Monday, January 25, 2010

Paul Theroux's A DEAD HAND

An aside: I am back in Delhirium. Arrived Sunday night, after a pleasant 10-day trip. Jet Airways gets a major thumbs up from me -- the service is friendly, courteous and efficient. I must confess -- and it pains me much to say this -- slender, young and attractive cabin crew really do appear to make a difference to the overall ease-of-experience. It pains me coz I would like to think that a person's appearance makes no difference to how they perform; but based on several years' worth of flying experience, it is hard not to conclude that men and women who look neat, tight and fresh-minted actually work more efficiently. I don't know which comes first -- the efficiency or the appearance? -- but the combination really does seem to make a difference to the quality of a passenger's experience. Maybe this is just years of advertising finally taking its toll on my objectivity? But since many airlines have consigned the pencil-thin virginal seductress standard to the dustbin of history, it is now a rare pleasure to look up and think "How ... sweet!"

OKAY. And so to A DEAD HAND. I am at a slight disadvantage because I no longer have my copy with me. So if I make mistakes, sorry. (WARNING: I'm not especially trying to make this spoiler-free, so if you haven't read the book, you may want to do that first. Or not. I don't mind having the suspense removed from a book before I read it -- sort of like handling a venomous snake without its fangs makes it possible to enjoy the snake)(but then again, some would say, why bother?)(you'll have to decide for yourself what you'd prefer)

My basic take on the book is that it's clever, highly manipulative and cynical AND ALSO disarmingly humble and reflective -- I sense for the first time (with Theroux), the author telling us, "Look, I'm aging, I'm starting to see the end of my road, I've seen practically every place in the world that's worth seeing, I've done my time in many variations on the Third, the Fifth, the Tenth World and now I'm tired of playing games with truth: I returned to India recently and this is what I saw, this is what I felt, this is what I think and if you don't like me for it, if you believe I'm a shallow, scheming white supremacist in Friendly Tourist clothing -- well, I don't give a f**k."

The story kept my interest even though I found the female lead, the American woman called Merrill Unger, unconvincing from page one. But this is one of the astonishing features of Theroux's fiction -- he can use utterly plastic, make-believe elements alongside observations that are so tight-focused, so precisely, even cruelly, observed, that it doesn't matter in the end. Or -- well: that's what I felt having read only two pieces of fiction, ELEPHANTA SUITE and now this novel. Both books have been set in India, so perhaps in both cases it is easier for me to separate the plastic from the pukka. I didn't care that the woman was such a throwback to a Rider Haggard Femme Fatale or that the protagonist was such an extreme sap. It didn't bother me that the two secondary characters, Parvati and Raj (? one of those generic Indian male names starting with "R") are such cardboard cut-outs. I can't even explain why none of this matters -- I know it should -- but maybe it's because I see his story-telling as only a clothes-horse he uses as a support for the observations he has collected along the way.

So none of the plot elements really matter: the cheesy American woman with her magic hands and her blood-stained sari-hem, the unconvincing son, the post-colonial Doctor at the Police Station and the murder itself, the pathetic little victim and the limp-wristed ploy used to bring the author into the picture. Really, looked at from the distance of two weeks, the story is pure hokum. Indian Jones' Temple of Doom was more credible.

But we all know that there really ARE manual labourers all over the country, seething, sweating vast hordes of them, whose lives are considered to be of very little vlaue. There really are animal sacrifices at Kali temples. There really are hundreds of child prostitutes, child labourers, child destitutes. If I've never heard before that extreme manual labour can result in the fingerprints being worn away, or that the sacrifices are quite as nauseatingly bloody as in this book or that little girls are sold in an open field lit only by the light from smoking braziers well, that's just my ignorance. My unawareness of something doesn't mean that it can't be true.

I could go on like this, but actually I'm less interested in revealing the plot or evaluating the book -- as far as I'm concerned, it was a rewarding read and I would recommend it strongly -- than in something that gnawed at me all the way through, something that had nothing to do with Theroux or the book. It is this: why is it so unlikely that an Indian author would write such a book?

This isn't meant to be a real question because I don't think anyone is detached enough to answer it honestly; it's something to chew over and to find several half-answers to. For instance, it's very likely that an Indian author inclined in this direction would simply not find a publisher. After all, the story is mundane and many of its characters are tissue-thin. Theroux gets away with it because he has the luxury of being a highly successful author whose publishers will indulge him and whose readers will buy his books even if they don't think they're going to like each particular one. He has proven many times over that his ability to observe people and cultures is ironic and eccentric but also bitterly true. Some part of his attraction is that he bites, he stings, he cuts to the bone. But he seems to be equally unsparing with himself.

Then again, I have to ask myself whether my lurking and hard-to-suppress fellow-citizen-bias would make it hard -- impossible? -- for me to accept some of the weaker bits of this novel if they appeared in a book by an Indian? There's an echo here of a complaint voiced in the context of the Jaipur lit-fest, of the term "bhasha language poetry"; is this truly something to feel irritated by or is it just a label that we wouldn't even notice the inappropriateness of, if it took place in the context of someone else's culture? I can't decide.

Which leads me to wonder out loud whether we (i.e. Indians) EVER really allow one another to make scathing observations about the Motherland/our families/our religions without either (a) balancing the criticism with such a thick coating of sugar that the critique becomes irrelevant or (b) ostracizing/belittling/ignoring the offending writer until he/she is forced to give up writing altogether?

These are all questions that I don't have answers for, but I thought were worth raising.


Anonymous said...

Boy, when you're dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you're dead? Nobody. ~J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Anonymous said...

& oh! talking about scathing comments on the matrabhoomi -
"Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. — Howard Zinn (RIP)

Paul said...

I think JRD set the right example. Wrote in his will that he should be burried in whichever city he was in at the time of his death.And was buried at at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

A much better, nobler, truer example than insisting that your body should be cremated and the ashes sprinkled from an aircraft over various rivers, plateaus and farmlands. What an extravagance !! Imposed on a nation of poverty stricken, ignorant villagers !!

marginalien said...

It seems to me, one of the most disappointing features about death is that it is very difficult to control the disposal of our own remains. We can leave wills and instructions of course, but we rarely have any ultimate control. I would prefer a form of disposal that would cause the people directly connected to or affected by my death to be put to as little discomfort and expense as possible and I would certainly NOT want to be a source of yet more pollution! It's very annoying to know that there's not all that much I can do about this problem. *snarl*

Paul said...

There's some such saying as "The meaning of life is in the leaving of it". I whole-heartedly agree. I hope I will go in to death, calmly, quietly and with peace of mind. (Some hope that is! Oh, boy!)

Anonymous said...

liked the concept of a green disposal.

my take though is i dont give a damn what who so ever gets stuck with my corpse. my own advice is to treat it with the same way i would - as a decomposing health hazard that should be quickly converted into a less noxious/toxic/infectious substrate.

when a few friends/family have pursued and insisted but what if u had the option - i've said get my ashes and use them to fertilize a ganja plant. gt