18 May 2015

Hadal by CP Surendran

Underwater exploration

As a piece of contemporary literature, there are many aspects to Hadal. First and most basic, it may be admired for its unwavering plot and its lifelike characters, presented in a manner which keeps the reader engaged. As such, it could easily find its feet in a burgeoning marketplace of newcomer readers whose tastes may be ready to move on from Ravinder Singh and Chetan Bhagat.
Second, as its author, CP Surendran, acknowledges, the book is not pleasingly exotic or prettily clever and correct. It is inspired by a true story: the story of an Indian rocket scientist falsely accused of selling secrets of the Indian space research programme. Also, one of its main characters is a confused, wishy-washy, inappropriate role-model, victim of a woman. For a publishing industry grappling with self-esteem issues since historic times (and one whose decision-makers today are mostly women), it marks a kind of coming-of-age to have let through an important book without a ‘wow!’ theme and with such a character.
Another aspect of Hadal is a fabric of fundamental common-sense backed by a weft of satire. Located in Kerala, it has coconuts, street and pet dogs and a wannabe tourist industry. There is an evil nuclear power plant with a foreign do-gooding activist, who tries but is unable to convince young people that basket-weaving and the idyllic village life is the way forward. Another of Hadal’s main characters is a rocket scientist – what could be sexier than someone who understands everything – and he turns out to be someone with a deep, fundamental instinct for what women want. Ironically, he will only learn, too late, that there are things fathers should never do so that their sons could be happy.
This book shows us that dreams are real – why else does your heart continue to pound at the mere hologram of a few mis-matched memories? Shadowy women characters determinedly express their individuality. Villainous men (men addicted to cough syrup) come undone by their deep love for and dependence on their mothers. A teenager feels complete, and with his well-lived life behind him, is all set to welcome death. An elephant recognizes his mistress eight years after she, having fallen on lean days, had sold him to a temple. While having a gentle dig at the self-righteous mental health professionals of a certain Nordic country where Indian parenting has been considered lacking, Hadal exposes how we, as a people, have yet to come to terms with adoption.
This vigorous and colourful context comes to the reader in short, powerful sentences that conjure up striking portraits and landscapes. Then, all of a sudden, unexpectedly, the territory transforms. Abyss, whirlpool, torrent … dramatic, self-indulgent, exquisitely beautiful … a dancing panorama of sentences unfolds. It turns out that the author of this novel is a poet. He is not just a poet, but an activist too. It turns out that the innermost thrust of this book is not just self-expression. The innermost thrust of this book is to hold Indian democracy – not just Indian democracy but Indian civilization itself – under a spotlight.
What is the fundamental problem we face as a people? With sixty percent of us defecating in the open, could it be, maybe, toilets? Or is it just that old thing we always knew, that the people in charge are irresponsible and crazed, career fascists? Is it that we ourselves are nothing but liars and cheats? Is it just our helplessness against our biology, and sometimes our geography, that makes us all so laughably weak and ridiculous? Are we as different from Pakistan and Nigeria as we would like to believe?
Every writer, as CP Surendran observes in this book, is at the mercy of others’ tastes, beholden to how a million others were brought up, the books they read, the schools they went to, the kind of parents they had. How many in that burgeoning marketplace of newcomer readers, browsing bookshelves or surfing top-ten lists, would connect Hadal with the Greek word Hades, the abode of the dead? How many would know, without consulting google, that Hadal also refers to the deepest trenches under the sea? In these trenches, pressure and density and opacity are extreme. Reading this book, it appears that CP Surendran chose this title with the intention of conveying that, though we tend to delude ourselves that we are a great, open people, maybe we are actually hadal.
first appeared in Outlook magazine issue of 18 May 2015