Review: Life Over Two Beers by Sanjeev Sanyal

Moving from Singapore to Ladakh and Kolkata, Sanjeev Sanyal’s short stories have some interesting plot lines
Of Bengali-ness, animated conversations, and addas: Kolkata, 2002.(Subhendu Ghosh)
Of Bengali-ness, animated conversations, and addas: Kolkata, 2002.(Subhendu Ghosh)
Updated on Aug 03, 2018 11:37 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByRevati Laul
232pp, ₹250; Penguin
232pp, ₹250; Penguin

Some books tell you more about the writer than what they’re writing about. And not necessarily in a good way. This one will bring the anthropologist out in you. Read it just for that. The obvious clue is in the book title. Nice and aspirational. Which could be fun. I imagined two jocks telling stories to each other over some frothy beer, college-mates catching up in their forties. Far from it. The title story in this book of short stories is about an out-of-work marketing executive meeting a girl over beer. He lands a project in the NGO she works in and discovers the scamming in the development sector. The story, like many others in the book starts in one place with one idea, then veers off in an altogether different direction that doesn’t connect remotely with the first.

For instance, two pages of the 20 that make up this story are about the guy getting laid off work in Singapore and catching up with friends over a few drinks to drown the meltdown in the stock market. Just as you are imagining a beer bar in mellow light and street food and the smell of stir fry, the story jerks you out of that space abruptly and air-drops you into Ladakh. You think for a moment – oh okay, this is about a love story between two people. And then 10 pages are about the details of an HIV project gone wrong in the NGO. And the story ends.

What the main character look like is never established in any of Sanjeev Sanyal’s stories. This is a writer who believes only and entirely in giving you a plot. As long as he’s told you – man enters the room, man meets girl; what the room looked like or how either felt is not present on the page. It is deemed altogether unnecessary. In fact, in every single story in the book, Sanyal firmly and purposefully inverts the writer’s mantra of show not tell. He only tells you and never shows you.

For instance, in his story – ‘The Intellectuals,’ Sanyal’s protagonist is in an animated conversation at a Kolkata tea-house. It’s meant to parody the philosopher in every Bengali. But the author doesn’t take you there. He only tells you about it. “In the course of the next hour and a half, over more cups of tea, the conversation took many twists and turns,” he writes. But doesn’t flesh out even one conversation. He summarizes them instead. “A detailed comparison of Obama’s position in Afghanistan versus Nixon’s in Vietnam, and the nineteenth-century British experience with the Afghan Wars.” So the funniness and the Bengali-ness and every other ‘ness’ is for you, the reader, to invent and Sanyal to merely suggest. Anthropological conclusion number one: the author comes across like someone who loves the sound of his own voice. Cannot stop until he has finished and doesn’t care if what he says takes you there or not. He assumes you get it.

Author Sanjeev Sanyal. (Mohd Zakir/HT PHOTO)
Author Sanjeev Sanyal. (Mohd Zakir/HT PHOTO)

The worst (or best, depending on your view) illustration of this is in his story titled ‘Waiting at the Time of Cow-Dust.’ Not a brilliant title. It begins with the rather unlovely line – “Subhadra sat in front of her hut cutting a few meagre vegetables…” It goes on to describe her husband as someone who “was also a crack shot,” by which he means an excellent hunter. By page three we don’t know what Subhadhra looks like or where she lives. We know it’s some sort of guerilla camp. It sounds like Chhattisgarh but there are no visual cues. Subhadra’s son is asked to guide soldiers trying to weed out rebels. All we know by now is that there is a guerilla war and there are rebels and Subhadra’s husband and son are not on the side of the rebels. By page three a smidgen of a plot is established in which the son is assisting the soldiers in their hunt for the guerillas and Subhadhra is waiting for her son to return. Then Sanjeev stops the story in its tracks with the following: “Now she was waiting in front of her hut, hoping the boy would be back before dark.” And four sentences later, the story abruptly ends with this line. “The story of Abhimanyu is so well known that I will spare the reader the details of what had happened.” Okay then. The writer feels it’s enough to outline a plot and then tell the reader to basically find the rest of the story by Googling the Mahabharata. This is certainly a first. A do-it-yourself story. Anthropological deduction number two: The writer is smug.

From the first story to the last, there is another inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the flat narratives and poorly constructed sentences. A creeping classist gaze in the writer. The first story, ‘The Used-Car Salesman’ baulks at the idea of the said creature rising through the ranks and deceptively making his way into the art and literary circuit. It’s supposed to be funny by assuming a classist position. That unless you have grown up reading great literature and consuming high art, feigning your way into it is crass and class-less. True but also when the writer robs the protagonist of any endearing features it’s a story that almost says – laugh at the car salesman who masquerades as a William Dalrymple prototype. Why should the reader find any of this inherently funny?

Especially since one of the crutches Sanjeev Sanyal leans on to parody this story is the Tehelka rape case. The rape was only used as a device to bring the story to a climax. But anything could have been used instead. That rape was used as a prop to parody a situation says much more about the crassness of the writer rather than his fictional salesman protagonist.

Read more: This excerpt from a book demolishes Ashoka’s reputation as pacifist

There are some interesting plot-lines. Where the story has an unexpected twist and since you are only reading for plot, it holds your attention somewhat. ‘The Conference Call,’ is one such. It’s a call-centre idea gone out of whack and could easily become a story in the online series trending on Netflix – ‘Dark Mirror.’ Also, ‘The Re-Union,’ and ‘The Bench by The Lake.’ There is a certain hoariness with which the author approaches Kolkata and any other Bengali settings. Other cities are named. Not Kolkata. You are expected to guess the city in question from lines like this – “The lake lies to the south, not far from a once fashionable neighbourhood of a once vigorous city.” But I won’t tag this as anthropological. You can complete that part of the story on your own. I will offer instead, a sampler of the lines that stood out the most for their lack of deliverability on every front:

“She stepped into the sun and the noisy bustle.”

“He was a bit older than the rest, mid forties, and often wore Indian clothes in the self-conscious Merchant-Ivory sort of way.” That bit got to me. Merchant-Ivory sort of way!

And oh, there is the poetry. I won’t say anything. I leave you with an extract that says it all. From the poem titled, ‘Exile’.

“The stars were brighter

The snow was whiter

The peaches sweeter

The restless river…”

Revati Laul is a Delhi based journalist and film-maker and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ forthcoming from Context/Westland in November 2018

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