Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book Review: Yatrik by Arnab Roy

Indian writing in English is in a curious quandary. Sales are up, as is reach and acceptance. However the kind of books that sell, and have got the reach and acceptance are usually so bad in terms of both plot and language, that one despairs instead of being happy. In this cesspool of Chetan Bhagats and Ravinder Singhs, it is so rare to find someone actually writing something good - paying attention to both language and plot - that it's a refreshing revelation. Arnab Ray's Yatrik is one such book. It's not perfect, and I have some quibbles with the tone used in parts of the book, but those are minor ones. The important thing is that Yatrik is pretty radical in nature. Radical because it dares to take regular themes - love, college politics, heartbreak, family, and weave them together into something very unexpected, surprising the reader with the deft handling. 

I am not really going to talk about the plot - the book blurbs gives it away anyway. Suffice it to say that the 'story' is told in multiple flashbacks. However even the flashbacks are of two types - the expository ones where Anustup talks about his life in conversation with his companion in the afterlife, and the three plot driven ones where he gets to see the "other side". This makes it a tricky motif to sustain and to his credit Arnab does a good job of delineating the flashbacks. 

[As an aside: In terms of atmosphere and themes, while I hesitate to examine a text based on the author's life (blame it on my lit-crit background), a couple of things do stand out that seem to illustrate the author's personal beliefs, especially for us who have followed his writing for long. One, his deep abiding affection for Kolkata's Durga Puja, especially at Maddox Square. I just knew there would be a scene set there somehow and I was not disappointed. Secondly his abiding contempt of mercenary 'intellectuals' who are routinely bought over by the blandishments of power and fame - these are represented here in the character of Atulya-da. One cannot help but equate Atulya with real life mercenaries like Suvaprasanna in Bengal today.]

In the use of language, Arnab is definitely head and shoulders above many of the 'writers' being published today. No question about that. The issue I have is with the fact that the characters, while differentiated clearly by their personalities, don't always speak very differently. Sometimes they do, like the pimp extorting money from Anustup's mother, but that was clearly crafted to be so. All too often the register is similar, almost as if Arnab forgot that they are different people. Maybe this is deliberate, almost like the author wants to make it clear that he is in a 'meta' way, translating all the words for us readers from the Bengali the characters must actually have spoken, but it still jars somewhat, at least for me. Also suddenly you have words being used that break even this illusion of authorial translation ("douchebaggery" stood out as a example) because they simply don't have a Bangla equivalent. Also even if we take the 'meta' translation explanation out, a student leader in 80s or 90s Kolkata simply would never use that word - it was not in circulation then.

However these are quibbles. Overall Yatrik is a bold experiment that needs to be lauded, and yes, read by more people. It takes guts to write something that is so "uncategorizable" to coin a phrase. It's smooth, fast paced, yet makes you think. How many Indian books nowadays have that as a package? According to me - the better of Arnab's two novels so far. Definitely recommended.

[This review was posted originally on]