Thursday, April 27, 2006

Out for the Kerala count

An Iron Harvest
CP Surendran
India Ink/Roli Books
326 pages, Rs 350
Poet-journalist CP Surendran’s first novel is journalism in a hurry. Here is a book where the words shine with a splendour befitting — when he is in his element — one of the best prose writers in India. But that cannot camouflage yet another manifestation of the chromosome that periodically forces Kerala-born writers to “go back to the roots”, to mix Kathakali and communism (or one of its mutations), pickles and backwaters, green expanses and the natives’ perennial greed for National Panasonic and Sony colour television sets.
An Iron Harvest is part social allegory, part ‘faction’, that unholy matrimony of truth and publishing necessity. It is loosely based on a true story, and a famous one to boot: of the young and idealistic engineering student, Rajan, who was killed in police custody sometime during the days when India was writhing under the Indira Gandhi-enforced emergency. The book also incorporates the arduous and solitary fight waged by Echara Warrier, Rajan’s hapless father, against the establishment. Warrier and Rajan become Sebastian and Abe in the novel, but the Gandhi clan retains its moniker.
The novel starts promisingly enough, with a murder. John (the protagonist of the novel), who thinks he is Che Guevara, heads a Maoist revolutionary organisation called Red Earth. He plans a programme to annihilate Ku Thampran, a running dog of cruel capitalism, who has been exploiting the tribal communities he lords over in the high ranges of Wayanad. Blood and gore start splattering soon enough and the murderous pyrotechnics extend to the novel’s end.
Parallel to violence being unleashed as the class war breaks out is the rendering of Sebastian’s wanderings, which even take him to Delhi in a forlorn struggle to restore the honour of his dead son. Unlike the man he is modelled after, Sebastian manages to find a few slivers of salvation.
Many of the characters populating An Iron Harvest ring familiar bells: Kerala Home Minister Shankaran Marar (K Karunakaran, in real life); DIG, Kerala Crime Branch, Raja Raman (Jayaram Padikkal); IG Anand Nambiar (Madhusoodanan Nair). If Raja Raman is a brute, Nambiar is an effeminate character who is fond of staging plays (he is the stage Ravana) and finally marries the Sita from his never-staged play. But from a reader’s point of view, these characters are cloaked more in darkness than light.
Surendran has style — “a long narrow table on which books leaned against each other like friends caught in a crisis” — and way too much substance. It is apparent that the author wanted to use every horrific detail of the emergency to illuminate a larger narrative. It does not work, primarily because of an excess of material to digest, an overflow of ideas to be fitted in.
There is Sanjay Gandhi’s sterilisation project and his rodent extermination programmes, which don’t contribute to the growth of the plot. There is the heavy-drinking Bhaskaran, a famous editor and columnist who is trying to help Sebastian navigate the corridors of power, but he stands out like a sore thumb. Then there is John’s paramour, Janaky, married to a ‘Gulfie’ and burdened with a child. You wonder what she is doing in the book, and the bafflement takes other turns, too.
Surendran has done his homework: there is a ring of authenticity to his understanding of life-altering stuff: the pain of a drunken hangover, the effects of ‘Idukki Gold’ (Kerala’s world-famous marijuana), the earthy taste of the rustic cuisine… Where, then, does he falter? One of the best Indian poets writing in English, Surendran loses that sure touch on the broader canvas as he grapples with the beast of prose. And that is a pity.
— Sunil K Poolani / DNA
Response from CP Surendran
On Monday morning, I sent a link of this article to the author himself. He did not take it lightly. Surendran then shoots off a mail to the section heads of the newspaper and a copy CC-ed to the editor of the paper. A BCC copy was sent to me, too.
This is what he had to say:
---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: CP Surendran <>
Date: Apr 24, 2006 2:30 PM
Subject: an iron harvest review
Dear Manjula/ Sampath
This is in response to a rambling review on (of) my novel, An Iron Harvest, that appeared on (in) Sunday DNA ( April 23.06) . At the end of what I can only describe as an inspired fit of logorrhea, I am still at a loss as to what the wailing critic's point is. While I yet figure it out -- in a few cases wisdom dawns late-- it might be a good idea for you to commission book(s) for review(s) to men and women who are well versed, if not with English Literature, then at least with the English Language.
Thanking you
C P Surendran
Well, readers, after reading his mail, I rest my case, because I stand vindicated (the red corrections are mine). If you do not follow what I mean, please re-read his mail.
— Sunil K Poolani
Readers' responses:
Why are you wasting your time on this joker? As it is, you have done him a favour by giving the book such a fabulous (if not flattering) review. He ought to be grateful on that count. And now you are doubling the favour by raking up this debate. Just ignore that man, before you are accused of being on his payroll — as his publicity agent.
— Derek Bose (
I read the review twice; it is extremely well-written and witty. It seems to make very informed points, which i guess comes from your knowing the milieu he writes about, which is not a common thing. A really good review. Can't say if my views would be the same as I haven't read the book, but it does make me curious about the book but your overall judgement on it discourages me from investing the requisite time. (CP won't be happy with you, I guess).
— Jaideep Varma (
I have read the novel. Anyway, the review seems to be good.
— Sunil Tambe (
Not having read the book, or familiar with all the history, I can’t comment other than to say Sunil’s review is brilliantly written.
— Mary Travers
I don't think you have exceeded a reviewer's prerogative in any manner. I found the review well-written and apparently fair in its treatment.
— G B Prabhat (
Obviously can't comment on the book itself, but you were in good form for your review. Especially liked, "murderous pyrotechnics", "slivers of salvation" and "takes other turns, too". This f***ing guy is hard to please. F**k them all, just keep telling the truth.
— Wade Agnew (
I haven't read the book yet, but that doesn't stop me from admiring your review (probably I am one of those few who have read most of your reviews in hardcopy). I should say it's brilliant, and nowhere, whatsoever, have you crossed 'the line', which makes it an even more interesting, and is an intellectually satisfying read. I really pity Surendran for all his mail and stuffs that I read on your blog link. If this is his habit, it's high time he learns to say he quits. By the way, its also ironical to see an author talking about a meticulous reviewer, in a way that's just the opposite. You call that ethical impropriety in journalism?
— Shubham Gupta (
I have read some of CP Surendran's articles in newspapers. I didn't know he is a poet, too. It does not matter. While I congratulate him on his maiden novel, I see no reason why he should issue a fatwah against the reviewer. I see nothing objectionable about what Poolani has written. If I were Surendran, I would do not scream at my reviewers. The problem with journalists is that they are used to criticising, not to being criticised. Not many of us can stomach criticism. I think the biggest thing that blog has done is to dent journalists' ego. But, then, this is just the beginning of payback time for us. Be a sport, Surendran. Gone are the days when we could play holier than thou and get away most of the time with it. I thought Sunil didn't have to balance it so delicately. Peronally, I would take it even if I were Surendran. Writers must learn to be even bemused over damning criticism, which, anyway, was not the case in the current instance.
I thought Kerala had attained cent per cent literacy. Some of them are still to attain complete literacy. Now that Surendran, the first literate-novleist, endowed with oodles of literary sensibility, has corrected us on our belief, will he seek an investigation into the bogus claim?
Equally importantly, he has corrected that what a writer takes years to write indeed leads to a harvest of iron, not iron ores as described by those moronic critics.
— Vijendra Rao (
I don't think the review was too stinging. People should be able to take criticism — especially when there are no profanities in the review. I would, but then I am not CP Surendran and so it's probably easy for me to say it.
— Nipun Shukla (
I just went through your review of Surendran's book. Frankly, I have no clue who he is or what kind of literature to expect from him. But from your review, I don't find any degrading statement or comments for him to throw a tantrum. Each to his own I suppose.
— Sanjay Raghuram (
I don't see what Surendran's fussing about. You seem to be more than fair to him. What do these writers get so thin-skinned about, I wonder.
— B B Subhash (
You've cleverly praised the author and yet criticised him. Isn't that what reviews are all about? Surely the author has to learn to take the thorns with the laurels...
— Anjali Raghbeer (
Though I have not got around to reading CP's novel, I am quite sure of the tonal integrity of your review. If he is throwing tantrums it's for reasons he knows best. CP had written an incisive review on David Davidar's debut novel, and claimed in public that his Penguin deal for Canaries on the Moon never saw the light of day because of it. I don't see much consistency in him talking about banning your review. Amen.
— Subhayu Mishra (
I have gone through your review and have failed to understand why the author has reacted so angrily to your remarks. I cannot fathom why he feels so aggrieved, and even if one tries to justify his reactions purely as a ‘creative outburst’, I cannot help but feel that it is much more than that. I feel as a neutral observer that it is a very insightful critique of an author’s endeavour, and the praise that has been showered on him despite your not having liked the book is quite exemplary. References to the author such as ‘being one of the best poets in India’ and also complimentary comments on his writing style also help in presenting a very balanced point of view to the reader. I can understand why you in turn are a little upset at his outbursts, however, if it is any consolation to you I would like to assure you that going purely by what you have written, I would definitely urge you to continue with your good efforts and not be upset or cowed down by such reactions, for this country definitely needs more of your ilk. People who are unafraid to speak their mind and are bold enough to stand by what they say are quite rare in today’s times. And if it is any consolation to the author, I would have bought and read his book purely based on the review that has been sent to me. Unfortunately after seeing his extreme reaction I seem to have changed my mind. But then that cannot be helped.
Well, I love words, and I love the words you have used. I liked reading your review and how can a judgement of right or wrong exist! It’s a book and I am sure my or someone else’s journey with the book would be different from your’s. Why can't people respect freewill. Maybe CP’s “tantrum” is an extension of self-absorption or a personal grudge. It’s definitely entertaining. And this journey of exchanges to a blog is even more entertaining! Maybe just about the times we live in. Inflated ego’s tripping.
— Shilpika Bordoloi (
I went through your review of C P Surendran's book. You have been so clear and forthright in your review , apart from the fact that he is a well-known writer with a hefty subject at hand. As a writer he should be open to criticism. Nevertheless at the end of the day most writers, poets, and artists are vain self-peddlers.
— Bushra Siddiqui (
This is an excellent review. I think the story of Rajan is too outdated to serve as a theme for a novel today. And when the novel tries to become too realistic, it gives a sense of deja vu — thus killing the suspense and thrill which a novel would otherwise give.
— Hussain Ahmed (
Got yourself into a bit of a bother, didn't ya? A book once published belongs to the public domain. It invites criticism and reviews that not only determines the merits of the book, but also acts as a fulcrum for expanding human thoughts. Your review has been extremely professional in tenor and at no point does it stoop to personal attacks on the writer. Logorrhea? Look who's talking? If he is seeking a ban on you, well, he needs to get his marbles checked!
— Madan Achar (
Does not criticism make us grow? What are reviews there for? You get the drift.
— Manjira Majumdar (
CP is too popmous to show grace. But what he did was an all-time low... even from CP.
— Vinita Ramchandani (
Controversy as food for the perverted soul!
— Shiv Kumar (
I found your review very well-written. I haven't read the book but for you to have made such strong observations about it, it must have been justified.
— Ruchita Bakre (
Not familiar with the author, but I think it's a well-written and balanced review. It actually makes me interested in the book. Don't know why the author is upset because critics will always write about their opinions and one has to take that in one's stride — you should not take it too personally. Once you put something out there for the world to view you have to be prepared for the brickbats and bouquets; that is the bane and boon of being in the creative field.
— Rucha Humnabadkar (
Your review of CP Surendran’s novel is probably an effort whose candor could have stood out starkly for the writer. Sometimes knowing the historical background/setting of a novel or its characters could be a handicap for the reader as there is a possibility for his subconscious to race ahead or set its own pace that may not be the intended tempo of the writer. Every plot and twist that builds up would then unfurl as some kind of déjà vu for the reader as he begins to let the novel unfold through his own thought process, rather than follow the writer’s. I admit, I have not read the book. But, from your review I am able to visualise the clichés about aplace(Kerala in this case) that invariably crops up when a writer subconsciously tries to explain the backdrop of the story in detail. So do writers from any region which could be attractive for a novice reader, but for a veteran like you it could be a replica of the often repeated obvious. I feel Surendran could have felt a sense of helplessness and defeat at the same instant when he finds a reader identify his inspirations for the novel even as he is reading it. To spell out the writer’s inspirations in a review could have meant to the writer a direct indication on his failure to properly cover his tracks. These are just my personal comments. I feel it’s a frank review well within the ambit of the reviewing protocol that just points out the shortcomings of the novel as well as its strong points without taking a personal dig at the writer. Probably, Surendran thinks otherwise.
— Balaji Venkataramanan (
Good review. It actually makes me want to read the book for the luscious prose. His reaction probably means "he knows that you know that he knows." May be he didn't achieve what he intended to do in the novel and you spotted that. That's probably why he's so sore. Anyway, I think CP is brilliant. Reading him is never a waste of time.
— Aparna Jacob (
I read the review and I think its perfectly fine. And I am opposed to the novelist's plans to ban you from writing reviews in the future. India is a democratic country and as per the fundamental laws, everyone is entitled to his/her opinion, and not to forget tht her citizens have the right to speech and expression. I am sure the newpaper/publication's editor is aware of these laws, and, so, I believe he has no right to ban you from writing comments or reviews. And also, I do not understand why is Surendran throwing tantrums? The review isn't defaming or demaning the author, instead, as a writer you are just analysing the pros and cons of the book and as an accomplished reviewer, you have every right to do that.
— Alifya Pesh (
Not having read Surendran's novel I cannot vouchsafe for the legitimacy of the views expressed by your review. But I do feel you have gone through his book with sensitivity and that shows in the rare insights that are spread all over your write-up. Once a book is published it becomes public property and elicits responses which are bound to vary from reader to reader. No author has a right to take umbrage if the views expressed are not congruent with his own bloated view of himself. He should be grateful that a person has gone through his book and taken pains to give vent to his reaction backed by cogent arguments. Surendran's peeve shows him in poor light.
— Sushil Gupta (
Though I’ve not read the book, I’d say that your review is excellent, and I fail to understand why Surendran should feel piqued. Surendran could have translated Prof. Echara Warrier’s book in Malayalam about his son instead of trying to write a novel by plagiarising the storyline.
— Vijaykumar Nair (
That was a really good review, i should say. Though I haven't read the book, you really seeem to have given all the ingredients for a fair review. As regards the mail from the writer, please ignore him. What's the use of being a writer if he can't stand a fair review?
— S Sowmya (
I believe there is nothing wrong in your review. In fact every writer should be happy that he or she is noticed by the readers and the reviewers. When an individual writes a novel or brings out a collection it's obvious that he or she has to live with the criticism that is to follow. Here the writer seems to be in a quick mood to have written to the editor of the daily asking to stop you reviewing. I think a person like C P Surendran should have given a second thinking before reacting. I congratulate him for the novel and you for the review.
— Santosh Alex (
Just reread your review about Surendran's book. Well, I don't know how far the matter has reached or its been solved or buried, but honestly speaking as a review writer it's one's job to give an accurate and honest analysis of the concerned subject, and I think that's what you have done. And every writer or filmmaker or artist who comes out with his work in the market should be ready to face both sides of the coin. I don't understand why should Surendran or anyone react in the fashion he did. I too had faced such problems earlier as a film review writer, but ultimately it's the truth that counts. And we all should be ready to face it, for our own betterment. And thank the people who have helped us in achieving that perfection with their honest views, because without critisism there can't be perfection.
— Shuchita Bhatia (
A Naxalite Saga
By A J Thomas
C P Surendran is undoubtedly one of those Indian English poets who stand up to be counted as the best. The language he evolved as his personal demesne does not allow even imitative encroachments. The man had mastered the art of distilling personal sorrows and desperation into something that charged up the connoisseur of poetry. Surendran is well-known for his journalistic achievements as well, and noted for his pungent, succinct writing style. I particularly remember a tiny feature he wrote almost a decade ago, about monsoon time in Kerala. But when it comes to his debut fictional work, one has to say that it leaves a lot to be desired. First of all, the theme. The topic, which is as alive today as it was when it all began in the late 1960s, is a passionate memory for many in Kerala and among the Malayalee diaspora all over the world. Though the author declares in a "Note" at the beginning that the novel is woven around the infamous "Rajan Case," involving the disappearance while in police custody, of Rajan, a student of the Calicut Engineering College — alleged to be a Naxalite sympathizer, but now established as a case of mistaken identity. Incidentally Rajan’s father, Professor Eachara Warrier, who fought a one-man battle over the last three decades to get an official confirmation of what had really happened to Rajan, passed away in the third week of April 2006, triggering off a fresh spurt of memories of the dark days, in the press and visual media), the work effectively takes on board all significant incidents that ever took place in the Naxalite movement in Kerala over the last four decades, plus excesses during the Emergency in other parts of India, for instance, the Turkman Gate incident of Delhi. The plot is really of a novel that could, if treated properly, ‘change the world,’ to put it with a bit of exaggeration. But when it is pickled in a narrow jar of a novel which does not allow the organic growth of its characters, however seasoned it looks with the condiments of Surendran’s superb prose, it remains shrivelled, lifeless. The reader would only feel pangs of indigestion. The heartburn of a nation over a lost generation of idealists, when subjected to the treatment of the masalas of an action thriller cannot be expected to become uplifting art, surely!Surendran must be complimented for the arduous research he has put in. However, his mammoth efforts in collecting material, arranging details and connecting them together to form the runaway narrative appear to have fallen short of fruition in that, it does not arouse in the reader at least the ‘fear and pity’ of Aristotelian antiquity. However, with the Naxalite-Maoist movement gaining relevance presently all over the country in the face of the glaring inequity the deprived rural and tribal population faces, the saga of an earlier movement, however Bollywoodish it looks, can appeal to readers in different ways. The redemption of Surendran’s efforts may lie here.There are also some details in the narrative that strike a discordant note. A distraught father carrying a lunch-packet for his possibly dead son, as Sebastian does for Abe while the former is looking for the latter, at one point even anticipating to come across his dead body in the police lock-up, is sourly reminiscent of the father, Vellayi Appan, of O. V. Vijayan’s famous short story, "After the Hanging." Whatever poignancy generated in the reader is laid waste by the thought that Surendran should have resisted the temptation. The saving grace of the book is, of course, Surendran’s sparkling prose. Look at this description of the dance of the fireflies in Wynad: "A million fireflies danced in the room. They sat on the bed and opened their wings and closed them again in a kind of electric dance. One moment, the mat with its white linen shone in the dark like a lit tombstone, the next, the mirror in the corner of the room glowed alive. Each corner of the room assumed unreal beauty by turn." Describing Mrs. Nafisa Ahmed, a sexy purveyor of forced sterilization surgeries to the poor devils of Turkman Gate, who faces a bit of mob fury, he says: "She looked like a witch who had been whacked by her broom."
— Sahara Time / 7 May 2006
(Thomas is the assistant editor of Indian Literature, a Sahitya Akademi publication)
Now, our hero has finally reacted. Surendran, while reviewing another Malayali's book (Night of the Dark Trees by Abraham Eraly) in Tehelka weekly, took his time to vent his frustration. He starts the review thus: "A novel is as good as the critics it gets. Ever since my own novel An Iron Harvest was released, I've been found guilty of falling short of writing the 'true political novel', especially by a bunch of moronic Mallu semi literates whose literary sensibility is not just suspect but barely there. You take years to write your novel, and the cretins — oops, critics — drool and foam because you haven't written the novel they wanted to but couldn't write." And it goes on.
If you are wondering who these "a bunch of moronic Mallu semi literates" are, well, they are me of course (DNA), A J Thomas (Sahara Time) and Prema Jayakumar (India Today). Have you ever wondered why some people never improve in life? If you can't find an answer, Surendran is the right person you should consult. I am putting a stop to this ongoing spat, and I rest my case. God save this non-moronic Mallu literate. Amen.