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Literary Review

Back to basics

The Hottest Day of the Year shifts the focus back to the story, reinforcing that fiction is primarily about telling stories, says KALA KRISHNAN RAMESH.

THERE are many things about Brinda Charry's novel — The Hottest Day of the Year — that deserve to be talked about, the most significant of which may be the fact that it doesn't forget that novels are, first of all, and mainly about, telling stories. More and more novels (like Shashi Tharoor's Riot, Sagarika Ghose's The Gin Drinkers, or more recently, David Davidar's The House of Blue Mangoes) seem to come bearing a heavy load of ideas that eventually splinters the narrative into parts — one for story, one for thought — and spreads the story so thin as to seem like a series of "character sketches".

The Hottest Day of the Year has a clear frame of reference — its story, its characters and its narrative tone are like others of its kind. When you come to the end of the book, you are neither surprised nor disappointed to find that things have turned out pretty much the way you expected they would. For that — like in one of those early 1970s black-and-white Tamil films — appears very much to be in the scheme of things. You are expected to know, for Thiruninravur — where the novel is set — is a familiar place; you are meant to recognise the kind of people that live there, the things they will do and the things they won't.

Like the 1970s black-and-white Tamil film, (and one can off hand think of "Avargal," "Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal" and "Sollathan Ninaikkiren", The Hottest Day of the Year brings to life a small and closely-webbed world, where it is almost always easier for characters to simply keep on doing what they do, or, when circumstances demand that they make other choices, you know what they can choose. For the viewer or the reader, this can be a pleasant experience, a feeling of ease, without boredom or dullness.

The people of the novel don't slip out of character... they are as appropriate as they would be in a world like that — the life of the characters is always viewed against the whole of life in Thiruninravur and not against life in the outside world. The suspense, the surprises, the shocks, the twists in the story are only as suspenseful, as surprising, as shocking and twisty as they could possibly be in the small world of Thiruninravur. The remarkable thing about The Hottest Day of the Year is that the reader actually sees where and how the strands are brought together and looped into even weave. Thus, when the beautiful widowed aunt, Janaki decides that she has been wronged by her brother (who has not only been indulging in a secret but obvious liaison with the servant Sudha, but also made her pregnant and caused her to die), we know immediately why one of the characters is a midget other caste, besotted with Janaki. Of course she will now not only talk to him, but also openly invite him to the house (everybody including the neighbour's children know of Raghu's besottment) and eventually go off with him.

Charry has, thankfully, also refrained from the weird narrative pyrotechnics that some of our writers try to pass off as characteristic of the convenient genre of magical realism (of course one does not believe either that it takes a Marquez and Latin America to do a good novel in magical-realism mode). The Hottest Day has no need for such pyrotechnics; it has a lucid pattern of cause and effect. As long as the various parts of their world remain the same, characters remain as they are; when that world changes, then they too must change. Janaki would not have thought of doing anything else than what she always has been — which was the most appropriate thing for her to do, in the eyes of the people around her — if things had stayed the same. But since they change, she too changes. Where an aspiring magical realist would have to create for the novel's central characters an individual ethics of right and wrong to balance their aggrandised actions, Charry's characters are governed by the mutually reinforcing notions of appropriateness that seem most often to guide moral life in India.

The narrative style of The Hottest Day is simple and straightforward; the tones has all the familiarity of a household tale, while at the same time not mimicking the rhythms of folk narrative, which is difficult to sustain.

So does The Hottest Day have no faults?

The one obvious fault is that its child narrator, Nithya, seems a mite too omniscient... she knows it all, sees it all, feels it all, and worse, understands it all. Of course we are told right at the start that she is "strange", not like other children of her age and so on. However, the ease with which Nithya comprehends, the adult world is not only slightly unnerving, (she makes sense of Sudha's liaison with Sundar, of her subsequent attempt to get an abortion, of Sudha's death, of Janaki's complex feelings, of the neighbours' attitudes, of her own feelings, oh, of all things) but also renders the book's carefully maintained tone of political correctness (by understated though evident critique, particularly of caste and gender) rather ironic. For to give 11-year-old Nithya such knowing seems not merely politically incorrect but oppressive! The book's self-consciousness in dealing with the sexual, its inability to move beyond the very literal is an outcome of the child narrator's knowledge both having to be sufficient to fill in the gaps but also having to be kept at a decent minimum.

However, whatever its faults may be, none are so pronounced as to get in the way of making the reading a pleasant, absorbing experience. All the time you are conscious of a story well told; told so that you want to continue to the end before pausing to think. Would that more of our novel writers brought this business of story telling right up front in their writing.

The Hottest Day of the Year, Brinda Charry, Penguin India, Rs. 250.

* * *

Excerpts from an interview with Brinda Charry.

Tell me about why you write stories and how you came to write a novel rather than a book of short stories.

I suppose I write because I enjoy writing — simply that. And also because, maybe, at least some people have liked what I write. More recently, I've been writing to express my feelings — anger, happiness, indignation — about things. I guess one always writes in order to express feelings — it's just become a little more self-conscious lately, as far as my own writing is concerned. Hottest Day is my first novel. I've never experimented with the genre before. Short stories have been what I was most comfortable with. Hottest Day is a novel largely because David Davidar met me just after I left for the United States and asked me if I felt that I could write a novel. My original contract with Penguin was for a volume of short stories. I found the idea of a novel, doing something new, challenging — and so did one!

As a young Indian writer do you feel a feel a bit self-conscious writing in the wake of the likes of Arundathi Roy? I mean do you feel that her writing has kind of defined what Indian writing in English should be like?

Yes, I think I did, to some extent. There are certain expectations about what Indian Writing in English should be — exotic, magic-realist maybe... This does not mean that I don't enjoy or respect the work of Roy and Rushdie and others. I very much do. It's just that, as many reviews of the novel commented, Hottest Day is written in a very "simple" style — I know that it doesn't appeal to some people but I was glad to note that many others liked it for precisely that reason. It's especially nice when other people like your work for the reasons you like it yourself!! In short — yes, I was very aware of being an Indian writing in English and so writing in the wake of Roy and others, but I think I stuck to the kind of writing I am most comfortable with. And the are other traditions in Indian Writing which are as powerful and important — the work of R.K. Narayan, for instance or more recently, that of Shashi Deshpande, and of course, the tradition of Indian writing in local languages — I've been immensely influenced by the unselfconscious simplicity of that tradition.

Are you happy with the reception your book has got?

Yes, I am, on the whole. I've been "out of the scene" by and large and only have access to the reviews. But they've been very favourable ones. — some of them extremely generous. People in Europe who've read it have liked it too. I was glad to notice that many Indian and foreign readers have noted that style-wise it is different from what one expects of Indian Writing in English — and liked in because of that.

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