3 new novels about modern India
By Nandini Lal,
1There’s a nip of nonfiction about Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care (Farrar Straus Giroux, $26). It reads like vintage Granta on speed. Gooroo, the Indian narrator, hunts diamonds, eats deer curry and tells Caribbean tales of such loony specificity that we don’t dare doubt him. (“I returned to the Corentyne, and here to my great regret I missed a grand bank heist by no more than ten minutes.”) Like the No. 72 Sita Sita bus that stops every time a passenger buys a grenade or fish pie, the novel makes accidental detours through Guyana with waggish tricksters, street fighters and barflies. These fist-bumping, teeth-sucking, dread-talking men are matey Rasta philosophizers one minute, thieves and mutilators the next. Guyanese “riddims” of garbled syntax and slang slide over ethnic slurs, scams and general skankiness. The narrator travels with adorable Jankey to Venezuela before their adventure peters out in budget-busting prettification and smuggled cocaine. A soca-soaked picture emerges — kiskadees, whitey trees, married-man pork, rotting wooden houses on stilts, chutney and zinc in the air — all “mud and fruit, race and crime.” Canal-laying, sugar-cane-planting Indian and African slaves and chili-and-brine-whiplashing Dutch masters of the past have given way to gangsters, dictators, corrupt officials and slimy bandit-pandits in “today daynage.” But ganja-smoking, batty-shaking locals still dream big: “They thought they could do anything, turn flimstar, fly fighter jet . . . open casino in Brazil.” For all its pathos, bravado and charm, “This was Guyana. Nobody touch she.” Yeahman. Bhattacharya’s voice is thick with bizarre humor, poetic pidgin and images lush with faraway magic.
2The partition of India-Pakistan in 1947 was the largest exercise in displacement in 20th-century Asia. The British drew a line in the dirt: Hindus were to live on this side, Muslims on that. In the volatile time of forced exodus that followed, hundreds of thousands died or went missing. Award-winning poet and nuclear radiologist Amit Majmudar’s first novel recalls this tragedy. His images — houses ransacked, boys burned, women ravaged, trains with murdered corpses — may seem too visceral to be true. But these traumatic scenes of personal and national rifts still live in present memory. Partitions (Metropolitan, $25) is a story of people on the run, caught on the wrong side of history. The narrator is a voice beyond the grave, the father of Hindu twin boys separated from their mother on a train, sold to a childless Muslim widow and now trying to get to India. A Sikh teenager flees first from her family, which prefers death to dishonor, then from pimps. A Muslim healer who limps into their lives is the only voice of compassion in this world gone mad. These and other fugitives adrift in a homeland suddenly cleft in two cope with riots, reunions, rapes and escapes. This slight novel isn’t flawless, but every bleak detail in Majmudar’s bloody tableau is lyrically observed.
3 Miss New India (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25), by National Book Critics Circle Award winner Bharati Mukherjee, is a somewhat dated, distilled look through privileged bifocals at the gritty, new, upwardly mobile India. This local-girl-makes-good fairy tale has suspiciously soft landings, yuppie chatter, stagey romances, coincidences and false notes. Anjali (“Call me Angie”) Bose, 19, leaves an arranged marriage in Bihar’s backwaters for a hi-tech future in Bangalore. Instantly, this “homeless, jobless, skill-less” girl gets suitors, breaks, friends in high places (her champion is a gay man called Peter Champion) and a lifestyle that stretches her wallet and our credulity. She flirts with freedom but sponges off the wealthy. She has unending ambition, yet she tries for a dead-end call-center job. Her father commits suicide, her sister prostitutes herself, her housemates help militants and burglars. She is raped by a suitor and falsely implicated in a terrorist plot. (Seriously?) But she always gets timely bailouts. No lessons are learned. The only struggle here lies outside the novel, where the real India clamors to be let in.
Lal is a writer and reviewer in Washington.