A transit to heaven

Lead Review

A transit to heaven


Deaf Heaven is India’s first SMS novel (which simply means you can receive it on your phone in a series of short messages) and Pinki Virani’s first foray into fiction. Now while it might be welcome to question the old rules with your first book (that is also clearing up a new way to read), it is quite another matter to traumatise the meaning of ‘fiction’ completely. This is your regular roman a clef, names changed but characters toeing the lives of tabloid regulars so nearly, no pleasure’s left in guessing. The ‘fiction’ part is all statistics and opinion — the author’s, and the characters’ interchangeable mouthpieces.

The narrator is lying dead in a library, waiting to be found when the weekend’s over. A device as good as any, but of no great significance for the narrative unlike it’s predecessor in Lovely Bones. The narrative is fractured, swinging back and forth to serve up life-slices of an array of characters. The structure is on the fresher side, though by itself that is hardly a worthy distinction in purported literature. At its best it keeps the pace going without interfering with the reader’s pursuit of the plot. There isn’t much to pursue though.

The plots are light, as is character detailing. The prose is dense — more in the impenetrable overgrown sense than in the layered, rich way. It tumbles for most part.

Virani uses a smattering of colloquialisms; even warns against this before you set out — “so as not to break the narrative flow, English text has been encapsulated in translation within the sentence or context.” So Punjabis say “talk-shalk” and Madrasis say some equivalent, it is that sort of book. This intense local flavouring is superficial, doing nothing for the voice of the novel except flaunt the new India-chronicler’s heady confidence to get away with anything in the name of ‘Indian English literature’. If possible, it renders the prose more unwieldy and dull. And makes an important point — that prose for all its proximity to ordinary spoken language, is still a literary medium and distinct from text.

The greater issue still lies with what is being said. Thinly veiled celebrities share the landscape with a commoner here or there, holding up their lives as examples of shocking gender inequalities within a society poised to market itself as baton-bearer of the ‘Indian century’. The problem is it is hard to see a Bachchan’esque figure as a symbol of the insensitive alpha male. It is hard to see him as anything but himself and not to reduce his story to piece tabloid puzzles together and wonder if he really has a dreaded hidden illness.

This is not the contemporary history of India so much as it is a rant on what is wrong with the urbania. Even so, why must we need the Thackerays, Bachchans, Kapoors and every other page 3ite worth his shimmy to expose the malaise of religion, politics, misogyny, hate, hypocrisy and amorality? Does Virani really see so much of our recent history as about celebrity or is she cleverly lining them up as unwitting endorsers of her cause?

It is hard not to admire the tenacity of her cause. Her journalism and even politics is a slave to it. All the men (except maybe two fleeting characters) are evil.  All the women are strong, justified and victimised (except a token character symbolising the woman as a perpetrator of patriarchal crimes). One cannot help but wonder if she really intended to adorn the public figures she references with halos thus, redeeming them as entirely untainted. Even Indira Gandhi comes up — absolved without argument of the difficulties of her decisions and crowned legend.

You are bound to relate to the anger but nothing in the book manages to coax raw emotions. Almost every event from recent history is crammed in the muddle, but while Virani is on the right side of the left liberal intellectual’s sensibilities in her reactions to them, there is nothing new to ponder over, or a new perspective even to what almost every typical reader of this kind of book will agree is a problem.

As the stories culminate around a solar eclipse, some of her characters walk towards redemption; others go out displaying extraordinary grit reminiscent of the central motif, Shakti, encapsulating the essence of strength in women. The narrator, who is in transit to heaven, is left contemplating its existence, as simplistically as she had defined happiness earlier. If you are still reading then for you, both are likely to lie in the knowledge that the book is now over. 

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