Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Writing with a punch

Did a version of this for The Hindu Sunday Magazine/Literary Review 

In October 1994 the Kerala Police arrested a Maldivian woman, writing the first lines of what was to become the ‘ISRO spy case’. Initially taken into custody for allegedly staying on in India after her visa had expired, the woman, Mariam Rasheeda, was later charged with espionage. Over the following weeks the reach of the ‘spy’ case expanded, bringing into question the loyalties of an assortment of individuals, including two scientists with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Some months later, it became clear that the ‘spy case’ was a fairy tale and in 1998 the Supreme Court confirmed that the case had been fabricated. It is presumably this ‘real-life incident’ that has inspired C.P. Surendran’s novel Hadal.
So there’s Miriam Zacharias, a young-ish aspiring writer from the Maldives, who takes a break from her life back home and heads to Trivandrum to write a book. There, her path crosses that of the intriguingly-named Honey Bhimrao Jaspreet Kumar, a cough syrup-swigging, oversexed police officer from Delhi on a punishment posting as the Foreigners’ Regional Registration Officer in Kerala’s capital. Honey, who’s terrified of falling coconuts, wants to have sex with the luscious Miriam. And when she refuses, he dreams-up up an espionage case against her and her Indian paramour Roy Paul, an ISRO scientist. 
Hadal — derived from the Greek ‘hades’ or ‘underworld’ also refers to the deepest trenches in the sea where pressure is extremely high — is not just the Miriam-Honey-Roy story. It is interspersed with a smorgasbord of tales, some of which seem tangential, at best, to the overall plot. So there’s the story of an Indian couple whose son has been taken into protective care by the authorities in Norway. Then, there’s American academic-activist Haws and the tale of his involvement in an agitation against a nuclear power plant in a village somewhere south of Trivandrum.
That Surendran has a way with words is undeniable. There’s a lushness to the writing that makes Hadal less of a book and more of a film. The words and the images they conjure are powerful, often vivid, and the universe they build is sometimes surreal. Like this line that stayed with me: “Ever since, Roy had been faithful to Old Spice, and had developed a weakness for the lingering fragrance of the truth in small runaway treasons in hotel rooms like this.”
It’s equally undeniable that Surendran’s writing, like his speech, is often self-consciously droll and occasionally smart-alecky, with characters who echo these traits. Like the whistle-blower who says: “I’m a whistle-blower.” Or the cast of interesting characters, occasionally with quirky names, that populate the book — Cardinal Telespore Lobo, the church leader; Thomas Lawrence Pappan, the crafty chief minister; and Aladi Ram Mohan, Honey’s mentor and partner in crime.
Then, there are the pithy one-liners that pepper Hadal. Sample this one from the book’s anti-hero, Honey: “The world was a crowd-sourced construct.” Or the one from Roy: “The substance of the (sic) evil was the heart.” Clever as these meditations on the universe are, they begin to grate just a bit after a while.
What is slightly more disconcerting is the rather abrupt change in pace, with the pleasing languor of the early portions giving way to haste in the final chapters. Things happen in a rush and suddenly it’s all over, with an ending that resembles a “crowd-sourced construct” that doesn’t quite go the distance.
Now the extent to which a work of fiction reflects reality is flexible. Yet, details that match reality add to the power of the narrative. But what nags me about Hadal is the baffling lack of attention to detail right through. For instance, as anyone with some familiarity with the Indian bureaucracy knows, it’s rare to find a very senior bureaucrat who drives himself around or waits at an airport baggage carousel to pick up his bags. Yet, Aladi Ram Mohan does just that. And he’s supposed to be the head of the Intelligence Bureau.
Similarly, at the risk of sounding like I’m nit picking, it is a little strange to read about Kerala’s chief minister Pappan wearing “loose, white linen trousers.” A Kerala minister wearing trousers rather than a mundu or dhoti while in the State is unlikely.
Such distractions apart, Hadal is a work in which the craft, for the most part, sparkles, dispelling some of the gloom of the world it portrays.