Saturday 19 December 2015

The Many Eklavya's of Guru Chetan Bhagat

The many Eklavya’s of Guru Chetan Bhagat

For those of you not familiar with the Mahabharata, the tale of Eklavya and Guru Drona (which is a small sub-plot in an otherwise massive epic) can be summarised as below:

Guru Drona is the most revered teacher of battle-craft in the land. At his ashram, he trains the Princes of Hastinapura (all one hundred and five of them) alongside his own son, in the various aspects of fighting, though archery is the primary skill of the time. Guru Drona’s favourite pupil is Prince Arjuna.

One day, the Princes are off on a hunting expedition when they come across a tribal lad who is practising archery himself, and appears to be extraordinarily good at it. On being brought before Drona, he claims that he, too, is a student of the Guru. Shocked, Drona asks him to explain himself, and the boy, whose name is Eklavya, explains that since he knows, as a low-caste tribal, he would never have been able to learn from Drona himself, he observed the Guru with his pupils, and building himself a clay idol of Drona, practised until he learned the craft for himself.

Unable to bear the thought of a mere tribal lad surpassing his favoured pupil, Arjuna, Drona demands a payment for his services as a Guru. Eklavya readily agrees, and Drona names his price – Eklavya’s right thumb – the one appendage without which effective archery is impossible. Eklavya complies, and Arjuna’s supremacy with the bow-and-arrow is now unchallenged.

Of course, many variations exist of the story, with varying degrees of blame being apportioned among the characters, but it is not my intention to delve into that at the moment. Rather, it is to establish that it is possible for a person to directly influence another, as a teacher and a student, without having any intention to.

Which brings us to Literature. A successful author often spawns imitators, a fact that is, no doubt, inevitable. No doubt there were those who tried to imitate Shakespeare.

We definitely know that this charlatan wrote a ‘sequel’ to Don Quixote and made good money of publishing it, before Cervantes responded with his own sequel. There must, no doubt, be a lot of Victorian-era authors who tried to imitate Dickens, Hardy, Trollope, Austen and their ilk. That we do not know them today is because their works did not survive the test of time, and no doubt such will be the fate of most authors alive today, present company not excepted.

But what of Chetan Bhagat? He is India’s most popular author, writing in a genre that is best described as Young Adult Romance. His first few books, partially autobiographical and focussing on slices of real-life as well as humour, became cult hits among young Indians who were just awakening to ‘reading in English’, and since then he has written a bunch more, though each one seems to be more sanctimonious and less fun than the last.

Personally, I do not grudge him his success. There are, indeed, some things he does really well, or at least, did in his earlier works. He wrote characters who were realistic and who a reader was interested in, plots that were simple and did not depend on exaggerated twists, and a narrative voice that was humorous and non-judgmental.

Unfortunately, he has spawned a horde of Eklavya’s – young men (and probably some women too), who believe that Chetan Bhagat’s success can be reduced to a ‘formula’ that can be replicated. Look over the ‘Indian fiction’ section at Amazon or a brick-and-mortar bookstore and it is inundated with romance fiction. Titles range from trite to hackneyed to incomprehensible (Durjoy Dutta for instance, uses titles that would leave most of scratching our heads).

For myself, I would normally never read them. I like a good romance novel well enough, (if you think about it, a lot of the works of the master of English prose, Sir P G Wodehouse, are romantic comedies), but being acquainted with the works of the Guru of these hopeful Eklavyas’, I think I know what to avoid. But one does not always get what one wants, and a by-product of having a bit of a reputation among one’s peer group (however well or ill-deserved), for reviewing books well, I do get stuck with copies of books and asked to review them.

I try to get out of it, for obvious and very genuine reasons – I usually have a book I am reading, at any given time, and the next 3 are planned as well. Besides that, one writes a little to pay for cutting chai (the pittance I am paid barely pays for that, even), and one writes for no pay at all, a novel that’s going nowhere. But more than anything else, one has a social life, with a family and friends.

Still, I did end up reading two such books recently. One was sent to me by the author himself, a school / college-going teenager who has been aggressively marketing his book in social media as well as, it would appear, physically.

The other was given to me for reviewing by a relative of the author, who is about twice the age of the first author, a Chartered Accountant and a high-ranking working professional.

That both the teen and the working professional were vicarious students of Chetan Bhagat, is immediately obvious.

The teenager’s book can be summed up as a so-called tragedy where the protagonist, a college-going girl, falls in love with an older man she comes across at a traffic signal, bunks classes to spend time with him as he tutors her in whatever she misses, and then randomly gets forced into a marriage by her parents.

The husband turns out to be a nice chap though, and never consummates the marriage; she adopts a daughter and continues to pine for the lost love, and in the end it turns out that he was living close by to ‘keep an eye’ on her all along.  If that doesn’t make you slap your head on your computer keyboard, the fact that he is found by the twenty-year-old daughter in a matter of weeks, when neither the girl not her husband could find him for years, definitely should.

At no stage of the book is there any character development, events are random – characters fall in love because the plot needs them to, parents are evil because they need to be, and ‘forced arranged marriage’ is a deus ex machina to make things go wrong, again, because the plot needs it to. As a reader, I did not care what happened to any of the people in it, dialogue was stilted and elements of Hindi movies were so liberally sprinkled about that I could sense a Nadeem Shravan soundtrack playing in the background.

The CA’s book was better in terms of narration. I could even excuse the flaws in narration and language, as being a result of using a ‘suburban Mumbai dialect’. Not that there is any style, but at least it’s not blatantly bad writing. It’s the plot holes, though, that would make a Bollywood sex comedy seem intelligent.

The hero, also a CA, gets a job in Chennai (cue a chapter of ‘cultural displacement jokes’), meets a strikingly beautiful Punjabi girl in an elevator, uses manipulation and artifice to get to know her better, helps her when she has a completely-random, plot-convenient health issue that is never referred to again, and then wins her over by proposing to her on the night she breaks up with her boyfriend. Attempts at Bhagat – 2 States – esque humour follow, until, again, the ‘arranged marriage’ bogey is raised, followed by a lost phone, confusion caused by Mumbai having two terminals, and then a happy ending that involves plastic surgery and a song written by the protagonist, that was never referred to until twenty pages from the end.

I’m sure there are worse books out there. In fact, I know there are, Amazon’s sample chapters are often enough to establish that. But stuff like this, I often think, would never have seen light of day if not for an unfortunate sense of ‘anyone can write’ brought about by Bhagat. In seeing only the simplicity of his language and his use of young Indian protagonists, writers like these two are missing the wood for the trees.

Not every writer who writes about elves and dwarves and an impending apocalypse is a JRR Tolkein. Not every writer who writes about serial killers and evil clowns is Stephen King. And certainly, the word ‘Magic’, repeated twice in a title, would not make the story ‘magical realism’ as Rushdie and Marquez would have it.

If aspirational, barely-literate Indians need an idol to worship, Chetan Bhagat is as good as any. But if you have aspirations to write, please, for Chetan Bhagat’s sake, if not your own, find your own voice. Write what you want to. And wait until you’re ready to publish it. Even your Guru wrote a few decent books before inflicting absolute crap on the market. Books that had something to redeem them in the eyes of the reader, something that had not been done before.

But if you are going to write the same stories, with the same twists and the same language (in varying degrees of horrible-ness), you might as well pull off an Eklavya. That poor kid got away with cutting off his thumb. To prevent yourself from writing, you’d have to cut off all your fingers.

Friday 18 December 2015

Book Review - The Eustace Diamonds, by Anthony Trollope

Book Review - The Eustace Diamonds, by Anthony Trollope

The Eustace Diamonds is considered to be one of Trollope’s Palliser Novels, though the involvement of that famed couple, the beauteous liberal spitfire Lady Glencora and her hardworking husband Plantaganet Palliser is relatively minimal. In fact, they only appear as commentators on, and observers of, our actual main character, Lizzie Eustace.

Ah, Lizzie, Lizzie, Lizzie. Was there ever a heroine so maddeningly silly and clever, dishonest but wronged, desperate and lovely? It was as though Trollope, on reading Thackeray’s masterpiece Vanity Fair, thought of writing a book where Becky Sharp is the main character – and has pot-loads of money.

Well, Lizzie certainly has money. Born Elizabeth Greystock, daughter of an impoverished Admiral, she nonetheless plays her cards – essentially her stunning beauty and a voice for reading poetry – so well that, at twenty, she is a rich widow, having married Sir Florian Eustace and left, on his death, with a castle in Scotland and £ 4,000 a year for her use as long as she lives. Not that Lizzie agrees that it is only a life interest, gaily representing to all and sundry that her property is hers to do with as she wishes. But property is still immovable, and it is not her claim to Portray Castle in Scotland that worries her late husband’s family as much as her claim to the titular diamond necklace. Mr Camperdown, the family attorney thinks Lizzie has no right whatsoever to the diamonds, and will sell them at the earliest opportunity. John Eustace her brother-in-law, doesn’t really care, but allows himself to be guided by the attorney.

Lizzie dismisses Camperdown’s repeated letters asking her to return the diamonds. After all, she has more important things to worry about. Lord Fawn (who had been so disappointed when his proposal to Violet Effingham had been rejected in the previous book, Phineas Finn) sees her money and needs it to burnish his own very middling income. But though Lizzie sees the value in a peer of the realm with a position in the Cabinet, her own sights are set on her cousin Frank Greystock, a handsome barrister who is also an MP, though as a Tory he sits on the opposition benches. Unfortunately for Lizzie, she has a rival for Frank’s affections – the plain jane Lucy Morris, who is governess to Lord Fawn’s sisters. Lucy is as kind-hearted as Lizzie is mercenary, but completely penniless.
More complications arise as Lizzie and Camperdown spar over the diamonds, down to Camperdown stopping her carriage as she leaves London for Scotland. Lord Fawn is worried by the proceedings against Lizzie and wants to extricate himself from his involvement with her. But Frank, who is Fawn’s rival in Parliament (Frank leads the opposition’s attack on Fawn’s handling of the India Office) sympathises greatly with Lizzie and involves himself more than cousinly duty demands.

Mr Camperdown stops Lizzie's carriage

In Scotland, Lizzie surrounds herself with another motley cast of characters – the improbably-named Lord George de Bruce Carruthers (another suitor for her hand), Mrs Carbuncle, whose primary objective is to arrange the marriage of her niece Lucinda Roanoke, a haughty teenager, Sir Griffin Trewett and the oily clergyman Emilius, a greasy, grasping former Jew rumoured to be already married but representing himself as single.

Lord George de Bruce Carruthers

Scotland is also the scene of the by-now-mandatory foxhunt Chapter that’s as much a calling card of Trollope’s novels as Hitchcock’s self-inserts were in his movies. But on the way back from Scotland to London, the diamonds are stolen, and the book takes a turn from societal drama to mystery.

How the diamonds fare, the choices Lizzie and Frank make, how hard economics and soft social politics influence the decisions made by the characters in this novel – all make for a fascinating study.

For a Victorian novelist, Trollope shows from the first Palliser novel (Can You Forgive Her) that he is skilled in handling complex female characters. No stereotypes here, each of the main female characters is well-realised and quite complex, and that’s not counting Lady Glencora, who may be a trophy wife and fashion icon to the world, but is a courageous and daring woman as well, exercising an influence on politics at a time when woman did not even have a vote. As for the handling of male characters, it cannot be denied that it was a little hackneyed in Can You Forgive Her, whose one-dimensional male characters were such a contrast to the well-realised Alice Vavasor, Glencora and even Mrs. Greengow. There is no cause for complaint in The Eustace Diamonds, however. From Fawn to Frank Greystock to the police detectives Bunfit and Gager, they are interesting fellows, with realistic natures.

Plotting is complex in The Eustace Diamonds, though Trollope almost neglects the politics that is such a staple of his other books in this series. Apart from a few stray mentions of Plantaganet Palliser’s attempts at currency reform, the story focuses on Lizzie and Lucy, their love lives and the mystery of the diamonds. In a sense, this makes it perhaps more Dickensian than anything else.
On the narration front, as with the other books of his that I’ve read, here too Trollope indulges in considerable author monologue, meaning there are interludes with a lot of telling and less showing. After the first two Palliser novels, this was not so unpleasant to me as it was in Can You Forgive Her, but at times it does appear that he was being paid per word and wanted to make the best of it.
On the whole, I would say The Eustace Diamonds is an enjoyable ride through London and rural Scotland, seen through the eyes of a thoroughly and unabashedly amoral heroine. Lizzie Eustace is a magnificent character, a triumph for any author, wicked, false, incapable of love and yet possessed of such a bravado, a hankering for love and life, that I could not help but sympathise with her, especially at her eventual fate.
Verdict? Trollope’s novels deserve to be read, but they are not necessarily every reader’s cup of tea. After all, some of us like coffee. I’m already impatient to read Phineas Redux, the next novel in the series. Some of you at least, would do the same.
Kindle edition is free here
Paperback for INR 88/- here

Monday 7 December 2015

Book Review - Phineas Finn, by Anthony Trollope

Book Review: Phineas Finn, the Irish Member, by Anthony Trollope

Phineas Finn is the second book in Anthony Trollope’s acclaimed Palliser series, a set of six loosely-connected novels delineating the lives and loves of Great Britain’s political elite in the period from the late 1850’s onwards. Given that the essential nature of politics does not really change, there is a lot of relevance to be found from Finn to the present day.

The book itself, which is, like most of Trollope’s prolific output, massive in size, deals with five years in the career of Phineas Finn, a young Irishman who is studying law in London. Handsome and personable, Finn makes a number of friends among the well-connected young men around London, such as Barrington Erle and his fellow-Irishman Laurence Fitzgibbon, members of the Whig, or Liberal party, which is then in opposition, as the Tories are in Government.

His friends induce him to stand for election from an Irish borough in the next general election, and despite being advised to the contrary by both his father and the barrister with whom he has apprenticed, Mr Low, Finn takes the bait and enters into political life despite having neither money nor a professional reputation.

From here begins the story of Finn as a private individual and as a political entity, and the moral conflicts that define his life. Finn is not rich, as mentioned before, but he does hold political views, and these are tested as motions are moved and voted on in the House of Commons. He supports electoral reform, but his own seat is a rotten borough.

Phineas and Mr Clarkson
But Finn’s political career is a story of success, despite some initial financial trouble with the collection agent, Clarkson. Despite his initial hesitation to speak in Parliament, Finn makes friends with other political dignitaries like Mr Monk, Mr Gresham and even Mr Mildmay. The wheels churn, and the Whigs find themselves in Government, and Finn now begins to take steps towards parliamentary honours, and from contemplating resignation, finds himself an Undersecretary in the Government (a position like a Minister of State in India). The Whigs are riven by internal differences though, and Mr Turnbull, a man whose description as strong reminiscent of India’s own PM Modi, though his actions are closer to those of Arvind Kejriwal in his anarchist days, takes up cudgels for electoral reform.

Mr. Turnbull was a good-looking robust man about sixty, with long grey hair and a red complexion, with hard eyes, a well-cut nose, and full lips. He was nearly six feet high, stood quite upright, and always wore a black swallow-tail coat, black trousers, and a black silk waistcoat. In the House, at least, he was always so dressed, and at dinner tables. What difference there might be in his costume when at home at Staleybridge few of those who saw him in London had the means of knowing. There was nothing in his face to indicate special talent. No one looking at him would take him to be a fool; but there was none of the fire of genius in his eye, nor was there in the lines of his mouth any of that play of thought or fancy which is generally to be found in the faces of men and women who have made themselves great. Mr. Turnbull had certainly made himself great, and could hardly have done so without force of intellect. He was one of the most popular, if not the most popular politician in the country. Poor men believed in him, thinking that he was their most honest public friend; and men who were not poor believed in his power, thinking that his counsels must surely prevail. He had obtained the ear of the House and the favour of the reporters, and opened his voice at no public dinner, on no public platform, without a conviction that the words spoken by him would be read by thousands. The first necessity for good speaking is a large audience; and of this advantage Mr. Turnbull had made himself sure. And yet it could hardly be said that he was a great orator. He was gifted with a powerful voice, with strong, and I may, perhaps, call them broad convictions, with perfect self-reliance, with almost unlimited powers of endurance, with hot ambition, with no keen scruples, and with a moral skin of great thickness. Nothing said against him pained him, no attacks wounded him, no raillery touched him in the least.

Finn’s own seat is in danger as Turnbull votes against his own PM. A case of police high-handedness against supporters of Turnbull puts Finn on the spot, as his own landlord, Bunce, is manhandled outside Westminister, and then comes the greatest test of his convictions – land reforms, a privilege the government has given to England, but not yet to Ireland, a measure that puts Finn in the uncomfortable situation of having to decide between loyalty to his political masters and to the people he represents.

Phineas and Mary Flood Jones
Finn’s private life is just as riven with dilemma. His first love, Mary Flood Jones from his village of Killaloe in Ireland, has no property and Finn knows he needs to marry well to maintain his standing as a Parliamentary gent. His affection transfers itself to Lady Laura Standish, who is also his political mentor, of sorts. Though Lady Laura and her father, Lord Brentford, do much to help Finn politically, he is unable to win her heart – or is too late in seeking it. Lady Laura is unhappy in her marriage, but our hero is happy enough to then fall in love with the heiress Violet Effingham, but here his rival is his own close friend (and Lady Laura’s brother), Lord Chiltern

Violet, Laura and Chiltern
Finally, there is the rich and beautiful widow, Madame Goesler, and here his rival is none other than the Duke of Omnium, uncle of our old friend Plantaganet Palliser, who, along with his wife, the lovely Lady Glencora, were such an endearing part of Can You Forgive Her. Planty Pall and his wavy-haired wife make a smaller appearance here, though Palliser’s elevation to Chancellor of the Exchequer is completed here, and his wife’s salvo against Madame Goesler makes for very interesting reading.

The Duke and Madame Goesler
Whether the young Irish MP chooses pragmatism or ideals, friendship or love, and which of the lovely young ladies finally favours him with her hand, these are the matters at the core of the book. Trollope holds together the threads of politics and love with considerably felicity, and as readers we feel invested in Finn’s fate over the massive length of the book.

Phineas with the Bunce's
Compared to Can You Forgive Her, where the politics is secondary to Alice Vavasor and Lady Glencora’s love stories, in Phineas Finn, politics is at least as important as the social life. There is a lot to learn here, as well as to enjoy.

The ride through the countryside where Chiltern and Finn join a foxhunt, Mr Monk’s monologue on the pleasure of being in opposition,

"Unless indeed a man were to feel that he was in some way unfitted for office work. I very nearly provided for myself an escape on that plea;—but when I came to sift it, I thought that it would be false. But let me tell you that the delight of political life is altogether in opposition. Why, it is freedom against slavery, fire against clay, movement against stagnation! The very inaccuracy which is permitted to opposition is in itself a charm worth more than all the patronage and all the prestige of ministerial power. You'll try them both, and then say if you do not agree with me. Give me the full swing of the benches below the gangway, where I needed to care for no one, and could always enjoy myself on my legs as long as I felt that I was true to those who sent me there! That is all over now. They have got me into harness, and my shoulders are sore. The oats, however, are of the best, and the hay is unexceptionable."

the description of the Cabinet meeting, Phineas’ first debate in the House, the Duke of Omnium’s grand ball, are but a few among scenes that are written as well as any in English literature. Trollope’s writing is smoothly Victorian, and if the book is heavy, the prose is not.

The authorial intervention is also less here than in the previous novel, and that is to the good. There are instances of shifting points-of-view that are less-than-ideal for those of used to more polished narratives, and one does wish there was more of the Palliser couple than the few glimpses we are offered.

The characters are well-drawn. Phineas the young politician caught between ideals and ambition, is likeable and relatable. Laura Standish, politically ambitious at a time when women did not have a vote, is a tragic figure of a sort, and a noble one, even, in the way she holds faith with Phineas. 

Lady Laura Standish

Violet Effingham, vivacious and impetuous, is no conventional heroine, but is the most influential character in the story nonetheless. Madame Goesler is a fascinating study of a financially independent woman in the nineteenth century, and perhaps her duel with Lady Glencora would have been the centrepiece of a differently-told novel.

But for all the good and less-than-good, Phineas Finn succeeds in entertaining the reader – and inducing this particular reader to scour his bookshelf for the next in the series, The Eustace Diamonds.

Available here in paperback and here for Kindle