Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lucknow Boy

By Vinod Mehta

Vinod Mehta was what I wanted to be. My heroes in my youth were MJ Akbar, Arun Shourie and then in my adult adolescence, Vinod Mehta. Men of crusading zeal, of the written word, out to prove a pen mightier than a sword. In a more tainted, grey adulthood, there is ambivalence about the profession and the people in it. Yet Vinod Mehta continues to remain on some sort of a pedestal, however rickety and crumbling it might be. He still wields the baton for a secular left wing India without toadying up to the commies (though his sympathy for the Maoists fills me with the same confusing discomfort the world as a whole does today). So I picked up his memoir not completely sure if I would like the man behind the image, but needing to know if I would.

Lucknow Boy is a racy read. Mehta proves to be an interesting raconteur though an average writer. His background proves to be rather unremarkable and un-intriguing and not quite prophetic of his adult achievements. So they remain quite skip-able. The interesting parts of the book are his run-ins with his various proprietors and assorted politicians. And there is a long list of them. What is also absorbing is his view of and interactions with some famous people – Dhirubhai and Sharad Pawar, Shobha De and Arundhati Roy. And there is of course, his continued fascination with Sonia Gandhi (his section on her is strangely revealing and I am not sure it was intended to be – his apparent joy in seeing her comfortable and relaxed and laughing with her guard down in front of friends is almost lover-like).

There is history here, the lived-in, news-making, journalistic-coup-type chronicle of current events, sure to become the Ramachandra Guha variety of history some day. The coverage of milestone elections that Outlook polls get wrong consistently, the Vajpayee-Advani tussle, the cricket match-fixing episodes and Manoj Prabhakar, the ‘mole-in-the-cabinet’ Seymour Hersh/ Morarji Desai story and of course the Radia tapes. It is a fascinating cocktail of news-making that Mehta dishes out, in quite an absorbing, no-holds-barred way. And what makes it quite endearing is the lightness with which most of the stories are handled – there is little rancour or bitterness even towards the people he so obviously despises (Pawar, Brajesh Mishra, Ambani) and there is little fawning over people he clearly likes (Arundhati Roy, Naipaul, Sonia Gandhi).

Through it all Mehta comes out as someone who grew into his role as one of India’s foremost editors with little preparation, learning as he went along. Some of his musings on his profession are thought-provoking (recommending scepticism rather than cynicism, for instance), though rarely original. Lucknow Boy is a good read. And Vinod Mehta comes across as forthright and unpretentious, with at least a modicum of solidity in a belief system honed over the years. His heroes are Orwell and Greene and they are great heroes to have for sure. But Mehta is not going to be mistaken for an intellectual. He has a home-grown sense of right and wrong and that proves ultimately to be the best part of the man.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Marriage Plot

By Jeffrey Eugenides

Should one review a book ones finds fairly ordinary? Sink more time into an already sunk cause? Or should one treat it as a writing exercise, putting into words why one finds one particular brand of college Americana so fascinating and another rather run-of-the-mill?

Ok, let me get to it. I was not bowled over by Eugenides’ latest work of fiction The Marriage Plot, an average effort at going where so many other impressive works have gone – the coming of age novel. Eugenides, as I found out during my foray into this much reviewed book, is a Pulitzer Prize winner for his previous work, Middlesex. And as someone trying to read more American fiction (I am not a big fan), I got myself his latest.

The setting is Ivy League Brown University in the Reagan-era eighties, and The Marriage Plot follows 3 of its students Madeleine Hanna, Mitchell Grammaticus and Leonard Bankhead through the first few years of their lives after they leave campus. Mitchell loves Madeleine, Madeleine loves Leonard, in spite of some vestigial attraction to Mitchell, and Leonard, well, Leonard has problems. There is a lot of angst about attraction, about college sex, about love. And there is a lot of intellectual discussion based on college texts regarding religious studies (Mitchell’s area of current interest) and the DNA of yeast (Leonard’s specialisation). Madeleine’s interest, Victorian era women’s writing, seems pitifully under-represented.

Madeleine is a child of privilege, and all she really is interested in, intellectually, is reading Victorian era fiction. She should have appealed to me, given my predilection for the Brontes and Dickinson. But she is one of the most uninspiring heroines I have come across in a long time. She is pretty, intelligent, but so taken in by Leonard’s intellectualism, she fails to see him as he really is. And when she realises his problem, she is too committed and can’t help but get in deeper. Leonard is unlike-able completely, in spite of his medical issues. And that is really the failing of the book. A flawed man, he induces so little sympathy, one almost wants to accuse Eugenides of cruelty to the ill. Mitchell is the one character that inspires the most empathy. His experiments with religious affiliations and his foray into working with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta form for me, the more interesting parts of the book.

Reading The Marriage Plot, I am reminded of better books. Of Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, with its American campus experience. And of Franzen’s Freedom, with its depiction of a generation’s growing up. And the reminding only serves to show up Eugenides’ deficiencies all the more. Why is it set in the eighties? There is little of that era’s peculiarities in the book and its impact on plot and characterisation is very thin. Why does so much of the book get mired in yeast and semiotics, both pretty much irrelevant to anything else in the book? Why does Eugenides’ objective narrator voice not have half the resonance Franzen’s does?

Eugenides disappoints massively. I am not going to try him again soon.