Updated: May 6, 2010 18:59 IST

Too many loose ends

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The House on Mall Road
The House on Mall Road

This book lacks the grace of a natural story.

Parvati is 27-years-old and this is the story of a journey she makes to try and find out what exactly happened 20 years ago when tragedy irretrievably changed her circumstances.

Travelling with her, we learn something about life in an army cantonment near the border and the dangers that we, sitting comfortably curled up and reading novels, are safe from. The discipline, the atmosphere of wide spaces, smartly-uniformed personnel of every rank, the abundance of various resources, the monotonous routine, the deceptively jolly and rotund officers (eagle-eyed and razor-sharp is what they really are) and the wonderfully warm but empty-headed and appearance-obsessed women (yes, some of them can be vicious and career-ruining spiteful too) are plainly described. We also discern shades of the emotional spectrum of army life – not just pride in country and fearlessness in the face of peril but also the unique conflicts within the ranks and between other groups such as police and civilians, and the classless society formed by people from so many different backgrounds.

Romance enters Parvati’s story in a straightforward way but you will wait in vain for what would once have been a logical conclusion. And while you may consider this the mark of a modern story, in many ways, and particularly in its use of language, this book is anachronistic.

What is it about the IIM-A novelists? Is it that difficult to put a good story together using a healthy, global – or even consistently local – idiom? With Chetan Bhagat, the story roars along without even pretending to strive for a style that could be admired. This book, on the other hand, has nothing that either Wren or Martin could object to. However, it is strewn with dated expressions like “attaché” case and “reel” for photo film roll; malapropisms as in “I am mortified of snakes”; ill-chosen adjectives as in “no offence to your fabulous profession” and the word “nice” (which shrewd writers will display before a reviewer only, and only, as a remedy for constipation) FOUR TIMES on one page – oh my god! Occasional lapses into new age concepts (“personal boundaries”; “but in a nice way”) evoke the precocious child trying out a new word, proud and a little self-conscious.

If your benchmark of a good book is that, from one end to the other, you feel the characters as real people and can experience them change or grow, you will have one more reason to feel disappointed. The people here are static and at most capable of performing random unexpected acts. The narrator herself fails to claim your being, as a skilled narrator would – she’s somewhat shadowy, a tinselly voice and at best a collection of opinions.

I did enjoy the series of implausible coincidences (but then truth is always stranger than fiction) and the surge of emotion towards the end of the book. However, too many loose ends were left hanging: strange happenings that are never explained and even the ghost of someone who hadn’t died after all. This book lacks the grace of a natural story. If I wasn’t reading it as a reviewer, I would never have carried on to the end.

Reading Pico Iyer’s enthusiastic endorsement on the cover, I had grabbed it with excitement, anticipating the matchless pleasure of reading a wonderful first book by a talented new writer of fiction. As I read, however, excitement turned to disbelief, and then to annoyance.

I’ve always been a fan of Pico Iyer’s elegant writing style. His words flow smooth and pleasing, unassuming, and often stunningly effective. I’m afraid that his description of this mediocre, clumsily-written story as “a rich and wonderfully-accomplished debut” made me wonder what sort of pressure exactly he had been under when he made it.

The House on Mall Road, Mohyna Srinivasan, Penguin, Rs. 325.

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