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Friday, March 18, 2011

Lost and Found

Surendran, CP. Lost and Found. New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers. 2010

Some facts (or conspiracy theories, if you like) about novels and novelists:

Fact 1: A good poet isn’t necessarily a good novelist, and vice-versa. It’s more so in case of a poet, as poetry requires a minimum scope of vision, whereas a novelist should be able to gasp larger scheme of things. A good novel requires a judicious amount of ‘showing’ and ‘telling’, the measure of perfect balance. There are chances of this balance going awry when a poet turns a novelist. Again, poets, by definition, are impatient whereas patience is the stepping stone on the way to become a novelist.

Fact 2: A journalist, especially someone who deals with newspaper copies, cannot be a novelist. While the use of journalistic jargon, word play, clich├ęs, alliteration, and other such shenanigans can make a newspaper copy scintillating, in case of a novel, the same can be poisonous. Newspaper copies are either impersonal (“20 dead in car crash”) or opinionated (“Tendulkar shouldn’t have lost his cool”). A novel can be neither. A novel should have a throbbing heart, a clear mind, and a focused vision.

Fact 3: You cannot write an entire novel in present tense. In English language especially, the present tense has a very limited use. Everything we do or say instantly becomes past, or at the most, present perfect. There’s no perfect simple present tense situation. Under these circumstances, if you want to narrate your story, or shall we say several stories situated at various time and place, in present tense, your writing runs in the danger of sounding awkward. Read: She picks up the glass. She takes a gulp. She realises that the occult night has finally revealed its intention. She decides to leave the party. She looks at the mirror and powders her nose...” you know what I mean?

I came to the understanding of these facts while browsing through poet-journalist C P Surendran’s second work of fiction, Lost and Found. I must confess, I did not have the time to read the book entirely. I had borrowed the copy from a friend and had to return it to her after a week. Anyway, I intend to read the book soon, especially be-cause I enjoyed his first novel, An Iron Harvest, and also because the author was my boss for a while, and I admire his poetry.

India as a country has seen the revolt of the youth in one form or another, in one state or another in every decade. However, Indian writing in English hasn’t suffi-ciently focused on this issue. For this alone, we can count An Iron Harvest as an important edition to the gamut of Indian novel in English. The novel, among other things, features the hopes and frustrations of the 1970s naxal movement. However, there are doubts whether the book was successful as a novel. I cannot answer that question, only this: At times the language Surendran is preoccupied with precedes his sense of narrative telling. And what language? There are passages after passages in An Iron Harvest, which are sheer poetry, especially when the author describes the Karala landscape in the beginning of the novel. The book was indeed a poet’s book.

In comparison, Lost and Found is more prosaic, unsentimental and journalistic; (and caustic and ironic, if you like) it is given considering the fact that the novel features a journalist as one of the central characters, and at times even reproduces the copies he wrote for newspapers verbatim (there’s a nice “write-up” on a poet who suspiciously looks like Arun Kolatkar; I mean, the reference to the Wayside Inn is unmistakable). Does it helps the novel? Now, that’s a million dollar question.

I don’t have anything to say about the use of the third person present tense narrative, except that at times it sounds awkward.

Whatever I could read in Lost and Found, the book gave me the impression of it as a slippery being. There is nothing to hang onto in the narrative as it shifts from one person to another, one concern to another. Each chapter is a disjointed episode. At last, when these episodes come together, the impact is not as crackling as you would expect. It’s really strange especially when the incidents of 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai, which forms a major part of the novel, could have make it more dramatic.

Now, dramatic is Surendran’s forte. He is very good at out-of-box presentation. (I remember, once we were doing a story for the daily on how the city’s motorists defy safety concerns by refusing to wear helmets. For the story, he suggested that we take a picture of Alexander the Great, on a horse with his headgear, and use the caption: “Even he wears one.” I still think it was a brilliant presentation.) But in Lost and Found, the dramatic remains that of the daily newspaper variety. You read the story with interest, but forget all about it as soon as you have finished reading it.

From the blurb:
On a drunken party night, young and attractive Lakshmi kidnaps Placid Hari, a journalist, mistaking him to be the man who raped her sixteen years ago. The morning after alters the course of events: Lakshmi and Hari find themselves taken hostage in a terrorist siege of Bombay along with a teenage fledgling actor. The ji-hadi-in-charge is the boysoldier Salim, trained in Pakistan by Abul Razak, the object of whose hallucinogenic passion is Salim’s mother. Before the day is done, Salim finds that nothing back home could have prepared him for the fatal eventualities of his mission and his tryst with the compelling story of blood and tears that his cap-tives have to tell.

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