Book Reviews

Review Published in BIBLIO

Compelling Vignettes

Navtej Sarna

THE BUS STOPPED by Tabish Khair; Picador India; 2004; Pps.199

I read something rather clever the other day that I am going to borrow: John Gardner, noted American writer and writing teacher, once said that there are really only two stories: either you go on a journey or a stranger comes to town. That needs thinking through- that’s why its clever- but if, for the moment, one takes Gardner at face value, then Tabish Khair’s book contains both stories. Not one but several people go on a journey in a private bus from Gaya to Phansa through several villages, pushing and shoving, stopping at chai shops, past fields and ponds and all the rest of the familiar landscape. And at least one stranger comes to town in the rather convincing form of a young man of Indo-Danish parentage, who except for a passing knowledge of Hindi, looks, acts and thinks firanghi.

Khair has other rich material at hand- stories handpicked from our own complex social fabric- that his quick eye and retentive observation have, in the way of his bus-driver-wanting- to- be- novelist, italicized for him in his memory. There is the entire sub-culture of eunuchs, their vanishing traditional role and their emotional vacuum. The story of aged ladies taking care of little servants- the Chottus of our neighbourhoods- and ultimately being murdered by them or with their connivance. Of drivers and conductors, conniving to make something on the side. Of the vanished world of khansamahs, cooking elaborate biryanis for large respectful families with Lakhnawi elegance.

In addition, to this material , the author is also blessed with a poetic vision, the light touch that can convert an entire page of detailed observation into something that tugs at the soul strings. The very first sentence of the book, describing the narrator’s childhood houses, with “their scratched geography, their shadowed histories, their many voices of noon and curtaintude, evening and smokliness” makes this skill evident. (I also call it poetic also because Microsoft Word does not recognize some of the words used in that sentence.) Every once in a while, this touch lifts the narrative: The bus driver’s early morning whistle is a “sound that cuts across the dawn, the field and the houses like a bird in flight.” The coloured and striped clothes spread by dhobis on the ghat of Phalgu river turn it into a “flattened and mounted butterfly of some extinct species.” And so on.

Along with rich material, poetic vision and a light touch, Khair has also had a good idea. Put these various characters on a bus, add the characters of the driver and conductor and tell their stories. The result should be a gripping novel, set against a kaleidoscopic vision of small town India, with its colour, grime, heat and tussle. The journey itself should provide a readymade framework for the progression of tales, the intermingling of characters. And yet when one puts down this two hundred pager (that too in largish font with lots of white spaces), there is a lingering dissatisfaction, a feeling of disjointedness. One searches for the whole, that central story or vision or emotion that a good literary novel- and by all accounts, this purports to be one- should leave behind with the reader, to be savoured over many days, discussed, shared and remembered. Instead the predominant feeling is one of confusion. Seeking to dispel this, as well as any vestiges of prejudice on my part, I read the book twice- a brave act that only a conscientious reviewer and not a pleasure-seeking reader would undertake. But the confusion does not resolve itself. There are too many viewpoints and one does not easily recognize the voices as they speak. I repeatedly found myself asking the question- who is this “I”?, ultimately resorting to that great invention of our times, the yellow post-it, to help clear my mind. Intellectual challenge is all very well, and call me old-fashioned if you will, but when I pick up a novel, the one thing I expect is a clear story. Not a plot necessarily, but a central theme around which the rest hangs. Otherwise, there are always crossword puzzles in newspapers to attempt.

The Bus Stopped falters because the excellent beginnings of the stories of the various characters do not fructify into anything significant when they interact on the bus. The crowning event on the bus, the dramatic denouement to which all these tributaries flow, is the discovery that the tribal woman on the bus is actually carrying a dead child. The child is buried and the bus moves on. There is an important element of detachment there, but to that event it does not matter who all the other characters are. Khair ultimately succeeds in creating compelling vignettes that, unfortunately, remain only that. The beginnings of the journeys sow expectations but the destinations just peter out. The servant boy walks off to his village and is ultimately caught, the eunuch gets married as a woman, the person of half Indian origin goes back to comfortable Denmark. Their characters are unaffected by the fact that they have been on the bus. They have neither lost nor gained by being inflicted on each other. And some of the characters do not pass muster. If Mangal Singh, the driver, is an observant writer-in-waiting, defining each journey in a single image, noting the difference between faces that are awake and those that are asleep, then he cannot be the foul mouthed, swindling, roughneck also. And, I do not mean to sound cruel, but when was the last time that anybody saw a eunuch who looked like such a convincing attractive woman not only to the entire bus but also to her ultimate husband in the act of love?

Readers will no doubt get more from Tabish Khair. Given his obvious poetic talents, testified by passages in this book and awards he has received, there is promise in that. But for the moment, The Bus Stopped is a collection of nicely written pieces, but an unconvincing novel.