By Manisha Lakhe
There is only one thing wrong with the book Three Days of Catharsis by Atrayee Bhattacharya — there is no editing at all. By the author or by the publisher. Everything else collapses around this one fault.
It’s 2017, and there’s no point whining about a life lived between different cities across the world: Singapore, Kolkata and Chennai. The obsession that Indian authors have about balancing culture and upbringing across borders should be celebrated. Instead, this book is a 241-page-long whine about how “no one understands me” and how difficult it is being a TamBong (a Tamilian and a Bengali) who lives abroad. If only the protagonist/author (it is autobiographical) had cared to read multi-cultural authors like Jhumpa Lahiri (one passing mention) and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni instead of Chetan Bhagat (his Two States is mentioned as a mirror to her own life)! Had someone, like a reliable editor, asked the author to put this book away as the first draft of an idea, it would have helped.
Alas, everything that happens in the book is banal. Let’s list the events:
Kutu goes to IIM Kolkata to submit her admission papers. Gets into an argument with the office clerk and the admin officer Gurunathan about what her mother tongue is. If such an innocuous question becomes an existential debate that lasts for 12 pages for the protagonist, then you’d want the argument to have more logic than just froth. How does she expect an office clerk and the admissions officer to know all about every student? Gurunathan explains that it is his job to make students feel at home. He tells her in Tamil, because her name is “Krishnan”, not because he wishes to insult her “Bengali” part.
She then misunderstands her grandmother’s concern about being out and about alone, and asks the grandma if she’s becoming a burden.
She takes offence at a random mother in the mall admonishing her child who wants to eat at KFC, saying, “We are brahmins, we don’t eat non-veg food”. You as the reader want to tell her, “Not everything is about you. Remember even your mum promised your Tatha that she would bring you up a vegetarian? Get over it!”
And this is just the first chapter. The author tells us how her parents met and even though her father wrote a poem to her mother the parental romance seems to be an odd thing to write about in a book. In fact all through the book, the mother comes across as a better adjusted person, packing two suitcases – one for Chennai and the other for Kolkata, whereas the protagonist comes across as a whiner who does “Pranaams” in Kolkata and “Namaskaarams” in Chennai by habit instead of really caring. The cousin who washes her face before going to the temple seems more real than the sanctimonious protagonist.
An editor (or self-editing on MS Word) would have guided the author to prevent several repetitions when it comes to food and culture and this would give the author a chance to add more incidents of her life instead of rambling. Eat phuchka. Check. Write about Morkozhumbu. Check. Bharatanatyam? Check. Rabindra Sangeet? Check. Good uncle, bad uncle. Check. Check. Fall in love with Bengali man who has no respect for Tamil. Check. Include Bengali person badmouthing Tamil. Check. Two lectures on respecting cultures and inclusive lives to both disrespectful people. Check, check. But what comes across as a paint-by-numbers book on a life could have been amazing had the protagonist not included so many homilies, life-coach-like motivational paragraphs about everything. Call it rationalising, but when someone you have a crush over proves to have clay feet, it would be nicer to know what the protagonist feels, and does (she should have slapped him, shown some spunk, spoken her mind as she did when making love). What’s the point of being named after Durga if your reaction to an insulting boyfriend is to be “left standing in a comatose state”? Comatose? “Stunned” is the word to use, no? And after telling him off rather mildly which he tries to brush off, she even gets into his car to go to the temple.
Three Days of Catharsis just seems like a listing of motivational salve. When anything happens to her, a homily and explanation pops up: “We make our own destiny”, “When good things happen unexpectedly, it brings along an unending joy to our life”, “Each one of us faces some incidents in life which remain etched as immortal memoirs in our mortal minds”, “THE MORE YOU DEVOTE, MORE QUERIES CROP UP AND MORE INSTRUCTIONS AWAIT YOU”. (The all-caps sentence shout at you throughout the book!)
The constant translation of Tamil or Bengali sentences into English also makes for unnecessary distraction. The readers understand the addition of a couple of words here and there, like “Parvaillaiye”, or “Chhaad na!” or endearments such as “Shona” or “Kanna”. Sometimes an extra page for Tamil and Bengali words indexed neatly also works.
This books seems like such a wasted opportunity to bring to life flesh-and-blood creatures instead of caricatures who give “gyan”. Everyone seems to be telling her this or that. The book should have been more show than tell. A good editor would have helped not only with grammatical errors but with creating a book about balancing life between three cultures: Bengali, Tamil and Singaporean.
I hope authors will stop taking suggestions like “you must write a book about your life” too seriously. Family and friends who make such suggestions, do mean well. But before writing autobiographical tales of an identity crisis where isn’t one, best stick to creating imaginary worlds populated by ordinary people choosing to live extraordinary lives.
The reviewer is a writer and poet. She is the founder of Caferati Writers Forum. Her book ‘The Betelnut Killers’ was published in 2010. Currently, she teaches communication and creative writing at KC college, Mumbai and Harkishan Mehta Institute of Media, Research and Analysis, Mumbai.