It’s not that we need a brand new cast of characters, but we search in vain for some new insight at least.
Akash Kapur’s debut book has received excellent press. The work has been described as “acutely observed”, a “remarkably absorbing account”, and “beautifully written”, and the author is called a “gripping story-teller” and “masterful portraitist”. The litany of praise comes from some of the best in India and abroad.
Now, feeling a bit like the perplexed child who pointed out that the emperor was not actually wearing any clothes, I have to say that Kapur’s book falls short of what the fulsome blurbs prep you for.
It is not that one faults Kapur’s intent. He is more than sincere in his attempt to make sense of the chaos of India in the throes of development. His research is painstaking. His transcriptions are detailed. His language is lucid and clear.
But often the parts don’t so easily form a whole. You need a little bit of magic to make it a living, breathing, passionate book. And that is missing here.
Is it that Kapur tries too hard to be dispassionate? It is not that you must be partisan but a too-conscious effort to stay “outside” can sometimes bleach a book of life. Here, it has robbed the chronicle of humour, of emotion, of anything indeed that you can take a grip of and use as an entry point into the lives he relates. The stories just don’t move you.
Or is it that Kapur picks some unconvincing lives to tell the story? Erstwhile zamindar Sathy’s story of displacement and former glory leaves you with a lingering sense that Sathy mourns not so much the loss of India’s pastoral life as his own former status and wealth. He talks of “a village dying” but he also talks over and over again of the loss of respect, of authority.
Cow broker Ramadas gives up his business because it no longer has money and takes up land broking instead. Ramadas is childishly delighted with his decision but Kapur chooses to see tragedy here. In fact, one unworthily suspects that he might be in the book more for his ‘exotic’ vocation than his story. Like the knife sharpener, the potter or the coconut tree climber, Ramadas belongs to a dying breed.
One certainly mourns this but it does not take the book forward. Sathy’s city-bred wife Banu cannot cope with farming life in a village with its rules and orthodoxies and lives in Bangalore with her children and her consultancy business. Selvi is in a Chennai BPO job and struggles to adjust to city life without compromising on tradition.
These stories probably sounded interesting to the writer setting out to research the changing face of India but, on paper, they die very quick deaths, the characters fading into uni-dimensional, unlayered cut-outs. They could have held our interest if they had been short, succinct and focussed. Instead, they talk incessantly, in a sort of meandering narrative, seemingly unedited and unorganised.
Worst crime of all, they are endlessly repetitive. Kapur has said in the accompanying interview that he wanted to give his characters free reign but his book pays the price.
We can read once or twice about Sathy mourning the loss of green fields. We sympathise the first time with Banu struggling between career and family. We appreciate Selvi’s struggle between progressive and traditional. But how many times can the same points be made, in much the same words, without getting tedious?
Then there’s Hari, a homosexual shopaholic who finally sobers up but who cannot build up the courage to come out to his small-town family. Hari’s story is a universal one, true of gay persons in Chennai or Milwaukee. There is no consciousness of this, reduced as it is to very predictable and simplistic dimensions. Then, for no apparent reason, we have an angry Naresh Fernandes, journalist and author, raving at the chaos and corruption of India. Then the extremely well-known sexologist Narayan Reddy makes an appearance, to testify to the country’s growing sexual awareness.
It’s not that we need a brand new cast of characters, but we search in vain for some new insight at least. Unfortunately for Kapur, we have heard and lived and slept with these stories a hundred times over. This is our classmate, cousin, gardener, colleague. We live with farmer suicides and Forbes millionaires, lighting diyas in the mornings and clubbing at nights. To tell us that “India could often feel like two nations” is a magnificent redundancy.
To move us with the story of uncontrolled, frightening change, Kapur needs a lot more ammo than he has right now, although his emotions are in place. One understands the temptation, of course, the sense that nobody but you is really seeing the poverty, the grime, and the strife. Maybe this would have worked as a long essay but as a full-length book it falters.
India Becoming: A Journey Through A Changing Landscape; Akash Kapur, Penguin, Rs.599.