By Manisha Lakhe

three-days-of-catharsis-front-coverThere 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.

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By Manisha Lakhe

feet-in-the-valley

You don’t have to read the writer’s bio to figure out that the writer is a civil servant. The book, Feet in the Valley by Aswini Kumar Mishra, is an ode to the “sarkari daftar” and its ways and means of working less and making more money.

Somen, the protagonist of the book doesn’t start out as being likeable, because he fails his exams and generally seems to not care whether his family has to put up with hardships due to his “studies” late into the night. He takes it for granted that his parents and sister would be crammed into one room in order for him to study into the night. When he fails, you wonder if his mother’s love for him (she feeds him pakoras and samosas and cut fruit – by her own hand – at different points in the book) is deserved. He is 28 years old and seems to be self-centered and “useless”, and it seems to be a patriarchal setup because his sister Minati seems to have more brains than him.

Somen’s father works in the Railways, and the working ways of the booking office creates a fine picture of bribery and corruption. It is so beautifully written that you feel that you are standing in the booking queue, waiting for your turn, witnessing the way government offices work (or don’t). It is a record of frustrations with the system. Even the details in the offices of the Block Development Officer and the nexus between the different departments and the avarice of the people, with utter disregard to the welfare of the people they are meant to serve is wonderfully depicted in the book. You feel every bump in the road, and hear the music played by the crooked owner of Hotel Amar (where everyone goes, from the BDO to the contractors and the subcontractors and the Tehsildar and his cronies and anyone with money and interest in making money off the government).

“At times, it was discovered that Nanda’s motorcycle ran on the fuel supplied by Patnaik. When relatives arrived at the resident of Rath, another JE, Mishra the Sub-Contractor, provided the entertainment packages. As soon as the office opened, Patnaik would arrive, with folded hands to greet both Nanda and Rath.

‘Yes… Patnaik.’

‘Sir, namaste… My bills, sir.’

‘Not prepared yet, please come later.’

‘Sir… I badly need the money to pay my labourers.’

‘But the BDO is out of station.’

‘No, but he sure to return soon… Sir.’

‘Oh! You are so bothersome, as always.’

‘Sir, please.’

Patnaik laid a packet of cigars on Nanda’s table while suggesting the mode of preparation of the bill. Nanda, puffing a cigar from the pack, asked Patnaik to leave the room so he could go ahead with the present task. Patnaik left immediately. Nanda once again shouted at him, ‘Please ask for some coffee.’”

By Manisha Lakhe

night

As with any book of short stories, one tends to open a story and allow the writer to steer you into worlds you have not experienced. Mitra Phukan’s A Full Night’s Thievery takes us to Assam, and gives us a glimpse into the lives of her characters filled with music. But when those worlds are described in ways where Indian words like aanchal, punkha walas, Krishnasura tree, aalna, deuta intrude upon the senses, then the story comes second. It’s all ambience. Only ambience.

The book blurb promises that “music is a hard taskmaster” and you want to experience that. The bleeding fingers, the pain of missing a beat in front of an audience, the ecstasy of hitting the right notes and the loneliness of the riyaaz, we want to feel it all. But the characters don’t seem to be real. They’re given to rants (“The Choice”) where a Rudra Veena player is attempting to tell himself why he’s giving away his instrument. And after a couple of pages you wish the damned instrument would break to make him stop whining. If you’ve started with that story (since it’s the first in the book), then it sounds the death knell to the book, doesn’t it?

But if you’re like me, you’ll seek out the title story which is about a thief. And when you have trampled through pointless descriptions of characters in the little town who have nothing to do with the plot of the story, you realise that you saw the end coming a mile away. And who uses words like “delicious bits” for breasts? It’s practically Victorian.

The stories are charming, if you are unfamiliar with Indian writing. But if you have read works of regional authors translated into English, or Indian writers writing in English, you will realise that this book suffers the same fate. The descriptions seem to be written for non-Indians. Take the coconut seller in the train. His method of chopping the tender coconuts or how he cuts them after the “sweet” water has been consumed for the delicious “cream” seems to be utterly needless because Indians know what a tender coconut is and how to consume it.