The Writer’s En­durance Test

In Upa­manyu Chat­ter­jee’s sto­ries, there’s a thin line that sep­a­rates ex­per­i­ment from gim­mick

India Today - - LEISURE -

FFrom the haz­aar f **** d slang of English, Au­gust through six sub­se­quent nov­els and a novella, lin­guis­tic play­ful­ness has al­ways been a cen­tral fea­ture of Upa­manyu Chat­ter­jee’s style, en­am­our­ing many, putting oth­ers off. Ev­ery hue of his hall­mark lan­guage-driven hu­mour (from ado­les­cent to acer­bic to dark) is on vivid dis­play through the 12 sto­ries—writ­ten be­tween 1985 and 2018—in this collection. But what is also fore­grounded is his play­ful, ex­per­i­men­tal ap­proach to form as he flits be­tween fact, fic­tion and fairy­tale.

The tit­u­lar story, writ­ten ear­li­est and placed at the end of the book, is a straight­for­ward ex­am­ple. As if look­ing at an event of na­tional im­por­tance through the wrong end of a tele­scope, Chat­ter­jee de­scribes its pass­ing through an in­di­vid­ual who has more press­ing mat­ters on his mind. He zooms closer in ‘Girl’, which takes place not ex­actly in Aarushi Tal­war’s bed­room, but in her class­room, ex­plor­ing

the re­ac­tions of her friends and teach­ers. Though nobly in­ten­tioned, strangely for Chat­ter­jee, ‘Girl’ seems al­most moral­is­tic and, at times, reads like a mashup of in­ves­tiga­tive re­ports and opin­ion pieces.

Chat­ter­jee is on stronger ground in sto­ries when fact is not so pon­der­ously pounded into fic­tion. ‘Othello Sucks’, for ex­am­ple, de­scribes it­self as ‘at some mo­ments a piece of non-fic­tion, at oth­ers a ra­dio play and yet oth­ers a comic strip in prose’; its take on a priv­i­leged fam­ily’s ir­rev­er­ent en­gage­ment with the fa­mous drama is an en­ter­tain­ing romp through race and lit­er­a­ture. The fam­ily crops up again in ‘Can’t Take This S**t Any­more’, in which Chat­ter­jee draws a con­trast be­tween their cere­bral world and ‘ex­is­tence cir­cum­scribed…by the s**t of oth­ers’ of a fam­ily of man­ual scav­engers. The story has its heart­break­ing mo­ments—Chat­ter­jee has honed his some­times puerile love of the scat­o­log­i­cal into some­thing less gra­tu­itous here—but bal­anc­ing the par­al­lel nar­ra­tives isn’t easy and, oc­ca­sion­ally, the prose teeters into es­say territory.

His­tor­i­cal facts and sta­tis­tics some­times seem clunky—as in ‘Three-sev­en­seven and the Blue Gay Gene’, via a char­ac­ter’s diary chron­i­cling the back­drop of Sec­tion 377. Still, though not al­ways seam­less, Chat­ter­jee’s ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with form is laud­able. That he doesn’t need to play around so much is ev­i­dent in ‘For­eigner’, a weird tale with a clas­sic twist, cap­tur­ing an in­ter­ac­tion be­tween Western­ised Delhi elites and “In­dia bug­gers”— ‘Euro­peans bit­ten by the In­dia bug’—with vir­tu­os­ity.

A cou­ple of sto­ries go fur­ther than ‘Othello Sucks’ in us­ing lit­er­a­ture as grist for real­ist or his­tor­i­cal fic­tion. Some will find them charm­ing; oth­ers gim­micky. And some sto­ries, like the ten­der ‘Spar­rows’, re­vive char­ac­ters from his past nov­els, recre­at­ing the at­mos­phere of the ear­lier decades they were set in. Their en­dur­ing qual­ity jus­ti­fies the ‘Vol­ume I’ on the cover, while Chat­ter­jee’s var­ied ap­proaches could at­tract new read­ers to his writ­ing.

—Sonal Shah

SUBIR HALDER

THE ASSASSINAT­ION OF INDIRA GANDHI The Col­lected Sto­ries (Vol­ume I) by Upa­manyu Chat­ter­jee SPEAK­ING TIGER `699, 352 pages

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