Hugging the pixels

Lead Review

Hugging the pixels

 Way to go
Upamanyu Chatterjee
Penguin, 2010,
pp 359, Rs 499

 Without going into English, August which rippled our literary waters like a gust of irreverence, or The Last Burden from which many characters have ambled into this present story, it’s easy for today’s reader to dismiss the art of Upamanyu Chatterjee with a few impatient words on the strength (or weakness) of Way To Go. In a world where unfoldings are swift and pace can be breakneck, this novel could ruffle many readers.
Let’s come to the point (which is more than Upamanyu does; or rather, he comes to many points, and lingers like a writer of leisure). The story isn’t that at all, it’s a series of random reflections, recollections, jotting down of detail, and an unblinking gaze at slowly shifting sands on the landscape of relationships. That an author can be so detailed, with the luxury to note down what he thinks and feels, wallowing in the unfolding, however long it takes, is an enviable thing. That he can ignore the prospect of reader intolerance in his sharp-eyed ramble is actually typical of the early Upamanyu’s devil-may-care début.
The reader needs all the time Jamun in the novel has; it’s a book you could carry with you, returning at random to savour its slowness. A stark tale, slowly told. Its rooms are dark and loaded with despair and waiting, lit frequently by huge sputtering sparks of humour.

Lost souls of the middle class
Jamun has lost his father, like a thing misplaced or a thing that’s walked away. The book begins in a police station where Jamun is registering the loss. This is vintage Upamanyu territory, lost souls of the middle-class pitted against a bungling, bludgeoning, blind bureaucracy. There’s an endless list of questions to complete the profile of the ‘missing person’, so relentless that later questions ignore the validity of earlier ones. “‘Missing Person liked his profession?’ ‘He had none. He was eighty-five.’” A little later: “‘Missing Person failed his school/college exams and therefore left home?’” And finally: “‘Missing Person is likely to be where now you think?’ ‘I think he’s dead. Or Lobhesh Monga’s spirited him away to one of his pilgrim resthouses at Kashi or Haridwar’”. The first chapter thus encompasses the scope of the book, from vague helplessness at loss to the thought of Kashi, final resting place.

Lobhesh (god of greed?) Monga is the builder who will demolish their house and build his glass-steel-concrete. There are other characters, lovingly built up, tic by tic, Jamun’s estranged brother Burfi; Madhumati, the yogic Czech, whom Jamun won’t kiss because she drinks her urine; drugged Mukherjee, with his fondness for porn and his pet skull, who jumps to his death; Jamun’s daughter and her mother, who’s the feisty producer of a TV serial named Cheers Zindagi that mimics Jamun’s life; Budi Kadombini, the cook whose preparations remind Jamun of regurgitations; crude Kasibai and her son Vaman, both subjects of Jamun’s nocturnal ‘proddings’; the missing father himself, Shyamanand, a leg paralysed, fighting with his sons and proud of their meagre achievements, obsessed with death and gloom.

It’s a Kafkaesque eye that stares at these goings-on but Upamanyu’s sense of the ridiculous adds an entirely new dimension. His humour and dark objectivity take us beyond the tragedy we’re shown. What’s he going to show us now, what he’s going to think about what he’s showing us.

Past his sex life now, Jamun had earlier watched prostitutes and their clients through a peep-hole, the murky mechanics of paid sex pulling him in rather than the motions of passion. Going through naked dead bodies at the morgue to see if he can spot his father’s, Jamun is reminded of a “homosexual orgy stopped short by some mythic punishment.”

The actor who plays Jamun in the TV serial has fans who know every detail of his life. “They hadn’t yet featured photos of his turds; on the other hand, perhaps they had and the reader had been unable to tell the difference from the rest of the weekend supplement.”

He even ponders on the evolution of the ‘69’: “After all, stray dogs sniffed one another disgustingly all the time. From a sniff to a suck was that short step that became a giant leap in the evolution of mankind viewed from a correct distance.” Upamanyu is always at the correct distance, magnifying the trivial and trivialising the sublime.

A celebrity’s Toyota, festooned and ballooned, looks like a “shabby and depressed government official not enjoying wearing a clown’s costume for his child’s birthday party.” We never know what to expect! The list is endless, the patient reader constantly rewarded.

The journey from police station to burning ghat in Way To Go is a saga of life and realisation, traversing loss and self-flagellation, visions of offal, faeces and vomit, going through eccentricity in life and perversion in death — perhaps a wry reworking of the traditional distortion of normal life to reach spiritual fulfilment.

It’s a journey his readers have come to expect, but this time they’ve a long way to go. Upamanyu paints a lush word picture, but he’s hugging the pixels most of the time so we only get the picture long after we’re through with the book.

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