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An Omnibus Repast of the Century Past

January 2007
An Omnibus Repast of the Century Past

An Omnibus Repast of the Century Past

R.K. NARAYAN OMNIBUS, Volumes 1 and 2. Everyman's Library, 2006. 1,187 pages. $25.00 each.

MALGUDI DAYS by R.K. Narayan. Penguin Classics. August 2006. Paperback, 256 pages. $14.00. http://us.penguinclassics.com

O-M-N-I: These four letters preface a list of words that give me much pleasure. Omnibus. Omnificent. Omniumgatherum. Omnivore. Omniscient. Omnipotent. I collect words the way a squirrel hoards nuts or a chef files recipes. When my writing is feeling a bit famished, I claw into Webster's bin and gnaw away at a word's shell, hoping to get at its rich kernel. As happened while researching the title for this review, I sometimes get to the root of a word and then branch out to related words.

Omnibus, which in Latin means "for all," is a book containing two or more works by a single author. In a word, it describes the collection of R.K. Narayan's seven novels republished in a handsome, two-volume keepsake issued by Everyman's Library in its century year and, serendipitously, in the 100th year of Narayan's birth.

Omnificent, meaning unlimited power to create, is an apt adjective for Narayan's creative powers, which are masterfully applied in the Penguin classic Malgudi Days; although the "ficus" root in the second half of omnificent means "make" from the Latin facere, I prefer to think of it as being a blend of fiction and Ficus benghalensis, better known as the banyan tree, which has famously spread its aerial roots all over India.

Omniumgatherum means "about all." This mouthful of "oms" and "ums" accurately reflects how Narayan gathers all sorts of colorful characters in Malgudi, the fictional South Indian town that he created and evolved, echoing the creation and evolution of 20th-century India.

While etymologists would quibble that I don't have a linguistic leg to stand on in metaphorically evoking the banyan and its aerial roots, and it is arguable that Narayan's writing may not be "for all," it is hardly worth arguing that Malgudi is a microcosm "about all." The only argument worth entertaining is the one independently held by Alexander McCall Smith and Jhumpa Lahiri in their admiring introductions to Narayan's works. In his introduction to Volume 1 of the Everyman's Library collection of novels, Smith writes, "R.K. Narayan's novels are like a box of Indian sweets: a highly-coloured container conceals a range of delectable treats, all different in a subtle way, but each clearly from the same place." After playfully suggesting that the reader parsimoniously read one, and only one, Narayan "short story per day for 32 consecutive days," Lahiri, in her introduction to the Malgudi Days short stories, invokes a different sweet tooth: "If you are the type of virtuous person who is satisfied after just one piece of chocolate from a chocolate box, never tempted, until the following day, by a second, then perhaps you will be able to savor Malgudi Days in this restrained fashion."

So, gentle reader, here was my (and hopefully will be your) dilemma: gorge on Narayan's novels like a sweet-toothed omnivore locked in a Haldiram's confectionary, or nibble into his short stories as you would with an after-dinner sampling of Godiva chocolates (with a surreptitious reading/raiding at midnight when everyone else in your household is asleep).

Initially I intended to read the novels and short stories at breakneck speed, rushing through them to meet my editor's deadline. Although I had read most of Narayan's oeuvre many years earlier, I had to keep a private pledge to always read every word of any book I review. Since leisurely reading a book in one's youth is not the same as carefully reading it for review in middle age, I set out to read each of the seven novels in the two-volume omnibus and the 32 short stories in Malgudi Days.

Lacking omniscience and feeling omnipotent, I sped through Swami and Friends, The Bachelor of Arts, The Dark Room, and much of The English Teacher the way some children zip through childhood focused on some illusory, ivy-clad endgame. But like a straight-A student who is tripped up by his first B, I was fortunate to be slowed down. An unexpected visit to an emergency room and subsequent weekend stay with doctors and nurses gave me insight into the game of life that Narayan gently evokes in all his novels, but with heightened mastery in The English Teacher.

The surface story, written in the first person, is about how an English teacher, Krishna, and his wife make their way in the world before tragedy strikes. It was difficult for me to read because I knew that Narayan had written it shortly after his own young bride had died. This knowledge gave a special poignancy to all passages that foreshadowed death while exclaiming the bloom of love. Each tender moment presages the brevity of time we have with those we love. I read the following passage while resting in a hospital bed, my wife at my side, both of us disbelieving the possibility of a heart attack. Krishna exclaims to his wife:

"We must go on an all-India tour sometime. I will take you with me."

"Promise?" she asked.

"Absolutely," I said. "I will take you also to England and Europe if I make a lot of money out of the books I am going to write."

You may not make a lot of money from reading the many fine books that R.K. Narayan wrote, but you are sure to derive much pleasure from the all-India tour he takes you on while keeping you firmly ensconced in the change and continuity of Malgudi.

After leaving the hospital I returned to the novels in the omnibus and leisurely read The English Teacher as well as Mr. Sampath—The Printer of Malgudi, The Financial Expert, and Waiting for the Mahatma. For a brief moment I thought I would read only one of the short stories in Malgudi Days, saving the rest so that I could savor them one Haldiram at a time. But with the review deadline approaching, I felt a rush of Godiva chocolate frenzy and gobbled one Narayan delicacy after another. 

For Bisalpur, the Oza family's village that has changed and stayed much the same over the past century.)

Taste Memories

CLIMBING THE MANGO TREES: A MEMOIR OF A CHILDHOOD IN INDIA by Madhur Jaffrey. Knopf. October 2006. Hardcover. 320 pages. $25.00. www.randomhouse.com/knopf/

Yes, it does come with some family recipes at the end. But the real joy of Madhur Jaffrey's memoir Climbing the Mango Trees is reveling in what she calls "taste memory." For her she says there is nothing like the pure pleasure of "the smell of moong dal and basmati rice boiling in the kitchen." For her musician husband Sanford Allen it's "the smell of bacon."

In her memoir, Jaffrey uses the triggers of taste memory to unlock a flood of other memories of growing up in a joint family with 30 to 40 cousins sitting down to meals ("venison kebabs laden with cardamom, tiny quail with hints of cinnamon, chickpea shoots stir-fried with green chilies and ginger"). Sometimes the memories are much more humble—summer cucumbers hawked in Delhi as "Laila ki unglian hain, Majnu ki pasliyan" (the fingers of Laila, the ribs of Majnu).

Redolent as it is with memory, the sense of loss is palpable. It's not just immigration that has suddenly separated her from the foods of her childhood. (She came to England not knowing how to cook at all.) But even in globalized India, the old ways are gone. No one chills mangoes in frigid streams on mountain picnics, the lady in white doesn't stop by with terracotta cups of daulat ki chaat ("a frothy evanescence" of milk, "dried seafoam," and pistachio shavings with the special ingredient of winter dew).

Jaffrey writes simply but in vivid prose. It's not easy as a writer with an international readership to get across the differences between ghiya and tinda and tori. Sometimes it sounds like she is indeed the cookbook diva explaining just how to make that yakhni pulao.

But food aside, this memoir is of an idyllic childhood. Jaffrey shows both the pleasures of large joint families and the stresses and strains inherent in them. She says now that "love was like a security blanket—you knew exactly who you belong to." At the same time it's obvious she chafes against how "family history is all about men." This memoir is her way of bringing to light the stories of the women—her mother, her sisters, her grandmother Bari Bauwa's homemade lime pickle.

She also grew up in a remarkable time in India witnessing the birth of modern India. She remembers going to Birla House to see Gandhi, but what really stands out is a "taste memory" of Partition. She recounts how as Indian split into two, "most of our teenaged friendships withered and died as soon as talk of Partition began." The tiffin carriers literally changed. Gone were the roti with spicy shorva meat sauce and goat with spinach the Muslim girls brought. Now Delhi was full of new refugees from Punjab who brought with them their village food of parathas, sarson ki saag, kali dal and chickens cooked in tandoors. This is truly history in a lunch box.

The memoir stops at the cusp of adulthood when she is 17. The rest of her interesting life, her marriage to Saeed Jaffrey, her acting career, and rise to kitchen goddess is surely full of spicy stories. But Madhur Jaffrey isn't sure there will be another memoir. "I didn't want to go into the later years," she says with a smile. "Life just gets messy." —Sandip Roy-Chowdhury

The Silence of a Lifetime

THE SPLENDOR OF SILENCE by Indu Sundaresan. Atria Books, New York. September 2006. Hardcover, 399 pages. $25.00. www.simonandschuster.com. www.indusundaresan.com

With the Quit India campaign providing texture to The Splendor of Silence, Indu Sundaresan weaves a colorful tale of forbidden love, revolutionary fervor, and covert military operations. In this, her third novel, the author leaves the Mughal Empire behind and leaps almost to the present, to a time in which the British were trapped between surviving World War II and holding onto India. Set during a four-day period after the Japanese have invaded Burma, this novel is filled with well-built characters, explosive events, and undeniable intrigue.

Splendor opens, however, in 1963 Seattle, when 21-year-old Olivia receives a trunk of treasures from India. An accompanying letter reveals the previously untold story of the passion between Sam, the American father she worshipped, and Mila, the Indian mother who until then remained a mystery. The correspondent admits all of the disasters that befell the key players would not have happened "? if Sam had not come to Rudrakot." The letter continues, "It would be many years before we could talk of those four days in May, many years before I could consider them with something akin to equanimity."

This letter, floating in and out of the story proper, transports Olivia and the reader to the desert kingdom of Rudrakot in northern India and to a time when war threatened, racial prejudice was rampant, and a rising nationalist movement rumbled across the country. Sam, an American soldier with the Office of Strategic Services, travels to Rudrakot on a personal, secret mission: to find his brother—believed incarcerated—and rescue him from the local British installment. Meanwhile, Sam's single purpose is threatened when he meets Mila, the lively daughter of Rudrakot's political agent and fianc�e of the kingdom's prince. Mila and Sam fall in love, but both know that their mutual attraction must be kept secret at all costs. Burdened but not slowed, Sam goes about the business of making alliances to assist him with his mission. One of these alliances will prove to be critical yet force Sam to make choices that will impact either his brother or Mila's family. At the same time, the ugly politics of prejudice will turn on an unsuspecting victim and illustrate how quickly easily assumed camaraderie can change.

While it would have been easy for the author to make more of World War II in the story, she chose instead to illustrate the period's growing unrest, presenting India as it prepared for eventual independence from Britain. From radical bomb plots to military segregation, from the glittering expanse of a royal palace to the realities of caste and class divisions, the author paints a historic picture that neither apologizes for nor boasts of existence during the British Raj of the 20th century. In short, this book is as much a war-and-adventure story as it is a love story. While love-and-intrigue stories run the risk of falling into the category of romantic fluff, Sundaresan's characters are as developed and mature in their miscalculations and trespasses as they are in their successes and victories. Between the focused and determined Sam and the spirited and independent Mila comes a kaleidoscope of characters who radiate life from all points of the societal spectrum and who build upon interwoven subplots that shock, surprise, and entertain.

Are the lovers legendary? Perhaps so because even in their silence, as Sam learns, "All legends are true in India." —Jeanne E. Fredriksen 

Chinese Communities

in Calcutta

THE PALM LEAF FAN AND OTHER STORIES by Kwai-Yun Li. TSAR Publications, P.O. Box 6996, Station A, Toronto, Ontario M5W 1X7, Canada. 108 pages. $18.95.

Kwai-Yun Li's parents (of Hakka Chinese descent) emigrated to a small alley in Calcutta called Chattawalla Gali. These collected short stories (and the short ones are truly concise, six to eight pages), reflect on the marginalized Chinese community that Kwai-Yun Li grew up in, without a trace of over-sentimentality or learned helplessness. Li has now settled in Canada, and these stories reveal her early years in India.

The Hakka ("guest people") Chinese in Calcutta have been immigrating to Kolkata from Southern China since the 1920s. They developed enterprises that the Indians in Kolkata shunned. "The Chinese went into businesses which the Hindus found polluting: leather-tanning, hairdressing, shoe-making, carpentry, and restaurant-keeping."

Eventually Chinese immigrants to India, (whether Hakka, or Cantonese from Guangzhou, Fukkianese from the coastal area, or Toi-sanese from the fertile Sai-yup lowlands) became prosperous by the time India gained independence from the British in 1947. By the 21st century however, conflicts between India and China, and India-Pakistan conflicts pushed out Chinese businesses. "? the Chinese returned to China or emigrated to Taiwan, Hong Kong, North America, Australia and Europe."

Political conflicts, as we are witnessing all over the world, take a huge toll on vulnerable communities. As Mao comes to power in mainland China, we hear intense responses for or against Chairman Mao or General Chiang Kai Shek, who led Chinese populations to Taiwan.

The short story entitled "Last Dragon Dance in Chinatown" addresses divisive conflicts. The young narrator in the story fights with her friend Raindrop, whose father admires Chairman Mao. Raindrop exclaims, "Of course he (Mao) is nice. He is nicer than Chiang Kai Shek. Father said Chairman Mao is a good man."

"My brother says they are both wicked men," I said. "Lots and lots and lots of people died because Mao and Chiang fought and fought and fought."

While children are trying to sort out these realities for themselves, the Indian government imprisons Maoist sympathizers, as tensions between the Maoist regime and India escalate.

The light-hearted, humorous stories are equally evocative. In the delightful story "Uncle Worry," we meet Uncle Chien, who "? worries when his eldest daughter, Pi Moi, forgets to call him. He worries that she and her husband, Mohamed, have had a falling out. He worries when Pi Moi calls ?" And we are drawn more fully into extended family life.

Kwai-Yun Li revisits Kolkata's Chinatown called Tangra, in the 1920s, a square mile that sits on "reclaimed swamp land, the whole area dotted with ponds, fish farms, and garbage dumps, and ? open sewers." These stories are a far cry from India, Inc., and India's continuous economic growth in the 21st century. Even as we grow, we could learn from the past, and attempt to integrate marginalized immigrants more fully into mainstream Indian life. —

Jyotsna Sanzgiri

Misguided Desire

THE ALCHEMY OF DESIRE by Tarun J. Tejpal. Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers: New York. December 2006. Hardcover. 528 pages. $26.95. www.harpercollins.com

"Love and desire. To question them is to question life."

But what happens when they are confused for one another? Such is the case in Tarun J. Tejpal's debut novel, The Alchemy of Desire, which follows the lives of a young married couple, the unnamed narrator and his beloved Fizz (Fiza), who cannot get enough of each other until a wedge is inadvertently driven between them slowly and unsuspectingly. The wedge comes in the form of the journals of Catherine, a white woman from decades before who detailed her life in 64 leather-bound notebooks.

The young couple begin their relationship in Chandigarh and then find their way to Delhi. In 1988, "People, issues, events, scandals were exploding on the Indian landscape like crackers on an endless string. At the heart of it was the strange and sublime saga of Rajiv Gandhi in Indian politics. He and his monstrous mandate—delivered on the dead bodies of a bigballed leader and the blackballed Sikhs—were both beginning to fray." In the last quarter of the 20th century, the couple struggle, finding themselves to be their only salvation as India churns socially, politically, ideologically, economically, and industrially.

The narrator, a news editor, fancies himself the author of a great, expansive novel titled The Inheritors. "? I was sure I did not want to write small books about small things. The trivial social, emotional, material and relationship concerns writers labour on about. ? I wanted to write the capacious stuff. The grand drama of life, the sweeps of history and ideas and civilizations, the arching movements that make and unmake the world." Fizz generously gives him all the latitude and support he could possibly want, but his story never completes itself.

Later, he attempts to write again, this time from a different perspective. "This book was going to be the exact opposite of The Inheritors. Not capacious, not sprawling, not spanning generations. I was going to build this around one incident. One incident, one journey, one character. I would carve not an elaborate choker, but a perfect diamond. I felt I had come to understand the power of the small to illustrate the big." The narrator doesn't finish this novel, either, doubting its worth and truth.

When he stops writing, he and Fizz begin to draw apart. Unhappy, too, with the pressures of city living, the couple—courtesy of an inheritance—eventually move to the Himalayan foothills, where life would be easier and literature would happen.

The purchase and renovation of the hill house appears to be the salve for any soft wounds inflicted by writer's block. However, when the workers at the house discover a chest containing 64 leather-bound notebooks, which prove to be the handwritten journals of the original owner, reason flies out the window for the narrator. While he and Fizz are warned to leave the journals alone and not dig up the past, the narrator can't help himself, devoting his time and attention to reading, analyzing, and detailing them. The woman was an American adventuress who lived in India with her husband, a prince, in the first half of the 20th century. In the journals, she details her life, her loves, and her sexual conquests. The more the narrator's attention is given to the journals, the more Fizz is ignored until finally her tolerance and good nature evaporates. She leaves. Three years later, the narrator resurfaces and tries to put things right.

Reading The Alchemy of Desire is like taking a restless road trip across the United States. There are flat stretches that are sleep-inducing, there are hilly roads that stir interest, and there are mountainous passages that force one to keep one's eyes on the road. Once surviving the first 60-ish pages of the book, the flat-scenery part of the ride lessens for a while, and the story picks up speed. Then again, the brakes are applied now and then because seemingly endless ramblings intrude on the flow of the novel. On the positive side, the reader is saved by the upward movement of the fiction-within-the-fiction; the Partition-based story of the narrator's fearless and resourceful grandmother, Bibi Lahori; and the journals that are later discovered. Despite the fact that those four offshoots stop the ongoing story dead in its tracks, they are marvelously told and beg for attention. Catherine's story, spanning 100 pages of the book, is worthy of being a free-standing novella on its own merits.

It is unfortunate that the lengthy synopses of the unfinished novels and the recounting of Bibi Lahori's and Catherine's histories are far more interesting than the story of the narrator and Fizz themselves. In truth, the most (perhaps only) interesting (or remarkable) thing about the narrator and Fizz is that they enjoy sex at any time for nearly any reason, and they crave it; it's what keeps them together and as one. Perhaps their story is meant to illustrate some commonness of life—even when frequent, satisfying sex is the basis for the relationship—but the difference between the stories is so vast that the story-within-the-story provides the better parts of the entire novel. Did the author intentionally make the basic fiction so much less interesting than the nested fiction? If so, he succeeded, but it results in an unbalanced and uneven book.

Tejpal is not a novice writer. His 23-year career as a journalist has seen him edit some of India's top publications; he has written for international newspapers and magazines; and he is the founder of Tehelka, a well-respected newsweekly. Nevertheless, he pours so much into the telling of the fiction-within-the-fiction, that it appears he had too many ideas bouncing around in his head to settle on what would make a tight and powerful novel.

"All stories must end at the right moment before they drown in inanities," the narrator tells the reader. With that in mind, they must also begin at the right moment for the same reason, and while it seems to take forever to end, it seemed longer than eternity to begin. In the Middle Ages, chemistry's chief aim was to turn baser metals into gold and to discover the elixir of youth. That was alchemy. For all the novel's ramblings, for some strange reason, it has a certain amount of alchemy ? but not enough to make it a truly rich experience. — Jeanne E. Fredriksen 


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