28 September 2009

Breathing in Colour by Clare Jay

All the world's a stage, especially India
I saw a large review of this book in a mainstream paper in my city recently and couldn’t help thinking, “Hah, another sucker”.
I’d bought it because the cover is pretty and the contents looked intriguing. The author has a PhD in creative writing and I did find that she’d done a reasonable job.
A review I read on-line said, “Clare Jay's stunning debut novel explores the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship.” Now there’s something about those words “stunning debut novel” that makes me shudder – remember that sound of chalk screeching on the blackboard?
Anyway, what did actually stun me about the book was something no one else seemed to have noticed, not even the large review in the Indian newspaper last week. India was described as dirty and dangerous. That’s fair enough, I suppose. But to talk about it as some kind of zoo which only really brave, desperado-type people would visit; and to relegate Indian characters and situations to the status of props – and then try to sell the book in India – well, I’m sorry I really don’t understand that. In short, the story is good, its components are strong, some parts are silly, and the book made me angry and a bit disgusted.
For the long version, read the review I wrote for the 21 Jun 2009 issue of Sunday Mid-day:
This book has an appealing cover and an intriguing blurb. Alida Slater suddenly receives a phone call from a police station in Madurai. Her daughter, who had gone backpacking in India from the UK, is reported missing. She flies there immediately to try and find her. With this promising premise, we are now led into a story that entertains but does not impress. Clare Jay has a PhD in Creative Writing. Her knowledge of the fascinating sensory condition known as synaesthesia, as well as her work with the interpretation of dreams, form an attractive backdrop to the book. She is also an artist, and her central character Mia who we never actually meet in person has created interesting collages which add to the texture of the story.
To have disappeared in India – something that apparently happens to a significant number of tourists who come to this country – is a theme that would certainly hold interest. The tracking down of a missing child adds its own emotional allure. The author is skilled at developing characters and sustaining interest. There has been tragedy in Alida’s life before. Gentle hints and veiled references to it, and the impact it had on the various family members, continue through the book. We guess and imagine what exactly it might be, until it is finally described towards the end. Of course it is closely connected with what actually happened to Mia, the daughter.
The mystery and the clues that are followed, a romantic interest with its own little captivating story, the way the past is described and woven into the story are all quite gripping.
Unfortunately, however, the plot hinges on a premise that is weak and implausible. How could anyone believe that such a thing was possible? It made me question the author’s connection to reality, and even suspect that the culture she represents was far too emotionally self-indulgent. It reminded me of something I recently overheard at a museum in her country.
A little boy asked his mother, in connection with one of the exhibits, what a mistress was and she replied, “Oh it’s when a man has another … another girl friend … when he … when he’s already married … because … because he is a man.” Most of us turn out unprepared for such questions, but surely to say “because he is a man” rather than “because he is dishonest” or “because he is undisciplined” to a child, or even not give any reason, would only consolidate a culture in which it’s acceptable or even necessary for a man to have a mistress.
Thinking about my anger and feeling of scorn towards this author, I suppose it arose as a reaction to the way I felt India is portrayed in this book. It is described as a place which is not just dirty and dangerous but not even real. Instead, India appears to be some kind of zoo to which real people – daring people, not ordinary ones – could make visits and have real experiences while the characters and systems in it were simply props to which no real connection was possible.

1 comment:

  1. It’s depressing to know that India has been described as dirty, dangerous and much worse in the book. It is the way the west perceives India. No matter how far we go in economics and else, India to the ‘white world’ is, and will, for a long time to come, remain infra dig. And this jaundiced view raises my hackles too. We may have our complaints and grievances inside the family, but when an outsider attempts to point fingers and berate us, it makes me livid. For all its inconsistencies, India is still ours. Reminds me of the punch line for a popular snack brand – teda hey par mera hey.
    Interestingly, there is a reference to India in Hashim Mathir’s, In the country of men, where in India has been referred to as ‘one of the most illustrious countries in the world’. Perhaps, it takes the sensibilities of a suppressed people from a nation like Libya to recognize the glory of a country like India.