17 September 2009

Vinegar Sunday and Cappucino Dusk by Kankana Basu

Full of life and colourful imagery – a sort of native Jhumpa Lahiri running on high voltage
Vinegar Sunday
is a collection of short stories based around the inhabitants of a certain building that stands across a busy main road in front of the Sacred Heart Church.
Situated half-way between the railway station and the fresh-fish market, and “with residents a bunch of near-lunatics”, a postman with a poetic bent of mind names it Halfway House. The name sticks.
It was only after I read Capuccino Dusk, Kankana Basu’s novel which was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2007, and found Halfway House just down the street, did I realize that it stood in a suburb of Bombay. (How silly – I should have known – where else in the world but Bandra would you find a postman with such a poetic bent of mind?)
The lives of the families of Halfway House intertwine. The stories are short and crisp, each with a pointed theme. The language, though of a uniformly high descriptive quality, tends to occasionally peak in random absurdities. The stories are centred on a community of families but are not restricted just to family realities such as the harsh oppressiveness of adults to sensitive children; what happens when assertive wives of interpersonally-gifted husbands remain lonely for too long or middle-aged women who (now that the children can manage on their own) take to writing. Here we also have a crime writer who gets kidnapped by criminals to mastermind their plots; an orphan child who discovers the properties of the foxglove, to the detriment of her unloving grandmother; an exceptionally-told story of the tension of an imminent communal riot, and the escape from it.
I was impressed by the quality of these stories, though occasionally irritated by a sudden incongruous statement or abrupt ending. I also found the back-cover blurb “With Basu around, you don’t really need Jhumpa Lahiri” annoying, but it made me think that yes, I would compare Kankana Basu favourably with the world-famous Pulitzer Prize-winning author. These stories take you where Jhumpa Lahiri cannot – her characters are “yesterday” Indians (Bengalis, to be more specific), the only kind she knows. Brilliant though they once were, they have faded into insignificance alongside the far more vibrant, confident, relaxed world citizens who continue to live in India (Bombay, that is) and that Kankana Basu is writing about. There’s a cultural identity emerging here that I don’t think anyone has done before.
Having read and felt this, I was excited to have another book by the same author in store, but it turned out that I was disappointed by Capuccino Dusk.
It’s not a bad book, but it doesn’t live up to the promise of Vinegar Sunday. I did feel that the short story is more Kankana Basu’s medium, and also that this book could have done with an editor of higher skill and focus. Like Vinegar Sunday, Capuccino Dusk is about the rituals and routines of middle-class Bombay and creates a clear impression of the life of the neighbourhood, integrating some into a tight interactive group, while others who are in fact crowding around in overpopulated Bombay, simply do not exist. In this authentic setting, the book deals with many issues, local and global. Both books are about Bengali families, their lifestyle and culture, and the way they have adapted to Bombay. Both are constructed with the same energetic and enjoyable – flawless – prose. Some of the issues Cappuccino Dusk are Hindu-Muslim prejudice, politics and power that nurture mediocrity in educational establishments, various relationship permutations possible in large families, and the tortures of a creative person with no emotional outlet. Some of the (faintly incongruous) events include a terror attack, a kidnapping, the stirrings of romance in every possible quarter, and an unlikely reunion. I felt that they could have been integrated together better and that the transitions could have been gentler.
When I told Kankana Basu this, she said she agreed and that others had given her the same feedback.
“People have told me that I went overboard using every ingredient in the kitchen to make one dish!” she said.
At the same time, I found many of Kankana Basu’s stray comments to be funny or insightful. The book starts with a family moving from Calcutta to Bombay, looking at the filthy hutments that sport television antennae and the trappings of modern life, and thinking disapprovingly, “This is faux poverty. In West Bengal, the poor are really poor.”
I found that her characters come across as very real and when I asked her, she laughed, saying, “I go into hiding every time I have a book published to avoid the furious phone calls from cantankerous uncles! My friends complain that I decorate my books with their habits and foibles! But I’m careful to stick to superficial eccentricities and never reveal real secrets.”
I also enjoyed the offbeat, wacky translations of Hindi, Bengali and Urdu poetry that the book is strewn with.
Yeh mahalon, yeh takhton, yeh taajon ki duniya

Yeh insaan ke dushman samaajon ki duniya

Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai?
Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai?

apparently means:

”This world of casinos, derbies and dodgy portfolios

This world of perverts, slime and sleaze
Bloody hell!
Even if I did get this screwball life
I’d kick it in the butt
And so I bid you goodbye!”

Kankana Basu may not have the spellbinding storytelling abilities of R.K. Laxman, the many-layered complex plots of Anita Desai or Amitav Ghosh; the single-spark genius of Arundhati Roy; the slick style of Amit Varma or the whiz marketing skill of Chetan Bhagat. However, I did find that her books have some literary merit, and are comfortably positioned in a large and expanding market of readers of Indian fiction.

1 comment:

  1. I personally loved Cappuccino Dusk, agreed that parts of it were over-done but still found the book a delight to read!