Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lost and Found

Lost And Found is a well-intentioned book. It has its heart in the right place. It’s only the mind which has gone for a long, meandering walk. The result is a plot so full of strains, threads and characters, that you stand a risk of losing yourself — and not in a good way either.

Lakshmi is the content writer for a porn website about ‘the sensory adventures of a beautiful, blind girl’ called, not very originally, ‘Kavita’. Years back, after a sexual encounter on a train one night, Lakshmi had become pregnant. Of the twins she delivered, one was abandoned in a temple and the other was given to a stranger in a taxi. One twin, Nirmal, is now a street child/actor, and the other, Salim, is a Pakistani jehadi. He is in Mumbai as a part of the 26/11 terror squad.

Placid Hari Odannur, a freelance journalist, is the one who, Lakshmi insists, forced himself on her 16 years ago. So, in the present, a night before the terror attack, she has kidnapped him and tied him up in her bathroom. The attack is set against this melee, a Cow Sena march, the terrorist-minder’s midlife crisis, newspaper-office politics and a rickshaw driver’s day.

In the hands of a less self-conscious writer, one with more rigour and economy of expression, the story might have crackled surreally. Surendran’s sub-plots, multiple threads, and tendency to tell you too much about every minor character, get tiresome. Sometimes you feel he is trying hard — but failing — to evoke a Llosa, a Marquez, and even, in desperation, a Manmohan Desai. His prose sparkles occasionally, when he manages to restrain himself from saying too much.

The book does have a few truly attractive elements. The fact that Surendran locates the story in the 26/11 attacks, and decides to delve a bit deeper there, to humanise those that the media has demonised entirely, is interesting. You get a definite sense of his engagement with Mumbai, its history, its realities and the way forces of fundamentalism play out here. To be fair, the novel does tighten up around halfway through.

The teeming landscape of Lost And Found is peppered with the implausible — a double-edged sword which perhaps only authors with the right mix of control and madness must play with. Because we have grown up on Manmohan Desai, we will buy the long-lost-brothers thing, and even the madness of the fictive world where the entire ‘family’ comes together in the course of one turbulent night. But even within this fictional universe, it’s hard to believe that Lakshmi, 19, educated and middle-class, would have had to run away to Goa and spend her pregnancy selling trinkets on a beach. Finally, it is the ham-handed treatment, the lack of really nuanced dialogues and situations that fails Lost And Found.

The newspaper’s dynamics are entertaining, but Surendran spends too much time exploring the local colour of the journalist’s world to really plunge deep. Lakshmi and her friend Beverly show little or no character development. Hari, too, though 35, seems implausibly adolescent. The street boy and the rickshaw driver often become clich├ęs. Culpably, the characters often use words that are more the author’s than their own.

Surendran probably set off to create a mad, chaotic, maelstrom of a book. What he has done, though, is write one that has so many layers piled on to it that it sags under the weight of its own cleverness. And somehow, you can’t help but resent the writer for botching up what must have been a remarkable idea to begin with.

(This review appeared in the DNA of Sunday, Dec 26)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Small Blunders - Articles from the DNA Column

It’s hard work being a parent. But you’ve probably heard that one before. What is more intriguing is why people have kids in the first place. All through those nine months of nausea, I kept feeling that motherhood was evolution’s biggest joke on women. I figured the first time round you could get conned into it, but why would you do it a second or a third time?

There is of course a good measure of self-love involved in having a baby. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Look ma, I made a little human and it looks, talks and behaves like me. Also, as humans we love to be needed, and after six to eight months of being needed so viscerally by a small human being, you sort of begin to get off on the feeling. No one else looks at you with such adoration, no one else smiles with such delight when he sees your face (he’s probably thinking of lunch, but we'll let that pass). No one else, frankly, needs you with such abandon and such fury. Parenting can give you a heady sense of power. The nicest parents, I guess, are those who don’t misuse that power.

Though it isn’t apparent at first, this need to be needed contributes to some extent to most parents taking the plunge again. Five years after cribbing about pregnancy, when my child was beginning to become her own person, I was willing to go through all of it again just to have another needy little butterball in my arms. At some level, I’m guessing we're hard-wired to procreate, to make copies of ourselves and fill the planet. We could slow down now, because the planet has more than enough of us. But I guess our psyches haven’t heard the news yet.

Having a child is not just one long ego-massage, though (praise from passing strangers dries up after your kid hits seven). An emotional knuckle-duster waits just around the corner. Forget all the physical effort: the night feeds, the colic, the teething, the falls, the terrible twos, the preschool-admission rush, the homework, the tiffins you’ve packed andthe various illnesses and accidents that will have your kachhas in a twist forever.

That’s the easy part compared to the painful realisation that no matter what you do, no matter which toys you get and what theme parties you throw, one day the apple of your eye will turn into a Cynical Young Person. She will probably gobsmack you when she looks back at all your years as a devoted helicopter parent and smirks: ‘Well, I didn’t ask to be born, did I?’ To kids of a certain age, the only perfect parent is their best friend’s dad or mom. You just about manage not to disgrace yourself by starving her to death or something.

Six years back, between spraying out jets of vomit, I paused to ask my mother why women went through so much physical stress just to have children. Convinced that I was insane, and being the queen of understatement that she is, she shrugged and said, ‘Because when you have a child, time passes.’ It’s been over six years now that I’ve been a parent myself, and with every passing day, I realise that raising a child does play tricks with time.

Moments get stretched into lifetimes, so that you never forget that first smile, that first word, that first step. But days turn into liquid whirlwinds and simply swish by, till, before you know it, the adorable little cuddlebunny is a snarling teen. One more swish and he becomes a parent himself, aware of how much trouble raising a child can be, and finally, finally ready to be grateful for all you did.

Maybe mom was right. Maybe it’s worth it after all!

This article appeared in the DNA on Sunday, Sept 26, 2010
Link here: http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/comment_mama-knows-best_1443353