Sep 21, 2009

In Custody by Anita Desai

I have been extremely lucky to be reading books by two wonderful Indian authoresses one after the other. One was Shashi Deshpande and the other is Anita Desai. I remember coming across Anita Desai’s name a couple of time but had been unable to read any of her books till date. Thankfully the opportunity came my way and the fact that the story had been made into an award winning film piqued my curiosity even further. Of course the mere acting cast of Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Shashi Kapoor would entice me to watch the movie even if it had not won any award.

I had been musing about the title of the book since I picked it up for reading. Somehow the name had set me thinking though I had to read the entire story to realize its significance.
“In Custody” is primarily the story of Deven, a Hindi professor and his inspiration, the erstwhile famous Urdu poet Nur. Despite his first love for Urdu, Deven had to resort to teaching Hindi in the college. One day his old friend Murad comes and manages to wheedle a confirmation to interview Nur for Murad’s magazine. Murad wants Deven to get a full interview and some of Nur’s best poems from the ever reclusive poet. Deven, who has encountered plenty of uncomfortable situations with the irresponsible Murad, agrees to take on this difficult project only because of his love and devotion to the poet and his works.

The next part of the story and almost all the book is about accomplishing this daunting task. Meeting Nur seems only the start as Deven cannot even imagine the present dilapidated state in which Nur is living. If Deven manages to get rid of the crowding sycophants, he still gets interrupted by Nur’s dramatic and second wife. Else he manages to plonk himself unwittingly into the domestic wars of Nur’s harem.

It is quite easy to identify with Deven’s frustration rising from the current situation and his inability to deal with the different characters who are almost thrust upon him. However at times, the entire situation appears outright comical. Personally I have no idea about the original emotions that were present in Desai’s mind when she described the different scenes of encounter between Nur and Deven. In reality, the rare spouts of poetry and knowledge drowned by the never-ending sessions of food and drink, as well as Deven’s utter dismay at the poet’s state of life and affairs, incorporated more laughter than sympathy, within myself.

Somehow this story and the protagonist’s fate reminds me of “The Rainmaker” by John Grisham. Of course Deven’s character is a far cry from the newbie lawyer, Rudy Baylor. The lazy tone of the book almost mirrors the life at Nur’s abode but every moment one tends to tire of the pace, the interest again arises as Deven comes across some new but fallible method of achieving success. This book takes you back to the ancient life of peace and calm in northern India which also helps us in slow realization of  the dilemma of the custodian. A good book but not for the impatient ones.

Sep 19, 2009

Come Up and Be Dead by Shashi Deshpande

When I picked up this book by Shashi Deshpande, I felt she would be like the usual Indian authors. Strong emotions, usage of local slang, vivid descriptions would probably be abounding in the book. Thankfully her book was a pleasant and surprising change from all that I had expected. Her writing reminded me so much of DM, my favourite Bengali teacher. I have been very fond of all my Bengali teachers but DM was different. DM had the wonderful knack of expressing things simply and beautifully. It used to be very helpful for a student like me who was already rather flustered by the grandiose writing style of her previous Bengali teachers. And that is also where Shashi Deshpande scores over other authors by proving the oft forgotten fact that simplicity is attractive as well.

"Come Up and Be Dead" is a mystery thriller though the simplistic narrative makes you wonder many times whether it is one at all. One is almost influenced into thinking that the protagonist of the story would be Kshama, the new headmistress of the girls’ school. She is young, competent and also incorporates the usual conceived traits of successful women which include being reserved, aloof to the point of cruelty. One realizes the extent of her insensitiveness when she doesn’t flinch from asking her psychologically ill brother to leave the school and thus save her career as the headmistress. However, the main story teller is Devi, her cousin sister who is invited to come and look after Kshama’s house and brother, which she does rather successfully. She also manages to befriend Kshama’s brother Pratap and realize that he probably is not as mentally weak as portrayed.

An interesting part of the story is how part of the mysterious events have begun even before the reader has settled through the first chapters. It almost feels like when we are late in entering the cinema theatre for a movie screening and miss the first few scenes but have no trouble in catching the flow of the story.

A young schoolgirl’s suicide shakes the school out of its usual reverie and the rumours abuzz seem to be rather cruel. Some precocious schoolgirls seem to know all about it but then it’s natural to ignore their knowledge. While Kshama tries to ignore the ongoing scandals as inconsequential, Devi realizes that Pratap is probably directly or indirectly involved in the girl’s death. Before she can even get to know the truth, Pratap is dead and Devi alone feels that he has been killed. While Devi never attempts to take an active stance in investigation, she comes to know different facts naturally from the different characters who flit around- school teacher Sapna, the dead girl’s friend Sona and of course the doctor Girish. In course she also unwittingly offers herself to come up and be dead.

Shashi Deshpande is an extremely competent author. Most thriller stories are extremely difficult to attract one, with unnecessary complicated plots, a love story on the sidelines and of course unwanted characters to add to the mystery. She manages to hold the author’s attention very deftly. The characters in the story are all needed in some part or the other. The small stories about the characters help to describe them and their emotions better but they never meander into a story within another story. Of course the characters and their stories sound very familiar but probably they can be excused for remaining settled in a simple story. Finally, the mystery and the climax still manages to keep one’s nerves quite taut even though the entire storyline is simple and the characters seem to flow from every day life. Not an Agatha Christie, but when did she pretend to be one?

A pleasing read and highly recommended.