A reading with Rohinton Mistry, Wayne Johnston and James Bartleman

I attended the World Literacy Canada reading at the Park Hyatt Toronto earlier this week to see these three authors.  There was a line-up, of the sort you’d expect to see at a samizdat store selling discounted iPads; literature isn’t dead, you doomsayers.

(L to R: Johnston, Bartleman, Mistry. Pic from worldlit.ca)

First on stage was James Bartleman, whom I’d never heard of prior to this event: the more fool I. Bartleman is a former career diplomat who was Canada’s ambassador to Cuba, Bangladesh, and Israel, so he must have been awfully good at his job. He was then Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 2002-2007, and yes, I should have known this.

Bartleman talked about the background of his novel As Long as the Rivers Flow, about First Nations kids entering suicide pacts and killing themselves at age thirteen because their future lives seemed to be pointless. It was heart-breaking–I found myself tearing up, and I’m not a crier. The parents of these children were mostly survivors of residential schools, where they’d faced years of racial (and often, sexual) abuse.  Obviously, if you’d been plucked away from your parents at age six and then returned to them at sixteen, after undergoing ten years of barbaric treatment, you’d have little knowledge about how to provide a supportive atmosphere for your own children. And this isn’t comfortingly ancient history–according to Wikipedia, “the last residential school, White Calf Collegiate, was closed in 1996.” WTF. WTF.WTF.

I’m a little fearful of reading the novel–I think I’ll wait for the fall, by which time I’ll hopefully have gathered up my courage. Oh, and  Bartleman (who is a member of the Chippewas of Mnjikaning First Nation) has advocated for many years to build literacy in First Nations communities, and to date, he’s gathered over 2 million books for this initiative. Holy wow.

Next up was Wayne Johnston, who spoke about injecting fiction into historical nonfiction for narrative balance–and the consequences  of that decision when he began the publicity for his book, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (which deals with the history of Newfoundland). I don’t know much about the subject, so I’ll just say that Johnston is an excellent raconteur with a fine repository of accents, and leave it there.

My blog giveaway winner Mayank and I were both madly excited to hear Rohinton Mistry, whom we count among the best writers in the world. (I spent twenty minutes with a flat-iron in Mistry’s honor before setting out to the event. No, nobody noticed.) Mistry read from his short work The Scream, which was originally available back in 2006 in a limited edition of 150 copies, and sold exclusively by World Literacy Canada to raise funds for them.  The original edition was priced at $500, and the proceeds went to literacy efforts in South Asia; the book is now available for $15.68 on Amazon for us cheapies.

Mistry’s intense, dramatic reading had me glued to my chair, but sadly (for me, that is), his session was confined to his book–he didn’t talk about his writing process, and there was no Q&A after, so I have no news or insight to offer about his work. He did however mention he was working on a new book, so we can all breathe easy and cross off Christmas presents for an upcoming year. I’d planned to buy The Scream and get it signed, but the booksellers ran out of copies, so I had to content myself with his signature on my program. Which I’ll treasure forevah!

And finally, a big shout-out to World Literacy Canada, for all their work in bring people and literature together, both here in Toronto and all over the globe. There was so much positive energy in that room that night, the sort of energy produced when you are having a good time and doing something good. That combination doesn’t occur often in my life; I can’t wait for next year’s Kama!

Come, Before Evening Falls by Manjul Bajaj

Come, Before Evening Falls takes place in the village of Kaala Saand in Punjab in 1910, and features characters belong to the Jat(t) community, an agrarian sect with a long tradition of working in the armed forces. I was agreeably surprised by this novel setting—most contemporary Indian writing in English is remorselessly urban, as is media reportage; it’s all too easy to forget that seven in every 10 Indians live in a village. Bajaj writes about the period knowledgeably and with affection, and the book gives a real feel for village life a century ago. I’ve learnt a recipe for a poultice involving charred garlic in mustard oil on a half-baked roti, and I also now know how to make a cowpat; let my knowledge never require translation into action, Lord.  Seriously: Bajaj has done some impressive research, and this reader is the richer for it.

Of course, none of this would count if the story didn’t grab me.

Jugni is eighteen, beautiful, and possessed of a calm good sense that flies in the face of her feelings for Raakha, the new school teacher. For Raakha is the bastard son of a second wife, landless and poor, while Jugni is rooted deep in her prosperous family and community. But the deadest fly in this rustic stew is gotra, the Hindu custom of assigning patrilineal clans at birth. Those with the same gotra, like Jugni and Raakha, are considered siblings, even if there isn’t a single shared ancestor over the past twenty generations. (Yes, it’s whack, especially considering the culture welcomes  other consanguineous marriages.)  But gotra laws were considered immutable, and the village would view Jugni and Raakha’s love as incest. Will this relationship die unrealized, caught in a stasis between love and honor? Not if the headstrong Raakha has his way.

Bajaj’s touch is painterly when describing the minutiae of her characters’ lives; when the canvas broadens to include, say, riffs on the British government, or the nature of human kind, she’s much less assured. But there’s some top quality writing here, and the author’s passion and sincerity shine right through, invigorating potential clichés at every turn. The burden of family honor has traditionally (and unreasonably) been placed upon womenfolk in such narratives, but Bajaj subverts that notion; Jugni realizes that honor isn’t gendered, but is simply “what we each owed our own deepest soul.” Jugni and Raakha are utterly convincing, strongly defined and beautifully fleshed in, and Jugni in particular is charming, child-like yet possessed of a surprising maturity. And oh, the secondary characters aren’t half-bad either.

Now for the (minor) bad stuff. I had two issues with this book. One, Bajaj isn’t as disciplined in describing Raakha’s romantic feelings as she is with Jugni’s, so some of the writing (in his POV) veers into romance novel territory. “He had tried his damndest to stay out of her way, to let it not come to this, but the further he had tried to retreat, the clearer her voice had grown in his head.” And on Jugni’s eyes: “If he could just sit and gaze into them uninterrupted he would be redeemed.” Ooogh.

My other nit is with this book is the mixing of Punjabi and English. (Wait, it’s not the nit you expect.) Now, the characters obviously speak in Punjabi, and, equally obviously, Bajaj is trying to impart the flavor of the language in her writing. All good; I don’t mind Punjabi words peppering the text though I don’t speak the language, and I don’t even have a problem with the Hinglish (Pinglish?)spoken by the characters. “I’ll buy you sliver toe-rings at the mela [fair], I promise, and I’ll always steal the best ambis [young mangoes] for you,” says a young cousin. But then, I came across “According to the boys, Tau [uncle] was only satthyao-ing…” The last word makes a gerund of the Hindi word Satthya, meaning to go senile, by adding the English “ing”. Now, this portmanteau word is very clearly Bajaj speaking, for none of the boys could coin such a word–they wouldn’t know how to. The intrusive authorial voice all but broke the spell of the book for me; I saw the author sitting with a Macbook at a Barista typing that line. Get me back to Kaala Saand village and the cowpats, I cried, and Bajaj did, but it was a close thing. As I said earlier, it’s just a nit, but this work is otherwise so strong that the nits might as well be clothed in neon. Please change this when the book goes into reprint, please, please.

UPDATE: A note from the author informs me that the “satthyao-ing” is gone from the second edition.  And that the book is now available on Kindle:  http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007VXRT3K  Buy it, y’all!

Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup

The linchpin of Vikas Swarup’s  Q&A (better known as Slumdog Millionaire) was coincidence — twenty of them, to be exact. The readers, however, were not required to suspend disbelief, for they could share the authorities’ scepticism (about coincidence providing the answers to the protagonist). By making the credibility of the events central to his narrative, Swarup elevated Q&A from thriller to genre-breaker. The novel’s in-your-face ingenuity ensured that the coincidences never dwindled into obvious literary devices.

Six Suspects, Swarup’s much awaited second novel, is again held together by the notion of coincidence. This time around, however, the author expects us to swallow it all with no explanation. But while far less convincing than Q&A, Six Suspects is wildly, shamelessly entertaining. Swarup is the Dan Brown of India, with the advantage of not having to look to history for inspiration; modern-day India, with its gaping social chasms and colorful political landscape, provides ample material to conspiracy theorists.

Vicky Rai, the corrupt son of a corrupt politician, kills a young woman in a fit of rage. Despite the presence of several witnesses during the murder, Vicky is acquitted by the Indian judicial system. When Vicky is shot dead at a party celebrating the verdict, six suspects emerge: a Bollywood actress, a tribal, a petty thief, an American visitor, a bureaucrat and a politician. Each has a motive, each has a gun, and each one’s life is filled with coincidence. The American is named Larry Page (just like the Google guy)! The actress has a doppelganger! The thief is in love with a suspect’s daughter! Each sentence describing these six characters deserves an exclamation!

Sadly, the characters themselves are stereotypes; some more than others. The Bollywood actress is an intellectual; we know this because she quotes Nietzsche (“my Master”) and Sartre in her diary, and mentions Heidegger and Malamud in an interview. More troubling, however, is the intellectually-challenged Texan who works at a Walmart and says things like “Me and Mom are closer than ticks on a hound,” who references the Rose Bowl, Miss Hooters International, and the Starplex Cinema at Waco in his introduction. Swarup is on very thin ice here indeed.

And as for the plot: at times, it seems this frantic tale should be shelved under fantasy –the story lurches about crazily, moving from Kashmir to Chennai to the remote Andaman Islands to New Delhi. But it’s all strangely addictive, and makes for a cracking good read. Questioning Swarup’s style and plot developments while reading is like thinking about kinesiology during sex. Why spoil the fun?

Six Suspects is nothing if not ambitious, seeking to encompass each of modern India’s many issues in four hundred seventy pages. Poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and endemic institutional corruption all find a mention. Terrorism in Kashmir: check. The Bhopal gas tragedy: check. A shamefully inadequate safety net for the underprivileged: check. A growing economic divide leading to escalating crime: check. Centrist policies disenfranchising those away from the seats of power: check. If I’ve left out any of India’s manifold woes — well, you’ll find them in this novel. After all, Swarup’s combination of feel-good emotion in the midst of grim Indian reality is a proven winner. It should surprise no-one that the film rights to this novel were snapped up long ago.

(A slightly modified version of this review appears in The Asian Review of Books.)