Sunday, 6 March 2011

CITIES AND HUMAN MINDS


CITIES AND HUMAN MINDS

Lakshmi pushed open the glass doors of the restaurant, watching her face split in two. She is thinking of the man she kidnapped the night before, now lying trussed up in her bathtub. That is how CP Surendran’s recent novel, Lost and Found, begins.

Let us get the basics of the plot: Lakshmi is a porn writer for an online site; her boss offers her job security in return of physical favours. She has kidnapped a man from a party the previous evening thinking him to be the same person who raped her on a moving train 16 years ago. We learn that the man is Placid Hari Odannur, a freelance journalist from Kerala who contributes to the tabloid, Bombay Express. The story then unfolds as Lakshmi, her neighbours, Placid and a teenage actor, Nirmal, find themselves as hostage to Salim, a terrorist trained in Pakistan by a fanatic called Abdul Razak. Salim is leading a siege of Bombay.

How does he define the novel, I ask Surendran. “Lost and Found is the story of a handful of colourful characters, a social satire and a tragedy, all at the same time,” Surendran asserts. However, “many critics have failed to see its complexity”. According to the novelist, the critics “see it as just satire and miss out on the other aspects... or vice versa”. “Says a lot for our critics”, Surendran quips.

The novel is set in Karachi as well as in Bombay, as he prefers to call the city. Besides Karachi — where hatred is preached in the seemingly regressive social settings, Bombay assumes the role of a character in the novel. The fanatical Cow Sena in Bombay, the congested streets, the seafront, and hectic and competitive life in the city — bring alive Bombay. I wonder how different the novel might have been had it been set in some other cities. Surendran says both Karachi and Bombay are “irreplaceable” in the scheme of the novel. “Both are teeming complex, coastal cities. In Bombay, Bollywood assumes that aspirational function. Karachi foments terrorism, which is one way of reaching Allah in a hurry,” the novelist tells me.

And not just because the “substantive action unfolds in Bombay” against the backdrop of a terrorist attack (like the one on 26/11), not even the digs at the outfits who are like Shiv Sena, Bombay is truly unparalleled because, “no other city in India comes close to the frantic energy that Bombay spews out, and some of that energy is what makes the hyper action of the novel just,” Surendran elaborates. “And I’d like to believe that the language too shows a certain manic dimension modelled on the city”.

There are several characters in Surendran’s novel besides the main players. There is the autorickshaw driver Sunil Shinde; Lakshmi’s neighbours Githaa and her husband Rajgopal; and there is Fatima in Pakistan who is Salim’s mother and love interest of Razak. “The characters of Lost and Found discover who they are through a series of dispossessions. Quite a few of heart-shaking experiences in identity formation are accidental. But, then, one of the central arguments of the novel is about the decisive influence of chance in our lives,” Surendran explains. “And it is the chanciness of life, the dark, comic improbability of the most probable things that lends Lost and Found a certain tenor of gallows humour: the ironies of the accident”.

Let me not play a spoiler by divulging the story. But with the twin brothers coming face-to-face, sudden revelations about the identities and the rest of the twists and turns, it reads like a film script. The language is often conversational; descriptions are a bit graphic. I put this to the author. “That is the way I write. I see the scene pretty clearly as I write. It is only in writing that I observe details,” he says. Surendran then mentions Graham Greene, “a great master of highly visual writing” who “might have influenced” him as well.

An interesting part of the novel is how Surendran depicts the relationships between Bombay Express editor Shantanu Roy and Arun, a senior staffer in the tabloid: There are so many ways of defending the freedom of the press, and, of late, Arun’s chosen method has been to go along with whatever his editor said. Has Surendran taken a dig at the way in which the media houses function? “Well, we live in a profoundly dishonest society. Even the democracy we constantly talk about is strangely ineffective. But we will never admit that we are in that sense undemocratic. This is because we believe in tokenism,” he says.

Having said that Surendran admits that there is a “real conflict” between his journalistic self and his novelist self. “To some extent that finds a representation in the novel,” he adds.

(Photo courtesy: CP Surendran)

Lost and Found
By: CP Surendran
Publisher: HarperCollins