Two books that take you from dizzying heights to pedestrian blur.
The Dead Camel and Other Stories of Love by Parvati Sharma does not announce anywhere that the stories in it are lesbian nor does the author bio indicate that the author might be. Pink Sheep does mention the word gay in the blurb but then quickly adds that “these men yearn for the same things everybody yearns for – acceptance and a fulfilling life” (sic) and the author bio does say that the author writes about gay men “within the conservative societies of south India” (sic) and that the “stories revolve around the realities of queer life in modern-day India.”
It is difficult to tell whether this is the author's desire not to be ghettoised or the publisher's desire to have better sales but both these reasons may be occluded by the cooler one that it does not really matter, that same-sex desire is now as Indian as idli sambhar and we should all just get on with our lives.
Parvati Sharma's lesbian stories are marred by this ‘coolness' factor. Her lesbian characters seem remarkably unmoored from the socio-political realities of what it means to be gay and out in contemporary India. They slip in and out of each other's lives and beds like their orientation did not matter. They do not so much as have a bleep of disorientation about their orientation. This is perhaps because Sharma's characters come from a particular class but then Natarajan's stories are located in the same class and his characters are full of the denials and traumas of middleclass homosexuality. So, it is not so much class but a sensibility that determines how the characters are fleshed out and, strangely enough, Sharma's stories, for all their unreal scenarios and people, are far more enjoyable than Natarajan's.
This is for a variety of reasons. The first is that Sharma can actually write a sentence in English that is syntactically, grammatically and semantically coherent. Sometimes her sentences are even beautiful. Anyone who reads Indian fiction in English must know how difficult it is to come by a writer who can do that and how the mind winces and aches over unrelentingly appalling sentences that pass off for English in the rapidly expanding shelves of this stuff that burps in bookstores.
The second is that Sharma's stories, even the uneven ones where an arrangement is so symmetrical, it appears contrived (‘Re-Elections, 2004') or when a metaphor is overdone (‘The Dead Camel'), are written in a prose so shorn of the sentimental and the clichéd and pared down to just the right sharpness that the resonances ripple in the reader's mind in the shade left on the page by the pencilling in of a scene.
Her straight characters and stories actually bear the violence of heterosexuality much more than her gay ones. Stories like the chilling ‘Genealogy' or the tremulous ‘Belu Bhatnagar's Happy Ending' linger menacingly in the reader's imagination. In stories that should have been straightforwardly straight ones but gayness is brought in (‘Mrs Ghosh Goes to Goa', ‘First Love', ‘How Hollow tolls the Temple's Bell') the weakest part is the gay insertion.
Yet other stories hover between the occluded and the obscure (‘Summons', ‘The More Loving One', and the most unsuccessful story ‘ Words Hung Out to Dry, Flapping Wetly in the Dark') but even these ride on the sheer pleasure of Sharma's prose. Just when you thought nothing more could be said or done with Ismat Chughtai's ‘The Quilt', Sharma's story by the same name makes of a re-writing of it one of the sexiest and smartest stories of same-sex sex/love in India I have ever read.
Boring and repetitive
From these dizzying heights, one must plummet down to the pedestrian blur of stories (they are all actually One Big Non-Story) of a Bangalore Tam Bram corporate boy and his repetitive, tired and tiring life. None of these stories actually even qualify as stories. They are more like skeletal vignettes, anecdotes told at parties by egregious self-regarding posh fags (or just one or two of them) from Good as You who have been seeing too much of Ugly Betty. There are many reasons for this.
Natarajan appears to have no sense of the short story as a form. There's no development of a kernel, an event, a character that opens out a universe for the reader, no epiphanic moment, no menacing accretion of detail. Second, none of the characters or One Character in these stories has an interiority. Their/His shallowness and brightness matches their/His credit cards in the plastic and shine. Third, none of the stories has the ring of reality. They stink instead of U.S. soap episodes, set pieces: From parents who are homophobic to those who accept their children's gayness, from women who marry gay men and live to regret it, from nasty aunts with gay sons to married men and ex-lovers who come back like bad pennies., all the stories seem woven around some blueprint of 20 Scenarios a Tam Bram Gay Man Might Find Himself In. Perhaps Natarajan should have written a self-help book entitled Gay Men in Bangalore: How to Be Empty and Pretend its Fun. His prose certainly veers toward that genre. Perhaps he might think of a career as a stand-up comic making fun of gay South Asians, a gay Vidur Kapur.
With titles like ‘Ethics' and ‘Murphy's Law', ‘Family Secrets' and ‘Master of Ceremony' and sentences like “Her eyes were so sad. You were right, they seemed to say. You were so right” (author's italics), it is time to give your eyes and brain a break and go to bed.