Uday Prakash, The Girl With the Golden Parasol (trans. Jason Grunebaum)

This, for the weekend’s column, is shorter than I’d have liked it to be–there’s so much in Prakash’s book to work with that I could have gone on for at least a few more thousand words. I’d love, as well, to be able to link to Grunebaum’s introduction to the piece, which suggests (among other things) that Prakash’s novel grew more political in the telling, as the serialised version gathered letters from who identified with the caste politics of the story, and that the author decided that this simply couldn’t be a love story. Which raises all sorts of implications for the abrupt, filmi ending, which has the lovers safely and happily speeding away on a train, even as Rahul has nightmares that seem much more grounded in the book’s (real) world.

I want to talk about this book and Bollywood (fascinating!), and this book and gender (uncomfortable!), and the fact that Prakash ties global and racial and sexual and economic inequalities up with caste under the heading “Brahminism”, and I want to do a much more detailed reading of it in the context of the subsequent campus novel tradition, and I want to read it alongside Half Girlfriend at length and less dismissively of the genre than I have been here (though I’m glad I was, here). In an earlier piece about another Prakash book I wrote that the author “lays claim to the whole world“; the sheer scope of his imagined (political, philosophical, literary) universe makes it hard to write about but in that book, as well as here, this is the thing I admire the most. The result is rich and flawed and messy and brilliant and a better reader could probably talk about it for a lot longer than me.

In the absence of those unwritten pieces, have this profile of the author instead. And some of his own words, on the returning of his Sahitya Akademi award.

And my column, I guess.

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A boy named Rahul and a girl named Anjali meet on a university campus and fall in love. But while their friends (even a girl who has a crush on Rahul) are admirably supportive, there are obstacles to their coming together. This is unsurprising, for a book which opens with “the bare backside of Madhuri Dixit, the same one Salman Khan had aimed at and hit with the pebble from his slingshot”, and whose lead characters carry those names. Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol (Peelee Chhatri Wali Ladki) is often in conversation with Bollywood; in plot as well as tone. Occasionally Rahul will go off into a daydream that suggests a well-placed song sequence; more worryingly, his ideas about wooing women seem derived from films—including Shah Rukh Khan in Darr. Late in the novel Prakash drives the point home, for any reader who had somehow missed it: “So this was the reality after all? Did Bollywood commercial cinema represent the most authentic and credible expression of the reality of our day and age …?”

Rahul is of a lower caste, one of the only non-Brahmins in the university’s Hindi department (to which he has transferred from Anthropology in order to better gaze besottedly at Anjali). Anjali’s father is a local politician, his position upheld in part by the local goons whose assault on Rahul’s Manipuri friend Sapam Tomba led to Sapam’s suicide. Rahul is involved in a student movement to organise and fight back against these goons, who form a worrying nexus with the university administration, politicians and local police. So far so filmi, but there’s far too much going on here to centre the love plot. Rahul’s political ideals, disillusionment with the system, with “Hindu Raj”, with capitalism and global structures of power take up at least as much of the book, and of his mind, as his romance with Anjali. And there’s no glib love conquers all message; when they finally consummate the relationship Rahul is very aware of the ways in which power, class, and caste (if not gender) are in operation.

The university campus setting is crucial here, and not only because it’s an appropriate setting for a romance plot. In few other situations would the earnestness of the characters work. Here we have students who read Che Guevara for inspiration and adopt Junoon songs as appropriate revolutionary chants (one of the few flaws in Jason Grunebaum’s fantastic translation is that the direct connection to familiar song lyrics is lost), and the spectre of Rahul’s uncle Kinnu Da, who occasionally swoops into the narrative to educate us further and refer to Foucault. But the local politics of the university campus have much wider implications, we’re reminded; with references to police brutality elsewhere, corruption, capital, caste. Sapam Tomba’s brother has been killed and he cannot go home (“they’ll say I am a PLA member and shoot me”); when Sapam kills himself shortly afterwards, Rahul hallucinates the brothers’ corpses walking side by side.

In Indian-English literature, of course, the campus novel has another set of connotations. In its original Hindi publication Prakash’s book precedes the rise of that particular genre; it was published in 2001 (Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone came out in 2004). In any case despite the hapless male protagonist and romance plot, it’s hard to see these as the same sorts of books, or even about the same sorts of people. Rahul and his friends inhabit a wide-ranging, multilingual imaginary where anything from Hazari Prasad Dwivedi to Jan Otčenášek to the movie Critters is available for them to draw upon. It’s a separate world from that of your average campus protagonist, and a difference that can’t be dismissed as the elitism of the English speaking world.

It’s a difference that was visible again earlier this week, when Bhagat dismissed the returning of Sahitya Akademi awards by various writers (Prakash among them) as a form of posturing, and his supporters hurried to assure the world that no one had heard of these people anyway. In Prakash’s works, it seems perfectly reasonable to mention Nirala, Alka Saraogi, Italo Calvino, whether the audience has read them or not. In that other world it’s a matter of pride not to know of Uday Prakash.

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