Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book Review: Neti, Neti, by Anjum Hasan (IndiaInk, 2009)

(This was written for Biblio)

Towards the close of Neti, Neti, its young protagonist Sophie Das wonders aloud when her story will end. A little later she has a moment of realization: it won't even be on the last page. She is right about this, and perhaps unwittingly she reveals in the process the truth of her tale. Not merely that it remains unresolved, but that she does not know how to resolve it. So she cries for help- as she has been, more or less clearly, more or less consciously, all through the book.

Here, in a nutshell, is the best and worst of Neti, Neti. It takes on a problem that it cannot tackle, and on this stark measure it is a failure. But the problem isn't easy, and the attempt is honest, so there is not much shame in the defeat.

What is the problem? It isn't anything very new or startling; it is the problem of a young person getting to grips with adulthood. More than anything, Neti, Neti is a coming of age book. Indeed, one of its chief virtues is that amidst a literary culture so paranoid of 'self-indulgence', it features a protagonist who makes no apologies for worrying about herself. Not unlike the author, Sophie is a young woman from Shillong, who moves to Bangalore in search of freedom, and vistas wider than the home. The city gives her independence alright, and Sophie knows how to value it. In her apartment, “she could cook what she liked, smoke to her heart's content, put every object exactly where she wanted it to be and know it would not move unless she moved it.”

But it gives her other things beside; all the hot and bother of a chaotic Indian metro. Traffic jams, accidents, casual rudenesses, ugly malls, dirty streets, vast economic and social disparity existing cheek by jowl. Like any sensitive young person, Sophie feels the oppression of her environment and fears it will overwhelm her. She thinks with a pang of her beautiful home-town and the life she left behind. Hasan knows what hurts. The thousand little pin-pricks, Sophie's everyday humiliations, are all as they should be.

They are not, however, exactly as they should be. From fairly early on, we see the signs that Sophie is not trying hard enough. There is something unduly exaggerated about her horrors, the city seems to parade its evils especially for her. Hasan's insinuation is that other people look away, but the truth appears to be that Sophie looks too raptly. There is a glitch in her perception that repels our sympathy, and it is most apparent in her attitude to wealth. We have all felt the aesthetic failings of a lavish mall, but we have not all been literally paralyzed by the sight. It is reasonable to flinch at Page 3 culture and the glossy lifestyle magazines; it is not reasonable to devour them, just so one may vent. “She ground her teeth reading about wine appreciation evenings in swanky hotels.” This is funny, until you realize it is serious. “Nausea, mixed with awe”, is Sophie's avowed reaction to “wealth, in all its forms.” She does not pause to consider whether this isn't a bit excessive.

For us, however, it is worth pausing here, because it affords a clue to Sophie's character. What might be the probable cause of her heightened intolerance towards 'things'? Perhaps, the book suggests, it is the contrast they strike with her sheltered childhood in Shillong, and its slow-moving, small-town values? This is certainly part of the explanation, but it does not seem the whole or even the greatest part. After all, we are told that Sophie left Shillong precisely because she felt that there, “there was nothing to see.” Moreover, it is not necessary to be brought up in a small-town to feel, in your youth, the crush of the city. Every childhood has its own shelters, and the transition to adulthood is always a shock. And yet, staring at an array of packaged items on a supermarket shelf, walking by lighted shop-fronts, whether in a mall or not, most people, now and then, will feel a rush of something akin to admiration. An abundance of 'things' need not only be proof of human greed. It is also proof of human achievement. So for a truer explanation of Sophie's trouble we must look to her character, not her circumstances. And there is one glaring fact that can strike a twenty five year old like an arrow through the heart as she looks around at all the glut of productivity- and sees nothing made by her.

If one is self-critical enough to grasp this, the way ahead becomes easier to see. It lies in cultivating one's own abilities. Unfortunately for Sophie and for her story she is rarely self-critical, and she is frequently selfish. As a result, her friends and acquaintances, in whose sympathies she might have taken recourse, remain two-dimensional figures. She seems to want them around chiefly in order to feel superior to them- with their prosaic dreams of money and comfort. Her interest in their interior life is half-hearted at best. So even when her friend Ringo kills his girlfriend Rukshana, her thoughts are neither with him, nor with her, but with herself. “All Sophie could think of was the part she had played.” There were a few quarrels between the three, but to the reader it seems no part at all.

But perhaps the most apparent instance of Sophie's self-centred-ness, is her relationship with her boyfriend, Swami- “the first boy who understood the essentially shitty nature of her job and held her hand when they crossed roads.” Given that this isn't much to build on, it is unsurprising when later she grows dissatisfied with his easy-going personality. But the idea that, in letting the relationship drift, she might now be simply using Swami does not cross her mind. Instead, Sophie blames her boyfriend for failing to weaken in his “rock hard love”, because of which, she complains to herself, “nothing need ever change.” All in all, she is rather passive. She expects things to please her; she does not think of being pleasing herself.

That she remains an engaging protagonist, is the reason that Neti, Neti remains a good book. Hasan is not alive to her character's faults, but her achievement is that she makes the reader want to be. We are interested in criticizing Sophie because we are interested in her. And that is because she is honest. She is unhappy, but she does not pretend otherwise- as many people do. Moreover, she wants to feel better and she is willing to look for help. To deserve sympathy and attention, no more than this is required. So when Sophie decides to return to Shillong, we still follow her with interest. There is the possibility that the mountain town is her true home, 'that certain places on earth must bring forth happiness, as a plant peculiar to the soil, that cannot thrive elsewhere.' There is also the possibility of love; a man whose image she carries in her heart.

Now, Sophie's capacity to imagine these possibilities, and to act upon them, is proof of a creative impulse- the kind of capacity that could really turn her life around. But an impulse is only a spark; if it is to burn steadily it must be nourished. And it cannot be nourished unless at first it is shielded. This she does not do. She is greedy to be rewarded, and so her enthusiasm remains feeble and easily dashed. No sooner is she at her parents' home than we find her staring out of the window at a changing town, “at cold, boxy, pink and concrete houses built by people who didn't care about Beauty.' This is vintage Sophie. In the days that follow she is witness to domestic strife and local politics, and the end of an affair. There is no cold rejection; the man cares deeply. There is no familial tragedy either; her parents, despite hiccups, are sticking together. But it wasn't as she had imagined it, and so Sophie decides that “she was alone from now on. She was her own context.” Armed with this insight, she returns to Bangalore, to another job that she does not like.

Her new attitude, though, is “to grow mesmerised by the boredom.” “Nothing frightened her anymore- not walking into a shop in a plush mall, trying on clothes and then buying nothing. Not waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to go back to sleep. Not seeing a man crushed to death on the street.” The old ambition of happiness is gone, and like an invalid, Sophie has taken to being grateful for small mercies- the odd free ride, the occasional kind word. 'I don't want to feel the knife edge of anything ever pressing into me again', she thinks, as the book ends. They are hardly fighting words.

Of course, we are expected to sympathize with Sophie's disaffection, and even perhaps to applaud it. 'Neti, Neti', the title of the book means 'Not this, Not this.' Bangalore is ugly, Shillong is petty, so what is one to do? But the whole premise of this philosophy is flawed. It only wants to receive; it does not think to give. As readers, we never feel that Hasan sees this, and that is why, ultimately, Neti, Neti is a failed story. But we also never feel she is happy with the failure, and that is why it is a good story.