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 clichés. 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)

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