WEAV­ING IN MID­NIGHT’S SHADE

India Today - - LEISURE - —Achala Upen­dran

In 1981, Sal­man Rushdie un­leashed Mid­night’s Chil­dren upon an un­sus­pect­ing world. Per­haps his great­est work, the novel spins a tale of newly in­de­pen­dent In­dia, its pages pop­u­lated by gifted chil­dren born at that fate­ful ‘stroke of mid­night’, when the coun­try ‘awoke’ to its free­dom.

It’s hard to read Tashan Me­hta’s de­but novel, The Liar’s Weave, and not see shades of Rushdie’s mas­ter­piece. Me­hta’s work also falls in the same mag­i­cal re­al­ist tra­di­tion. Its hero is also a naïve fig­ure who holds an im­mense power, and its story also un­folds against the back­drop of a his­tor­i­cal mo­ment: the bur­geon­ing strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence in 1920s In­dia, specif­i­cally, Bom­bay. How­ever, un­like in Mid­night’s Chil­dren, the in­de­pen­dence move­ment here seems like a cal­cu­lated ad­di­tion to pro­vide ‘lit­er­ary depth’ rather than some­thing in­te­gral to the plot. Not a sin­gle Bri­tish char­ac­ter fea­tures in the novel, and none of the prin­ci­pals seem overly bothered about the strikes and free­dom fighters that re­ceive pass­ing men­tions here and there.

The same can be said of Za­han Mer­chant’s Parsi her­itage, which could eas­ily be for­got­ten apart from some ex­cla­ma­tions of ‘Mother of Zoroaster!’ Me­hta’s pro­tag­o­nist is born into a world where peo­ple’s lives are guided by birth charts, cast at the age of 18 by ac­cred­ited ‘in-be­tweens’, men (pre­dom­i­nantly) who have been taught the arts of read­ing the stars and trac­ing the fu­tures of hu­mankind. Za­han, how­ever, also has a cu­ri­ous power: he can shape re­al­ity with his words. What is a small lie for him be­comes an un­de­ni­able truth for an­other, a hor­ri­fy­ing gift that he needs his brother’s (Sorab’s) help to tame.

There are com­pli­ca­tions from out­side forces, of course. From the ‘car­niv­o­rous’ for­est of Vidroha, the hatadaiva, or ill-fated, watch Za­han and his Shake­speare-spout­ing friend, Porthos. They dream of en­list­ing his aid to shed their own mis­for­tunes, while mem­bers of a mys­te­ri­ous ‘As­so­ci­a­tion’ of as­trologers are also watch­ing him, wait­ing to see what will be­come of the boy with the cu­ri­ous birth chart.

It’s an am­bi­tious de­but. Me­hta’s prose is stylised, at times con­fus­ingly so. Char­ac­ters speak in cu­ri­ous turns of phrase that are meant, no doubt, to sound clever and pro­found. But th­ese con­ceits too of­ten make it dif­fi­cult to grasp the plot or en­gage with the char­ac­ters. The book would have ben­e­fited from a tighter edit; con­ver­sa­tions of­ten seem repet­i­tive, and it takes far too long for events and char­ac­ters to come to­gether.

How­ever, there are a few truly evoca­tive mo­ments of al­most vi­o­lent clar­ity. Un­for­tu­nately, th­ese are al­most en­tirely hidden, like the mys­ti­cal Nerve in Vidroha, by lay­ers of dense, far-too-tightly in­ter­wo­ven branches of prose.

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