Thursday 30 March 2017

The Confession of Sultana Daku, by Sujit Saraf

A few thoughts about The Confession of Sultana Daku, by Sujit Saraf:

This is a “narrated autobiography” of the famous dacoit, Sultana Daku, who lived in Uttar Pradesh and committed his crimes around the beginning of the 20th century. The proclaimed scribe is a British officer who helped capture him - so Saraf has the advantage of describing the story both from Sultana’s world view and from the British man’s.

The story proceeds pretty much as expected: Sultan is born to a tribe/caste that prides itself on its dharm of being dakus, and learns the tricks of the “trade” from his grandfather. He grows up, becomes a feared dacoit, his gang grows and shrinks, until he is eventually captured (which is where the story begins, on the eve of his execution). In fact at a few points, the story was so sedate that I felt there was nothing new to say in terms of narrative form - it reminded me of the self-congratulatory businessmans-ghost-written-autobiographies that are prevalent these days.

However, the setting and the detailed research that Saraf puts into the time partly redeems the book. The traditions of the people, their intricate social customs, the interaction with the different types of British people, all are lovingly captured. How true to life is this worldbuilding? I can’t vouch for all of it, but it certainly feels real. The tone reminds one of Kipling’s English, and there is the very typical Raj-era tendency of putting faux “folk wisdom” into the mouths of characters at every chance. “Know, my son, that we do not rob the same man twice, even if he has identified you to the police.” Saraf is probably reminding us that this isn’t Sultana’s language exactly, but his language as filtered through the British translation.

A couple of places seem over-researched - would an illiterate dacoit identify a dog as a “Rampur Hound”, when even the British can’t? But it’s still all right. As Indians in search of an identity, we need more books like this, which turn historical events into folklore that we can identify with. Indeed, seen from that perspective, it seems churlish of me to have any criticism whatsoever of the book.

But I must make one final point. The title is very reminiscent of the classic The Confessions of Nat Turner, which, too, was a narrated autobiography of a black revolutionary/criminal in Civil-War-era Southern United States. Whereas Nat Turner turned his whole lived experience into a semi-mystical experience, Sultana only succeeds in becoming a frame for the British Raj atmosphere. There is not much character arc or growth for Sultana through the book, which would have elevated it to a classic status. Nor are any other characters given much to do. Instead of a Hero’s Journey, we have a hero standing still while the world revolves around him, showing us its facets.

Still - worth a quick read for the atmosphere, and Saraf is someone to watch out for as he grows. Thank you for not doing the overused “Magical Realism” thing here and keeping it grounded and realistic.

Saturday 25 March 2017

The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi, by Aditya Sudarshan

A few thoughts on The Persecution of Madhav Tripathi, by Aditya Sudarshan (SPOILERS ahead, in case you are going to read it in the near future)
  • I’m glad I’m writing this post here on my own blog instead of being paid for it. It leaves me no sense of guilt of short changing anybody. 
  • First, the good: Sudarshan’s language is good and the writing is smooth. If he was successfully channelling Agatha Christie in his first book (A Nice Quiet Holiday, which I'd recommend), here he’s probably channelling Kafka. None of that awkward “deti hai to de warna kat le” kind of English. Another good: the book is short, just above 200 pages. So you get done quickly. 
  • Having gotten that out of the way: WHAT THE ****? TWO HUNDRED PAGES just to tell the target audience that it’s too privileged and smug for its own good? With a bunch of scenes out of drug-addled nightmares thrown in? (“The dragonfly began to gnash its teeth. The sound overpowered the room (or something like that)”) I get it, this is an experimental book, with an aspiration towards high literature, but as far as I know it isn’t the function of high literature to make us throw the book across the room. 
  • Never mind that last paragraph. On to the putative story: Madhav Tripathi, a government officer, get caught in some sort of conspiracy where a shadowy rebel group is after him. He thinks of himself as a fine, upstanding person (though not above reprimanding policemen who dare to think of him as a common person). His circle of friends is also composed of similar upstanding higher-middle-class people who form the “system” of society. As he goes further and further into the mess – getting kidnapped, running to a farmhouse to hide away, venturing into labyrinthian slums, and so on – he find himself hemmed in by the society’s “do-gooders” who actually care about the downtrodden and forgotten. His circle keeps getting smaller and smaller. The narration takes his side throughout, although he becomes clear that Sudarshan is poking fun at him.
  • The scenes get more and more bizarre as we go on (as I said, Kafka). Existential dread and dementia are theories we come up with, though no clarification is offered. It ends in a "was it all real or not?" kind of shift (I know, spoilers. Sorry. But needed here). That ending made me feel like I'd wasted my time. 
 Should you read it? Not unless the above review really made you think I'm an idiot for not understanding deep stuff. Having said that, Sudarshan has all the right tools, and his next book may well be the classic we've all been waiting for. 


Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama

A few thoughts on Six Four, by Hideo Yokoyama: 

  • This book is BIG compared to typical crime novels. My paperback edition is 630 pages. It also has a lot more characters than usual – nearly two dozen, and it took me several chapters to get used to the feel of the thing. Just as a counterpoint bit of data: another Japanese hit: The Devotion of Suspect X, which is just about 300 pages, and has no more than a half-dozen total names.
  • The theme is also not comparable to the typical thriller or crime novel. Six Four delights in setting up a world with multiple factions and rivalries, all around the functioning of a police department. The tension comes from the politics within, as well as the cases without. Some reviewers have talked of the novel “meandering” throughout the middle part before finally returning to the main theme. I disagree – the “main theme” - that of the numerous complexities that a police system develops – is very tightly coupled with the main crime and its eventual resolution. If there’s another book that this reminds me of, it would be James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia, though that goes off in a totally different direction.
  • Not to add spoilers here, but the title refers to a child kidnapping case that the police haven’t been able to solve for 14 years now, and how it has affected the personnel involved in different ways. In parallel, the protagonist’s daughter has disappeared and he is also worked up about an upcoming official’s visit to the department. Not all the threads get resolved completely, but that is part of the point of the book. 
  • Six Four is a deliberate effort to get across the complexities of life in modern Japan – but with a tighter focus on the negatives. I remember a friend once telling me he loved England and it’s ways, purely based on its depiction in P G Wodehouse novels. You’re likely to feel the opposite here – you’ll be scared of Japan based on how it’s depicted here. 
  • Translation is excellent and gets the point across while displaying some real style. I am enthused about reading more by Yokoyama when it becomes available in English. Apparently this book is part of a series, so there should be more to come.

    Should you read it? There’s no denying it’s slow in the first 3/4ths and that it has lots of characters. Unless you’re willing to make a real time commitment to this, you’ll find it frustrating. But if you make the effort, it really pays off.