One evening in Goa, as a panel of five women discussed 'Does literature have a gender?' it was inevitable that someone would mention "patriarchy", a word that has as much literary beauty as "he rasped". It is a label that ensures that a writer need not work hard to convey a severe opinion, a label that makes a swift accusation and hopes to unite all women in commemoration of their wounds.
Upon hearing this modern reprimand, the custom is, the informed men in a room must shut up in mild shame and once again resolve to be better people. But the moderator of the panel, CP Surendran, said, "What's wrong with patriarchy? Patriarchy gave you the contraceptive pill."
Surendran is a living heritage of a time when middle-aged men said in public the things that came to their minds. For that reason, he is reviled, and admired, and often entertaining. The speech of a writer is usually a poor indicator of the nature of his prose. But in Surendran's case, the voices are consistent. As they are in Hadal, his latest novel that suspects it is poetry but aspires to be cinema.
Hadal, whose synopsis the author tweeted, 'Indians are oversexed and underfkd', begins with a dream. That is highly amusing for one reason.
About five years ago, in an unflattering review of 'The Pleasure Seekers', the debut novel of the poet and dancer Tishani Doshi, he wrote: 'Unless you are very lucky, it's best not to start a novel with a dream. A dream is an easy way out of explanation or contextualisation. Invariably, the reader feels a little cheated. Besides, it's passive suffering for the character and portrays him in an unnecessarily vulnerable light…And you would be forgiven if you wondered what would happen to the structure and narrative of the novel if the dream was edited out. The answer is, nothing, of course.'
It is not clear what Surendran meant by 'Unless you are very lucky'. If that ambiguity is ignored, everything he says about the follies of starting a novel with a dream is true of Hadal's own start in which a central character dreams: '…as a boy of twelve, he ran endlessly by a black lake because he no longer knew how to stop.'
That a novelist has employed the very technique he had condemned in another novel points to nothing illuminating except that the most meaningful dismissal of a novel one loathes is 'It did not work'. Searching beyond those words, searching for exalted reasons in technique or style might be perilous.
'Hadal', an adjective that describes oceanic depths greater than 6,000 metres, promotes itself as a novel 'inspired by a true story'. The true story was a spy scandal that broke in the Thiruvananthapuram offices of the Indian Space Research Organisation in the early Nineties. An Indian rocket scientist was accused of passing information to a Maldivian woman, whom the Kerala police accused of being a spy and a honey trap. The Central Bureau of Investigation later dismissed the charges as fabrications. So did the Supreme Court.
In Hadal, an unhappy and beautiful Maldivian woman, Miriam, who flees from a dead marriage to Kerala, with plans to attempt a novel, falls in the unholy gaze of a diabolic cop, Honey Kumar, who has a fear of falling coconuts. Unfortunate then that he is posted in Kerala. His fear of coconuts owes its beginnings to a childhood incident that gives Surendran the opportunity to send a feminist to her inglorious death. Kumar's mother, Monica, was 'all fire and feminist… if a dog and a bitch fought over a bone, she was on the side of the bitch…' One day she was standing under a coconut tree and saying, 'Women must be allowed to be toddy tappers', when a coconut fell on 'her head crowned with triumphant thoughts of gender justice. Monica extended her hands in front of her and bowed her legs from the hips as if she were riding a horse.' Then the toddy pot, too, fell on her head.
Miriam spurns Kumar's advances, and has an affair with a space scientist, Roy, whose wife, we come to know, makes love only in the missionary position. The diabolic cop frames Miriam and Roy in an espionage crime and the two must now extricate themselves from the fable. Surendran has drawn much from the true spy scandal.
There is a belief that a novel that claims it is 'based on a true story' entices readers. Does such a claim really have any value? The German writer Gunter Grass told The Paris Review, "This 'fiction versus nonfiction' business is nonsense. It may be useful to booksellers to classify books by genre, but I don't like having my books categorized that way. I've always imagined some committee of booksellers holding meetings to decide which books should be called fiction and which nonfiction.'
It is this that is nonsense. A book is either fact or fiction, there is no honest state in between, and a reader's mind perceives a book exactly this way. A book that is not entirely factual is a work of fiction. This is why In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, once a non-fiction classic but disgraced after evidence emerged that Capote fabricated things, is now listed among the top 100 'novels' by The Guardian. But the inclusion of the book in the list of novels is foolish.
If a reader who does not know the charmed history of In Cold Blood reads it as pure fiction, it is unlikely that she might consider it a great novel. The greatness of the book lay in the presumption that it was entirely true, and within that consideration it was a stunning work of journalism. But when the quality of factuality is taken away from it, as a novel, it is probably merely good, not great. If Hadal were entirely factual, it would have been a great book, but as it is a novel, the reader measures it by very different standards - not higher standards, just different. That it was 'inspired by a true story' does nothing to alter the fact that it is a work of fiction.
The modern Indian writer fears notoriety. But the risks of infamy contain the possibility of rewards because that is the nature of risk. Hadal can stake a claim because it is a delinquent novel by a delinquent, which is rare in Indian English fiction. To be precise, it is a delinquent cinematic novel.
It is not just his views about women that Surendran finds hard to keep in his lungs, it is also, in fact mostly, his views about himself. In the acknowledgments section of his book, in a space that is meant to thank others, he manages to pay compliments to himself. For instance, an associate thought, 'it was one of the best books….so many memorable lines.' In the section, Surendran also conveys an analysis of the novel, '…it's neither pleasingly exotic nor prettily clever and correct.' He means it in a
Manu Joseph is the author of The Illicit Happiness of Other People