Sunday, June 08, 2008
‘Clono’-logy gone awry
By Priya Sarukkai Chabria
Penguin/ Zubaan, 2008
There are times when a book can make you very sad. No. Not because of its content, but due to the waste of a brilliant idea. It could have been a great book, but end up being not even a good book.
Chances are, you may feel the same way about Priya Sarukkai Chabria's recent work of fiction, 'Generation 14'. The blurb says the book is about history and women, and other such assorted ideas. His-tory yes, the narrative moves back and forth from 24th century to 20th to 21st century. But this does not help Chabria clarifying what she wants to say, because, the basic theme of the novel remains a mystery, and the futuristic background and a clone as a protagonist only adds to this muddle.
But the book is not your quote-unquote science fiction. How des-perately you wish it were, since it would have been the redeeming factor of the book. Depart from the non-existent sci-fi theme, the novel ceases to exist, the protagonist's plight becomes meaningless, and there's hardly anything to retain the readers' interest.
This is the problem that hounds the book. But you can hardly blame Chabria for that. She is just part of a tradition, the tradition of Indian writing in English.
In a simple sentence, the problem is this: We Indians are excessively romantic in whatever we do. Our imagination is Bollywoodish!! We cannot write anything other than juvenile romances and family dra-mas. Otherwise, how do you account for Vikram Seth and his tome 'A Suitable Boy'. Otherwise how do you account for the popularity of Seth as opposed to Upamanyu Chaterjee, who is rational to the point of be-ing offensive (‘English, August’, ‘Weight Loss’). We, Indians, cannot appreciate other than romances. We have no thrillers in English, no horror stories (Ruskin Bond is too sweet to be included here), our writ-ers cannot even write a good sex scene (‘The Alchemy of Desire’, and ‘Bunker 13’, both won the worse sex scene in a book award).
Therefore, we do not have any rights to blame Chabria for her mis-take. The onus of her mistake lies in the tradition, not in her individual talent, if I may borrow the terms from Mr T.S. Eliot. Chabria is first and foremost a poet and her poetic skills are evident in the book. There are some beautifully written passages, especially the ones where the clone protagonist dreams up the past. But when the narrative lingers in dis-tant future, Chabria is at a loss. She takes the easy way out, the first person narrative and takes many asepcts of the future world for granted. We basically do not know what kind of world that the clone inhabits, because all she is interested is her past. This could have been a strong narrative device if the clone in question had some really stong issues to deal with. But nothing. What she goes through can simply be summerised as anxiety of adolesence.
Welcome to another very bleak version of the future, where human beings are a rare thing and they are called originals, they bath in plasma, and lives for innumerable years. They have achieved a god-like stature for they can create clones from their genes. And these clones are used as slaves. This is ‘1948’ meet ‘I am Legend’, meet ‘I, Robot’... meet, believe it or faint, The Return of the Aryan.
The novel, if we can summerise the story, is the story of a 14th gen-eration clone, who, as it were, mutating. The signs: She keeps dreaming about past, through the eyes of some animal or other, about assorted things, a king's wife, a warrior, and a fish, among other things, there is a whole chapter devoteed to the story of these dream characters and you will have to really think deep to associate them with the current story of the female clone's predicament. Unless, you question the totali-tarian attitude of civilisations down the ages, and how individualism is crushed. Then again, there are better ways to address the issue other than the convulated manner that Chabira employs.
You really cannot complain about the writing through. Her prose style is lucid, if anything else. And, in the initial chapters, she builds up the right amount of suspence, leaving lots of loose threads. The threads however, remains loose, till the end. And as the book ends, you are dis-satisfied.
But, the book needs to be read, if nothing else, just for the fact that it encourages Chabria to continue writing. We expect far superior things from her.
From the blub:
In a world where memory is forbidden and sexuality taboo, Clone 14/54/G is unique. Haunted by her past lives and caught in a struggle between the forces of oppression and those of liberty, language and love, she keeps a secret journal.
Intense, poetic and erotic, Generation 14 is a dazzlingly imaginative and bizarre political satire. Set in the twenty-fourth century the novel journeys through highpoints of India's history to explore ideas of its plural identity and what it means to be human in today's polarized world.
This extraordinary novel is unlike any other coming from the subcontinent, and heralds a new generation of fantasy writing from India. It is a serious and vivid reflection on repression and the fragility of free-doms.