WEAVING IN MIDNIGHT’S SHADE
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.