Somewhere before ending his book, Soumya Bhattacharya uses a quote by Kingsley Amis to good use: “All fiction is edited experience”. And in the course of the book confesses candidly, more than once, that his work is really a confessional in the guise of a novel (to quote Philip Roth this time.)
He even convinces you, the reader, “I could do it like a series of letters written by a father to his daughter. I wouldn't edit much of my experience, I would merely tell my own story.” And so If I Could Tell You is a series of letters between a father and daughter, the daughter's name is Oishi, divine-delicious in Bengali-Japanese.
Joy and heartbreak
That's it. Don't look for names; there are few characters in the novel, fewer plots. In a world of ennui nothing ever happens, remember? Published by Tranquebar Press, If I Could Tell You is journalist Soumya Bhattacharya's third book, his first work You Must Like Cricket? was reviewed by the major global dailies. A blurb by Aravind Adiga on the cover of this one extols the joy and heartbreak inherent in the novel's two forms of creation, fatherhood and authorship. Pity you can't say that about Booker Adiga himself.
Which is why it comes as a huge relief that you don't find dull platitudes “fresh lyrical voice”, “a poignant glimpse into real India” (or any geographical location actually) harping off the cover. The beauty of Bhattacharya's work is, simply, the narrative. Now lingering, now heavy, elegant prose that somehow lucidly takes you through the days dragging by like a worn elastic band, in the writer's life. The prose is grey, despondent and reeking of the extraordinary ordinariness of the motions of life. But it manages to not fall into the trap of extremely self-absorbed, woe-is-me verbiage.
The narrator is orphaned young when the plane carrying his parents to Las Palmas airport on the Gran Canaria Island is bombed by Canary Island separatists. A kind friend of his father takes on the responsibility of being his guardian and the boy is packed off to one of those hill-station boarding schools. Schooling and college, Bombay and London later, he grows up to be an aspiring writer. Disposing of the late father's assets, properties and shares and parking the money intelligently, money has never been a problem.
Pacing back and forth in time and events, the novel begins with the birth of the narrator's daughter, Oishi, the only character with a name in the entire book. There are detailed descriptions of the hospital, the waiting period until labour pangs, with curious common-man musings: when asked at the hospital – “`Patient name'; patient? Why, I wondered, are you a patient when you come to give birth?” The father-to-be narrator is the sort that reads Saul Bellow's Herzog while waiting for his wife to deliver. So unsurprisingly and quite delightfully the entire book is generously garnished with quotes and lines by some of our favourite writers, V.S. Naipaul, John Updike, Marquez, Coetzee, Gunter Grass et al but lest it show like an over enthusiastic English Literature docent's display of prose, Bhattacharya's writing is beautiful in turns.
The girl is born in Calcutta and, from the day of her birth, the father-narrator decides to pen, uh, key in on the computer actually, a series of letters/emails, detailing every aspect of the lives, before and after her birth. Here's when fatherhood and authorship begin their journey. The girl's mother, narrator's wife, was also orphaned young and so there are no grand-parents, no religion, not a single deity or picture of God anywhere yet the little girl learns to instinctively bow or close her eyes in obeisance whenever they pass a temple or deity. If the mother has “eye sparkle” there are almost-obsessive descriptions of the daughter… “I can see in the light the fine gleam of each filament of your hair.” And except for the mandatory reference to fish and mustard-oil or a solitary word or two like “shona” there are absolutely no bhadralok trappings here!
Ode to Mumbai
For a reason that reveals itself much later, the couple decide to move to Mumbai just when the girl starts school. Here then is the finest piece of writing on Mumbai in recent times, the city and its people constantly working out a battle of reclamation, usurpation, survival and succession. Here then is the writer exposed, withstanding the loneliness of writing, drinking his blackcurrant vodka with Absolut concentration; the hack attuned jargon is on display, be it caption puns or constant reference to font size and type. The girl, returning from school one evening, asks her father why he didn't have a proper job, like an engineer, doctor, lawyer? How do you tell a little girl that a writer was also a job, when you had nothing to show – office, salary, or even an accurate explanation of what exactly you do? How does it matter that, with such a background, Oishi, at age three could identify a Steely Dan or REM just by the opening riff or tell a Van Gogh from a Cezanne.
The months and years pass by, nothing seemingly happening. The other side of life is lying in wait, to strike all together. Something happens which shakes up everything that the narrator has built, held, done, so far. How could something like this happen especially when the narrator does not have an affair, post-marriage? If only he did. Not held on to a grim Victoria's Secret. No flippancy intended here. Money, which had never been a problem despite not working to earn a living, is one fine day reduced to naught. Thanks to a financial fraud that shook India in early 2009, when the chairman of a major software company in which the narrator had a bulk of shares, admits to cooking up revenue books (now, which event could it be!).
All this is banished in a few pages, the narrator has more work — admitting to his failures, as a father, lover, writer. But Bhattacharya as a writer is certainly no failure, the end is pulled off in one fell swoop. He tells us, quoting James Salter, how we can err “… and for a moment he forgot that he had everything.”
If I Could Tell You;Soumya Bhattacharya, Tranquebar Press, Rs. 350.