February 25, 2011

East of the Sun: a review

Three books by (relatively) young Indian writers that I've reviewed in recent weeks. One is in print, the others will be in a day or two.

The first is Siddhartha Sarma's East of the Sun, which I reviewed for Biblio (current issue, i.e. Jan-Feb 2011). It's available for free on the site, but you have to sign up and so forth. So you can read it below. Comments welcome.

East of the Sun
A Nearly Stoned Walk Down the Road in a Different Land

"Please don't", says a Manipuri sign that Siddhartha Sarma finds near Imphal, "throw bombs inside the petrol pump." It all comes together right there. The bizarre climate in the places he writes about. The plaintive quality of the sign, and presumably of the man who put it up. The futility of such a plea in the first place -- I mean, which potential bomb-thrower would read this note, regretfully pack away his bomb and move on to the next possible spot to make his throw? And of course, there's the quirkiness of a writer who would notice such a sign and tell us about it.

There's all that in "East of the Sun". Sarma writes about a stretch of India too few Indians know much about, let alone travel much in. Which is why I sometimes wonder, what makes both me and the guy from Manipur Indian, apart from the little blue books we might both possess with "Republic of India" stamped on the cover? I wonder too, what's life like in those parts, the food, the travel, the music, the way its people are?

And some of that is why I looked forward so much to reading "East of the Sun": I wanted to find answers to some of my wondering. Does Sarma provide any? Yes, but it's a qualified yes.

I'll say this to start: no book I know of has taken me on a trip through every one of those states in quite the rock-n-roll, grin-and-bear-it style that Sarma uses. I mean this as a compliment, and actually this is in some ways the core of the book. This is not a heavy-handed, ponderous tome. He gives us glimpses of history, culture, music and religion. But more than that, he gives us travel the way we all usually experience it: filled with vivid images, serendipitous, finding meaning in the ordinary and extraordinary, sometimes ominous, sometimes frivolous. Writing every one of those phrases I can recall episodes from the book to match it.

For example, if there's the hint of unease and violence in that petrol pump sign, there's the daily good cheer and hope of a quick buck in watching "teer" in Shillong. This last was especially delightful because only a month before reading Sarma's book, I spent a happy evening doing just that myself. In a small arena in Shillong, dozens of archers gathered to fire hundreds of arrows at a straw target with plenty of spectators like me watching -- and the whole endeavour aimed (pardon the pun) at producing the winning number for the day. A lottery, really, but who came up with the splendid idea of conducting it with bow and arrow?

In Kohima, Sarma says he has to switch languages rapidly to make himself understood -- Hindi, English, Assamese, Nagamese (a polyglot spoken in those parts), but none of them really work too well. Then he asks his interlocutors which language they would prefer to use. They say "English" and speak it, but he still can't understand because "they use it their way." It reminded me of a joke played on an American TV star at a hoity-toity party while he attended Wimbledon: someone came up and began mouthing what sounded like stiff upper lip British-speak, but was really just gibberish. In Kohima, speaking of Wimbledon, Sarma finds the metaphor that both describes his plight and touches on the essential absurdity of it all: "I feel like a tennis player against an especially crafty opponent, having to switch the racquet hand as fast as the shots are placed."

From Mizoram, we hear about how the separatist Mizo National Front had its roots in, of all things, rats. Yes, rats that, going back to the '50s, "invade the homes of the luckless Mizos and raid their rice stores." Dismaying this is, no doubt. It is also farcical, comical, though how it evolved into an insurgency, you should read the book to find out. But consider: which revolutionary movement anywhere can make a similar claim about rats? And this is just the kind of nugget that fits comfortably in this book, that I grew to expect from Sarma.

It's that kind of book.

Yet towards the end, things happen that are not farcical at all. In Manipur, young armed militants take Sarma -- the lone non-Manipuri -- off a bus and one hits him with a gun before asking him questions. Here's an unwelcome sidelight of travel in this often troubled part of India, and it's not that Sarma takes it in his stride. You can feel, with him, "my right [side] bruising and my insides jarring." And he confesses that he is "afraid [of] being shot in the rain. I suppose you would think less of me now."

There's another encounter soon afterwards, with a mob armed with stones, torches of the flaming kind, and guns. Again, I'll leave readers to find out about that. But I want to say, I don't think less of you, Siddhartha. These were terrifying episodes, and only people inclined to foolish bravado would make out that they were not frightened by them. Thank you for not being that kind of person, for being true to yourself on your travels and in this book.

But -- you knew there had to be a "but" coming -- for all this that I admired in the book, there were also a few too many times that my teeth grated. And this has to do with that same rock-n-roll, grin-and-bear-it style that Sarma uses.

For one thing, he starts the book with this sentence: "This is not a tourist guide." Admirable, because travel writing really should not turn into a tourist guide. Yet there are plenty of times when Sarma slips into tourist-guide mode. On page 57: "There are tonnes of waterfalls and lakes all over Meghalaya, and quite a few archaelogical digs." Page 73: "Cabs and such are also available for hire from Guwahati to any part of Assam." Page 200: "There is simply an abundance of rivers and streams [in Mizoram] with all kinds of fish … the view [at one river] is spectacular, the fish plenty and the breeze constant."

Small things, sure, but when bits of advice like these dot the book, you wonder if Sarma was really sure about what kind of book he wanted to write.

But perhaps my major complaint is the style itself. Like confetti, web lingo is littered across the book -- "imho", "lol", "erm", "rofl", "thassall" and the like. Too many things are "dadgum" things. Every now and then, there's the use of initials, like this: "[B]lockades are a bit of a cottage industry in the North-east, and nowhere more than in Manipur, where virtually everything extra-constitutional is a c.i." (Got that?) At least here it's in the same sentence; in another place, the abbreviation ("o.c. with the r.") comes nine sentences and most of a page after the full form, and it's an annoying backward scramble to figure out what Sarma means.

No wait, there's more. Sarma is prone to making claims that he then will undermine by saying something like "for some reason I can't be bothered to look up [the evidence for it] at the mo." (Got that?) Between page 88 and 121, I got the feeling that Sarma had worked himself into a frenzy of such indifference -- there are at least five examples and maybe more that I missed but for some reason I can't be bothered to go back and look them up at the mo.

And then Sarma uses -- yes, again more than once -- this too-cutesy technique of introducing a question about something he has just written: "Ahh, I see a hand raised there, at the back. You want me to explain [xyz]? You want me to explain that? Okay." Or like this: "Guwahati now looks like your city (and yours too, ma'am, over there, thanks for asking)".

Maybe I'm carping. Maybe I'm not with it, or I'm over-the-hill, or something, who knows. But all this ends up being just too much of a distraction from the meat -- and there's plenty of meat -- of Sarma's book. More than that, it weighs the book down. No doubt that's an odd thing to say now about the same style that I earlier commended for sparing us a "heavy-handed, ponderous tome." Sad thing is, it's true.

I don't believe Sarma needs to have given up his irreverent eye while travelling. I think it serves him very well. I admire the way it complements his courage and his observing skills. But in the writing, I think he has tripped himself up by taking the irreverence and casualness too far. By the end, Sarma has piled up so much of this here dadgum stuff, imho, that it has effectively messed with the impact the book has on your mind. Thassall. Thassapity.

Nevertheless, I am pretty damned sure that when I go to Manipur, I will not throw bombs inside the petrol pump.


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MinCat said...

i read it! well part of it, while in namdapha in pouring rain. i gave up because i really got sick of the style and the grating bits you talked about, and well it was 4pm and the ligh went. i felt he simply could not make up his mind, it was like ADHD. and yea he was way to selfconsciously trying to be hip. but mostly, yes i agree with your review.

VM said...

thanks for this excellent, painstaking review. it is a pity about the conspicuous overstylization you point out, because accessible writing from and about this region is desperately needed.

dilip, you might be interested in getting sarma's other book (the grasshopper's run) for your son. the resident 11-yr-old re-read it with gusto, one of the hits of 2010.

dina hazarika said...

Am sure Sarma had a certain age group and sections of readers in mind, he imagined someone like himself- young, smart and a zest for traveling....and also web-lang updated! I loved readin this book and the short-forms and stuff weren't that bad a distraction.