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Failed expectations

Vani Mahesh, April 7, 2013: 16:27 IST
Sergeant’s Son, Ashim Choudhury’s debut novel has all the initial elements right. A title that promises an unusual protagonist and a synopsis that makes you want to know more about him. Add to this Shashi Tharoor’s testimonial and the beautiful poetry by Walt Whitman and Wordsworth that the author begins the book with, and your excitement starts to build.

The first chapter Life in Military Camp, gives a glimpse into the protagonist Kalu’s family — his mother, three siblings, and a father who of course is the Sergeant. But as you read on, the initial enthusiasm slowly begins to fade. You start noticing the rather plain language and a very average narrative skill. “In front of the MES quarters, the tarred road led to a cobbled road, which had houses on either side identical to the double-line quarters. They were meant for airmen who worked in the Air Force. This is where Kalu lived.”

Then comes a rather disgusting second chapter — The Days of Dry Latrines. More in the same plain tone, but with descriptions we can live without. “The latrines were dry with no flush system. One sat at a height ensuring that the excreta fell into a tin pot” This chapter cannot possibly have any bearing on the rest of the book and it doesn’t. The author does not even offer a commentary on the state of mind of Kalu who accompanies his mother to the toilet every night.

Then come more and more chapters that compete with each other for being unremarkable First Day at School, Classmates Give Kalu A Complex, Who Wrote That Essay? A great disappointment sets in at this point because there is nothing extraordinary about Kalu, the sergeant’s son’s, life. The mediocrity of the book in its style, substance and structure becomes all too apparent. The author chronicles a gilli-danda and street cricket life, which most middle class children in the 70s lived. Well, probably the only exception in Kalu’s life is a father who belts him and his brothers mercilessly. An oft used phrase in the book is “I (or he ) got a sound thrashing from my father.”

The entire novel is a collection of scenes and incidents in Kalu’s life, making the book more a disjointed memoir, than a work of fiction. Readers look for something exceptional, people or circumstances in fiction to charm them. This book offers you none — it is a narrative about ordinary people in ordinary situations. Kalu’s myriad neighbours, teachers, friends, siblings — all get a chapter or two but their stories are neither inspiring nor atrocious. A small exception is Kalu’s maverick brother Borda. But even he fails to stay in your memory, since the protagonist offers neither a positive nor a negative point of view about him. The two truly shocking elements in the book are the explicit and rather distasteful chapters on Kalu’s brush with homosexuality and his escapades with a maid. Overall, there is nothing in the book that hooks the reader.

We have access to books written by native speakers of English, where the writing has so much depth and nuance. Many times, we even read a book simply for the writing and not so much for the plot. So when posed with books such as this, where the language is elementary and the plot non-existent, it becomes too tedious to stay with it till the end.

We all know books need a bit more marketing today than before. Even then, an overt self-praise puts most readers off. In this book, the back cover synopsis not only gives away the entire story but also goes on to say: “As much a story of a difficult childhood as a snapshot of India of the 60s, The Sergeant’s Son is a must read.” It would be alright for a testimonial to state that it is a must read, but how can the synopsis proclaim thus? And the author’s note at the end of the book is nothing but name dropping and back patting. He quotes his well-meaning friends — “You are Premchand in English” “You remind me of Bernard Shaw!” “You bum... With your kind of talent, I would take this to a publisher.”

Incidents happen in everyone’s life and everyone has a story or two to tell. And some will have an urge to write them. But the question one needs to ask oneself before penning a book, is whether the story has anything different to offer from the millions already written and will it be interesting to others. Lately, given the deluge of mediocre books coming out of the Indian publishing industry, most readers are extremely sceptical about picking up books by new Indian writers. The need of the hour is for the Indian writers and publishers especially, to regain readers’ trust by publishing, as far as possible, only the best work.

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