Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Book Review: 'The Red Devil: To Hell With Cancer- And Back', by Katherine Russell Rich (Tranquebar Press, 2010)
(A shorter version of this was published in February's Hindu Literary Review)
The Red Devil is a woman's story of her struggles with cancer. This makes it hard to review. To criticize the memoirs of a cancer patient might very well sound both insensitive and ignorant. But assuming (as one must) that one is entitled to assess it, it must be said, that although the book is captivating from start to finish, it is also somewhat shallow.
Katherine Rich was 32, a high-flying magazine editor in downtown Manhattan, living a fast-paced life full of work and travel, and married to a romantic, tempestuous Argentinian. Then in the space of weeks her marriage broke up and she discovered she had breast cancer. But athough it might seem a wretched incongruity that such a full life should suffer such a swift fall, Rich's own view is that it only made sense. 'I smoked two packs of Newport Lights a day', 'I drank, a lot', 'I ate like shit', 'I worked out... hardly ever', and thanks to a 'high-drive, adrenylated job', 'mostly, I inhaled stress'. As for her marriage, keeping the love alive had become an obsession, which, writes Rich, 'is the same thought repeated over and over till it blocks off reason, till it leaches sanity. And cancer is a single cell that reproduces uncontrollably till... it starves the tissue around it and ultimately destroys its host.'
It is intelligent, articulate ideas like these that make for the attractiveness of Rich's writing. They sparkle throughout her narrative- the way that cancer engenders loneliness ('if your body is divided within, how can you not feel divided from the world?'); the peculiar horror of losing your hair ('we've all had sore throats, we've all been tired, we've all thrown up before... but in the natural universe hair doesn't... fall out with a sudden, horrifying thud of force); how difficult it is to accept a chronic illness as part of your life ('after illness, as after sin, the temptation is strong: to flee the bed.').
She also presents a grim picture of the American medical establishment. The history of her treatment abounds with dodgy diagnoses, overlooked symptoms, adversarial tussles with dispassionate doctors, who are too afraid of being sued to properly care. It is easily inferred from this book that market forces and health-care are a dangerous mix. Also, that while New York may be a wonderful place to be young and healthy, it is not so pleasant to be sick there, and dependent for support on a paid therapist. For Indian readers, this book should also lead us to appreciate better the personal touch of our own culture, the familial networks that we sometimes take for granted.
But these inferences are not made by Rich. Her roving eye flits from subject to subject. In the space of pages we find interesting things being said about recovery, relationships, doctors and friends. However- and this is where the book suffers- none of these leads is properly followed through. Instead of staying with her insights long enough for them to bear fruit, she more frequently lets them descend into glibness.
For example: the first time Rich suggests that her depression over her broken marriage was a factor in her cancer, it is an interesting thought. But later, when we find her merely insisting she got 'breakup cancer', she sounds more than a little superficial. Similarly, when she analyses her dreams- a wild cat represents the illness, because it is wild and her name starts with 'Kat'. Similarly, when we find her trying a whole litany of pseudoscientific cures- from psychic healers to Egyptian ankhs to 'purple drops sold by a mysterious cowboy in Casper, Wyoming.'
This is not to mock Rich- anyone with cancer might be so desperate- and indeed she chastises herself for the fact. Just as she chastises the 'talk-show honesty' of her generation ('self-revelations about sex or degradation...but never venality or arrogance or the other, more banal sins that actually made us look bad'). But it is one thing to be perfectly aware of a shortcoming, and another to overcome it. The truth is that 'The Red Devil' does feature a kind of talk-show honesty, where splendid insights are dragged down from their rightful pedestal and mixed up in the shallows, and where the aim is not so much to share one's courage, as to have it confirmed. In the nicest and discreetest way, it is a showy book, one outstanding proof of which is that it reads like a novel. The dialogue is all within quotation marks, conversations are described in implausibly cinematic terms, and the love stories are weaved in like sub-plots. This 'fictional' treatment helps the book read easily, but it also hides the absence of real, helpful content, that a more mundane and less stagy style would not have been able to. To sum up, I think 'The Red Devil' will have you genuinely liking and rooting for the author, but I doubt it will have you thanking her.
Monday, February 21, 2011
Book Review: Jimmy The Terrorist, by Omair Ahmad (Penguin Books India, 2010)
The Wrong Story
(This was published in February's Biblio under a different title).
At a hundred and seventy seven pages, Jimmy the Terrorist is a slim novel, and yet a massively uneven one. It features subtly fashioned characters alongside rank caricatures, great skill and also great carelessness, wonderful prose and plain meretriciousness. Examined closely, these contradictions suggest a core flaw- a kind of original sin- that plagues Ahmad's book- which is a mismatch between the material the author actually cares about, and possesses a genuine feeling for, and the politically 'significant' material that he has determined to take on.
An excellent prologue sets the scene for the story. Jamaal Ansari, also known as Jimmy, a young Muslim in the non-descript town of Moazzamabad, in U.P., has stabbed a police inspector and been killed in retaliation. Journalists from Delhi and Bombay descend on the town, “like kites upon a fresh kill.” The implication is that they will learn nothing save the superficial and dramatic facts. But our narrator, a weary, half-cynical, anyonymous native of Moazzamabad is about to tell us the real story- the truth that underpins 'Jimmy the terrorist.'
This story is then divided into two halves, which can quite accurately be labelled the father's half and the son's half. And it is necessary, we are told, to begin with Jimmy's father, because “whatever Jimmy was, whatever Jamaal became, in the end he was their son, Rafiq's and Shaista's, and their story. And because their story played out in Rasoolpur, he was also the story of this mohalla. And of Shabbir Manzil... the hub around which the mohalla revolved.'
Similarly, in his note at the end of the book, Ahmad explains:
“There is a line in Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic Dune that has stayed with me- 'Still, but one must ask: What is the son but an extension of the father?' So for me the book also became at least as much, if not more, about Jimmy's father.”
Now, at first glance, there does not seem anything improper about asserting such connections. But they come with an implied promise on the part of the author. We are entitled to expect that, over the course of the story, the connections will be more than just asserted. They will actually be established, and in some psychologically convincing way. As we shall see, in Jimmy the Terrorist, they are very far from established. This is especially a pity, because before that point where the tracks fail to connect, and the book comes off the rails, is some very fine story-telling.
In confident, controlled prose, Ahmad brings to life Moazzamabad, a largely Hindu town in which the Muslim community resides in apparently easy harmony, though “lightly, with more culture and pride than hard faith.” Shabbir Manzil is the house where they come into their own, where “the notables of Rasoolpur mohalla... speak of poetry and cricket, perhaps make a learned comment, but casually, on some bit of politics...”
Our protagonist in this milieu is Rafiq Ansari, an English-educated, passably well-to-do young man whose sole ambition is to climb the social ladder to the gatherings at Shabbir Manzil. This is far more important to him than getting a job. And to begin with, his sense of priorities seems vindicated too, because when he does get in with the 'smart set', he receives in benefaction not just a job at a University, but also a wife to set up home with- the home that will give birth to Jamaal.
Rafiq, his wife Shaista, the doyens of Shabbir Manzil- these are ordinary, unsensational people, but in Ahmad's hands they are never dull. In fact, they are riveting- and all the more so because they are completely free of stereotype. One might not have thought that a small-town, middle class, mildly religious (at best) Muslim community, could make for such rich novelistic material. But it does, because Ahmad has a grasp on its own particular enchantments and oppressions. We can admire the wit and poetry at Shabbir Manzil, and the warm familial bonds of the community, but we can also see how the social hierarchy that beckons Rafiq upwards, reinforces his sense of inadequacy; and how the well-meaning domination of a protective brother sows the seeds of rebellion in Shaista. So later, when Rafiq is floundering to assert himself, and Shaista is a domestic tyrant, who rarely lets him so much as talk to their child, and neither can communicate with the other, we feel we have learned something. In a mohalla where “nobody ever spoke openly about anything; all the accusations were by insinuation; every blow was a stab in the back”, these are just the things that would happen.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, this is as good as it gets. Because from here on, Ahmad's attempt to force his perfectly interesting, but mellow, characters in the direction of violence and terror, is crude, uninsightful and altogether misconceived. That Rafiq, propelled by a series of coincidences, should turn to religion and adopt the manner of a mullah, is acceptable in itself. But it still feels a contrivance, made necessary by the need to join the dots to reach the novel's pre-determined conclusion- the transformation of Rafiq's son into Jimmy the Terrorist. In any event, it does not suffice. The dots never join. Ahmad never comes close to finding in his characters the pitch of psychological intensity, the deep-rooted sense of hurt, from which acts of terror must stem. In fact, he seems to realize this himself, and so he tries to bluff away the shortfall- as, for example, in the passage near the beginning of the second half of the book, when an unemployed and ostracized Rafiq is being given some advice.
“... 'There's a simple trick that will help you get a job at an Islamic school.'
Rafiq didn't like the word 'trick' but he listened.
'Just be angry', Harris said, 'Rant and rave. Talk about the grand tragedies, about oppression, zulm, riots and murder. Grow your beard a little longer and miss no opportunity to raise your voice against the suffering of Muslims. It's what the mullahs do all the time.
Rafiq nodded reluctantly.”
This is humorous, but the humour is all out of place. Such deliberate, self-aware role-playing is simply not the stuff that fanatics are made of. What Ahmad does, in passages like this, is betray his own distance from Ground Zero (so to speak). He was right at home when delineating the subtleties of social and family life in Rasoolpur, but to shift gears to the terrorist drama- the drama that the prologue had promised us- seems beyond him.
The entire second half of the novel is therefore reduced to a succession of blind alleys and compromises that undermine the story as a whole. We are told in great detail of the teasing that young Jimmy suffered in the missionary school he went to, on account of his relative poverty and his father's religiosity; also, that he fell into delinquent company. But these trials are far from extraordinary. The idea that mean-spirited, but perfectly common games of childhood one-upmanship- the kind that Ahmad himself, with his undeniable privileges, might well have undergone- are a breeding ground for terrorism, does not hold water. It suggests instead a kind of self-serving romanticism that exaggerates everyday ordeals, and underestimates actual hardship.
The upshot of all this- and this is no exaggeration- is that nothing that happens in the first three quarters of Jimmy the Terrorist has any particular bearing on its conclusion. His father's embracing of Islam, his mother's dotage, his school-mates' distrust- none of these were needed for Jimmy to take up a knife. Because when Ahmad introduces communal tensions to Moazzamabad, he ratchets up the scale of hostilities to such a degree that anyone might retaliate- and in fact many do, not merely Jimmy. The Hindu right-wing, fomented by politicians both local and national, is a “maddened hundred-armed creature carrying axes, iron rods, tridents and kerosene cans”; they torture a Muslim boy, burn to death the Maulana Qayoom; mount a fearsome campaign of intimidation against the Muslim community; and are about to commit a rape when Jimmy lashes out with his knife, crying out that he is 'Jimmy the terrorist.'
Which rings untrue, because he is plainly nothing of the sort. All he is, is momentarily violent in the face of immense provocation. Now, the point is not that this provocation, so garishly described, is untrue or implausible. The point is that it gives us no insight into any of the characters involved. As a colourful newspaper report of a series of nasty incidents, it is perfect. As a piece of fiction, it is strictly second-rate. We are provided only the superficial and dramatic- and no more enlightened than the 'kites' that came in from the cities.
Ultimately, then, Ahmad has not told us the story of a terrorist. Nor has he even told us the story of Jimmy- just many disparate details about the boy's family and school-days. The real story that he might have told- the story that he seemed most interested in telling, and which, at the end of the book, the reader is likely to be most interested in knowing about- is a gentler, less politically 'relevant', but much more enlightening tale of the subtle play of power in a middle-class Muslim mohalla. But to do that story justice, we would need a different book.