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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

THE BRAINFEVER BIRD

Indian writing is a universe that houses a multi-world plethora of genres, styles and sensibilities. If one were to narrow down to fiction, even then the array is bewildering and probably, each author is reasonably drunk with nutritive certitude about his/her own distinctive signature tune—otherwise we might have seen more experimentation. And then again, one does quiver with guilty trepidation at the ever-so-oft Phoenix-like rise of regional powerhouses, who will be incessantly lauded for works which might be far off their best, but which the English-speaking dregs of reviewers have laid eyes upon. I am glad that I read one I Allan Sealy book every year—Hero, The Everest Hotel before this.

A terse regurgitation of the plot – Lev, a retrenched scientist from St Petersburg, eking out a penurious livelihood as a chauffeur, comes to Delhi in search of meaningful work; loses his briefcase with attendant documents, falls in love with Maya, a fiercely independent puppeteer; meets Laiq, a mercurial barber and mystic, and Morgan, Maya’s newsreader friend. Lev’s past as a maven biological weapons specialist catches up with him which extracts a stiff price.

That said, a Sealy book uses the plot as the merest narrative abetment—his writing is textured, measured, imaginative and reflective. This is a love story with all its post-modern paraphernalia; intelligent and introspective protagonists, trapped and buffeted by Fate and Individuality alike. Lev, the middle-aged Russian scientist, is prosaically laconic, studious and sombre and is the epitome of a clever being forced to resile to a life of bureaucratic bumbling, which languidly snatches away his inteliigence, ambition and finally hope. He talks less and perhaps thinks even less—his wife and son in St Petersburg form a hazy but omnipresent backdrop to his desultory travails in India.

Maya, of course a literary heroine is an illusionist. Her gauche puppets wait in her closet, wait for a chance to perform, articulate and entertain. She lives away from her influential Police Commissioner father and embodies a single woman against the grain—so refreshing to have a lead character be insightful and perspicacious without being trapped in the Western image of the Single Woman. The imagery in the puppets waiting their turn while the characters themselves having their strings pulled unceremoniously by circumstances and abstruse Governments is significant.

Laiq’s a well-etched person too, one of the old school mesmerized by intrigue, progress and yet schooled in reality and pragmatism. Morgan, the vain newsreader is in love with Maya but is increasingly distanced by his own effete nature and passiveness. An enchanting portrayal too of Old Delhi-- its streets, sweetmeats and sordid skirmishes.

This story of intertwined elements chronicles Sealy’s sweeping eye for the picayune as he leaves much unsaid and understated. His prose has a light touch, flavour and relies on almost circumlocutory recital. A marked departure from all those who try too hard—what we have here is a perfectionist and a traveller.
An 8 on 10 !

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