They call them Metro Reads. And they’re supposed to be fast paced and simple and just right for readers who have a frenetic metro lifestyle. I picked up two to check them out. Losing My Virginity and Other Dumb Ideas by Madhuri Banerjee and Love on the Rocks by Ismita Dhanker Tandon.
Losing my Virginity was fairly straight forward – Girl never meets boys. Girl wants to meet boys. Girl meets bad boy. Girl realises her mistake. Girl rectifies her mistakes. I found Losing my Virginity an easy read. But we’ve read this before in a more compelling form via Anita Jain’s Marrying Anita and a dozen other books before. Very forgettable and very insipid.
Love on the Rocks is a bit of a mystery story and that gave me hope. Sancha marries a merchant navy officer, a shippie and sails with him. Within days she finds out that the head cook was found dead in the meat locker. The plot thickens, so to speak and she gets drawn into it. But oh the horror of it – in the last chapter (spoiler alert!) a character’s “applets” are pulled off his uniform. Applets? Applets? Applets? Ye Gods and little fishes. That is not a typo. She really thought they were applets as opposed to epaulettes. And it went through how many rounds of editing and didn’t get picked up? I think I wrote her off thanks to that one error, because it was quite unforgivable coming from a published author. I have loads of published friends and I would hate it if reviewers or readers were brutal, but this one time I can’t help it.
Though the books were light, breezy and the kind of thing you’d kill time on a train journey with I was a little disappointed with the language. It felt stilted. Indian writing in English is never easy but so many people have pulled it off with great success. I didn’t get that sense of confidence with either of these two books. The last 5 years have seen a surge in light Indian writing in English and I can’t say I appreciate it. The plots are not compelling, the settings are the usual offices and malls, and the language isn’t particularly elegant or eloquent. They’re popping up all over the place and the truth is there is an audience for them. I may not be that audience, but it’s interesting to see that they get read. For all that we snigger at Chetan Bhagat, he sells. I happened to catch a show called Love 2 Hate U (ugh, must they spell it that way?) and the girl who told him off, spoke my mind. He is killing literature with his pedestrian language and stale plots. But then I guess for every Vikram Seth we must pay the price with a Chetan Bhagat. He justified his existence saying he knows a driver who painstakingly reads one page a day, learning English. Good for him if that is the reader he is writing for and much joy to the driver. That said, I wish the focus would be on reading a good book and not on reading an English book. I’d find it a lot more praiseworthy if that driver picked up Premchand or Harivansh Rai Bachchan or a good writer in whatever his mother tongue is and read that. Why read substandard books (I refuse to call it literature) in a language you are struggling with? Whatever…!
There are those who use the whole English as a Second Language thing to their advantage, like Melvin Durai’s Bala Takes the Plunge. Balasubramaniam Balasubramaniam is a sweet NRI boy who has more hair on his chest than his head and needs a wife. Humourous, the book hits the nail on the head in so many different ways. It is totally not my style and I ended up enjoying it inspite of myself. It’s got a very Kolaveri feel to it, if you know what I mean. Very clearly laughing at itself, taking itself lightly. My only issue – boring cover image.
I also had the pleasure of reading Indu Sundaresan’s The Twentieth Wife and The Shadow Princess (I checked for The Feast of Roses on Flipkart and it was Rs 632 – bloody expensive!). Her writing is so lucid. I’ve always had a fascination with the Mughal Period and after you all recommended her on my last book post I’ve been buying up all her work on Flipkart.
I know better than to take historical fiction as God’s own word but the fine detail draws you away from your life and into the intrigues and politics of that period. It’s probably why I don’t enjoy contemporary work anymore. As it is we’re exposed to an excess of everybody’s lives and news on a variety of media. But the past is such a mystery. Be it the way they chewed paan for sensual, red lips or the descriptions of court, I’m like a 5 year old watching Cartoon Network. Her The Splendor of Silence was also a good read. I love a good romance and this one plays out pre-Independence. It’s interesting to see how an American soldier fits into the Indo-Brit social setup. The story begins with his daughter getting a box full of letters that tell her of her parents’ ill fated affair. For me the biggest surprise was realising who wrote the letters to her. Sundaresan creates characters who are easy to empathise with and feel deeply for, each one nuanced and complete. You can feel the hot North Indian loo blow through their lives, sucking the beauty out of it. I read through the night and fell asleep sobbing raggedly into my hotel pillow (this was during the Punjab trip). Not the best way to recommend something I know, but trust me on this one, will you?
In between all this I made the mistake of picking up Phiroz Madon’s The Third Prince. I was on my Mughal times rampage and buying up everything I laid eyes on. *shudder* Where do I begin with all that was wrong with it? Let me pick a single flaw. The language. He describes a sadhu’s hair as dreadlocked. Yes, technically he was right but the anachronism irked. I couldn’t really settle into the plot and dig my teeth in because the writing was jerky. The rest of the language, the dialogues were all written in too contemporary a style for him to capture the period he was writing about, even though he got the setting bang on.
I loved Jawahara’s The Burden of Foreknowledge (again, a mystery set in Emperor Akbar’s times) and can’t understand how anyone would pick CB over any of these. Why aren’t these flying off our store shelves or even *gasp* pirated? Is it that we’re getting the next generation used to a standard of books that is like processed food? Books that don’t require you to pay attention or even pick up a dictionary for the odd word that you don’t understand? Dumbing down doesn’t quite describe it.
I wondered, and so asked Jawahara since she is one of the few fantastic writers I have the privilege of knowing, why is it that so few Indian writers based in India write well? I see a pattern – almost all the best writers have studied abroad or now live there. I know it’s our second language, but I didn’t realise that the difference would play out so significantly. Also, why is it that most of the historical fiction set in India is by authors living abroad? I’d love to write historical fiction if I ever write at all, but I feel intensely nervous at the thought of such an undertaking. I have neither the vision nor the grasp of the language required to do something that I’d consider worthy of reading. As Poppy says, maybe I set very high standards, while another friend astutely points out – You’re too proud to write rubbish! But that is my excuse – I want to know why others aren’t. Others who have more faith in themselves. We have a wealth of history and romance just waiting to be written about. One point Jawahara made was that libraries abroad are better organised and well stocked. Considering I haven’t walked into an Indian library in some years, I can’t comment on that. The last few I saw had crabby librarians who knew nothing and said even less. Clearly there is no hope for us.
Edited to add: Read this to see the same point I am making, made in a far better way! http://www.dnaindia.com/bangalore/report_commercial-success-a-diving-force-for-writers-today_1625722