Book review

This novel shows that old-fashioned storytelling and relationships are still crucial to fiction

Farhad Sorabjee’s ‘God On Every Wind’ reveals something new on every reading.

Novels that aspire to the conditions of the elements, where the mythical and spiritual weight of their presence is at the very heart of the text, have perhaps fallen out of fashion. In both poetry and fiction, language that is impalpably dry, witty – dare I say “urban” – is favoured over the kind that ‘lives and breathes’ on the page. A great deal of modern fiction offers a kind of grey distortion: a flatness, which makes for both a tiresome and disappointing read. This makes the appearance of Farhad Sorabjee’s God on Every Wind all the more refreshing.

At last, an author not only concerned with the conventions of good storytelling (and it is good storytelling) but also the patterning of language, the depth and vision of the imagery, the richness of the text. There’s a lot of information, and for those unfamiliar with particular Indian and/or West African traditions, the book demands careful attention.

And why not? It’s an absolute pleasure to read, and re-read, a sentence concerned not only with the placing of the words, but also the musicality in their ordering. The descriptions are, to quote, “gusts of pure bliss” and although at times a little bumbling and disjointed, the pace is beautifully executed.

The novel’s beginning is sonorously magical – fresh, and unfamiliar:

“The rain came late to the last monsoon in the life of Philomena Avan DaCruz. In the evening angry clouds prowled the horizon over the Arabian Sea. But the next morning they were gone and the sun was back, sucking solace from ponds and watering holes…”

Love and loss

Oh the rain, the rain. This is a beautiful opening metaphor, an introduction to both place and character. Nothing clunks or sinks; the gentle imagery lifts and glides across the paper. In the opening alone, Sorabjee has managed to unveil what Wordsworth called “the light of things”, and this sets the tone for the rest of the book. There are moments of poetic revelation, conjured in a single phrase, an image, or even an entire paragraph. Plot, character and reviewing obligations aside, I found myself reading God on Every Wind for these moments – and it didn’t disappoint. They recurred without fail to the end of the book.

Love and loss, rebellion and allegiance, are interwoven into the detailed fabric of God on Every Wind. We begin with an introduction to Philomena, the history of her family, and their residence, the Casa de Familia DaCruz. We are then introduced to her father and mother, through to the birth of her brother Lancelot, and then eventually, her own rather dramatic entrance into the world. The turn of events from here are generally unexpected, and there’s a lot to be taken in.

Against the frivolity and beauty of youth, we have the quiet, patient spirits of the “old world” begrudgingly dragged into the epoch of a new India. There’s a lot in this book that brings your attention to the “grey areas”, and, though quite necessary, some uncomfortable questions are asked. The freeing of India from imperial rule was crucial of course. Yet here, we discover a world, a somewhat culturally and economically sound society, silenced on the note of its departure – a familiarity, and a way of life is lost. Again, Sorabjee sets the tone of the book. From the beginning we are faced with a question, and quite naturally, perhaps, we find no real answer.

It quickly becomes apparent though, like the Casa de Familia DaCruz, Philomena is the anchor of the drama; the “heart of its catatonic shape”. For me, she is that state of rebellion; honesty, courage, integrity. The book has fight – everyone at some point is battling against something, or someone else, be this a colleague, a parent, a conscience. This vital, rebellious spirit is present throughout, and I can’t help but feel the weight of Philomena’s presence there: a solid rock around which everything else laps and murmurs. It’s the opposite to personification, giving a human character an elemental, non-human, almost mythic quality, and allowing this energy to flow freely over every page.

Everything moves to and from the same focal point – the strength of the human condition, and its ability to persevere. The symbol of water too, and the subconscious depths of knowledge it holds, recurs frequently, and in many ways is central to the almost primitive energy of the text. Water holds endless mystery to us – representing what is certainly there, but cannot be seen.

The characters are alive, their perfections, their imperfections, their skin, their voices. Everything is there, close to the flesh, their every last detail has been crafted with the greatest care and attention – so much so that they exist beyond the creator. It didn’t surprise me to learn that Sorabjee is also a scriptwriter – the handling of character seems to work the same. Just as the actor takes on the voice, the mannerisms, and the name, and then makes them her own; so it is with this book. The same “passing of rights” as it were has taken place, and this again makes for a very refreshing read.

Points of light

Philomena and Nestor are like two points of light, continually revolving independently, and acquiescently, around each other’s small but bright existence. They come from very different backgrounds, and in many ways think very differently. But at the heart of them both is a desire to revolt. Their meeting isn’t serendipitous, in any way shape or form. In fact it’s pretty normal. It’s how their love evolves over time, how they grow together (and apart, and together again) from adolescence to adulthood, how they face the relentless implications of adult life, and the potentially devastating affects of both personal and political idealism, that makes their journey interesting to the reader.

Again, as the story unravels, Philomena – Philomena’s choices, Philomena’s words, actions, needs, thoughts – are of particular interest. Her desire to want and have, and then throw away makes her the female equivalent to the “loveable rogue”, though it’s wise to bear in mind that her actions are rooted in a deeply private magic, manifested by the blurred shadows of sightless childhood.

We are led, almost as if by the hand, through the fresh and sensuous experiences of a hungry child: “The air around her father was a network of currents: displaced musical tones wafting across a stern, even grid, soft glows washed by cool, distant winds.” Everything is about pulse, inflection, undertone, and human spirit. And again, we have the poetry – clear and absolute. I re-read these earlier chapters several times for the sheer joy of it.

There’s much in the novel about decision and choice, pride and honesty. Freedom and the individual are celebrated. Yet a lot of questions are asked in turn, particularly on this notion of choice, and how the paths we choose affect our lives, and those with whom we share it. One obvious question this novel brought to my attention was about love – what is it exactly? Not merely a romantic state where we lust after every single pixelated inch of our significant other. But is love something to be tested? For love to be defined, does it need to have suffered? Do we need to have gained from it, in both character and form, in order for it to be, and have, any depth or relevance?

The blowing rends of change inflicted upon both a nation’s political and social landscapes are inflicted again in the desert of the heart. Change by way of choice and by way of fate is imminent; it spurs the narrative. The entire text – be this in plot, poetry, character, time, and the spaces in-between – is constantly moving. The connection between the characters of this book and the places they inhabit are very close indeed: in the dust, the ground, the light, the ‘hard sun singed vast’.

Darker undertone

Though gentle in many ways, God on Every Wind inflects frequently, bowing to the troubled surges of an altogether darker undertone. The landscapes of this book seem, in many ways, silenced by their own vastness, and there’s a lot, I feel, that goes unsaid. These blank spaces can be filled with our own conclusions, and in this Sorabjee gives you space to breathe; to enter the story again and again with new ideas, a new take on a situation or a circumstance. Not once did I come across a “slump” moment: drifting to and from my own imaginary world where the book ‘could have been so much better’, as often occurs when reading modern fiction. My critical attention was engaged throughout, and I found myself reaching little moral conclusions just as the story turned, and presented me with a fresh batch of dilemmas.

The first twenty-and-odd chapters or so of the book are a delight – elements of pride, lust and honour jostle for position, characters are revealed slowly and with care, time passes, as justly and comfortably as the ground underfoot. However once we move from Mumbai to “somewhere in Africa”, the narrative becomes a little shaky and fragmented. Some characters seem a little pointless, explored in too much detail, and others (Kanu for example, a fascinating, though sadly neglected soul) not explored enough. Some moments would have been better served devoted to exploring the deeply complex layers of Philomena and Nestor’s relationship, as opposed to surfacing new threats and complications that while, obviously requisite to the direction of the story, are simply given too much space on the page.

The love between the main characters seems almost “beyond love”, and this, for me, is one of the most compelling aspects of the novel. In some cases, quiet moments of reflection are offered, and in these we glimpse the staggering depths of devotion in which their bond is secured: “Their moments together were gusts of bliss, snatched from the winds…sometimes they would lie together listening to the staccato pattering of the warm afternoon rain on the earthen water drum outside, then revel in the shining, sun-drenched landscape afterwards.”

But within a page or so we’re in the middle of an ambush, or a council meeting, or several years on, where nothing seems to have actually changed except for the fact that everyone is a little bit older, and we only accept these significant alterations because we have to. And while these sections are as refined and polished as the rest, I found them too close – almost an infringement on the integrity of the story. Granted, they give additional drive and purpose to the text, but I felt myself being taken in a direction I wasn’t comfortable with. Unpicking the smaller details of “how” and “why” – taking more time to explore the intimacies, but also the huge emotional gaps that exist between these two lovers, might have been perhaps, for the reader, been more satisfying.

Warm and a little mysterious

This isn’t a ground-breaking novel by any means, but it is a very fine one; a warm invitation into the lives of its characters, an open-eyed introduction to the sweeping vistas of the Arabian Sea, the cluttered streets of Bombay (Mumbai), the oracular dusts of Goa, the bright sun-washed paths of a small African village. This is by no means a conventional love story, and thank god.

The realities of human relationships, of the complexities and uncertainties of the heart, are explored with great honesty. The complex faculties of love, both in family and marital relations, are tested frequently, and for some reason I found this deeply life affirming. No, love isn’t simple, or easy. In many ways it inflicts incredible tension, creating obligation, resentment, distortion, and regret. But it is present in all of us, and can be a bond greater than life or death, a force greater than the elements.

I’m still not sure about the final chapters; there are some unexpected “twists”, and I’m not sure whether they feel out of place, or if they offer (as Sorabjee does so well) a deeper insight into the minds and hearts of the characters. I suppose I’ll have to read the book again to find out; and quite naturally. God on Every Wind invites a third, even a fourth (or fifth) read, and deservedly so. This is compelling and colourful first novel, written by someone who, if nothing else, understands the importance of storytelling that delves, again and again into the murky realms of the human condition, and explores honestly, with poetical freedom, what can be found.

This article first appeared on Wales Arts Review.

God On Every Wind, Farhad Sorabjee, Bee Books.

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