Sunday, February 21, 2010

REVIEW: Way to Go

Way to Go

Upamanyu Chatterjee
Penguin Books India/ Hamish Hamilton
Rs 499
Pp 368
ISBN: 9780670083527

For not having loved one’s dead father enough, could one make amends by loving one’s child more? Eighty-five and half paralysed, Shyamanand is on his deathbed when he goes missing. His apparent refusal to meet death in the expected way—calm and accepting and lying down—is a cause for great anguish to his son Jamun, who leads a life of quiet desperation, trying to balance feelings of despair and resignation since the suicide of his friend and neighbour Dr Mukherjee.

After their father disappears, Jamun and his brother Burfi reconnect in their old home that builder Lobhesh Monga has his eyes on. In their quest to find out what happened to Shyamanand, they find a path out of desolation, even as TV executive Kasturi, Jamun’s former lover and mother of his only child, is busy recycling the more melodramatic moments of Jamun’s life for the blockbuster Hindi soap Cheers Zindagi.

In powerful, austere prose shot through with black humour, Upamanyu Chatterjee has produced an intensely moving examination of family ties and the redemptive power of love, however imperfect, in the midst of death and degeneration.

Good going Mint
As with most of Chatterjee’s works, you don’t read on for the story. To be honest, not a great deal happens by way of events, and the smell of decay, disappearance and death—ways to go—hangs like a pall over everything. You read, instead, for the characters caught in comic suspension between the absurdity of the world they live in and their personal conviction that nothing has much meaning anyway. This even as they diligently pursue their trade or craft.
Here, Way to Go does not disappoint, its cast including Monga the property shark who’s clearly got a mysterious secret; Naina the neighbour whose house is being razed to the ground and who herself disappears, like Shyamanand; Madhumati the globetrotter with an affinity for cats; Mukherjee, the doctor-tenant who smokes grass with Jamun and inexplicably—or not—hurls himself on to the rocks below.

The Skull Beneath the Skin Indian Express
There are many distended passages where Jamun or Burfi watch, in mesmerised slo-mo, as some petty authority figure licks his finger or massages a book’s spine with “meaty, snake-like fingers” or displays “swamp-like sweat patches”. There are pages and pages of a postmortem: “His stomach began to writhe only when Rathnam pushed his red hands into the corpse’s abdominal cavity and groped about, inexorably, slowly, churned the crimson mire of the intestines.
Which is not to say that Way to Go is not worth reading, if you have the stomach for it. It is sneakily, genuinely funny in moments. It tells an action-packed story. It teases some filaments of sincere feeling, like Burfi’s helpless memory of his mother’s death, the tense way that he stands watch over his father’s bedside. Whether or not it examines “the redemptive power of love”, as the jacket claims, it can sometimes move you in spite of yourself, and in spite of the stunted, shiftless characters.

Vanishing act Times of India Crest 
The persistent reader who makes it to page 359 of Way to Go deserves, if not a revelation, at least clarity and closure. Instead, the disappointed soul is left with an untidy jumble of questions and emotions — irritation, bewilderment and also some sadness. This regret has little to do with the story and characters, which evoke at best indifference and at worst an allergic rash. It has rather to do with the fact that this verbose, clumsy novel has been written by Upamanyu Chatterjee who, two decades ago, yanked Indian English fiction out of its safe world of spicy curries, arranged marriages and exotic havelis.

Jamun, Burfi and the bitter taste of satire DNA
As with his earlier work, satire is Chatterjee’s tool of choice to dissect the pettiness and emptiness of our current state of affairs. The novel opens with a bravura first chapter in which Jamun, now in his mid-40s and as aimless as ever, arrives at a police station to report the disappearance of his father, the 85-year-old, half-paralysed Shyamanand. Here, officialdom is gleefully and hilariously skewered.

The lampooning becomes darker and bleaker as the novel progresses. We’re drawn into the world of Jamun, his brother Burfi, and others in their ken including their cook, Budi Kadombini, the oleaginous builder Monga, and neighbour Neha Khanna.Other characters appear and then vanish from the pages for no discernible reason, such as Madhumati, Jamun’s tenant, or Kasturi, his former lover and mother of his child, now creator of an “epic blockbuster Hindi TV soap” titled ‘Cheers Zindagi’ featuring a character modeled on Jamun himself.

Wrist-Slitters Anonymous Outlook 
Chatterjee writes with the fine cool flair of someone who thinks in whole sentences all the time, even in his sleep. However, for all his mastery of language, his book just didn’t do it for me. There’s a quality of coldness—is it from fury or self-loathing? Hard to tell. It so overwhelms the narrative that the effort of wading through the mountain of sewage that forms the bulk of the book is just never going to be justified.

The author’s hallmark acerbic wit is certainly entertaining: “The member before the mirror closest to Jamun was in a crouch, busy powdering his balls with the love of a mother tending to her infant after having given it a nice warm bath. Jamun could almost hear the balls gurgle with contentment.” And: “The wisps of hair that remained rose like the tendrils of some primitive plant form groping about for the right conditions for some quick photosynthesis.”

But mere entertainment is not enough.
This may appear to be, but emphatically is not, a light-hearted book about senile fathers and morose neighbours. Instead it’s about the humdrum atrocities with which the cloth of modern India is woven, where no one is innocent and where the use of the word “corruption” to describe what goes on between the land mafia, the police and ordinary citizens is to reduce reality to a nonsense rhyme. It’s about succumbing to the horror, not attempting to fight it. It’s about ignoring everything you ever knew or thought you knew about dignity, culture and civilisation and just...well...just finding something to do that isn’t synonymous with suicide.

Bleak House Financial Express
It’s difficult to read an Upamanyu Chatterjee book nowadays without cringing, so harsh is his gaze, so ruthless his dissection of the middle class or the Indian family. In Way to Go, we meet some of the characters he introduced to us in his 1993 novel The Last Burden. Like his other novels, including the two Agastya Sen books, English, August and Mammaries of the Welfare State, his choice of brush to paint the Indian family, particularly the dysfunctional ones he usually portrays, is satire. When Jamun, walks into the police station in the first chapter to “report a missing person”— his 85-year-old father—you pretty much know what to expect because you could have encountered such a situation in real life countless times. There’s the constable who looked at Jamun “from far away…After concluding that Jamun looked well bred enough to deserve a seat, he raised his eyebrows and jerked his chin out in the direction of the aluminum chair before his desk.” He burps, farts, cracks his knuckles, asks inane questions and takes his own sweet time to lodge a complaint – and churns out this astounding question after writing down details: “Missing Person is likely to be where now you think?”

Timeout Delhi
The unprepossessing protagonists of The Last Burden return in Way To Go: melancholy Jamun, wife-beating Burfi and cantankerous Shyamanand. Eighty five years old and semi-paralysed, Shyamanand goes missing one day. Jamun is stricken with panic and guilt. Burfi, his violent older brother, has long since moved to Noida. There’s a cast of supporting characters: Monga, the leering builder, Naina Kapur, the next-door neighbour who also vanishes mysteriously, Madhumati the yoga-practising Czech tenant, and Jamun’s ex, Kasturi, who is the creator of a TV soap with a suspiciously true-to-life storyline.

Flashback format tells the reader of Jamun’s relationship with his family, especially his bond with his father. Chatterjee’s satire offers a dogged detailing of failures: the failure of a middle-class life, of relationships, desire, marriages, fatherhood and son-hood.

In a simultaneously tense and comic vein, Chatterjee examines the horrors of ageing, diseases, sex, bodies and their functions in a supremely caustic narrative voice. The story lurches along, sweating and wheezing, so that when an event of import does occur, we’re jerked upright in shock.

Tedious read Hindu
This is a pity, because Way to Go begins brilliantly, with an opening chapter (aptly titled “Missing Person”) that is a minor master-class in the building of a certain kind of dry humour. It takes place in a police station, where the middle-aged Jamun (whom you might recall from Chatterjee's The Last Burden) has come to report that his 85-year-old father Shyamanand has vanished from his bed overnight. Sitting across the table is an obtuse police constable who mechanically asks him questions pertaining to the disappearance.

Inside a nightmare
Like much of Chatterjee's best writing, this scene is about how both time and common sense are suspended when bureaucratic procedure takes centre-stage. Many things contribute to its effect. For example, there's the deliberate over-attention to detail, as in the passage where the constable opens a register with “Bittoo” printed on its cover (“above the painting of a long-haired baby sucking its thumb with an adult expression in its eyes”) and then intensely “massages” the stitching of the book's inner spine until he locates a printed form. The order of the questions is bizarre and illogical, and the constable appears incapable of making a sensible connection between what he is asking and the information that has already been supplied to him. Thus, long after Jamun has provided a description of Shyamanand, he is asked “Missing Person was Male or Female?” And shortly afterwards, “Missing Person failed his school/college exams and therefore left home?”

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