Sunday, May 06, 2007

Neel Kamal Puri - The Patiala Quartet

The Patiala Quartet by Neel Kamal Puri, pages 174

It is easy for me to be overwhelmed by nostalgia while reading this book. It is set during the 80s and 90s when I was living in nearby Chandigarh. These times are my times, this is my language and my culture.

Two sisters of a royal lineage belonging to Patiala marry into different families. Minnie and Monty's mother marries a businessman without any pedigree, Karuna and Micheal's mom marries right Their lives are undone by defunct husbands. One is defunct because his business fails, another because he chooses to while is time away like a rich wastral. Their unhappy life has a bearing on their children. What happens to the children is what forms the story. They go through their lives falling in love, falling into depression, falling from motorcycles. They see happiness, severence, tragedy, accomplishment in the short span of their youth.

The story is plausible and meaty, what undoes it is lengthy digressions that seem to pop up at the wrong spots. You can't write about Punjab in the eighties and nineties without talking about the effect of terrorism on the lives of people who lived there. So it is written about, but again, as I said earlier it does not integrate well with the story and has a choppy effect. The story of the four cousins is touching and you feel for all the characters. They are pretty well etched.

The language, the idiom, the dresses, the ambience of Punjab of the day are well brought out. The peculiar traits of kakas (rich young boys) and their ways are well described. It is pretty funny in parts. That kept me turning the pages. I liked the feel of the book. I wish there was a good editor handy to hand out some good tips that would have enabled the author to refine the tale better.

The language goes from lyrical to okay in a matter of one paragraph.

Now, as I said right in beginning, I am familiar with the language, place, culture and people. I have no idea how a person who does not belong here feel about it. The novel lacks clarity and a lay person could fail to understand what is going on.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Khushwant Singh - Delhi

I knew of Khushwant Singh when he was at the prime of his career. He was editing the Illustrated Weekly of India and wrote some pretty irreverant stuff. He took a lot of flak for being an exhibitionist and mouthing (penning) controversial stuff. His writings seemed to revolve around wine and women and seemed to be deliberately contrary to what people said. That is the image I had of him. His columns were generally trashy and pieces of trivia, laced with jokes and shairi. I read a short story or an excerpt of his novel here and there. The pulled out pieces were usually erotic and simply reinforced the general image of him as a boozing womanising old man. A Dirty Old Man he was called.

Years later he happened to visit my office with his wife. I was surprised to see an old man walk in with his wife. There was no bulb over his head and no glass of whiskey in his hand. About a year or so back I read an interview where he had described his daily routine. Early to rise, he listened to direct telecast of kirtan from Darbar Sahib on the radio, ruminated on some shabd or kirtan, wrote some mandatory pages each day, and generally seemed to lead a very disciplined, sedentary life. Highly commendable from someone who is an nonagenarian.

Then I took out a book called Delhi from my library. I am going to digress a little here. I don't have much fondness for pulp fiction. Sometimes I have picked up Mills and Boon romances, some books that seem like light hearted read to pass time. I have even tried to read some Shobha De but found her insufferable. Her book, Sultry Nights, wasnt pulpy or interesting enough to keep me engrossed. But this book is the mother of pulp fiction. Khushwant Singh turns all the rules on their heads. The hero isnt a handsome rich dude, but a middle-aged, ugly Sikh. His heroine isn't a beautiful woman with a thousand virtues like Tess, she is a hermaphrodite, Bhagmati. He lays bare his soul, his lover's warts, and through them both he lays open the grandeur and the grime of Delhi.

The magnificent, the merciless, the munificent, the marauder, these are the people who uplifted and raped Delhi in quick succession. We are taken from the times of Balban to 1984 when Delhi was shaken by the anti-Sikh riots post Indira Gandhi's murder. Of course not in detail, or it would take a number of books. Rather than relate the history of Delhi to us in a mundane manner, he chooses to let some character of those times tell us the story. Therein lies the beauty of the novel. It is extremely readable, the first requirement of anything that passes through the printing presses.

KS is totally irreverent, liberal with erotic descriptions, and busts many historical myths. He does not fear to call a spade a spade and that is what makes his novel such a great read. I realise now that the fearsome reputation he garnered was probably bestowed upon him by jealous colleagues. He was ahead of his time by decades and stood by whatever he said and believed in.

Of all the pulp fiction I have read, he is the best. He is so good that he threatens to invade into territory usually occupied by Literature.