The End of Innocence
Author: Moni Mohsin
Publisher: Penguin Books India
Price: Rs 395
As a young boy, my favourite pastime in the afternoons was to get together a band of friends from the neighbourhood and race up and down the building’s staircase.
A widower lived on the top floor. Finding his siesta interrupted, he would lurk behind the doors of his apartment, his eyes glued to the spy hole. He would emerge just at the moment the breathless 10-year-old winner, having reached the top floor, was getting ready to celebrate. Grabbing the offender by his neck he would proceed to deliver a short lecture on the controversial subject of ‘how to live one’s life’. “Running around all day is fine, boy, but there are more serious things in life. Don’t squander your time. Halt, step back, and refocus. Ask yourself questions: Who am I? What am I doing? Where am I going?” He would make the boy repeat the three questions after him, then loosen his grip. Liberated, the boy would leap down the stairs, back to his waiting, giggling gang, the three Ws already a fading memory.
Novelists from the sub-continent might benefit by taking a break from compulsive writing, and asking themselves: Who am I? Why have I chosen to write novels? Do I have a story to tell? Clearly, Moni Mohsin failed to pose these questions before embarking on her mission and the result is a disaster.
Nine-year-old Laila is spending her winter vacation at her family estate in Sabzbag, along with ayah and grandma. For company she has Rani, the teenage granddaughter of a family retainer. Rani falls in love, gets pregnant and hell breaks loose in feudal Pakistan. The fundamental premise is rich with possibility: the friendship between two young girls, both inhabiting the same physical space but belonging to differ ent social realms. But Moni is not content with writing a simple, coming-ofage tale, she also wants this to be a coming-of-age story of a country. Can any novel from the subcontinent be taken seriously unless it talks about the nation? The 1971 war hovers in the background, an unwilling, faceless servant to the watery plot.
The tone is highly uneven. Parts of the novel read like an Enid Blyton family saga (Laila’s mother asks her children to ‘pipe down’), parts like an Inspector Ghote whodunit. Some of the romantic passages could be straight out of Mills and Boon: “the whispering squirt of perfume”, “a crimson bud of jealousy unfurled in Laila’s stomach”, and, my favourite, “Rani shut her eyes and savoured the feathery caress of his voice.” Like a bad Balaji scriptwriter, she uses coincidence to further the narrative. Weeks after a murder, a passing policeman chances upon his quarry lying drunk in a gutter, muttering his victim’s name. Convenient. Some descriptions come dangerously close to corny television: “…Rani’s face would drift before her closed eyelids, wavy, frondlike, a reflection on water…The image would dissolve suddenly, as if a stone had been hurled into water.”
There are more clichés. The “spicy, buttery aroma of fried samosas” wafts across rooms that smell of “just-dried limewash.” A Keralite nun stuck in rural Pakistan, yearns for Kerala: “I can still smell the banana groves, you know. And taste the sea breezes and the coconut.” Mohsin forgot the coffee.
Laila’s grandmother, Sardar Begum, is the only character who comes alive in the entire novel. Anyone with a Punjabi granny will be able to recognise in Begum a classic type: “She yearned for the big masculine world outside; for news of local elections won and lost…fluctuations in the market.” While the husband reads Hafiz and Ibn Khaldun, she minutely examines “registers and ledgers”. After his death she takes over, becoming a far more efficient farmer than him. She prefers to remember her placid and bookish husband with an atypical gilt-framed photograph: “It showed a portly, young man in jodhpurs and turban astride a stallion, with a falcon perched on his wrist.”
Palash Krishna Mehrotra teaches at Doon School.