Book Reviews

Review Published in THE LITTLE MAGAZINE
(Leading writers cover the world of new books, ideas and performing arts)

Scrub forest to Sunset Boulevard
Navtej Sarna

SNIFFING PAPA. By Inderjit Budhwar. Tara Press; 2002; Pp.483; 81-87943-33-5; Price not mentioned.

Let me try and write this review like Inderjit Budhwar has written much of Sniffing Papa:
After many days, a huge book, sprawling like the wheat fields of mid-western America, with distant ever receding horizons like the ones that you see driving in the evening on the arrow that is Interstate 41, with colors and edges and shadows like the ones that play hide and seek in the Grand Canyon as the sun sets. And echoing not with the paranoid, edgy, shrill sounds that emanate from a post nine eleven America but with the strumming of guitars and the poetry and the spiritual seeking and the frenetic love making of the flower children and their soul mates on the Ivy League campuses, in the Manhattan lofts above the grime and steel staircases of red bricked back alleys. Of a time when LSD, long car drives, Kerouac and Cassady, Ginsberg and the Maharishi, Cohen and Joplin, Vietnam and Baez mixed in a heady rush in the starlight and when just to be up there as an Indian was to be different and exotic, yogic, cosmic, already half way to heaven, a seducer par excellence, both physical and spiritual.

And the India that the protagonist recalls is the India of the forest and the bungalow, of the still young hill stations and the untrammeled view, of the feudal fiefdom and the family picnic. An India of uncrowded Mall roads when you could step into restaurants with wicker chairs for long tea sessions listening to instrumental live bands- Jimmy and his Boys- and watch Brown Sahibs foxtrot and see the occasional left over Memsahib with the flowery dress and string of white pearls and watery blue in her eyes. Budhwar recall the scents and sounds of an India when hamlets had not turned into towns with STD/ISD phone booths, when real estate developers, holiday home makers, high-rise and concrete had not spread far enough to take away all the trees.

And between the journeys that know no end in the west and the journeys back at home that have to be undertaken step by step pushing aside the thorn and the bramble, gun in hand, geese on the wing, smell of the forest and buckshot in the nostrils, the cold blue steel of the barrel under the fingers, there are the journeys of the heart. The elegiac longing of the grown up son for his dying father, recalling every moment of togetherness, every thing that the old man taught, in the metaphor of shikar, all encapsulated dramatically in a last minute suicide, in full hunting gear, to avoid the indignity of an ordinary death that is always ironically attributed to natural causes. The love of fifteen years, with a free soul from south India, scared to enter a feudal family in north India, who would rather stay back in the West tempted by the freedom it supposedly guarantees. The inevitable tearing as the son’s son, full grown and steeped in the culture of India, the vanishing culture of shikar and shikaris, must in turn return to wide open West to test his own wings, fulfill his own destiny…….

Budhwar has read and internalized a lot of American writing. The influences are obvious- Faulkner, Dos Passos, Kerouac- is it a a mere coincidence that Budhwar’s protagonist is Tan and a friend is called Hal while Kerouac’s On The Road was about a man called Sal? And he lets his self-indulgence take over…the dialogues run into paragraphs. real people don’t usually talk that way… a huge section about the protagonist’s sister and her husband and her lover that could have easily been left out and that would have only improved the novel…..pages and pages on hunting in the forests….twelve pages on fishing that would serve as a lesson……the author has been let loose, the editor is nowhere in sight. On balance perhaps that is in the fitness of things. Some things are best done this way, the way you like it, and let those who do not like it find another book to read.