Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 8, 2014

Caught in Two Winds, by Monika Pant

Caught in Two WindsMonika Pant is an author from India who is writing about a theme that interests me: what it’s like to be living through India’s tumultuous emergence into the modern economy.  And she’s one of the few female Indian authors that I’ve come across, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to read this book …

Let me say upfront that the cover does the book no favours.  Its naff blonde-in-a-miniskirt image has nothing to do with the content of the book, it’s positively misleading.  If we must have the ubiquitous back-view-of-the-female image, then the female of this book should have that long, lustrous black hair that Indian girls are so lucky to have.  This is lazy cover design, one of my pet hates.

If the idea of this generic design is to attract the international market, then IMO the publisher would do better to work on improving the book’s distribution outside India.  Monika contacted me to offer me a review copy of  her book – a smart initiative  – but it proved to be more difficult than either of us realised for me to get my hands on it.  It is possible now to get the book from Amazon but it’s absurdly expensive, pricing which is not fair and not realistic for an author trying to break into the international market.  If you are interested in Caught in Two Winds the best thing to do is to keep an eye on this link from Monika’s blog where there is an expanding list of places that the novel can be bought.

*mutter, mutter* I do not understand why it has to be so difficult to source books from India.  The same thing happened trying to get hold of Indian titles shortlisted for the (now sadly defunct) Man Asian Lit Prize.  Visiting the Penguin India website is an exercise in profound frustration because there are so many enticing books there that are only available in India…

I’m cross about this because although Caught in Two Winds has some first-novel flaws, it sustained my interest throughout, and Monika is an author with potential.  (One of her short stories was long-listed in the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize).  Caught in Two Winds is the story of young people falling into the traps of modernity when they transition from the traditions and slow pace of Lucknow to the snazzy, snap-it-up metro of Mumbai.  It’s a theme that Balzac was always writing about: young people from the provinces led astray by wicked Paris.  Tolstoy wrote about the army corrupting nice young men.  It was a favourite theme for Dickens too, look how quickly Pip’s values are distorted by big, bad London.  An old theme made new in this book, and it’s a theme that’s highly relevant in India as the vulnerable young flock to where the action is.

Shayoni, barely out of her teens, and her brother Sushant, who’s only eleven, are alone together in Mumbai.  This inversion of the stereotypical extended Indian family comes about because Shayoni’s mother has just died, and her father’s an alcoholic.  Ignoring the counsels of her interfering grandmother, Shayoni flounces off with her little brother, convinced that she can do a better job of bringing him up than her useless father can.  Shayoni is a convincing mixture of adolescent arrogance, doubt, competence, ambition and folly.  Sushant is an earnest, hard-working boy who wants to please his sister, but her naïve strategy of leaving him alone to deal with problems at school is a recipe for disaster.

It doesn’t take long for things to go most horribly, irretrievably wrong.  There are times when the author lets didacticism emerge, and the almost-too-good-to-be-true hero Rahul has some rather unconvincing scenes with Tina the good-hearted whore, but I suspect that my scepticism about his role in the siblings’ salvation derives from my lack of familiarity with the Bollywood phenomenon.  The only Bollywood film I’ve ever seen is Slumdog Millionaire but the foreword by Pawan Sony suggests to me that this type of ultimately feel-good plot would make a popular movie in societies less cynical than ours.

What Pant captures so well is the confusion of her characters.  All of them are torn between the slow, comfortable pace of home and the excitement of city life.  In Mumbai art school Shayoni’s ambitions blind her to the cynicism of her teacher, something she discovers to her cost just as she is beginning to find her own medium, delighting in opportunities denied to her at home :

Shayoni got down from the bus and made her way into the college.

‘Congratulations!’

Everyone greeted her.  For what, she did not know.  She seemed to be the only one who did not know about it. Her feet could hardly feel the worn out steps as she climbed the winding stairway to her studio-class.  She was doing a bust of Rabindranath Tagore for her sculpture class and her fingers were aching to feel the clay in them.  She was beginning to like this medium, somewhat new to her, and was even dreaming about the curls on the forehead that she would fashion.  It seemed as though she was creating a spirit out of her airy imagination and as the form emerged under her supple hands, a joy enveloped her, melting her being with the creation in front of her.  A part of herself became amalgamated in the clay she mixed and she was lost to the outward show of things. (p. 93)

She is more lost than she knows, and when she discovers the way that Rupsingh has obliterated her art she soon discovers his other perfidies as well.  This blow shatters her already fragile identity, and things spiral out of control.

The loss of shared meals is emblematic of the loss of family life:

She had not cooked for her brother for such a long time that she had almost forgotten the gleam of pleasure in his eyes that came unbidden when she used to place a dish he particularly liked on the small table.  In fact, that small table nowadays did not bear witness to the two sitting together in a simple-hearted way, joking and laughing, teasing each other and sharing confidences.  Those meal times had disappeared from the one-room flat.  Despite the difference in their ages, the two had always been very close.  The string had somehow been broken.

She sat on the window sill, where she used to sketch on silent mornings ever so long ago.  She stared at the yellow pools of light on the road and the lonely stretches of darkness in between.  There was a day and night cricket match between India and Pakistan on TV at that time; and maybe that was why the road had few people on it tonight.  She was at home and she wished with all heart that her brother would come back soon.  Safe and sound.  (p. 111-112)

As you can see from these excerpts, Pant’s English includes occasional expressions such as ‘ever so long ago‘.  Elsewhere she uses the term ‘a McDonald’s outlet’ – a text-book sort of expression which I found rather quaint until I realised that it is Indian English, as authentic as it is for Sushant to refer to her teacher as ‘Rupsingh Sir’.  Just as the sophistication of British English is lost when edited for American audiences used to a more casual, frank form of English, so too the authenticity of more formal Indian English is airbrushed away when we read Indian authors living and publishing in Britain.   Pant’s use of ‘a McDonald’s outlet’ had the effect of drawing the newness of junk food in India to my attention, and the many references to the chatter of mobile phones reminded me how readily India has adapted to 24/7 communication.  This is part of what I liked about this book: along with the nostalgia for traditional values, there is acknowledgement that young people have choices now that their parents never had.

Author: Monika Pant
Title: Caught in Two Winds
Publisher: Lifi Publications Pvt. Ltd, 2014
ISBN: 9789382536390
Source: Review copy courtesy of the author.

Availability

Use this link from Monika’s blog.


Responses

  1. The difficulty in getting your hands on the review copy and your ‘rap on the knuckles’ of some publishers is a terrific reminder of the great work you do, Lisa, in getting titles and their authors acknowledged. Thank you.

    • LOL, I bet some publishers think I’m a thorn in their sides they could do without.


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