In this business of scholium, it’s probably deeply unfair to go after that low-hanging fruit of popular Indian fiction, Chetan Bhagat. Even the most uninspired criticism that follows the basic tenet of voir dire can arrive at the conclusion that having a tablespoon of vanaspati every day is ultimately healthier for you than taking a peek at Bhagat’s oeuvre.
A little while ago, Bhagat revealed that he had waxed his hair in some Stanislavskiesque effort to better understand the routine pain that women go through in preparation for his novel One Indian Girl. Even before the book was published, an excerpt had emerged on the internet. Some of the problematic portions read:
“How can a girl admit she's thinking about kissing? Isn't that what super sluts do?”
When someone asks Radhika out on a date, she wonders, "Will it look too cheap and desperate if I say yes? Will he think I'm a slut?"
"You don't want to be judged as a slut on the first date."
From this, it’s easy to gauge that the waxing session had endowed Bhagat with a rather infantile insight into the female pysche and the nature of sexual desire in general, to put it mildly. Contrast this with Angaaray (literally “burning coals”) collective founder Sajjad Zaheer’s delicate treatment of Dulari, a domestic servant having an affair with the worldly-wise, college going son of her employers.
“Two people, whose daily lives were worlds apart, suddenly felt as though they had come to the beachhead of desire. The truth, unfortunately, was that, like debris, they were being carried away by an ocean of dark forces.”
The tale is seen through Dulari’s eyes (Dulari is also the title of the story) with her love interest, Kazim, roving in and out of the lens like an absentee. The focal point of absurdity in the tale doesn’t lie in Dulari’s sexual interest in Kazim, but, rather, in the rigid social mores of caste and class that keep them apart. It is this absurd socio-economic order, set in stone, that keeps her clothes perpetually “dirty and worn out”, gives her a body a “foul odour” and eventually forces her to run away from the house of her employers to a face a far more grim reality.
Indeed, it was these regressive attitudes towards sex, which Bhagat has acquired by osmosis, that the collective repudiated in their manifesto, written soon after the book was banned by the British Indian government in 1932 after concerns raised by conservative Muslim circles.
“They (Indian Writers) should undertake to develop an attitude of literary criticism which will discourage the general reactionary and revivalist tendencies on questions like family, religion, sex, war and society, and to combat literary trends reflecting communalism, racial antagonism, sexual libertinism, and exploitation of man by man.”
The manifesto broadly trumpets a rationalist look at culture, religion and society rooted in realism, urging writers to leave behind traditional Urdu literary conventions and tackle issues that the common man faced. The banning of Angaaray directly led to the formation of the All India Progressive Writers’ Association, which later included in its ranks Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, all proponents of the “realism” that the Angaaray collective strove for.
It’s this sense of realism that would appear in many forms through all Indian literatures, Pakistani literature (a direct, contemporary successor in this lineage would be Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms,Other Wonders), even in the films of Shyam Benegal. Some people in my generation (I was born in 1991) can even personify this strand of realism – we call it Shabana Azmi.
It is said that a book about the Deep American South is only successful if it makes you feel the South, the grime, the dirt, the heat that gives Blanche DuBois “the vapours”. The collection’s first story Can’t Sleep by Sajjad Zaheer opens on an onomatopoeic note: “Ghud-ghud-ghud-ghud, tick tick, chhat, tick-tick-tick, chhat-chhat-chhat.” and proceeds to read like the blow by blow report of the fever dream of a poet, with wild rants about religion, god, Gandhi, the British and all the mosquitos that swarm the narrative. The staccato style consciously asserts itself as a departure from the romantic finery of the Urdu poetry that had come before it, borrowing more from Joyce than Ghalib.
This aesthetic of viscerally feeling the events is carried out through all the short stories in the collection. We are invited into the pious home of the maulana in Sajjad Zaheer’s A Vision Of Heaven with a single lantern lighting up the interiors and his wife’s bed in the corner of the courtyard, right before he has a wet dream about angels successfully seducing him.
We can feel the sharp winter wind of Delhi, compounded by the fact that one has to suffer the lecherous stares from all the “awful men” around, in Rashid Jahan’s Seeing The Sights in Delhi (an ironic play on the idea of women going around to see Delhi’s attractions only to end up having the gaze deflected towards them). We can even see the paan stains on the spittoon that is passed around in Jahan’s In the Women’s Quarters, a one act play that allows us to be a fly on the wall in a cordoned off section of a conservative Sharif household.
Polemic fails, art wins
The most sophomoric parts of the stories arise when the writers attempt to make a didactic point about religion, theology and the tragedy of poverty. This is where the collective forsake all craft and form for polemic that doesn’t quite ring true. All the writers came from affluent backgrounds, were college-educated (some abroad), and are at their best when they attempt to depict the distinctly middle class North Indian Muslim milieu (quite distinct from, let’s say, Thoppil Mohamed Meeran’s portrayal of the lives of rural, Tamil Marakayar Muslims) that they hail from.
The last story from the collection, which seems to perfectly bridge this ideal sweet spot between social commentary and form, begins on a very dour note. “That’s my wife dying, but there isn’t even the trace of a smile on her lips, the kind that people used to say would match well with my calm disposition when they were arranging this marriage.” It takes us through the moral ambiguity of a self-aware spouse (“There is no limit to men’s stupidity and recklessness.”), who takes off abroad for work, leaving a wife he barely knows behind (“I never loved my wife – how could I have? We came from two different worlds and our lives were impossibly yoked together. My wife walked in the dark and narrow alleys of her old world ideas and I, on the clean and open paved boulevards of the new world.”).
On realising through their letters that she has caught tuberculosis, he resolves to be her “perfect companion”, the “ideal soulmate” that she had been waiting for. When he returns home, he realises that he can barely communicate with her, leave alone convince her of their deep, true love (“All my efforts were in vain. It was obvious that my words were contrived and come off like memorised lessons.”) and soon, he starts having mistresses but refuses to marry a second wife – a minuscule, moral victory in his eyes – until his wife succumbs to a miscarriage, smiling right before she dies.
The only contemporary take that perfectly exposes the fractures inherent in the Indian institution of the arranged marriage, at least to my knowledge, is the vastly underrated Adam and the Fish Eyed Poets album More Songs From An Island, if you’d excuse the incursion from another artistic medium. In this modern update, the roles are reversed, the male protagonist is the straight edge IT employee, walking the “dark and narrow alleys” of middle management in a capitalistic framework, while his wife is a morally ambivalent ego-dystonic lesbian.
The album is up on Bandcamp under a pay-what-you want scheme, and the Kindle version of Angaaray is available on Amazon for Rs 237. I would highly recommend that the good Mr Bhagat consider these cheaper, pain free options over a wax before his next book.