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The good, the bad, the ho-hum

An 'idea' novel that fails to engage beyond the predictable, writes Kathakali Jana.
Hindustan Times | By Kathakali Jana
UPDATED ON MAR 17, 2008 05:34 PM IST

Dark Afternoons

Bani Basu

KATHA RS 250 PP 268

There's this thing about literature that makes it neater than life: It has fewer loose ends. A greater sense of justice often makes the reading of fiction a less exasperating experience than life itself. This is why writers, more often than not, are tempted to produce works that are gratifyingly 'moral'.

But there can be too much of a good thing too. And an excess of righteousness can be cloyingly sweet.

Dark Afternoons

, a translation of Bengali novelist Bani Basu's

Kharap Chhele

(Bad Boy), could really make your fingers sticky with thick syrup. The villain of the piece - he's so rude, uncouth and intemperate that you mark him out as a baddie from the beginning - gets his just deserts at the end.

The 'good' characters are left better off as a result. In her oversimplification, Basu cannot resist the temptation of making him a nasty piece of work, forgetting to give him a single streak of redemptive grey that might have won her a brownie point or two. This probably drives home the point that the characters in

Dark Afternoons

belong to the realm of 'ideas'.

Jina, the protagonist, is lively, humorous, positive and pretty. Her sister-in-law, Mallika, is docile, longsuffering and beautiful in the way that idols are. And their father-in-law, Kalyan De Sarkar is liberal, kindly and enlightened.

It is to Basu's credit that both Jina and Mallika change in the course of the novella - Jina becomes more gritty and courageous while Mallika is able to summarily remove the single-most important cause of her submissive life and emerge as the heroine - but there is a predictable quality to the transformation.

Jina had to grow the way she had done to justify her place as the central character And to any long-time reader of the popular fiction genre it had begun to look obvious who Mallika's tormentor for many years had been. And so, when the ending comes, it brings with it none of the rush of adrenaline that it might have brought if there had been any sense of surprise in it.

There is an element of the tantalisingly surreal in Mallika's dreams, which significantly come to bother her only in the afternoons. Jina takes up a job to relieve her of her lonely afternoons of unbearable inactivity Much of the action, including the gruesome one of the novella's denouement, occurs in the afternoon.

Basu displays a clever sense of structure in her use of this warp in time, the cusp of indolence that rests languidly between the bustle of morning and easy hospitality of evening. She skilfill1y handles in the dichotomies of a social worker's life.

While commitment to a cause is one thing, the practical and rather disturbing parameters of how far one should or can go is not any less important. However, the troubling issues apart, the work remains a somewhat shallow one, dithering on the threshold of semiserious literature. It is a novel that can be read from cover to cover in the course of an afternoon, dark or otherwise, and feel nicer about it by the evening.

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