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The space between possibilities

SHREEKUMAR VARMA Dec 30 2017, 21:14 IST
There are powerful spaces between possibilities. Categories coalesce. Let's see how it works in literature. Or at least in books this year.

There are powerful spaces between possibilities. Categories coalesce. Let's see how it works in literature. Or at least in books this year.

Many myths ago, half-man, half-beast Narasimha rose from a least expected place and tore into the smug protection of his victim's immunity, finding loopholes and creating new spaces.

There are powerful spaces between possibilities. Categories coalesce. Let's see how it works in literature. Or at least in books this year.

The book I'm opening with straddles much, yet stands on its own. Balli Kaur Jaswal's Erotic Stories for Punjabi Women is human, happening and humorous, occupying a snug space between East and West, popular and literary, ha-ha and serious. When a literacy class of suppressed Punjabi women in London's Southall embrace the erotic, going against the moral-policing Brothers, there's an eruption, with death and scandal. Well balanced, and definitely worth a read.

Rushdie is big and brimming as ever. The Golden House, set in Mumbai and New York, has been compared to The Great Gatsby for the longing observer-narrator and his high-flying neighbour. It ploughs through American life and politics, Obama to Trump. Reviews ranged from "Rushdie puts his finger on the nationwide identity---" (The Guardian) to "The Golden House is a big novel, wide but shallow, so wide it has its own meteorology. The forecast: heavy wind." (The New York Times). That's Rushdie for you. When he's good, he's very good. Or you can at least wait to be entertained.

Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness reaches us after a long journey. The going is good, but gets overworked. With a brilliant beginning, atmosphere and characterisation, word-flare and depth, literature is overwhelmed by the author's known concerns: too many stories and characters, many of them gasping under political perceptions they're created to illustrate. Roy stretches her arms inclusively, pretty much like her first protagonist who gathers the displaced about her, and she probably stretches too wide.

It's worth seeing what was achieved by Nadeem Aslam's The Golden Legend, set in Pakistan. It came early this year, looking at horrifying events through human eyes, with passion, strength and weakness. Three other books I reviewed here were equally solid pillars this year. Meena Kandasamy's When I Hit You was a lightly written, tightly focussed reminder of a very serious social issue, which worked largely because of the humour and detail with which it reflected pain and injustice. Neel Mukherjee's A State of Freedom was an excruciating look at the other side of life with a richly observed, real sensibility. Orhan Pahmuk's The Red-Haired Woman was again a satisfying novel, political at many levels: relationships, identity, economics, and myth.

Except for the very big and the very small, most writers can be reasonably expected to maintain a certain quality of writing, even when they do deliver genre or stylistic surprises. Hari Kunzru has been dependable that way.

His White Tears is about Seth, fascinated by "a hidden sound that lay underneath the everyday sounds," going around recording them, and his rich friend Carter who assembles his own world of vintage sounds and sound machines, and introduces his reclusive friend to a richly happening world. The book probes a white world with its innocent arrogance, appropriating the black world, its past, and most importantly, its music. Kunzru takes many steps forward, experimenting with narrative, investigating nuances and pedigrees of sound, celebrating the blues.

There's also Heather, the Totality by the man behind Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, about a Manhattan couple and their much-loved daughter, a novelette moving, among other things, between two worlds, and "ultimately reads like the skeleton of a work still in need of fleshing out" (The Independent).

British science historian and neurologist Oliver Sacks died in 2015. The River of Consciousness is a collection of his essays published posthumously this year. "The essays," says The Guardian, "which dwell on his scientific heroes: Darwin, William James, Freud and others - locate him exactly and properly on the margins between experimental discovery and literature, head and heart." A sense of wonder pervades his writings and investigations, and these essays are an extension or introduction to Sacks, depending on whether you've known him or not.

I would like to present here books by three friends, Shikhandin, Sheila and Shinie. The first, already a novelist, short-story writer and poet, decided to use a pseudonym.

This year's book of short stories, Shikhandin's Immoderate Men, is poetic, sensitive, and uniquely observed. Written with remarkable clarity, imagination and humour, the stories beg their author to throw away the nom de plume and honour the Name.

Sheila Kumar follows Kith and Kin with an M&B romance, "written intelligently." No Strings Attached is a plain and (maybe not-so) simple love story that celebrates the author's twin loves, Bengaluru and journalism. It isn't just a fun read, but a good read, delighting and surprising.

Shinie Antony's The Girl Who Couldn't Love will please readers of her quick wit, sparse, telling descriptions, and startling metaphors in casual, throwaway sentences, but here, darker and deeper.

Before we conclude, it's imperative to mention three books that must get on this list: Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss, about a wealthy dead man and a novelist (named Nicole) who goes to find a story there; Anthony Horowitz's Magpie Murders in the happy tradition of Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle, with metafiction to boot; and Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains: A Journey across Arunachal Pradesh - India's Forgotten Frontier by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent. These writers are distinguished by their previous work, and this year's offerings distinguish them.

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