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Elusive selves

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SHEBA THAYIL

A stereotypical tale of Westerners ‘finding’ themselves in India.

Dreams of Rivers and Seas, Tim Parks, Harvill Secker, price not stated.

Model Erin O’Conner has just written a travelogue of sorts for British Vogue where she describes her passage to India. She immediately complains about the heat, the noise, the people, the poverty, the rickshaws and the lack of air-conditioning in her hotel. Then, out of left field, she exclaims “I love this country”. It seems to be consistent with the utter confusion faced by foreigners the minute they enter our borders. They don’t know what to think, so they involuntarily shudder, then make a quick recovery, probably think Goa and Aishwarya Rai, and hurriedly try to make up for that initial reaction.

Tim Parks, going by Dreams of Rivers seems to be no exception, although he may be less confused, but not less trite, as far as his character’s observations are concerned. His unholy English triumvirate’s dealings with an alien culture offers nothing new since Forster’s actual Passage to India, except that they mingle with the natives a bit more. In the end, though, they learn nothing, we learn nothing, and when they take their leave we sense no absence on the stage. The players are a father, son and the mother. One of them will find his humanity impossible to withstand, one will discover a rage that is almost psychosexual, the other a loss of bearings that she cannot bear. Parks’ characters are thoroughly unpleasant, but it is Albert, his main protagonist, who is especially annoying. He is heavily attributed with all kinds of unplumbed brilliance and you tackle page after page trying to uncover it. It will, in fact, take you 431 pages to fail.

Search begins

John James arrives in Delhi after his father’s death to find the fridge in his mother’s apartment full of Coke, what a relief. Father is anthropologist Albert James, while mother Helen James bears the white woman’s burden and runs a clinic. She has sympathy for the brown man but none for an only son who is merely an ‘improbable presence’. While the son attempts to come to terms with his father’s death, this woman can only think ‘the death of a partner is not the worst way for a relationship to end’. Helen is the kind of person who treats the wound on a body but cannot understand the struggle of the soul. How can anyone take the ‘ragbag’ of Hinduism seriously, she asks. “You can see where Bollywood came from”. You can?

Albert, meanwhile, will careen through abstruse notations like ‘Start and end with breathing’, or discover there is ‘no chemistry, no knowledge’, and none of this makes any sense at any time to the bewildered reader. Albert tells one of his acolytes, “You must treat me as if I wasn’t really here”. He never is. It is his son, the same who is unimpressed by his first sight of the Taj (the Taj!) and sarcastically asks “what’s a jawab when it’s at home” who is more explicable. He will get Delhi belly, fall into bed with an attractive, ‘modern’ Indian woman, wander the streets and use Indian toilets and deal with beggars, all much of a muchness.

Plenty of work

When the American biographer gives up on writing Albert’s story, it is as though he does so because there is nothing but a will-o’-the-wisp to hang on to. He, too, prefers to fall back on an exploration of his self, much like Helen and John. They are all, really, mimicking Erin who tells her train companions that she is trying to ‘find herself’ in India. People are still doing this?

Helen apparently finds herself by lying naked against a boy ridden with TB (she wants to reveal herself to her son, you see; surely writing a lucid letter would have done the trick?).

Perhaps Albert found it in saying things like “Where the flow of information is necessarily interrupted, there we can be sure we are approaching the sacred.” This is taking an almost Monty Python approach to life, it’s more comedy than tragedy.

I think I finally get it: Albert James is the dead parrot.

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