Lots of book reviews in this week’s Books page.
I wrote about Manil Suri’s The City of Devi and The Missing Queen by Samhita Arni (the unedited version of the article is below).
Joanna Lobo reviewed Afterlife: Ghost Stories from Goa by Jessica Faleiro and liked it.
Alpana Chowdhury loved Joginder Paul’s The Dying Sun.
Farrukh Dhondy’s London Company was reviewed by Aditi Seshadri. She enjoyed it.
Colleen Braganza sank her teeth into the new Keigo Higashino mystery, Salvation of a Saint, and found it meaty but not as juicy as The Devotion of Suspect X.
Amberish Diwanji was won over by Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots.
Missing & In Action
(The City of Devi, The Missing Queen)
What does it mean to miss someone? The dictionary defines the emotion as an absence tinged with longing. But like many four-lettered words in English, there are nuances to “miss”. When a person disappears, it creates an emptiness that can only be filled with stories and reminiscences. There’s none of the closure that death brings in its wake. Instead, there’s a single question for those left behind: What happened?
In both The City of Devi by Manil Suri and Samhita Arni’s The Missing Queen, the protagonists are on a quest to find someone. Suri’s two storytellers are Sarita, a wife looking for her husband, and Jaz (or Ijaz), who is looking for his lover. They’re making their way from Colaba, at the tip of south Mumbai, to the northern suburbs and it’s a dangerous journey. Mumbai in The City of Devi is a war zone. It’s divided between communal gangs. The threat of a Pakistani nuclear attack looms and terrorist attacks are frequent. Sarita ventures into this troubled world, armed with nothing more than a desperate desire to be reunited with her husband Karun and a pomegranate. Jaz – irreverent, resourceful and gay – ends up as Sarita’s ally even though she doesn’t trust him entirely. She meets him in a Hindu neighbourhood and quickly figures out he’s only pretending to be Hindu. She doesn’t buy his story that he’s going to the suburbs to join his mother, but she doesn’t guess that Jaz’s reasons for this quest are exactly the same as hers: not only does he also need an answer for where and why the man he loves disappeared, the man in question is Karun.
The trio become a reimagining of the Devi-Shiva-Vishnu trinity operating in a futuristic Mumbai that is dishearteningly easy to imagine as real. The parallels between Shiva pursuing Mohini while Parvati mopes and the three characters in The City of Devi are intriguing. The figure of a Kali-esque devi as someone who is revered and whose fearsome avatar is a man-made (and man-controlled) creation is less interesting and a more obvious aspect of the novel. The devi is, in fact, the weakest and most unconvincing part of the world Suri presents to the reader. It’s Sarita and Jaz’s obsession with Karun, their need to claim him as their own, that powers The City of Devi.
In The Missing Queen, it’s Sita who has disappeared and the one looking for her is a young journalist who becomes determined to unearth the truth. Arni’s Ayodhya glints with success and is an echo chamber of rhetoric. Rama’s Ayodhya has become a rich, powerful kingdom, thanks to the the riches acquired from a vanquished Lanka. Sita’s birthplace, the nearby kingdom of Mithila is effectively Ayodhya’s colony, but even though economically it’s under Ayodhya’s thumb, Mithila feels freer than Ayodhya where the moral police flexes terrible muscle and everything stinks of deceit and hypocrisy. The idea of setting a Hindu epic in the present isn’t novel, but Arni’s interpretations don’t feel forced or hackneyed. Valmiki as a senior journalist makes sense – after all, he did claim to report a story that was unfolding before his eyes. Lakshmana putting on weight as guilt bears down on him, Surpanakha as a rebel leader, Rama as a consummate politician, a spy network of dhobis – the elements Arni introduces don’t clash with the original storytelling and her own version of the post-war years in Ayodhya is very engaging.
Although there’s much reminiscing about Karun and Sita in the two books, it’s worth noting that the two missing characters remain something of a blur. In Sita’s case, she’s a flash of colour (ochre, to be precise) and only those who are against Rama’s oppressive monarchy seem to remember her. She embodies resistance and survival, whether in captivity in Lanka or as a victim of Rama’s shadowy cruelty.
Karun, on the other hand, is a creature pieced out of rose-tinted memories. To both Sarita and Jaz, he is innocence and all Sarita and Jaz want from his sex, which must be the fantasy of many an Indian male. Unfortunately, the fact that Karun is gay makes it a little difficult for him to have sex with Sarita and the fact that he’s married makes it problematic for him to have sex with Jaz. (The trio ultimately resolve this problem by engineering what might be one of the most convoluted alternatives to Viagra.)
Both novels are set in unspecified time periods – Arni’s in the present, Suri’s in the near future – that seems not just credible but also probable. The cityscapes in the two books show the novelists’ anxieties about contemporary India. These are intolerant places that rob people of their basic liberties. As worrying as the oppression by the powerful is, how so many citizens are happy to be manipulated is an equally worrying feature of the cities. These are violent places, where bloodshed is so commonplace that it evokes no reaction. It’s quite obvious the cities in The Missing Queen and The City of Devi aren’t dystopic fantasies, but metropolises sculpted out of the impressions contemporary India has left upon the authors.
It doesn’t feel as though the missing, Karun and Sita, have escaped these terrible worlds even though they have by disappearing. Ultimately, their stories become less about them and more about the storytellers who survive and continue without them. So they remain in these terrible worlds despite not really being there. The missing come to stand for hope – desperate and unrealistic as it might be – because they live on in the memories of those who continue the good fight.