A hymn to futility

The language is everyday, almost stark yet so gentle that when tragedy hits, it seems just an occurrence.
Last Updated : 31 December 2022, 20:15 IST

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Each book is an unexplored country. If I Could Tell You by Soumya Bhattacharya is, oddly enough, familiar territory. At frequent intervals, we meet the usual suspects, writers whom all 80s English Honours students have met in their pass-notes, if lazy, or in board-ordained textbooks, if diligent. The book details alongside the storyline, the minutiae of a writer’s journey: the despair and glimmers of hope couched within writerly aspirations and lives. This also touches concisely upon the legacy of the giants among 20th-century writers and poets from Britain and the US, those read of and known via books by a demographic of urban college students in India reading voraciously through school, college and adulthood. This is a reader writing about writing, for readers.
The canvas is by choice a limited one. It peoples fewer than a dozen and most are at the peripheries of the unfolding, at most, background features. Except for the daughter to whom this lengthy missive is crafted and her mother. The message to be conveyed is both urgent and important, yet the writer opts for painstaking thoroughness. Why? There is interiority in the narrative, with great reliance on memory and the moment. The language is everyday, almost stark yet so gentle that when tragedy hits, it seems just an occurrence. Perhaps all tragedies are.
Writing a brief history to a six-year-old is not new on this subcontinent. Writing a brief history of the self in this epistolary form is rarer and tougher. Compounding the difficulty imposed by form and its strictures, the chapters of this autobiographical sketch read less like letters and more as musings. Letters demand ease and flow, an informality that this never quite lapses into. These short chapters are descriptive essays in style, rigour and content. Many inventive vehicles are used to unpack fiction. However, the choice of nonfiction is too dicey and perhaps helps the unfolding tale read more like a series of newspaper reports than a story asking for understanding, reprieve and maybe forgiveness. It is to the author’s great skill that despite the nonfiction style, the narrative has its lilting ebb and flow, its moments of glowing success.
Conceptually, this is superior because this is a rare instance where the climax occurs outside the frames of writing and the text. And the mini climax that hits before is well towards the end, thus taking the reader through a gentle and then steep climb to the very top of a rollercoaster and leaving them there to make the rest of the journey as they will. In that sense, it is a long way down. Hidden in the folds of love and solicitation for the little girl who is described in such crystalline detail by her father are two tragedies that alter the tenor of the book altogether. This element though, ideally, ought to have had a trigger warning for the vulnerable.
Calcutta, Bombay and London are sketched with broad strokes of close acquaintance and sharp observation. These cities are not described in their entirety; but rather encapsulated in tiny lived experiences, in a feeling or a sensation that imprints on the reader. The prose comes alive and sings in lyrical miniatures: in how beer is poured, in how a new apartment feels, in how a guardian is ever conscious of not crossing boundaries. Though adequately pitched, the references to the authors of yore could have gone harder, beyond the single quote or thought. Notably, the writing excels during descriptions of historical events: the deft outline of the Tenerife airport disaster in 1977 in which the protagonist’s parents die or the stock market crisis on Dalal Street in 2008.
Though both language and style underplay it, this is a tragedy whose bleakness deepens as the distance from the reading grows. It isn’t just about the futility of a writer’s life, of the uneasy promise of money, of various shades of failures and incapacities or even of parenting fails by a repentant single dad. In essence, it is about the futility of love — in how it is given, taken away or broken. Ultimately, it is about each writer’s legacy of gloom.
Published 31 December 2022, 19:49 IST

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