Archive for June 29th, 2009

June 29, 2009

Nothing but praise for you, my dear

Shristi publishers continue to bring out cutting edge works by young Indian writers. Other books from them that I’ve read include Tuhin Sinha’s That Thing Called LOVE, and Novoneel Chakraborty’s A Thing Beyond Forever (which I saw in a bookshop yesterday in a new edition and with a new cover. This proves that I was wrong in saying that the language of the book might be too dense for the average reader. My faith in readers is thus re-established). Yesterday I found myself buying four new books that have come out since I left the country, and last night I read Arpit Dugar’s Nothing For You My Dear: Still I Love You….!
Arpit Dugar is a very young writer indeed – he’s 22. Impressively, he chooses to write from the point of view of a character older than himself, 26 year old Avinash Jain. The parallels between Dugar and Avinash are obvious – they both (from the information about the author given on the book’s inner front cover) have attended the same educational institutions, and are both from Jain families. At one point, due to a minor blip in editing, perhaps, a character even addresses Avinash as “Arpit”. With so strong an identification, it is impressive that Dugar manages to view his protagonist in a detached and critical way. Here he is describing Avinash on the first page of the book, where he admits straight off that his character isn’t perfect:

Avinash was the kind of guy who actually got on your nerves in the very first meeting. His physical appearance was no less than that of a super-model, his way of dressing, his smartness and of course his intelligence attracted everyone around him.

The book is structurally complex, with its story within a story. Avinash Jain’s parents are forcing him to marry Neha Bhandari, and as a dutiful son he cannot deny them their wish. He therefore begs Neha to reject him instead, and when Neha (who has fallen in love with him through the photos she’s seen) demurs, tells her the story of his relationship with Lisha, the girl he hoped to marry. The bulk of the book consists of Avinash’s narration of the story of his life and love.

You or I might tell such a story in a couple of lines. But Dugar’s narrator has clearly been bottling things up and needs to talk about it. As a result we are presented with a number of tiny details that make the whole thing real and add poignance to our understanding of the tale. Details such as this, when Avinash describes his hostel bedroom:

Then there were my gadgets, a personal desktop computer with almost all the gadgets loaded. There were two keyboards, I remember, one was of the normal style and the other was the folding one. There were two mouses even, one was Microsoft’s wireless optical mouse and the other one was the touch pad one. All the eight USB ports of my board remain occupied. Two of them were used by the wireless mouse connector and the folding keyboard. The third was used by the TATA Indicom internet card. The fourth was for the web camera. The fifth port was for the printer, which most of the time remained out of cartridge. The sixth port was an external hard drive, 500 gigabytes. And the seventh and eighth were left open for any extra peripherals to be used. Generally pen drives took hold on them.

A number of people have commented on the “student” flavour of recent novels, many of which seem to be set at least partly in an educational institution, possibly because the bulk of the readership are students or people who were very recently students. So you have Chetan Bhagat and Tushar Raheja writing about IIT life, Ravi Subramanian and Harshdeep Jolly tackling the IIMs, and Soma Das doing her bit for JNU. But the above is about as authentic a picture of student life as I have ever seen. While the references to Tata and Microsoft may seem like product placement, they actually function as a commentary on the importance of brands in daily life, as well as giving the reader a strong sense of context. Dugar is clearly aware of this, as he begins the book with a list of brands, so that we know all about Avinash almost before we know who he is. It’s a satirical take on consumer culture that is done in a startlingly subtle way for a young author and a first novel. In fact, the care with which this book has been written and edited gives the lie to Avinash’s claim that he’s not good with grammar and vocabulary, “I find grammar is some bullshit for crammers”. He has, among other gifts, a positive genius for metaphor.

I felt excitement spreading in my chest like a pleasant cactus.

One of the things that fascinated me about the book is how Dugar negotiates the gender issue. Many of Avinash’s close friends (Lenika, Akanksha, Ria, Tia) are female, for example, so he clearly values what the women around him bring to his life. He is also aware that men and women are fundamentally different, something that feminists have tried to make us forget. Thus his pronouncements on women are hesitant, as if he knows he may be giving offense and is afraid to claim authority. And yet he clearly speaks from experience Some examples:

I don’t know why girls only tell half the story. Don’t mind Neha but most of them love playing mind games and it is truly said that even the one who made them cannot judge what’s going on in their minds. And I believe that is the thing which we guys are so crazy about. Girls are so innocent and beautiful in their own ways.

I had heard from my friends that girls call boys sweetie, honey, cheeku-pie, hubby-dubby when they are in love with them.

The girls are in true sense the gamblers. They actually know the techniques to control us.

When you see a beautiful girl you actually fprget everything. Even Einstein in his theory of relativity mentioned that “Time is relative. When you are with a beautiful girl, the whole day will pass like a few seconds. On the other hand, when you are with a fat ugly lady, you will find a few seconds like years passing out”.

She came late to the college on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Maybe because we are allowed to wear casuals on those days and don’t mind but girls take hell lot of time in getting ready, choosing the best outfits and wearing the make-up.

Some of my friend once told me that staring is half the victory in love.

Understanding that women are fundamentally purer and more innocent than men, Avinash shows a wonderfully tender protective streak. He takes chivalry seriously.

I knew it had created a bad impression of my attitude but I never like attending booze sessions. It depresses me, so I avoid it. I am not against it, but I don’t support it in presence of girls and women even. It is something against my ethics.

And after all, what girl can resist being cared for?

The book is not without its flaws, however, and both of the things which spoilt it for me were factual errors. The first was a mere question of haircare. Lisha, at the point when Avinash meets her, has hair that is “cut in steps”, something that Avinash could probably not have recognised were it not straight. Additionally, he later describes her hair as straight. Yet at that first meeting, she also has “a curl carelessly on her forehead”. It seems extremely unlikely, though with curlers and straighteners freely available on the market anything is possible. And anyway, as has been discussed before on this blog, authors are frequently ignorant of the differences between straight and curly hair.

The second problem is one of timing. Towards the end of the book, Avinash waits for Lisha at the Ansal Plaza. Lisha telephones (half an hour late) from Sarojini Nagar, to say she’ll be fifteen minutes. Now, we’re told that Lisha is always late, but no reader could seriously believe that either of them think the journey even possible in fifteen minutes. What about the South Extension bottleneck? Unless we assume that Lisha also has no sense of direction as well as no sense of time, it is hardly feasible.

But it is possible that these minor criticisms arise out of bitterness and jealously from a critic who has never had a book published, yet is almost 24. All in all, a fine effort.