Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction is Roshan Ali’s first book. The title announces itself, and so we begin to expect something a bit philosophical if not esoteric, a bit melancholy if not downright depressing. And I – as a reader – am happy to have these expectations met.
The story the book tells is very much melancholy, and its eponymous narrator’s search is quite the journey of trying to look one’s existence in the eye. But at the end of its two hundred pages, I am not moved. What Ali might have taken as the cornerstone of his writerly project – the unremarkable, soul-sucking, humdrum ways of the city – haunts his own writing in a way that I can, without euphemisms, only call unflattering.
His prose does not hold me down in place, let alone grip me. I am not in awe of his characters, and that’s only understandable because they are not supposed to be awesome characters. But I somehow fail to admire his prose as well. I appreciate the fact that it’s not too frugal or cryptically intellectual or experimental in an embarrassingly insistent way. Rather, it’s plain.
Ib – his narrator – is an occasionally passive, mostly puzzled observer, but has also had a sufficient amount of things happen to him that could make for an interesting story. Could.
Missing an impetus
We start out unassumingly enough with Ib and his family: his father Kamran, whom he describes as harmlessly schizophrenic; his mother, who according to Ib has always failed to push against pushing; and then there’s his maternal grandfather, Ajju, a typically tyrannical patriarchal figure, extolling military values and pulling strings to secure his grandson a seat in a prestigious college (Ib, like Ali, drops out of this college at one point.)
There’s also a partially curious litany of characters that marks Ib’s life. In the beginning, a series of imaginary friends who warn him the world is a dark place. Then, at some point as an adult, a sadhu who whisks him away on an adventure in the Himalayas, a Catholic priest gifted with a sceptic’s intelligence, and – naturally – a mysterious woman who will thank him the following day for an unforgettable previous night.
This is where I could perhaps explain why Ali’s novel might appeal to some readers while failing to do the same to others. It’s the cause and case of every novel that because it’s grounded on this unshakeable subjectivity, it’s bound to encounter the same thing in its readership too. So, to my understanding: explanation, description, picture-painting – all of these can be appreciated only under two conditions.
The first: the prose is fabulous. And the second: there is a purpose to it all. The two conditions don’t need to depend on each other – they may remain quite independent. From my own favourites, an instance that exemplifies both conditions coming together is the turmoil marking the initial pages of Anna Karenina: a married man has been unfaithful. And every page that follows harks back to this ordinary but insurmountable problem of domestic life.
It’s an impetus that I’m referring to here. A need for all that writing to be placed under the reader’s nose. Put bluntly, I did not find Ali’s prose fabulous. And that is not at all a problem. Fabulous is just one adjective, in much the same manner as I am just one reviewer. For me, the problem to sit with was the absence of the second condition. The purpose.
How (not) to be literary
“An endless search for satisfaction” is how most of us would not just summarise our lives but also describe every day and night of those lives. What, then, makes Ib’s life worthy of ink and paper, bound into a book? I don’t have the answer to that question. From the very outset, working with his simple and pleasing observations about religion, his rather tedious usage of “man” as that undesirable impersonal pronoun, and his philosophical reflections that are mostly unwarranted but which occasionally hit the spot, I had the feeling that finding an answer to that question – why I should read what Ib has to offer me – wasn’t going to be easy.
My purpose then was to find out whether finding that answer would be worth it. It was not. I stayed with Ib for the duration of his hardbound autobiographical journey, and even as I learned to accommodate his childlike realisations of how the world works and the lack of turns and layers to his story’s progression, I could not bring myself to think of Ib as a remarkable narrator.
In a recent interview, Ali states, “(The literary fiction genre) does not aim to please or lead or instruct or inspire – it is that which the writer writes without boundary, without censorship, without thought of consequence.” There’s something in that thought worthy of propagation, a sentiment harking back to our very desire to write, to the question of why one writes at all.
Without a doubt, a work of literary fiction will not and should not aim to please or lead or instruct or inspire. But the implication of it cannot be that anything considered to be literary fiction should be absolved of certain requirements, certain questions beginning with why. Equally, the implication cannot be that anything written without fear and misgivings then deserves to be called – or be praised as – literary fiction.
Following the death of a religious character in the book, Ib notes: “The alive are so present and the dead so absent. It’s the contrast that makes it horrible.” A few pages earlier, he has a brief discussion where someone tells him to be more like an ant, to which he says he’s more like a tree. Towards the end, he meets his mysterious woman who has long hair and big breasts and who wants to sleep with him. Regarding her, he says: “Immediately I was nervous but the hope that she couldn’t see I was nervous made me confident.” When this woman meets with an unfortunate death a few more pages later, I’m not one bit surprised.
Ordinariness is a fantastic literary pursuit, but it can end up marking our work in unforeseen ways. Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction isn’t tedious because it’s truly endless; it’s tedious because Ali has tried to meld an exciting form with dull content, and has, somewhere along the way, not quite succeeded.
Ib’s Endless Search for Satisfaction, Roshan Ali, Penguin Random House India.