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Shocking contrast

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling; Little Brown Book Group; Price: Rs.850; 503 pp

J. K. Rowling, the 47-year-old British novelist best known as the author of the Harry Potter fantasy series, is a unique phenomenon. She failed to get admission to Oxford and had to settle for Exeter University. She was on social security in her thirties and as she put it later, as “poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless”.

It says something about the type of personnel book publishing companies employ, that 12 publishers turned down her first Harry Potter book which she wrote on train journeys and in cafes. As Rowling recalls, she regarded herself “the biggest failure I knew”: her marriage had failed; she was jobless, with a child to care for, and at one time even contemplated suicide.

Then, the eight-year-old daughter of the head of Bloomsbury publishing house was asked to read the first chapter of the rejected manuscript. She told her father that she couldn’t wait to read the next chapter. Cautiously, Bloomsbury published Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone with an initial print run of 1,000 copies. Following several editions it became a huge bestseller. Other Harry Potter titles followed, and have sold a staggering 400 million copies internationally, making them the best-selling book series in history. Since then the seven Harry Potter books written by Rowling have been translated into almost every major language, indicating their universal appeal, and have been made into hugely popular films. Rowling is now the best-selling British author ever. Within five years, from being a virtual pauper, she became a multi-millionaire. Forbes magazine has estimated her net worth at an astounding $1 billion (Rs.5,500 crore).

Before I take up the book under review, first an admission: I haven’t read any of Rowling’s runaway bestsellers. My acquaintance with Harry Potter is restricted to a film version of one of them which I saw together with the ten-year-old daughter of a close friend. She knew all the intriguing details of the plot and between delighted squeals, predicted what was going to happen. I couldn’t make head or tail of the procession of weird characters and creatures that floated in and out of the film. Clearly, despite the immense wealth and accolades she has received as a children’s writer, Rowling felt the need to prove herself as a story-teller for adults. Hence The Casual Vacancy described on the jacket cover as her “first novel for adults”.

The book is centred around a provincial English town, Pagford, and its title refers to a vacancy in its parish council, after a parishioner — a journalist, Barry Fairbrother — suffers a stroke and dies in the parking lot of the town’s golf club. Although popular and admired in Pagford, it turns out that the 40-something journalist wasn’t above taking kickbacks to support dicey construction projects. Close to half the book’s length, revolves around his death and its impact upon his friends. The author deftly introduces her main characters and their children, and the schools they attend, into the plot. I was reminded of Peyton Place, a bestseller written a few decades ago, which also revolved around life in small town America.

Almost without exception, the families in Pagford are dysfunctional. The only normal family is a Sikh household headed by a good-looking (“sex on legs”, “like a Bollywood film star”) heart surgeon and his wife, a general practitioner and also a member of the parish council. Of greater interest is their suspectedly lesbian daughter, Sukhvinder, who is perhaps the only heroine of the novel. She jumps into a swift-flowing river to save a child and comes close to drowning. I simply cannot understand how Rowling’s portrayal of this family outraged some Sikhs so much that they called for a ban on the book.

To return to Rowling’s narrative, Fairbrother’s death unleashes a civil war in Pagford, opening up long-healed wounds and releasing pent-up emotions. Wives are either at war with their husbands or unfaithful to them, while children are at odds with their parents. Even at school, teachers and pupils are at each other’s throats. Indeed not a single character, except perhaps the Sikh family, has any redeeming qualities. The narrative is liberally sprinkled with the three most common four-letter expletives, and I can’t recall the ‘f’ word used so often in any work of fiction. Rowling may have conjured up innocence and magic in her Potter books, but here she presents an unrelentingly bleak view of humanity. It’s such a shocking contrast that this reviewer feels compelled to ask which is the real Rowling? The Harry Potter or the “adult novel” one? Perhaps her next oeuvre will offer an answer.

After I had put down Casual Vacancy — all 503 pages of it — I asked myself whether there was anything uplifting or thought-provoking in it. The great, even the good, novels of our time leave the reader enriched and ennobled. Sadly, Casual Vacancy fails this test. Neither are there any passages in it that compel one to go back and read again.

The best that can be said of Rowling is that she has an uncanny ear for dialogue and a masterly eye for detailed, minute observation. There is laughter, ribaldry and perhaps even enjoyment in this novel, but no underlying philosophy asking the reader to stop and think. Nevertheless, the author’s use of the English language and some of her descriptions are a delight. Can you better “humungous bouncing jubblies” and “great big juicy double-F mams” for big breasts?

Rahul Singh

Complex narrative

The Folded Earth by Anuradha Roy; Hachette India; Price: Rs.350; 262 pp

Publisher-author Anuradha Roy’s second novel after An Atlas of Impossible Longing (2008), created a flurry by winning The Economist-Crossword Book Award 2011 (announced in November 2012) for English fiction. No small achievement because among other contenders for the prize were Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke and Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis. The Fiction Award Committee described  The Folded Earth as a “small diamond that we have unearthed and enjoyed”.

The ‘diamond’ is set in the Himalayan hill resort of Ranikhet, a location poetically invoked through finely chiselled verbal magic. The serene dignity of the snow-clad hills becomes as tangible as the sound of wind whistling through pine forests, the crackling of forest fires and rain on a carpet of dry leaves. In an unsentimental way, the fast changing ecology of rural retreats of India, ready victims of modern-day environmental vandalism, is brought to centre stage. Against the imperious timelessness of the hills, the temporality of everyday existence encompassing human greed, political ambition, social mobility, love and death, forms the stuff of several interlinked personal stories that constitute the engaging plot of the novel.

Abandoned by her wealthy Hindu family for marrying Michael, a Christian, Maya migrates from Hyderabad and settles in far-away Ranikhet after her husband of six years dies in a mountaineering accident. The quest for inner peace among the hills, where Michael’s mortal remains lie frozen, eventually turns out to be a vain longing. As a teacher in the local missionary school, Maya lives modestly, participating in the vocational training of girl children in a jam factory, which reminds her nostalgically of her father’s pickles manufacturing enterprise.

Diwan Sahib, her landlord, is a relic of India’s colonial past who still savours the excitement of his youthful shenanigans when as diwan of the princely state of Surajgarh he enjoyed political and social clout. Although living in retirement in a secluded mansion with sprawling gardens, he still attracts socialites and journalists anxious to sneak a look at the Jawaharlal Nehru-Edwina Mountbatten letters which he is reputed to possess. The letters are kept under wraps until his last will and testament is read. With Maya he establishes a relationship of trust — dictates his memoirs to her (eventually cast into the fireplace), talks of editing tiger hunter Jim Corbett’s manuscript, shares nuggets of gossip, allows her to read the daily newspaper to him and generally intrudes into her loneliness to dispel the shadows that loom over his own.

Into this set pattern of life enters Diwan Sahib’s nephew Veer, making flamboyant entrances and exits from time to time, ruffling the equanimity of Maya’s life. His relationship with Diwan Sahib, mysterious mountaineering and trekking expeditions, his casual yet intense relationship with Maya, irresponsibility during his uncle’s illness, his expectations and disappointments as he rummages through Diwan Sahib’s possessions and papers after his death, don’t  prepare us for the surprising revelations about him which close the novel.

Roy has a gift for fleshing out human and comic, simple and simultaneously passionate characters. The local pahari folk — Ama, Puran Chacha and Charu —represent the lifestyle and values of an unspoilt community. The love story of Charu and Kundan is predictable. But Maya gives it a twist by making Charu literate which catapults this village belle from her local community into the exciting world of Delhi, and later Singapore.

Even as the narrative seems to be heading towards Raj nostalgia and cultivation of exotic Himalayan hillscapes, the realities of post-independence India intrude into this idyllic and remote community. Avinash Chauhan, a bureaucrat transferred to Ranikhet, undertakes a mission to improve civic amenities and transform this sleepy mountain town into a Swiss canton. This bumptious yet innocuous and comic figure, is offset by ruthless election campaigners who threaten young girls, ride roughshod over the grounds of the missionary school, foment communal violence and sectarianism, thus introducing political intrigue and tension into an environment of relative tranquility. The intrusion of electoral politics doesn’t significantly impact the plot, but infuses a negative excitement among the townfolk.

Some strands of the narrative are suggestively introduced and vaguely linked to situations or characters. For instance, there’s a sudden presence of army helicopters to suggest life in a cantonment town in British India, and is mysteriously linked to Veer’s abrupt departure from the town. And suddenly, in a Kiplingesque gesture, the author plunges Ranikhet into the cauldron of international politics, exposing the vulnerability of India’s threatened borders and seemingly invincible hill tracts, and unsatisfactorily attempts to introduce elements of the Great Game into the narrative.

Maya is the narrator of the story which ends abruptly, and disturbingly for settlers like Maya and Veer and Diwan Sahib. The novel trips along the mountain paths of Ranikhet, nestled in the Kumaon Himalayas, as the elegiac plot unfolds to create an “inviolable space in which to observe and record all the subterranean upheavals to create those moments of clarity that we value as literature,” as per the verdict of the Economist-Crossword Book Awards  Committee.

Jayati Gupta

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