Fun stuff this week —
An interview with Shehan Karunatilaka, the author of the wonderful The Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew.
Here’s the review. I’ll put the interview up in another post so that this one doesn’t seem endless.
It’s Not Always in the Details
Leela Ghosh is in her twenties. She was born in England, but she doesn’t have a British passport. To the British, she sounds Indian. To Indians, she sounds British. She is always out of place, constantly seeking another country, but for what? A sense of belonging? A job? A boyfriend? Since she moves from Paris to London to “Bombay”, we can assume it’s not for either the infrastructure or real estate. However, beyond that, there are no certainties because Leela never tells us. She just floats through Another Country like Ophelia in Sir John Everett Millais’s painting of the Shakespearean heroine.
A few chapters into the novel, you may wonder what precisely is Leela’s problem. She starts off as a graduate of Cambridge University, living in Paris. She has friends and doesn’t seem to be short on cash. Then she moves to London, which only the French would consider a downgrade. In London, she has a job, a boyfriend and a crush. At the end of that episode and a short holiday in an Indian coastal town (probably Varkala), Leela arrives in Mumbai. She finds a nice hostel in the south Mumbai and a job. The latter facilitates a meeting with a rich, good-looking young man who, praise the lord, is crazy about her.
It’s not as though Leela lives an entirely charmed life – she has a mild brushes with racism and notches up one break-up in each city — but the upsets she suffers hardly seem worthy of sympathetic clucking. This is because Leela herself seems unmoved by the events. She is observant — almost excessively so — but her descriptions are dispassionate and often laced with contempt. Since she cares so little for the people around her, the reader cares even less.
Leela doesn’t have a career to speak of but that isn’t something that makes her fret. If you ignore the fact that she’s incapable of feeling much more than self-pity and boredom, the only fly in the ointment of Leela’s existence is her love life, which follows a pattern: have a relationship with a good-looking but weak-willed man, break up, move cities. In Paris, the object of her affections is interested in someone else. When another “reasonably handsome man” hits on Leela, they cheerfully end up in a copulation-themed tangle. Though Leela doesn’t seem to be interested in happily-ever-after with this gent — she sneaks out of his house in the morning because the sex was bad – she is mildly put out when she learns he’s only interested in being friends with benefits.
In London, Leela works her way out of a relationship with a new man, Richard. Richard is awkward, bland and, for reasons undefined, keeps Leela from meeting his father. The fact that Leela perseveres with their relationship, despite disliking Richard intensely, doesn’t dispose the reader kindly towards either Richard or Leela. Unsurprisingly, that relationship ends. From daddy’s pet, Leela moves on to momma’s boy when she relocates to Bombay and falls for Vikram. Leela’s reasons for being attracted to Vikram are about as mysterious as her relationship with Richard. However, when Vikram and Leela start dating, there’s conflict for the first time in Another Country. Vikram’s mother has the gleaming edge and menace of a samurai blade. Impeccably polite and unmistakably disapproving of Leela, the older woman quickly outmanoeuvres the younger. Net result — you guessed it — Leela moves cities.
Occasionally, Leela’s dry narrative tone works, like when she describes with subtlety how inadequate Vikram’s mother makes her feel or the subtle racism Leela faces while dining with a terribly posh and Caucasian family. Some of Leela’s early awkwardness is endearing initially. However, there are few gripping moments in Another Country, which doesn’t move through three cities as much as squat in them. The changes in setting barely break the tedium because it quickly becomes clear that Leela is unaffected by her location.
Joseph has a gift for description that makes for some charming passages in Another Country. Sadly, no matter how beautiful they seem in the garb of Joseph’s narration, minutiae become tedious when the details don’t add up. In Joseph’s first novel, Saraswati Park, the banalities created a portrait of Mumbai and told a poignant story about changing relationships. The characters in Another Country are content to remain as curiosities. The cities are as pretty and static as in postcards. They’re all souvenirs collected from nostalgia trips and neatly arranged in the glass cabinet of Joseph’s second novel.