Until recently my ventures into the evidently important realms of Anglo-Indian literature have been woefully short and sweet. Two summers ago I read Arundhati Roy's 1997 Booker winning novel The God of Small Things with a sense of (relatively) mild appreciation, and then, around this time last year, I read Anita Desai's Fasting, Feasting with much greater enthusiasm.
Still, its clear to me that the stylistics and thematics of these two novels, which are both alike and yet incredibly different at the same time, share a good deal with those of Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra. The epic and the domestic, imperialism and post-imperialism, the magical realist and the mundane, the historic and the contemporary: they're all books chock full of duologies and the conflicts, wonderful and terrible, that arise from them. And flawed though it is - a first novel, somewhat shaky in places - Red Earth is a truly remarkable piece of work, undoubtedly the most ambitious of the three. Verbose and meandering where Desai's prose is clean and angular, epic in its scope of action and narrative where Roy is concerned with minutiae and interiorities, it probably has more in common with the Ramayana than with contemporary fictions. A quick search reveals it won a plethora of prizes on publication in 1995 and established Chandra as a star in the firmament of Anglo-Indian story-telling; I'm not in the least bit surprised.
It all starts with a story telling monkey (as is only right and proper!): Abhay, a disillusioned young man just returned to Bombay from America, conceives a desperate aversion to a little white monkey that begs food from his parents and shoots it. As the monkey lies near death, the gods of poetry and death descend on the house and a bargain is struck. The monkey must tell a story, and if he can keep his steadily growing audience entertained each evening, then he can live one more day. The result is a wonderfully Russian-doll construction of a story within a story and then a thousand stories again within that. The main thread follows "brothers" Sikander and Sanjay, a Rajput warrior and an aspiring poet, during fifty difficult years of British colonialism in the early 19th century, as they struggle to come to terms with their own mixed heritages and identities. Surrounding them is a cast of characters almost as numerous as the pantheon of Hindu gods (who feature so prominently in the narrative themselves) with their own myriad of vignettes. The key question though sounds loud and clear, deceptively simple in such an apparently labyrinthine setting: what is the psychology and legacy, personal and national, of colonialism?
Chandra's exploration is often devestatingly beautiful (if hugely sentimental) and he obviously sees himself in the great tradition of Indian myth-making and story-telling characterised by the Ramayana and Mahabarata; like Sanjay he is the angry poet, full of vitriol and the written word. Markline - the British owner of the Calcutta printing-press for which both Sikander and Sanjay work in their youth - speaks, in condescending Eurocentric fashion, of the conventions of such classical Indian narrative:
"Plots meander, veering from grief to burlesque in a minute. Unrelated narratives
entwine and break into each other ... Beginnings are not really beginnings,
middles are unendurably long and convoluted, nothing ever ends" (p. 335)
And, whatever the prejudices of the character, we may conclude that Chandra the novelist is here describing by stealth the features of his own voice, and, by implication, - favourably- comparing the Indian tradition (to which he lays claim) with the linear, rationalist fictions of
the West. Yet counterpointing this chaotic and magical delivery is Abhay's own story, told in parallel, of cultural disillusionment and emotional breakdown in America. This is where Chandra's novel really breaks down, trying too hard to shock with a glut of "depravity" - drugs, casual sex, suicide, orphaned porn stars and that familiar brand of slow surburban decay. It's clear that Chandra, unlike Desai, sees real and insurmountable cultural differences between east and west, privaleging Indian modes of interaction as well as expression; whereas Fasting, Feasting was at pains to demonstrate the devastating similarities between America and India, Red Earth and Pouring Rain is much more concerned with re-establishing a profound and singular post-colonial identity. Like so many first novels it is an act of affirmation on any number of levels.
In the sensuous aftermath of the novel, so full of texture and colour, well-written and challenging, I'm left with an urgent desire to read more Anglo-Indian prose...though I think my reader's consciousness is split in two: is it Desai's simplicity or Chandra's garrulousness that moves me most?
On as entirely different note altogether: Artists creates city from biscuits. Marvellous.