Bapsi Sidhwa's novel Water, based on Deepa Mehta’s film, is a great example of how distance seems to lend poignancy and interest to writers helping themselves to current events and real people for their plots. (And we’ll ignore for a second that Bapsi’s plot is really Deepa’s plot). For, there’s also the slight matter of writerly craft, of passion conveyed with skill.
Is that why several Indian Writers in English (IWE) fail to cut the mustard when they try to be ‘relevant’ and ‘contextualised in reality’? And why Bapsi’s girl-widows matter so dreadfully to us and leave us ‘feeling bad’ long after, in ways many other novels by IWE don’t?
In Water, Gandhi’s radical views intrude in the world of the widows, but only as a background hum in the West Bengal of the 1930s. Bapu makes a cameo appearance, addressing the people of the widows’ town from his railway carriage and Bapsi’s heroine, little widow Chuyia, is bundled off on that very train, hopefully to real-life moksha.
The cause does not overwhelm the characters and Bapsi’s people go straight to our capricious heart. Moreover, the political resonances are long past, which adds value to the important readerly business of re-discovery and I-never-knew-that.
Do you need that historical distance, anyway, if you are a writer, especially a self-conscious IWE oppressed by the need to a) sound ‘meaningful’; and b) need help with your plot? Let’s take a look at a random pick of IWE.
So I may as well utter this blasphemy: I couldn’t finish A Suitable Boy. Contemporary history was at a safe enough distance and several interesting moments happened. But Seth’s people were boring; I found to my dismay after forking out Rs 500 that I didn’t care what became of them and stopped reading. Two Lives had some horrific gas chamber moments but petered out shabbily in family spite — another case of contemporary history and a real-life plot not ‘getting’ you. An Equal Music, without ‘news’, was brilliant though.
Page 2: Shashi Tharoor, Gita Hariharan
Or take Shashi Tharoor. You could argue till you fell in fatigue that the Mahabharata, on which Tharoor models The Great Indian Novel, is at the safest distance of all. And yet, it’s killingly contemporary because to ask stern questions about this epic’s age is like asking, ‘How old is Spring?’ Again, who cares? It reads well, khalas. But Tharoor’s Riot, which seemed at first like a ‘dark elegy to India’, is not a book you go back to because neither plot nor people beckon with the promise of further discovery. How much more can Tharoor tell us about a Tambrahm IAS officer in a UP town struggling with his conscience and an E.M. Forsterish mem amidst H-and-M riots actually mixed with news clippings in the novel?
Nudging Tharoor hard is Githa Hariharan. If you managed to read In Times of Siege without feeling cross, you’re clearly bucking for sainthood. Hariharan picks herself a great salad to toss: a liberal, moderate, mild-mannered college teacher whose heart cleaves to Basavanna, the medieval Kannada Virashaiva poet. Hariharan jumps right into the ugliness of his politics-ridden world, the ghastly girl he tumbles, the depressing ordinariness and angst of the bloody-minded India that we read about every single day in the newspapers. It should work, right, as a guaranteed gut-wrencher? So why doesn’t it? No subtlety, that’s what. The cause overwhelms the characters and the arugula leaves lose their crunch in Heavy Author Dressing.
While you’re at it, check out Manju Kapur’s A Married Woman. Babri masjid becomes a plot issue and the gruesome deaths of Safdar Hashmi and the Staineses are combined for a character. Far from appreciating this cleverness, you feel somehow outraged that real lives from so close in time should be used so badly by an author who perhaps couldn’t sustain a plot of her own. Would we forgive, though, if it were a good read? I rest my case.