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God! Of small town things again?

A novel from a non-fiction writer who terribly wanted to write a novel. The result is all too visible, opines Palash K Mehrotra.

india Updated: Apr 23, 2007 16:01 IST

Home Products
Author: Amitava Kumar
Publisher: Picador India
Price: Rs 495
Pages: 328

In the beginning was the St Stephen’s School of fiction. Then a bunch of like-minded, ‘underprivileged’ authors felt that SSS was not properly representative of our society and floated a rival, the Patna School. In a classic desi move, one dubious idea (‘Real India’ lives in St Stephen’s) was countered by a proposition of even greater dubitability: ‘Real India’ lives in small towns.

For these writers, India is a burden, a rucksack strapped permanently to their backs. This is in stark contrast to a younger generation of novelists, people like Sarnath Banerjee and Chetan Bhagat, for whom India is more like 5-pocket Levis they slip in and out of
at will.

Amitava Kumar’s debut novel is a good example of the Patna School. According to the blurb, “Home Products brings aglow the struggle against small-town beginnings.”

Characters are inevitably bogged down by custom and ritual, by the law of the community. Their attempts at escaping these brutal, suffocated spaces often end in failure. This is a very deterministic view of individuals and the effect society has on them. Indian society is granted too much agency and bhaav; always it is the mighty ubiquitous dark force that crushes the ‘crude and unformed’ individual.

Surely, life is more complicated than this.

Shackled by society, trapped within the author’s totalitarian vision, the Patna School protagonist is doomed even before she is born.

The story of Home Products is the story of a Bihari journalist Binod and his cousin Rabinder. Binod is asked to write a script based on a true life story of a murdered girl, a poet killed by the politician by whom she is pregnant. Rabinder is the clever one, not unwilling to take short cuts: one day he is arrested for turning his cybercafé into a porn parlour.

The novel progresses via a series of odd couplings: sex and death, Bollywood and Bihar, prison and freedom. All this takes place under the steady lamplight of world events: 9/11, the Tehelka tapes, the Iraq war.

Passport Photos and Husband of a Fanatic, Kumar’s two previous works of nonfiction, worked well because of the sheer brilliance of his scatter-brained intensity. His flickering eye illumines and obfuscates in equal measure the shadowy area that lies between self and society. In the post-modern world where the self inhabits multiple societies, this is a worthwhile enterprise. The bricolage approach, though, fails in this novel.

One turns the Kumar kaleidoscope but the broken pieces of bangle refuse to form any pattern. In a plug-essay in The Hindu, Kumar has spoken honestly of the difficulty he had in finding a voice for the novel. The problem still remains. Kumar’s own voice, unable to resist the temptation to hold forth on subjects dear to his heart, enters the narrative far too often thus robbing the characters of their consciousness: “The people that those writers [the Russians] presented could have been the members of his own large family in Bihar.”

The prose is at times positively awkward: Sehwag’s boundary sends “a wave through the blood”. Often the sentences have the ring of a newspaper report: “…Gulzar’s Maachis, the only mainstream film to discuss the torture and killings in Punjab”. And: “In the case of the Dhanbad mines, the owner is not the evil capitalist but the government; the corruption among officials is matched only by the rapacity of the coal contractors and their armed mafia.’

In a highly unlikely passage, a student in Patna reads Orwell’s Politics of the English Language in his school textbook. The
occasional standalone metaphor shines like the moon on a cloudy night: Rabinder flicks channels on the remote “in a manner that made you feel you were feeding ducks in a pond”.

It seems that Kumar had a tremendous urge to write a novel but this was not accompanied by any compelling need to tell a story. He might take heart from the fact that he is not the only Indian writer suffering from this affliction.

Palash Krishna Mehrotra teaches at Doon School, Dehra Dun

First Published: Apr 23, 2007 15:50 IST