Article Published in THE STATESMAN

Second Thoughts

Navtej Sarna

The last issue of the Times Literary Supplement that was left at my doorstep, complete in its elegant polythene wrapping, has on its cover the intriguing headline- The Critic as a Hero. I say intriguing since the critic is generally seen as something of an anti-hero, an intellectual equivalent of an irritating terrier who snaps away at the trouser legs of the real giants- the writers, the artists and the poets.

Pick up any Sunday paper or literary magazine and you will see what I mean. Hacks like me get hold of a few inches of valuable column space, roll up our sleeves, spit on our hands, call up the bile and have a go at somebody who has done what we could not. Somebody’s life’s inspiration and years of lonely toil are applauded or more commonly, decimated. One wonders if this is fair even in the dog-eats-dog world of the literati.

A recent piece in the New York Review of Books exposes what the other half feels. A novelist, Francine Prose, has had a go at book reviewers. Not at the entire tribe but at those who make their reviews little more that summaries of the plot of a novel. According to her, the predictable recipe of a typical book review is “5-10 percent introduction, 80-90 percent plot summary, 5-10 percent conclusion.”

One cannot help feeling that she has got it more or less right. The ninety percent summary-of-plot formula has its distinct advantages. First, it must be conceded that making a summary of the plot of a book is a higher art than making a summary of the summary already there on the back jacket. Secondly, it presumes that you must at least have read the book that you have to review. That itself puts you in a different category than most of the world, especially if you have got to the book fairly early on in its life. It also gives you enough subject matter to make incisive remarks about the book with a distant archness at dimly lit parties as you stare pensively into your glass of red wine. Note with a wry smile how the lesser critics melt away from your charmed circle when you make a pointed reference to a twist in the plot in the twenty-third chapter. The summary of plot method of reviewing, besides being the easiest method of lengthening the inches, is also a kind way of debunking a bad book - imagine several paragraphs of sarcastic comments instead of the self explanatory delineation of a mess.

But the question that remains: Is it fair to the writer, and even more so to the reader, that in completing your column inches, and earning your red wine, you have also given away the entire story of the book, its twists and turns, its surprise element, its denouement. Someone may counter it by saying that in most novels that see the light of the day nowadays there is nothing to the plot, the writing is the thing. All the more reason that the reviewer should look beyond the plot itself and not presume its complete unimportance to the reader. It is in the nature of things that writers and critics will continue to differ on what a book review should be. Somewhere I read that it should be an educated assessment of a book, a knowledgeable piece that either attracts the reader to a book or advises him discreetly that he could find better ways of spending his time. Easier said than done.

With the above guidelines in mind, I have just struggled through a new book, or should I say, yet another new book by a young Indian author. In Beautiful Disguises is Rajeev Balasubramanyam’s first novel and going by the track records set by the pack around him, he carries a heavy burden of not only producing a novel but making it an instant winner. He falters. The book, with a cover from Amarchitrakatha, and several references to Mahabharata, never takes off. It turns out to be the unlikely tale of a teenaged south Indian girl who wants to be a film star but is instead faced with a middle class arranged marriage. She takes off to a big city, aided inexplicably by the grandfather of her brother-in-law and acts as a maid in the household of a certain Mr. Aziz and his French wife. All this in the hope of experiencing life so that she can become a film star. One unlikely situation follows another - she hopes to seduce Mr. Aziz’z son while working in the kitchen; she swigs champagne in the garden and cleans toilets by daytime; she hobnobs with his francophone friends and sleeps in the servants quarters. Of course, she never becomes a film actress but returns home with the rather quaint discovery that all of us play a role which we may be born into though we actually may be somebody else. Its all rather confusing even if you try to explain it in terms of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Arjun’s predicament in the Mahabharata. Balubramanyam was born in England and I am not sure if his book technically qualifies to be part of the great Indian harvest of writing in English. If it does, then it only proves that along with the wheat we must get some chaff.