Archive for the ‘indian fiction’ Category

…is it a polemic against the changing world?

November 24, 2014

There is absolutely nothing wrong with books that cross genres. The best historical novels are as much history as fiction. However, it is a golden rule that a book must know who and what it is. One of the problems with The Royal Enigma is that it suffers from a serious identity crisis.

Is it meant to be a history? If so, of what? Nepal? India? The relationship between the two? The impact of colonialism on the wider region?

Or is it meant to be a novel… the personal story of Nawin, who crops up for whole chapters at a time. Sometimes, living out his life, at others merely as a cipher to be used to have a conversation with someone of an opposing viewing point.

Or is it a polemic against the changing world?

From the title I expected some kind of analysis of the role of royalty in Nepal, or maybe a biography of one or more of the Royal family. In the event, I’m afraid it doesn’t really work on any front.

I really struggled with this book from start to finish. In general I applaud the advent of e-publishing to the extent that it allows good works by unknown authors to reach a public willing to give them a chance. However, there are also times when I do feel that the ability to put out a book quickly and relatively easily is just too tempting. Books reach the world ill-prepared. Try as I might to be positive, this is a case in point.

The Royal Enigma needs three things: a proper sense of direction, a serious edit and a translator with a better grasp of English.

As it stands, it is a number of barely related strands that aren’t tied together in any cohesive fashion. There is detail in here and it could be put to good use, but as a whole, it simply fails.

Trying to extricate the various strands, let’s start where the book starts with Nawin’s story. We meet him as a child, at election time, when the children are more excited by the flags and balloons than their parents are by the politicians’ speeches. We meet his family and gain some insight into the local life… and then there is a tragedy. And life moves on. Death and new birth and more problems. None of this is explored in sufficient depth for the characters to be ‘real’. Events happen. Then more events happen. And sometimes we are told how some people feel about it… but mostly we’re not, and we never get to spend enough time sharing those reactions to ‘feel’ anything ourselves in response.

Then suddenly we’re into a we’re into Operation Blue Star (whatever that was) and a hopscotch backwards and forwards through Indian history: Indira Ghandi’s return to power, the previous State of Emergency, asides into the political state of play in Pakistan, in Punjab and elsewhere and so ultimately to Indira’s death which (albeit briefly) brings us back to Nawin and his student friends.

Without anything of interest to disturb us having happened in the meantime Nawin has graduated and found himself unable to find work in India and so (being a Nepali citizen – possibly the first we’ve learnt of that) he heads over the border, where he decides to take part in the national games. Cue an essay on the behaviour of royalty and officialdom during the games: Nawin’s own experience is nailed in five sentences.

And so it goes on. Somewhere along the line our hero gets married… or at least turns out to have got married – there’s no meeting or love affair or wedding. I’m not even sure the poor woman gets a name.

The shame of it all is: there is a plot here. It needs a lot more work, but there is a story lurking in the background. All of the historical research that has simply been dumped on the page needs to be ditched well away from it. Aspects of it should be allowed to seep in, subtly, rarely, purely as background colour. The plot needs to be taken apart and set out as a simple time-line – with the gaps then filled in. If Nawin is good enough to play at the national games, let us see him learning the sport, give us a game or two, allow us to watch him develop. Develop all of the key characters. Give them names and backstories and characteristics…. But again only allow in as much of that as drives Nawin’s story.

That will provide the ingredients, which then those ingredients need to be built into the drama by allowing us to see how and why our protagonist does what he does, in a single flow. We need to engage with the characters to be able to feel for them, they need to be ‘real’.

Then finally, if the book is to succeed in English, it does need work on the use of the language. Quirky phraseology in translations can work. Particularly with some of the Asiatic languages, it can be used to capture the particular rhythm and way of speaking that exists in those languages which is so different to the western inflexions. To begin with, that was what I felt I was in for, and I was reasonably happy with it, but as the book progresses the constructions worsen.

Sometimes it is the choice of words that is simply wrong in the rural often being used for in the countryside. The king was coroneted rather than crowned. This doesn’t hinder meaning, but jars and interrupts flow. At other times (presumably technical) expressions are used with an assumption that the reader will understand them Every winter people in the country faced load shedding half the time, as the rivers dried up after the monsoons and the power generation plummeted. I am guessing that we’re talking about power cuts (or power outages for the US audience) but I’m not sure.

These sound like small criticisms but they occur so frequently that they become a major distraction. To talk of a newspaper’s English translation as being so crude that it reported the sound of firing by Dipendra as Rat-Rat-Rat… but then in the very next paragraph speak of someone chocking with laughter does kind of undermine one’s own argument.

In other places I got so lost that I had literally no idea what was being grasped at.

I would love to be kind about this book, but my first duty as a reviewer is to be honest – and I am afraid that this is not so much a book as a ‘first draft’. It needs a lot more work.
Summary: Some interesting ideas and the making of a good story lie behind this book, but I can’t genuinely recommend it as it stands. More work on the ideas could produce something really worth reading.
Lesley Mason


Terminated Abortion

October 4, 2014


When his wife gave birth to a second daughter within two years of his first, Sohan and his wife became worried. They knew that Sohan’s parents wanted to see the face of a grandson, before – as they said it – they died, to open the gates of heaven for them and to continue the name of their family. The latter a girl could not do, as she had to take up the name of the family she is married-off into. No one could confirm however, about opening of the gates of heaven, on account of the birth of a boy in a family, for his departed grand-parents.

These days, however, some of the women retain the family name of their parents as well, along with that of their husband’s, after their marriage. They typically have two second names after their first, like Sumita ‘Pradhan’ ‘Manandhar’, or Rasika ‘Joshi’ ‘Adhikari’, or Mira ‘Pandey’ ‘Tripathi’. It happens more often if the marriage is not arranged, and instead is a ‘love-marriage’ – where the boy and the girl themselves select their life partner, with or without the approval of their parents.

Such marriages are noticeable and become a matter of discussion among the people, as they may cross the limits of caste or even community, at times, and are considered an act of rebellion against the practices in the society. Obviously, they may not entail a ritual donation of a ‘kanya’ (a virgin girl) as in an arranged marriage, to a groom, selected after gathering enough information about him second-hand; along with a dowry. The parents painstakingly collect dowry to marry-off their daughter to a good boy–who is educated, employed, and pliant enough to submit to the wishes of his elders in the family, to accept an arranged marriage; begrudgingly: because they have to make sacrifice of many of their comforts and hobbies, to do so, all their lives. Someone with a son instead of a daughter has a life free of the worry about collecting a dowry. Finding a suitable boy or girl for a marriage is an industry that employs many people, and sustains a few newspapers, those that publish thousands of such advertisements seeking suitable marriages, in a special supplement every week-end. Those newspapers and jobs could disappear, if most of the people here went for a ‘love-marriage’.

As if the element of ‘love’ remains absent in an arranged marriage and choosing one’s mate, as in a ‘love- marriage’ amounts to taking the final leap into freedom and finding an ever-lasting love in a marriage. Some ‘love-marrying’ couples elope at times, saving everybody in the society the rituals of kanya-donation, to later return to the family of the boy, where they are generally accepted back with a little remorse. But in some societies, both the elopers are killed for dishonoring the name of their families. The newspapers, including the ones that survive on arranging marriages, term such murders as “honor-killing”, in which often no one is convicted, for the lack of a witness or evidence.

The women having two family names after their first name are considered modern and emancipated. Yet, there are people, not fully convinced of this type of women’s-lib, expressed in their double second-names, like Sohan’s parents, who prefer to have at least one grandson, to continue their family’s name, after them.

Within a few years after the birth of their second daughter, Sohan’s wife, Pragya, was pregnant again. Though she looked emaciated due to the frequent pregnancies and the stress of child-rearing, she was unable to resist the pressure of her in-laws, and the other elderly relations – mostly the women – to bear a son. Everybody in the family dropped hints to her in this regard, to which Sohan tried to protest, at times. Pragya always restrained her husband, whenever he did so, saying this is how the society is. She was amazed to find that the women in the society were the most concerned or critical of her, for not mothering a son; as they were of another woman also, who did not become pregnant, soon after her marriage. Proving a barren was even more feared, than bearing multiple daughters, by the married women.

Now, since she was pregnant again, the pressure on Pragya was immense to bear a male child. To release it she used to scold her two daughters, who have started to go to the school by now, for being unlucky, and asserted to them that this time it finally would be a son – who would bring her luck. Such episodes of arguments her elder daughter ignored, as she had begun to understand the matters a little; while the younger daughter appeared more concerned for her mother’s well-being.

Pragya was properly, ritually-donated by her parents to her husband with an adequate dowry, through an arranged marriage. She thought she would live happily ever-after, as Sohan worked as a clerk in a department of the government – a job for life, with a pension at the end of it. His wife was expected to fit into the role of a traditional housewife for life, never mind the university degree she had earned. In most cases such degrees for women were an additional qualification to get married-off into a putative and well-to-do family, like a good dowry. Joining the workforce to earn a living was still considered not very reputable for the daughter-in-law of such a family. After giving birth to two daughters, things turned out very differently than Pragya had expected.

In her heart however, she was very worried if it was once again a daughter, developing in her womb. Sohan found out that, in the neighbouring town, on the other side of the border – which was next to the Pragya’s parents’ village – a private hospital was there, where, by the ‘video X-ray’, the doctors  could tell early in the pregnancy, if it was a boy or a girl. Abortion services were also available in that hospital, which was still illegal on this side of the border. Also, no questions were asked there, about the legitimacy or otherwise of the fetus, which was being aborted. So, most of the unwanted pregnancies were terminated there. If a couple from this side of the border were seen at that hospital, everyone knew what was going on. Through rumours, people guessed which woman of their neighbourhood had recently received an abortion.

In fact, Sohan has read in the papers that most of the women in jails of the country were convicted for receiving an abortion and were mostly from poor families. Not a single man was ever reported to have been booked for causing a pregnancy that needed such termination – or a doctor who performed it – as if becoming pregnant was the sole mistake of a woman from a poor family in this country; and the affluent people never had unwanted pregnancies in their marriages. Some people in Sohan’s village offered abortion services clandestinely. They were not well-trained however, and often landed their patients into problems.

Sohan remembered it well that, one of his neighbour’s young wife died a few years ago, a few days after receiving an abortion in the village, during her third pregnancy, by one such practitioner called Sudeni – leaving her two young daughters motherless. That incident attracted the attention of the authorities as well. Somehow, Sohan’s neighbour managed to avoid any serious inquest. People said it did cost him dearly, to bribe the police and the health department officials, and rendered him a destitute, later. Also, the loss of his wife was too much for him to bear, and he could never get on with his life, afterwards. He even declined a few proposals he received for his second marriage. These days, one hears that his daughters have turned to prostitution, while he went insane and found a refuge in a mental asylum in the capital.

Sohan finally decided that they should find out the sex of their expected baby beforehand, even if they would decide about the abortion later. He took his wife to the hospital in the town. The doctor, after the ‘video X-ray’, confirmed that it was once again a girl, and, if at all, they would have to undertake an abortion immediately. Sohan and Pragya felt very dejected at this news. They decided that they should abort the birth of yet another girl. Sohan asked the doctor to admit his wife in the hospital for terminating her pregnancy the next day, before he went alone to the hotel they were staying in.

During the night, the thoughts of his neighbour’s wife, who had died after receiving the abortion, came to Sohan repeatedly. He loved his wife very much, and now he became worried for her, in case the abortion went wrong. After all, she was physically weak due to the frequent pregnancies and the emotional burden of bearing two girls. He could not sleep the whole night. By the morning he had made his decision. He went early to the hospital and told the doctor that his wife will not undergo the abortion. The doctor and the other staff at the hospital were surprised and tried to convince him to let the abortion take place, as earlier planned. They even agreed to reduce the fees. They reminded him that if he came later, for the abortion, it would be late and will be more expensive. Sohan remained adamant on his decision, however; overruling the protests of a confused Pragya. He was very angry with his parents for keeping him under pressure to father a son, though he already had two daughters, which had endangered the life of his wife now.

He and his wife returned to a home where Sohan’s parents were totally unhappy at the turn of events. They scolded Sohan for not allowing the abortion to take place. Sohan was not in a mood of reconciliation with his parents on this matter anymore. He told his parents that his wife would not risk undergoing an abortion, even if it was a third girl. He also told them that, she would not bear a child anymore. Also, if they were so interested in having a grandson, they could have their second son get married. Maybe, his wife will give them their grandson.

Sohan remained indifferent, when his parents told him that people marry many times in the society, if they do not have a son. He thought himself a modern man, and was happy with his daughters. He wondered why he remained so much under pressure to have a son, earlier, from his parents or other relations.

His parents stopped persuading him anymore, to get his wife receive the abortion, and instead started accusing Sohan’s wife of bewitching their son, and for taking him away from their control, apart from blaming their Karma. The days passed slowly. No one now talked about the pregnancy of Pragya in the family anymore. The undercurrents of the disagreement in the family were palpable however, even to the casual visitors. Sohan’s parents discussed in length the issue of their expected third granddaughter with almost everyone, at the slightest provocation. They lamented if they would be denied the entry into the heaven after their death, if they did not see the face of a grandson in their lives. Some visitors empathized with Sohan’s parents, while others privately congratulated Sohan and his wife for sticking to their resolution. Every day was an emotional high and low–for everyone in the family.

Pragya lost her cool at times, as her inwardly festering hysteria broke. She cursed her karma for making her bear yet another unwelcome daughter. In her heart, however, she was grateful to Sohan, for supporting her, and did not care much about the rest. At times, in presence of her parents-in-law, she needlessly beat her daughters – as if they were guilty for being born as girls – and then wept alone in repentance. Secretly, she and Sohan had made plans to go to a distant city, and build their lives separately, after the birth of their third girl.

Finally, she had the labour pain and was taken to the health-post in the neighbouring village, where a trained nurse delivered the babies. The nurse was an expert and had a record of delivering upside down or obliquely placed babies successfully. Pragya’s delivery occurred without any complication; but there was a surprise for everyone: She delivered a boy.

Sohan’s father was exhilarated by this news. He asked one of his neighbours, the one who kept a double-barrelled gun, to fire his (licensed) gun into the air for five times, to celebrate the occasion – assuring him that he will pay for the cartridges later. The wife of Sohan suddenly became a more desirable and respectable lady, for everyone, for delivering a son. Her daughters were surprised at the reception their brother received on his arrival.

Sohan, however, was shocked at the turn of events. He was dismayed to recall that they had nearly aborted the son his wife has now delivered; that everyone felt so proud of, in his family. He guessed that, in that private hospital, on the other side of the border, probably most of the pregnancies got terminated, to make the money. Since abortion was illegal here, no one could complain about it later. He thanked god that, even unknowingly, he made the correct decision and saved his son.

(From Delhi-return)

(From De