her of her grand-parents’ home in Madras. Another terrace with another great view. Mentally, she ranked her top five favorite terraces: 1. Her parents’ terrace in Delhi 2. The terrace at her friend’s home in Bangalore (with a view of Lal Bagh and the dishy neighbor out on his own terrace) 3. The terrace at her grandparents’ house in Madras, from where you could hear the ocean, even though you couldn’t see it 4. The terrace at that house in Pondicherry, with its view of the backyard of a church, and the Pastor’s very interesting underwear drying on his clotheslines. 5. The terrace in their old Rajouri Garden house, which overlooked a potters’ colony.

It was funny that she remembered every single terrace she’d ever been on. She realized that she had made practically every major decision when pacing some mottai-madi, from ranking the Asterix books she had to have (mom limited purchases to two per year) to picking a college major (Microbiology over Zoology – microorganisms were less icky than rats). She’d also decided that she loved Ravi after he’d told her he loved her (one of them had to say it first, he’d said) and later that she was going to ask him if he’d like to marry her (one of them had to ask first, she’d said).

As she passed the Belt Line exit, the traffic finally speeded up. She moved to right most lane, letting the Hummer overtake her. She drove on, thinking to herself that life had been so much simpler on those terraces. Had it been easier to make those decisions because she’d been younger? Or was there something about a terrace, the extra forty odd feet of elevation mysteriously bringing perspective to life on the ground?

She wanted nothing more than to be on a terrace at that moment. Even before she could complete that thought, she suddenly felt her car flying through the air. By the time she registered the thought that she’d been hit from behind, she and her car had already broken through the barrier on the elevated freeway. She stepped on the brakes, then stopped, because the car was still flying.

People stared at her car somersaulting through the air, flying straight across the service lane, towards the terrace of a Walgreens pharmacy. As the gravel on the terrace approached, she thought to herself, “Life doesn’t flash by in nanoseconds. You get a whole traffic jam. And you get your last wish.”

Strangers in strange lands

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

(Some spoilers)

Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss is my first foray into works by the Desai clan. The experience has been good enough to warrant many more. The Inheritance of Loss reminds you that there are confused desis in India, UK and the US. The novel straddles three generations, and three different sorts of lost and dissatisfied Indians.

First, the anglophile ICS generation, loyal to a way of life that they perpetually aspire to, but never achieve. They live in Indian cities and villages, and long after the departure of the Brits, continue to fill their worlds with symbols from their ideal society: eating scones and cucumber sandwiches for tea, reading Agatha Christie, meeting one another at crumbling Gymkhana clubs, conversing among themselves in English, and with the servants in pidgin Hindi, and for all intents and purposes remain completely oblivious to the people, the language, the food and the problems that actually surround them. Many of the characters in this book belong to this generation – a retired Gujarati judge, a couple of Bengali sisters, an Uncle Potty of unknown origin…

Then there is the Amreeka-is-great generation. They believe they’ll be richer in the US, fatter, and surely happier. Biju, the cook’s son, is an illegal immigrant, working for less than minimum wages in one New York restaurant after another. His experience is understandably worse than that of the average H1B software type, but how different are they? Aren’t they all trapped in a common nightmare, even as they dream their common green-card dreams?

The green card, green card, the machoot sala oloo ka patha char sau bees green card that was not even green.

Unlike the previous generation which is happy in its yearning, this one bends over backwards to get to the land of their dreams. When they get there, it’s too late to wonder why they wanted to go there in the first place. At one point, Biju wonders:

 

What was he doing and why?
It hadn’t even been a question before he left. Of course, if you could go, you went. And you went, of course, if you could, you stayed

 

Perhaps the Anglophiles are the smarter ones – yearning lasts longer than attainment, and therefore is better?

…love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself.

Dissatisfied as they are, the Anglophile and the Yankophile are a mild lot. The third bunch is so disillusioned that nothing short of political autonomy – a separate x-stan / y-land (replace x and y with your preferred minority community / region) – will do. A good part of this novel takes place in Kalimpong in the late 80s – at the height of the Gorkha unrest. How alien the very idea is to the first two classes is best expressed by Lola (the Anglophile widow):

And what is this with the GOrkha? It was always GUrkha.

My friends and I have frequently marveled at India’s uncanny knack for survival as a country. It is a matter we pride ourselves on, particularly when we see so many others falling apart with much less provocation. [1] But given the latest news from India, I can’t help remembering this passage:

What was a country but the idea of it? … How often could you attack it before it crumbled? To undo something took practice; it was a dark art and they were perfecting it. With each argument the next would be easier, would become a compulsive act, and like wrecking a marriage, it would be impossible to keep away, to stop picking at wounds even if the wounds were your own.

Desai’s novel is about class as much as it is about one’s sense of national identity. In any society, for a while these are maintained in hermetically sealed compartments, either out of ignorance or by force. But ultimately, people of different identities and classes do react to these differences. And when they do, some end up with illegal huts on their lawn, others get beaten to a pulp by the police. Yet others like Sai, the judge’s granddaughter who has a crush on her Indian-Nepali tutor, have their hearts broken.

The house didn’t match Gyan’s talk, his English, his looks, his clothes, or his schooling. It didn’t match his future. Every single thing his family had was going into him and it took ten of them to live like this to produce a boy, combed, educated, their best bet in the big world. Sisters’ marriages, younger brother’s studies, grandmother’s teeth-all on hold, silenced, until he left, strove, sent something back.

Sai felt shame, then, for him… The dilemmas and stresses that must exist within this house – how could he have let them out? And she felt distaste, then, for herself. How had she been linked to this enterprise, without her knowledge or consent?

I haven’t read Desai’s first novel (Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard), but I must say that The Inheritance of Loss still feels like an early work. Desai’s strengths lie in her ability to draw fresh insights out of characters and situations that appear clichéd at first glance. However, towards the end of the book, it feels as if the author is panicking – worried that she might not be able to tie all those lovely characters with their lovely stories together into one cohesive whole. And she doesn’t. There is no great so-what at the end of this great build-up. People just go back to their old ways, or grudgingly resign themselves to whatever lousy cards they’ve been dealt with. Perhaps this makes it more real. After all, even Spiderman or Superman don’t take on poverty and beat it to a pulp.

And the balance that Desai maintains so well through the first two thirds of the book, giving equal importance to the three main story threads, is somehow lost in the last one-third. Some stories and characters are ignored at the expense of others. I felt a little like waiting in the queue at Thirupathi – I’ve waited a long time to get to that spot, and just when I feel like I’ve earned my right to savor the moment, I am bustled along by some cop shouting, “Jaragandi! Jaragandi!”

Bottom line: The Inheritance of Loss is a very good read. Kiran Desai is definitely someone to watch out for. If you were born in India in the late 70s as I was, you’ll find many things to relate to, and therefore enjoy in this book.

[1] As Southies born in the late 70s, I realize that my friends and I have had no experiences that might be classified as being “provocative”, so it’s mostly idle posturing.
[2] Go here to read Falstaff’s equally positive review. And here to read Pankaj Mishra’s take on the novel.