Patches of good prose that don’t have a story to live inside
V. Sanjay Kumar says of one of his protagonists, “He speaks in instalments”. Kumar, in turn, speaks in aphorisms. Surfeiting, they say, sickens the appetite and it dies. I must confess mine died rather early into the book. Saying clever things makes you an entertaining dinner guest, but does a collection of clever things a book make? The entire volume is made up of sentences like these: ‘After sixty, living is back breaking.’ ‘I was proof that this family was pudding.’ ‘Every pause has an effect.’ ‘There is a portion in my recipe that no ladle will reach.’
This is wearying prose, which is sad because clearly there is poetry in Kumar. This is a writer who describes a dilapidated house as looking “like a rummaged drawer.” The opening paragraph in ‘Maatra’ is beautifully done: ‘The evening sun has petered out near the pathway.’ In ‘Parikrama’ he describes Chennai as a ‘middle-aged dowager; a frayed city, soaped, rinsed and wrung out to dry with wrinkles that won’t go away’.
Unfortunately, Kumar is unable to channel this sensitivity into a holistic work. Instead, what we get is sleight of hand with words, patches of good prose that don’t have a story to live inside.
Virgin Gingelly is a series of tales set in a place called Rainbow Colony. Various people walk in and out of the 20-odd pieces, their lives interlinked at many points. The broad idea is to present a picture of a typical Chennai street, and of an outsider finding his identity from within their eccentricities and tragedies. It is rich ground for story-telling. Kumar probably digs into his own life for the tales — perfect writer’s reserves — but one wishes he had just set the stories down as they were. These are simple tales of lust and loneliness, of marriages gone bad, of gay Brahmin sons and rogue policemen, but Kumar chooses to veil them all in a sort of poetic mystique and abstraction.
Maybe this is a good idea. Chances are the Chetan Bhagat generation will hail this as deeply intense and meaningful. So I will let it pass. What one finds much harder to ignore is bad editing. Does Hachette not have editors who can correct a sentence that goes “Their lives maybe plain.” (Italics mine)? Or of doing the basic research needed for a Chennai book? For instance, the writer spells milagu (pepper) and molagai podi (chilli powder) as muzhagu and muzhaga podi. Then the disastrous gaffe: “Three vertical lines mark him as a devout Shaivite.” This is sacrilege, if your aim is to establish a Chennai milieu. A simple Google search could have thrown up the correct spelling of Mayiladuthurai. Or the absurdity of a Chennaite expecting rain from the south-west monsoon. If an editor won’t take care of these, who will?
But what Kumar possibly gets most distractingly wrong is the tone. Every book has a patois it must be faithful to. You cannot set a book in a certain city and milieu, and then have language ranging from 18th century British to 21st century Black-American slang to Tamil trash talk. In the space of a few pages, someone is ‘bad ass’ while someone else is ‘ornery’ or an ‘old codger’. A graceful description of someone’s singing ends with the bathos of this line: “She had the pipes.” The narrative tone veers wildly from smart-ass James Hadley Chase to Charu Niveditha-style Tamil roadside raw to sudden bursts of poetic metaphor.
Kumar is at his best when he sticks to ordinary life — the description of a woman’s small, hoarded treasures piled up on her bed or the simple story in ‘Uttama Puthiran’ of the death of a cop whose family suffers his drunken abuse. This is what he should stick to. It’s the sort of advice a good editor would have given a writer to bring out the book in him.
Virgin Gingelly; V. Sanjay Kumar, Hachette India, Rs.499