Tuesday, January 27, 2009

My response to Love and Longing in Bombay

Vikram Chandra creates the setting of home in this novel through character, people. The stories he tells are descriptive and vibrant. They are grounded in Indian culture in a way that is more fundamental, more subtle, less pervasive but not less present than Achebe's Igbo culture in Things Fall Apart. But, the true setting for each story he tells is found in the characters.
In the first, we learn about Jago and his life and his hardships before he ever returns home. Or at least we think we do. Then we are disoriented by his return home, in much the same way that it seems Jago himself is. Then, as we delve into his childhood and his life in that house long ago, Chandra facilitates the story with the exuberant character of the uncle Burjor Mama. He does this in such a way that the reader, aware that something awful happens, does not see the event coming until they read the actual lines.
In the story about the Boatwallas and the Bijlanis, the character of Sheila is so vivid in the beginning. Yet, as the story progresses she fades and become no more important than the other characters. The reader eventually gets just as clear a description of her husband, and of her rival Dolley, and of Dolley's husband Freddie. Yet these characters are not just archetypes. They are not just trophy wives and rich white people; without each particular character trait and flaw that Chandra assigns to them, the story could not become what it is.
In Kama's story, Chandra makes the importance of this character development explicitly known by the detective's obseravtion and analysis of the characters of an investigation. To him, each tick and smile and pause is important but can mean something slightly different with each individual, depending on their unique personality.

The one glaring place where characters are annoying undeveloped is in the beginning of each chapter. The group of men who are meeting for drinks and talking are in some antithetical way the main characters. The narrator is an elusive 'I' that seems to constantly complain (in the little inner dialogue we get) but who we can establish no sympathy or rapport with. The sudden thrust of the reader into each story told by Subramaniam is repeated, albeit less dramatically, in each story as it has moments that jolt you from one place/time/event to the next. For example, in Jago's final, complete trip up the staircase, Chandra flashes from past to present to past without any more of a break than the period between sentences. Because of the intensity of the experience, it is disorienting. In acutality, the entire book seems this way. We are pulled into intense short stories that all seem unrelated to each other and to the group of men; yet because of the basic rules of novels we know there must be some connection. Being patient long enough to continue into the second half of the book seems to be the only thing the reader can do.

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