A tiresome read

A tiresome read

Anil Menon
2015, pp 436, Rs 499

Half of What I Say, the second novel of Anil Menon, is set in the Indian capital, Delhi, and its surroundings. The fabric of Delhi culture depicted here consists of upper class men and women originating from different geographical, social and cultural backgrounds.

Academicians, intellectuals, film stars, politicians, police officers, business tycoons, workers, research scholars, teachers and students are different parts of this composition. The venues of political dispensations, academic and intellectual circles, the university, centres of research and advance studies, business and commercial establishments, eat out joints, cinemas, theatres, art galleries, red light areas, etc., seem to be authentically depicted here. The context is essentially cosmopolitan.

There is a wide social, political and cultural spectrum that operates within the narrative — from the extreme right to the extreme left. Passing references are made about the ideological insights of William James, Sherlock Holmes, Fisher, Advaita, Hegel and Marx. Many commonsensical notions on individual and public moralities are interrogated in a queer way. Analyses of different religious ideologies are attempted. The representations made here of the men and the women, and the conflicts between them are highly loaded. Women, and also ‘women-like men’, are vulnerable in the hands of ‘men’ who hold power — religious, political and cultural.

Over and above all these is an engaging story too — but most often the pages have to be turned back and forth to understand the intricacies in the storyline, in fact, there seems to be a conscious effort to make the novel more ‘difficult’ to comprehend. The novel starts with an eloquent long convocation address of Durga Dhasal, an eminent intellectual and a well-known radical, to Delhi University students.

This is in the first person narrative. His ‘murder’ is reported to have taken place before the first part of the second chapter — which is also in the first person narrative, but the narrative voice here is entirely different from the one in the first chapter. The second part of the second chapter, which is once again in the first person, has a feminine voice. Later, the same voices appear intermittently throughout the novel, and there is an intermixture of omniscient and what may loosely be called ‘stream of consciousness’ type narrations. The first person narratives need to be recognised as either the voice of Vyas, a top functionary in the cultural department of the government, or the voice of his wife, Tanaz, who is an important person in an NGO.

The narratorial voices are also juxtaposed with points of views of the characters which are complimentary to the story line. In the second chapter, Vyas comes to know about the murder of Durga Dhasal to whom he has earlier sent a letter inadvertently. There seems to be something serious and mysterious in the content of the letter and hence Vyas starts searching for it. The search for truth, satya, starts from this point. In the process of his searching for truth, he is confronted with a series of disarrayed issues and in the end he indeed gets back his letter from an uncouth film producer-director, but eventually he is arrested on similar charges which were being made by him on others and whether he is also murdered like the others is not clear in the narrative.

The conclusion is perhaps left to the readers’ wisdom. However, the intended irony is made amply clear. The last chapter, the only chapter which has a title, Kampuchea, while conflating all the varied representations in the long narrative, explores the possibility of the emergence of truth — Satya, who is also an assumed beloved of the narrator.

It is easy to categorise this muffled narrative under magical realism. But to categorise this thus is in a way limiting the dense and complex nature of experiences revealed in the novel. This novel does not offer a relaxed reading — indeed the reader has to be on his/her toes disambiguating the conflicting issues presented in all their particularities. Just one example: Kannagi — Should she be treated as a metaphor of modern liberated intellectual female as she calls herself? Her integrity, her amorous nature, her abilities as organiser and helper, could be deemed as stupendous. But, why does the author raise a slight at her premarital pregnancy in the wake of her murder? What is the stand of the author? Similarly, other women in the novel — Padma, Saya, Bilkis, — are treated either as deviant or vulnerable entities in the hands of patronising men. Don’t they have a personality of their own?

Besides, the novelist seems to be indifferent to any kind of consistency in the narration. The name of Anand Dixit being replaced by a pronoun throughout Chapter 10 is a good example of such conscious indifference. The symbolism involved in the dog (fed by Kannagi) destabilising the exhibits in the art exhibition and in the kolams drawn from the powder made out of Darwin’s bust are not delicately done.

However, despite all the conscious obscurity built into the novel, it is worth exploring the intricacies in the novel which can confer a willing reader a good understanding of the contemporary world.

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