30 October 2009

The Great Indian Love Story by Ira Trivedi

A glimpse into Delhi's low life
Sometimes Pune station is genteel and welcoming. But 2 weeks ago when I visited to drop someone off, it was so teeming with travellers, and with such a long platform-ticket queue (the machine had vanished – stolen, perhaps?) that I entered without one. But when I went again a few days ago to receive her, assuming I’d have to push and shove again, it was saintly calm and I was way too early.
Staring at the book cart near the entrance, I saw this one and couldn’t resist buying it. What a promising, if ambitious, title! Eager to get started, I decided to find a good seat and start reading.

Pune station has as many indicators as clouds in a monsoon sky, but none of them work. Nobody I asked seemed to know when my train was due or on which platform it would arrive. Calculating the average of various guesses, I hiked up and down and found to my pleasant surprise that platform 2/3 had several rows of comfortable-looking empty seats. I sat down and started reading but that distinct and rather fruity railway-toilet smell began to haunt me. I moved to various seats up and down the platform but the smell followed me everywhere. It was a familiar feeling from the long and tedious train journeys of my childhood on wooden-slat berths and one-rupee chaya-coffee and the hot Kerala, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharshtra winds blasting through the compartments and occasionally aiding in sunstroke. So instead of making me vomit, I started feeling nostalgic. It was a bit like having an old and sweet but very annoying friend (or cousin) sitting behind you, trying to read over your shoulder.
However, that was not the reason I wasn’t very impressed with this book. I read more than half of it while waiting for a train (which mysteriously crept in and emptied itself out, unannounced, on a dark platform, while other trains’ arrivals and departures were being heralded in loud, continuous klaxon wails).
When I got home, I made sure I read to the end before I went to sleep because this is just not the kind of book I would give a second chance to. It is well written and paints a vivid picture of a certain section of Delhi society. These people are very wealthy, and they spend their money on large, ostentatious homes, and nightly parties where part of the entertainment is the abuse of expensive and mind-altering substances. However, bringing this alive briefly in your mind is the book’s only success. Otherwise, I could only see flaws. The plot is weak. Some of its links are entirely unconvincing. The narrator starts out as a character of the book – but then suddenly disappears, and ends up as a voice that abruptly winds up the story at the end.
I'm not complaining because this book is not great literature
– after all, it did help me pass a pleasant hour on the stinky railway platform – but because it does not even do justice to the simple and popular genre to which it belongs.
Ira Trivedi has used the device of getting various of her characters to tell the story, but this doesn’t make any of them more real to us and in fact opens the way for far too many loose ends.
Before I wrote this, I came across an internet article (inappropriately titled "Writer Ira Trivedi takes a look at Delhi’s high life") in which Ira Trivedi claims that her book is about “India trying to come to terms with western values”.
I feel sorry to admit that I don’t even agree with that. The book is about people who are simply following a lifestyle and a tradition that they have always done.
Over centuries they have been cruel and exploitative, whether as landlords or as administrators. Over centuries they have ill-treated and objectified their women, forcing them into subservience of every kind, and brutalizing and killing them when they pleased. They have always favoured intoxication over sobriety.
To me, many of the characters in the book were like pigs in a pen – snuffling and grunting and eating their own faeces. A book whose characters disgust you is not always a bad book – many wonderful books have completely disgusting characters who add colour and charm to the tale. But not this one.

Then, this book calls itself a love story.
Surely love means more than just a feeling you carry within yourself? Surely it’s inclusive of the other person or thing and involves your care, nurture, understanding and giving of focussed attention to the loved person or thing? So to me, The Great Indian Love Story was not about love.
It’s also not about India – only a tiny and horrid part of it.
And, sadly, there is absolutely nothing great about it at all.

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