Paper Boat by Rajat Das

When I was asked to review Rajat Das’ debut novel (Paper Boat, Flame of the Forest) I approached the offer with skepticism. Why? I had little experience of reading a novel as long as 800 pages. Believe me, I have considered Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy many times in libraries and bookstores but that novel’s heft has always come in the way of my reading pleasure (and I prefer doorstoppers from Ikea). Man, don’t get me wrong. I love Seth, I love that Golden Gate man. What a charming writer! But I am happy having read his From Heaven Lake.

Similarly, I have great respect for grandpa Leo Tolstoy. But War and Peace? That’s for a time when I feel more grown up and a little less like Anthony Bourdain—intellectually footloose, carefree, and a little less ready for suffering—of any kind. Ditto for Don Delillo’s Underworld and Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games (I tried the latter; it reads like well-written Bollywood kitsch).

I am one of those people who think a novel should be as long as Camus’ The Stranger. That novel is of an optimal length, a benchmark for me, apt for our attention-deficient generation. Look at some of the best loved novels by J M Coetzee, Hanif Kureishi, Bruce Chatwin, Junichiro Tanizaki and Ismail Khadare. They are not heavier than a Starbucks bagel. But they are great literature, good stuff to read. A good story is like a life well-spent: not how long it is but how good it is what matters.

You think I am just making some catty remarks, leaving my prudence in the basement of my foolish mind. But the fact of the matter is that I am trying to be honest. This brief detour of my toe-deep knowledge of literature, or my approach to reading, was warranted. I am no James Wood. Accepting one’s shallowness is humiliating but at the same time it’s liberating.

Now you know why I was so skeptical. Also, in an age when Joyce’s Ulysses is being read in twenty tweets flat, how can one save one’s brain from not developing a schizophrenia of sorts, attention divided between work, email, multimedia and social media (if you don’t believe me, read Nicholas Carr’s Is Google Making Us Stupid?). To tell you the truth, before this internet era, I was able to read Tagore’s novels. In translation. There, I have said it.

Coming to Paper Boat, my expectation was for a saga in the pre-Independence India, set in the undivided Bengal of the early 20th century. It already sounded boring because so many novels have been written tracing family histories in different parts of India. However, the novel’s title was intriguing. Paper Boat! Hmm…it sounded like a mini Titanic.

The novel claims it has been written in the Uppanyaas tradition of vernacular India—a novelty in this time of cheap thrillers and quick metro reads (though they have their own market, I admit). Clearly, here is an author with some gutsy ambition, I thought. The guy does not want an easy walk into the sunset, a rite of passage for many well-read and well-travelled Indians who find time to pen a novel or a memoir in their post-retirement days. Nothing wrong with that. Nirad Chuadhuri published his first novel when he was in his 50s.

So, with some expectation and with some trepidation, I began to read Paper Boat. I dipped in and out of it over weeks, even months (I am a slow reader and I read 3-5 novels simultaneously). What blew me away was the passion and hard work with which Rajat had put together this sprawling story. Even the language and diction that Rajat has employed in this work are in tandem with the era with which he is dealing in the plot—a pre-television era story with a pre-television era writing style. I could see his blood, sweat and sinews in the work.

In terms of plot, the story is about Nalini, a strong-minded feminist, who lives in Birat Gram in undivided Bengal, now in Bangladesh. She is a beauty, a brilliant student, a fine debater: she is a perfect specimen of womanhood, flawless (that makes the character less realistic). There is a school romance, a near romp in the classroom and lots of talk among aunts and cousins about finding suitable grooms or brides. Then tragedy strikes and Nalini is on her death bed. But her daughter Rani tries to save her mother by performing an unusual feat. The story goes back and forth in time, narrating the tale of Nalini, and at the same time, noting the social changes that take place in and around her in Bengal.

This is a quintessentially Bengali novel: the author makes gentle observations, the characters are chatty, sometimes naughty too and there is enough intellectual banter to engage the reader.

What the novel suffers from is over-description. The novel starts with the description of the setting, the village of Birat Gram. It reminds me of Balzac. But Rajat’s Birat Gram is more complicated than Balazac’s Paris, in say, Old Goirot. Clearly, Rajat has overdone it and that richness of description, though beautiful, mars the flow of the story. The storm scene in the first part of the novel is marvelously written, but it tests one’s patience as it has been written in great detail.

This problem persists throughout the book. At one place, Rajat takes two pages to explain Bengali cuisine, and how it is different from European cuisine and so on. And here is an example of how meticulously Rajat describes a cottage: “The property was square-fenced, by razor wire in front, by brickwork at the back. The fence had horizontal rows of wires a foot apart. Columns of wooden poles, placed at intervals, took the weight of the fence. On the left, the fencing ended perpendicular to a sidewall; and on the right it ran six feet away from, and parallel to, the other side wall, ending further down at a wall that formed an L shape with the sidewall” (page 119).

Reading this passage, even a Martian would know what the writer is talking about. This level of description shows Rajat’s eye for detail but somehow it disregards the reader’s imagination.

Perhaps deliberately employed but the choice of Rajat’s narrative style makes readers like me go slow on the reading. We are used to reading novels in contemporary idioms. Read this: ‘Somnambulating to a washbasin at a far corner of the room, he splashed cool water on his recoiling face. He straightened up, to eye himself in the mirror hanging by a reluctant nail…’, page 55 (italics mine). Somnambulating? A reluctant nail? How about a shot of a reluctant tequila?

Another example: ‘To an informed, particularly from close range, mind, this gobbledygook palace was a cacophony in architectural noises,’ page 73. This stuff is deep fried in metaphors.

And this one is almost funny: ‘This aspect of her personality put the school’s code of discipline under pressure it hadn’t the hind experience to parry,’ page 92.

The novel is not just overwrought; it could have hugely improved with a healthy dose of editing (For example, ‘This lot was for those could not read…’, page 54; ‘He came to because rain, goaded by ferocious winds, was splashing his face’, page 57)– typos in the book that distracts one from the reading experience (Here is more: ‘But he not that someone’, page 59; ‘Her giggle was the single excess did not irk him spontaneously,’ page 115).

Nevertheless, despite its heft and turgidity, Rajat’s first novel is a remarkable work of fiction—it takes you on a tour of a time and a place that reads like a legend, with a cast of characters whose gentleness seems surreal in our insensitive times. Only you have to have the stomach for it.  — Zafar Anjum, Editor, Kitaab