Friday, March 28, 2008

A Bitter Bengali Delicacy


Saikat Majumdar


Price: 295; Pages: 293

By Sunil K Poolani

The title of the book could not have been more apt. Like silverfish that nibbles away precious printed words, leaving a whitish trail, Calcutta, the city of neither joy nor love, gnaws the already-pathetic and morose lives of the two protagonists, separated by two centuries, in Saikat Majumdar’s debut novel.

Silverfish is melancholic testimony of a debauched land (in this case Bengal) inundated and infested not just by age-old religious stupidities (as in a parallel plot that vivifies the life of Kamal) but also of a skewed polity in the name of a redundant ideology called communism (as in the other narrative in which the ‘hero’ is Milan Sen).

Though Majumdar has a cogitative and distinguished style, the novel in question is quite remorse and disturbing most times. The novel oozes of sadness throughout and a reader is forcibly dragged into a web of hopelessness and dejection, most of the time sympathising with the shadow characters in play — be it the early eighteenth century in which Kamal’s story is set or of the present-day Calcutta.

In fact, the City of Calcutta is what contributes to the dissoluteness of a character and instance. One is tend to believe that though the novel discusses the eras separated by a couple of centuries, the whole trials and tribulations remain the same — and there is no escape from the deep void all the characters are unwittingly immersed in.

Take Milan’s character for instance. Throughout the novel he is trying to unknot the red tape in the labyrinthine corridors of Calcutta babudom. He is, hopelessly, trying to plead for a pension cheque (that is rightfully his). He is always shown the door, or the buck is passed, and he goes around in circles. His groans his way to the Calcutta school district office almost every day, most of the time in an empty stomach, using the most infamous public transport system ever invented by man.

This is the present-day Marx-loving, IMF-hating Calcutta. A right-minded Milan has no space in this world. He is rebuked and rebuffed even by his ex-students for not being a commie sympathiser, or for not singing hosannas to a distorted ideology which is passé all over the world. In the end he is left with nothing: no pension, passing of his wife, his only son’s loss of job, and, in the end, an unsung death on the mean alleys of Calcutta.

Revolving around his life are some great characters although all of them remain just sketches: Ila and Gutam, Milan’s ever-suffering and uncomplaining wife and son; Sabeer and Moidul, a sorry Muslim family who were targeted by political goons; Shirin, a US-based student who remains Milan’s only hope (for selling a ‘rare’ manuscript that could make him rich) in the twilight of his uneventful life.

Now coming to the parallel plot, that of Kamal, she is married off to a middle-aged man from the richest family in Calcutta when she is barely in her teens. Children at that age should be playing with dolls (well, she does that too clandestinely, with Suhasini, the daughter of a servant) but Kamal is thrown into the web of marriage, sex and childbirth.

It is early eighteenth century and though the orthodox beliefs (barbaric, nevertheless) are still in vague, it is also the time of social enlightenment: abolishment of widow burning being the highlight. So when Kamal is in her twenties and her husband, who had several wives and concubines, dies due to an amoral lifestyle of wine and women, Kamal does not have to join her husband in his pyre, alive. But the life she was instead offered is equally, if not more, gruesome: living a life of abstinence from meat and sex, cooking her own food and wearing white clothes with a tonsured ahead.

What makes Kamal’s life roll ahead is her life-long love and devotion to her son, Sushil (who is shot by the British police for protesting against their policies), and her perennial thirst to read and decipher letters that is a strict no-no in the badralok family she belongs to.

Silverfish, no doubt, is a brilliant debut and as Amit Chaudhuri says in the endorsement, “this is a book to cherish for a very long time, for its descriptions and evocations as well as for what it tells us about the ebb and flow of human expectations.”

I have two minor complaints. One, the two narrations in the book (that of Milan and Kamal) are printed in two different fonts; the font used for Kamal’s narration is irksome for the eyes. Two, the book should have been properly edited: you have sentences like “Without the I.V. equipments (sic), he looked bare, reassuringly normal.”

-- btw

1 comment:

Press Release Service said...

Hello Sunil,
I was going through your blog and I must admit I am impressed by the range of your interests and knowledge. I share your views on Fundamentalism- I am against any sort of rigidity of opinion, whether in religion or politics or human relations. One can be passionately committed and yet not be a fundamentalist. In your review of Silverfish you commented on an ideology that was distorted and outdated. While I agree that Communism, in the way that it was practised in the Soviet Union(a victim of bureaucracy and terror) , and the way in which it is (non) practised in Bengal is distorted, I do think that the essential romanticism and vision of Marx is to be admired. I believe that a revolution of sorts is necessary- but Ihave no fixed idea on what that future society could be like. I agree with you that a lot of journalistic reportage today is "concocted", many agencies and institutions are in some way or the other, overtly or implicitly, influenced by the "world police" America. Iwish you all the best- we need more journalists like you.
As far as my novel is concerned I shall be sending it to you as an e-mail attachment. I shall be looking forward to your opinion, specially since you have read so many novels with such keen interest. Regards, Jayanti Datta (