Friday, February 25, 2011

Ruskin Bond - Susannah's Seven Husbands

I am a fan of Ruskin Bond, have been so ever since I read his little articles in The Tribune.  I discovered his short stories and anthologies later, when I read some of them in my daughter's prescribed English textbooks.  Till date I love Rusty best, and his wastral of an uncle who tried his hand at many things.

His books have been made into movies before, Junoon was based on A Flight of Pigeons, both great in their own way.  The Blue Umbrella was made into a fabulous movie by Vishal Bhardwaj.  Needless to say the promos of 7 Khoon Maaf had me hooked and I was double hooked when I learnt that it was based on a short story by Ruskin Bond, Susannah's Seven Husbands.  

I hied off to see 7 Khoon Maaf last Sunday and came back a wee bit disappointed.  Not that it wasn't good, it just wasn't brilliant.  I expected more out of the Bond-Bhardwaj combo.  The first couple of husbands were good, but after that the story seemed to falter, bolstered a bit by the Keemat Lal episode and  then, alas faltering again.  

But yet, such is my mania for Bond, that I ordered the book containing - hold your breath - the original short story, the novella that Bond expanded it into and the screenplay of the movie.  Just this morning I finished reading the story and the novella, in that order.

Bond's original short story is exactly what you expect of him.  It is short, intriguing, contains all his masterstrokes, it leaves you feeling mystified and satiated.  This Susannah was born long back, was tremendously rich, and was supposed to have a cellar full of treasures with snakes guarding it.  She was seen riding around the town in a buggy, rich and beautiful, admired and feared by all.  She had several husbands that she was rumored to have sent to their early graves.  Her ghost was said to have haunted the house and the surrounding areas, waylaying good looking men as she was said to be looking for a ideal mate.

The novella lists her husbands, expanding the story.  It introduces the character of Arun, Susannah's neighbour who was too young to be a lover, but was old enough to be her friend.  He is in love with her and talks to her and her gardner often, and is privy to the goings-on in the house.  In his characteristic style, Bond leaves an element of mystery about the husbands' death.  So we are not sure if these deaths were brought on or an accident.  An excellent ruse, I think.  

It makes for a fairly good read.  Bond has this admirable quality of saying just enough, not more nor less.  It stands him in good stead and as long as the husband is interesting, it carries you along.  It is not his best offering though.  It lacks the brilliance of many of his stories and novellas.  The packaging does not help either, with the poster of 7 Khoon Maaf on the cover.  Ruskin Bond does not need cheap tricks to sell his books. In my opinion he is a living legend.  His books and stories are going to live forever and we are watching history in making, he is going to be a classic.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Tarun Tejpal - The Alchemy of Desire

I have a bit of a connect with Tarun Tejpal.  He worked once at the same newspaper as I do now, both he and his wife.  I have just one memory of him talking to our garrulous telephone operator and laughing.  Much later, after he left Chandigarh, I read some of his articles here and there and liked them.  It was even later, after Tehelka, that he became a household name. Gosh, I thought, its that same thin fellow who used to work in my office.  I knew he had written a book called The Alchemy of Desire.  I read the blurbs, but not the book.  A couple of weeks back, I picked up the book in the library, egged on by a positive recco from a friend.

His book seemed to be autobiographical and began with his Chandigarh phase.  So far so good.  I love Chandigarh and love reading about it.  The mid eighties were a wonderful time, journalistically speaking.  A lot was happening, militancy was on the rise, assassinations and emergencies, and journalism had not yet plumbed the depths it has.  It was fun (ooops, I hope there is no  'g**d phat ke haath me aajati' type around to chastise me).  I mean 'fun' in the adrenaline pumping way, there was so much happening, there was excitement in the air.  However, though Tejpal does include the political happenings of those times, his concern lies elsewhere: his relationship with his wife.  He tells us how crazy he was about her, but alas, he takes a long time telling us this, again and again.  His interest in his wife is deeply carnal, so we are given descriptions of his sex life.  He avoids (prudishly?) the use of names for sexual body parts.  "Engorged, Tumescence, Wetness, Inside" are used liberally in his frequent listings of his legal sexcapades.  It makes for a tedious reading at times, not titillation. I skipped and jumped through these bits and wondered if anything was going to happen at all, or was he going to harp on and on about how he loved sex with his woman.

I nearly gave up reading further.  But then, I stuck with it.  Suddenly things took a turn.  Tejpal finally came to the crux of the matter.  Somewhere along in the story, the young couple came into some money that Tejpal's grandmother left for him.  With this money the happy young couple buys a house high in the hills.  The cottage had been built by an American woman who had married a Nawab during the British Raj.  During renovations to this cottage, they chance upon a locked chest which is filled with diaries written by the woman.  It is while pursuing these detailed diaries that Tejpal finds himself hallucinating about the descriptions of the sex life of the lady, and finds himself unable to 'come up' for his wife.

The story of Catherine is told with the pithiness that all journalists are required to have.  From then on, it turns almost into a thriller, as Tejpal is obssessed with finding out more and more about Catherine and what happened to her.  It makes for a compelling read.  After he attains closure with the Catherine story, he is able to return to his feelings for his wife.  In the last chapter, he goes back to the story of how he met this girl that he loved to distraction all his life, his first and his only love.  Now, without the cumbersome need to list his sexual encounters with his wife, he is much much much better.  The final two chapters of the book are the best that I have read in recent times.  It was worth wading through the first few tedious chapters.

Of course, I loved the references to two of my favorite places in the world, Kasauli and Chandigarh.  Like many Chandigarhians, Tejpal too goes often to Kasauli.  He does make them come alive with his accurate descriptions of the place and people.  Curiously, despite his attempt to write up his wife, she seems like a very flat character, he is to be unable to bring her alive.  It is only in the final chapter that he succeeds in fleshing her out.  

Better scores have to be given to his attempts to write a book.  One of the themes of the book is also how Tejpal tries to write a novel often and fails.  His wrestling with his creative side is also very real.  Also, of course, the political scenario that he has to grapple with.  No marks for this one, because it is something all journalists do.

It could have been a great book, had he edited it a bit better.  The first few chapters could have done with some chopping.  Who should have known this better than a guy who is an editor?