This is a book review for BlogAdda. The blurb of The Muddy River by P.A.Krishnan says,
“The Muddy River tells and re-tells the story of Ramesh Chandran, a bureaucrat caught up in the machinations of Assamese politics and public sector corruption during his quest to rescue a hapless engineer kidnapped by militants. As Chandran bumbles along, he encounters the engineer’s wife, who is a pocket-sized battle-axe; a cynical police officer; a venerable Gandhian and Anupama, another engineer torn between professional integrity and her love for Assam. While the rescue drama reaches its climax, Chandran also exposes a massive financial scandal in his company and pays the price for ignoring warnings that he might push too far for an unashamedly corrupt society’s comfort. An aspiring writer, Chandran weaves the events of this time into a novel, while attempting to come to terms with his own marriage in the aftermath of the death of their only child. But how much does Chandran understand other people’s truths and motivations? And how much does his wife, Sukanya, know about the events of the novel?
Multi-layered and complex, The Muddy River blurs the boundaries between the story and the storyteller, victims and victimisers, keeping the reader guessinag till the very end”
The Assam connection interested me, since I know nothing about that side of the country. But mostly, the last line of the blurb hooked me, since it hinted at meta-fiction and at the complex relationship between writer and the written word.
The structure of the book is unconventional. It starts off with a chapter ending in two letters, correspondence to people who are not introduced in the earlier paragraphs. This is followed by a page that looks like a book cover bearing ‘This Street Has No Other Side’. A full novel follows after this, beginning with a prologue in the form of a letter. This ends with a chapter that starts and ends with a letter. This is presumably to convey the story-within-story effect.
The first chapter refers to a dead child and a violent encounter with the police. These are events that invoke sharp responses within a reader but they are not given closure within that chapter and one is left guessing about the circumstances and depth of each. Starting at this point, it is hard to fully embrace the mellow, subtle mood of the chapters that follow, which mention nothing of either incident.
The novel itself rambles all over the place, capturing individual moments in Ramesh Chandran’s life. It feels more like a personal journal than a novel. This still might have worked if the novel stood by itself. But the larger story looms above and weighs it down, leaving the reader with a feeling of restless impatience (“When will he ever get to telling the actual story??!”) Somewhere along the way, while the reader is muddling along in this dissatisfied confusion, events start to happen – a kidnapping, travel, meetings with the kidnappers, conversations with the conflicted locals.
Other characters pop up along the way, in vague references or side-rambles that seem to have nothing to do with the sections before or after them – the spouse, a friend, the daughter, the wife of the kidnapped man, a local officer, a minister. None of these characters are given enough time to develop and express their positions fully so it’s hard to empathize with or even understand their motivations.
The writing in the first chapter is beautiful, even poetic but it also feels very self-conscious, which is something that hampers any artistic expression. The novel within the book has a different style, more prosaic and dry in wit. This attempt to create different voices (the author of the novel and the narrator of the larger story) works well in itself.
All in all, The Muddy River was probably an ambitious attempt but falls far short of its mark. It actually took me over a month to write this review, because I had to plod through the book. I was tempted to give it up a number of times and never for the usual reasons (bad grammar, nonsense plotline). At the end, I just feel confused & dissatisfied and not because of the story itself but the way it was presented. A simple, linear narrative just might have done more justice to a story that needed to be told.
Here’s another review that thinks differently.
I like this Reverb10 prompt. It reminds me of the start of a Richard Bach book I loved as a teenager – The Bridge Across Forever – where the author writes a letter to the boy he was. This is a letter to the future but I like the idea of communicating with other-time selves.
December 21 – Future Self.
Imagine yourself five years from now. What advice would you give your current self for the year ahead? (Bonus: Write a note to yourself 10 years ago. What would you tell your younger self?)
(Author: Jenny Blake)
Me in five years
I’ll be thirty-six at that time. If the bloodlines are anything to go by, I’ll retain my tall, lean frame and my youthful looks. I will probably also be beset by a number of health problems that don’t make themselves visible but make life damned inconvenient. There’s things I might forget by then, and will need to be reminded of, when I’m thirty-six.
Me in the year ahead
Breathe. That’s the most important thing. The trick is to just keep breathing.
I may fail. I may hit a wave of success. Everyone I love may die. Everyone I care for, may turn on me. I may be the most popular person on the planet. None of these may happen. But I need to make sure I keep breathing.
Me a decade ago
My dear 21-year-old self,
I know you’re not going to be surprised to read this because you imagine stuff like this all the time. Yep, I’ve been receiving all the letters you’re been writing to me, all this time. Communications across time have considerably improved. I’m glad you got the letters down and decided to worry about postage later.
What’s life like, a decade later? Well, there’s plenty of stuff that’s been invented. If you had any money of your own I’d advise you to invest it…but never mind, you don’t have any money of your own. Strangely enough, you’re great at managing it when you have little and as you get older and more money comes your way, you’ll lose that talent. Don’t stop hoarding and don’t shut down that habit you have of putting away little notes and coins in hiding places to surprise yourself later. Yes, of course I know about all of those. I found those little money-gifts, remember?
You’ve sailed over many of the body image issues that your peers faced in adolescence. You’re going to hit a biggie, in oh, about two years from now. It’s going to take everything you’ve got, even your bloody intestines and turn them inside out. You’ll be robbed of everything that can possibly be robbed from you, including what little weight you do have.
Are you still reading? Good, you always had nerve. You don’t realise it yet but you do. That’s the one thing that won’t -cannot – be stolen from you. And many, many years later, a whole lot of ‘Why did that have to happen to me?’s later, you will be able to accept that knowledge of that fact was worth all that you paid for it.
You’ve already had your horoscope drawn by an enthusiastic relative and you’ve analysed yourself on various pop-culture fronts. Have fun with it. Belief is a powerful toy, like fire but you have a strange ability to be able to play with it. Ignore what everyone says about your love life. I won’t tell you more. Just ignore it and follow your heart. It is about your heart after all, why should you listen to anyone else? Believe what they say about your talents and abilities, though. It’s true and what’s more, believing the good things that people say about you will give you the confidence to make it all come true.
Did it all come true? Well, I’m still standing here, aren’t I? Do I sound happy or unhappy to you? 🙂 I’ll leave you with just one thought. It only gets better with time. The thirties are fabulous and I’m off to a good time! I’ll see you in another ten years!
Okay, that wasn’t short but it was fun! 🙂 It reminded me of another very old post, also full of time travel.
Here’s another Reverb10 list-prompt! And this time with a fantasy-time travelly theme to it!
December 15 – 5 Minutes
Imagine you will completely lose your memory of 2010 in five minutes. Set an alarm for five minutes and capture the things you most want to remember about 2010.
(Author: Patti Digh)
And….there’s the timer. That’s that. Five wonderful things about 2010.
Another somewhat uninspiring Reverb 10 prompt but that may just be because I write so much about this already in my blog. So here goes:
December 10 – Wisdom Wisdom
What was the wisest decision you made this year, and how did it play out?
(Author: Susannah Conway)
This has been a year (and a little more) of reflections and insights. I had a windfall of wisdom due to me, after the decade I spent chasing all manner of unwise things. I don’t know if I’ve collected all but I’m still making sense of much of them. Wisdom seems to me like the juice of ripe fruits. The orchard spans acres and acres and I haven’t even finished on the first tree. The feasting has begun but there’s much wisdom juice to still be sucked out. Let me just instead, list some of the wisdom-rich experiences of the past year.
I’m not counting the experience of turning thirty and quitting my job and starting my book. Yes, all of that is slightly stereotyped early mid-life crisis like, isn’t it? Those experiences are already being chronicled in The Thirty Diaries.
Last year, I participated in an online study that examined the trend of people quitting their regular jobs to pursue other lines for various reasons. My participation required me to write an essay type answer each day, to various soul-searching, thought-provoking questions that the group posed to me. The questions explored my notions of success and motivation as also my life lessons and my future plans. What I discovered for myself, was that I had spent a decade and more aspiring to (and with reasonable success, living up to) a common perception of success, as it was held by my family and friends. The big change in my life at thirty was less about quitting one track and more about deciding to figure out success for myself – what it is, how to measure it and how to get going on it.
The novel was begun last year but that was more of a task. It really became a soul exercise only this year when it hit me that fiction or otherwise, this was something I was creating from myself. The emotions, the ideologies, the characters and their stories, these were all things I shaped from the raw material of my own life experiences. While my novel is not autobiographical and none of my characters are based on me, their world and them is built from the clay and bricks of my own dreams and feelings and relationships. Writing about them is quite literally like building. For that, I have to go into the storehouse of my own emotion every single time. And what I find there, is not always to my expectation, let alone liking. There are wells over wells of forgotten feelings and repressed emotions that emerge with every soul-digging enterprise. When I write about a fifteen-year-old’s struggle to fit, it irrevocably takes me back to my own awkward adolescence and forces me to face what I thought and felt and believed, back then. The mind is storehouse of every single thing you’ve said and done and felt and in so many ways, you are better off not going there. Writing is signing away the safety valve of forgetfulness that life gives us. My madness is let loose. And yet, I wouldn’t stop it, if I could. Maybe there will be some wisdom in this unabashed tidal wave.
And finally there is the relationship. I’ve been writing about dating and the opposite sex and relationships for a long time now. But actually living it is a whole new experience. What’s more, the last time I was in a real relationship, I was a different person. The very act of being with someone is stepping over into a different world and being a different person. You are never quite the same again, even after the relationship ends. Building something with another person, just adjusting to another person’s world is causing the foundations of my own careful, precise, cleanly-ordered world to crack and crumble. It’s not comfortable, in the least. But this time, I can feel me growing, quite literally. Wisdom, I await you with humble arms, wide open.
My last NovelRace update was ages ago. I can’t quite explain why there hasn’t been one in all this while. Have I not been learning? Far from it.
I’ve been reading like crazy. After an initial burst and burnout, I slowed down and prioritised my schedule. I’ve taken apart books and stories, read the way I did over a decade ago…with no regard for time or day or genre. It has been overwhelmingly enriching.
The writing has been much less. But I’ve been thinking a lot more. Long sojourns of brooding punctuated by brief frenzies of writing. I think my technique is improving too. And the wonderful Aha! moment happened a few months back when I discovered my characters thinking for themselves and taking their stories to their own logical conclusions. It hit me – I had just found my voice!
And yet, my heart has been heavy these past few months, quite unlike the exhilaration that came with the first few months. I know it could be a number of reasons. The initial burst of enthusiasm has waned, giving way to a more full-bodied, if less vibrant energy. There is also a flip side to finding the voice. Just like actors get into the skin of their characters, I find myself in the situations that I write in and feeling what my characters do. It is bewildering since my life for all purposes is petering out at the same slow pace as it has in these past few months. And yet, I find myself unaccountably sad, guiltwracked, troubled, cheerful, delighted and confused. My characters are facing these things in their stories and before I write in what happens to them, I have to feel the magnitude of each emotion to filter out the most potent bits of it into words.
I spent one entire month under sombre darkness. I wrote in an extra-marital affair and carrying the burden of the guilt, the secrecy, the injustice, the pain, the conflicts…it was too much. I couldn’t bear to look at my drafts for two weeks. And when I did, I hastily put down words to just ‘get it out of the way’. I know I will need to go back and much time and effort will be needed on the revisions. But I just don’t have it in me to face that just now.
The other thing I feel is a terrible sense of loss. Very early in my writing, I found a partner. He was working on a first novel too and enjoyed words just as I did. We became friends very quickly and the start of my career as a writer is linked inextricably with the beginning of our friendship. We talked long and often about our respective drafts. It’s difficult to explain just why this is so critical. But he opened up my mind to the world of literature and writing. He broadened my understanding of my own craft. And he expanded the scope of my story. In making a case to him when he played devil’s advocate, I strengthened my own story. My characters were shaped and nuanced by the fallout of our many discussions. And in all those emotions that I felt, he was with me. It felt like I had an extra brain to toss around all these thoughts.
That relationship has waned in these past five months. For reasons I won’t get into, I am quite unable to resume the friendship. I feel an overwhelming sense of betrayal, like he has abandoned both me and my book. We had promised each other once that the acknowledgements in each of our books would contain a lengthy mention of the other. I’ve written mine in already and I don’t know what to do with it. Should I remove it, since he’s left me mid-way? Should I let it stay since the project may never even have begun or, indeed, come this far, if it weren’t for him? It troubles me like something pricking in the corner of my eye. I can’t ignore it, I can’t seperate myself from it. And at the end of it all, my story suffers in an orphaned state.
I’ve tried to find other replacements. There have been others who’ve offered counsel, many other wonderful people who have given help and support. But none of them is him. He is after all, the godfather (as I once called him) of this book and that is not a role that can be replaced.
And I am troubled by my own dependence on him. I haven’t needed another person so much in all my years of work. But I also got away from that, in the hope that writing would be different, involve a different work ethic. I didn’t want to shield myself from other people in fear like one learns to in the corporate world. And while it was good, it was the best way to be, personally and professionally. But now that he’s gone, it brings home the reason why people hold themselves in reserve. To be let down, hurts so much, tangibly and in other not so visible ways. And yet, if the lesson in this is that one must be alone in what one does, I am in quandary. In my writing, I am my truest self and that person is not a solitary one at all. That is a person who needs company and connection and withers without it. If the only option is to be ‘independent’ then I think I’d rather get back to my old job. At least I just have to wear a facade there, not change my innermost being.
I’m ending this here because I don’t know where I stand. For the record, the novel now stands at 78,421 words. It’s nearly 80% complete in what I envisioned of the first draft. And after that, it will need considerable modification to ensure consistency of voice, grammar & punctuation checks and some major pruning down of length. I know if I leave this here it will haunt me all my life. And at the same time, having come this far, I know only how the easiest parts are behind me.
I just put aside Lord of the Rings an hour ago, having finally read it from cover-to-cover in one go. In that universe I would be akin to Frodo at the end of Book One. The Fellowship has broken and there is a long, ardous journey ahead with no hope of reprieve or return. But even Frodo had a Sam Gamgee and I don’t.
Other NovelRace updates:
My NovelRace update this week is going to be a short one. Due to a family crisis, there was almost no work done on my novel this week. I was caught up in the situation so even the story going on in the background slipped clean out of my head. The upside of it was a sense of being recharged after some time away. Let’s hope I’m able to channel that into pushing up the wordcount.
My struggle this week (apart from finding time) has been the onset of ennui. It isn’t that my story is boring. It’s just that by now I’ve thought through it from so many angles, labored over so many details and actually worked so hard on it, that I’m beginning to tire of it. I mean, I know the story already so at the end I’m left wondering, what’s the excitement in retelling it? I’ve told myself the story a zillion times over. Aditya assures me that a writer goes through this sometimes and that I should just stick to it. I also received a reply to my tweet complaining about this…
…which boosts my morale. Thank you so much.
I’ve changed the name of one of the characters following a discussion with a friend about what he picturizes when he hears the name. That’s really important, I think. I’ve already said that mine is an ensemble story. While it isn’t about religion or linguistic communities, to keep it a fair representation of the idea, I’m trying to ensure that there are a diverse bunch of characters from various backgrounds. Being Indian, we rarely think about how much latent knowledge we already have about the various nuances of our culture.
For example, the name Champakali may make you think of girl clad in a full-sleeved polyester salwar-kameez with a chiffon dupatta (perhaps the colours don’t match). Her hair would be oiled and braided, most probably with a red ribbon at the end of it. Her adornments might be some gold interspersed with cheap looking costume jewelery. Make-up if any would be kajal.
On the other hand, the name Anita would bring to mind a more modern-looking woman. If she were dressed in Indian wear, I would mentally clothe her in FabIndia cotton or perhaps a starched saree. Her hair would be shoulder-length, worn loose or at best, tied in a casual ponytail. Her jewellery would likely be more expensive but minimal. She would wear a watch but no other jewellery on the same hand. The other wrist may sport a bracelet at best, no bangles.
Obviously both of these are stereotypes. For a writer who isn’t trying to make a statement about these stereotypes, it makes sense to work with them. So I’m accordingly picking names that seem to ‘go’ with my characters’ personalities and backgrounds. My above example is an extreme one that details economic differences that could come through from people’s names. All of us know the religious differences as well. You’re hardly likely to find a Hindu called Rahim or a Parsi called Raman. Once again, these are possible but they don’t add to my story since I’m not talking about religion or caste norms at all. In addition there are also subtler nuances that we recognize about caste and even geographical roots from people’s names and surnames. But of course. Where would you think that a Achrekar would hail from? Or a Sengupta? Or Patel?
See why the name is so important? Our names make a statement about us before we even say a word. In a country like India they carry a wealth of information about us – our cultural, linguistic, geographical, religious and economic lineage. Use them with care and caution. That’s what I’m doing.
That’s a big enough lesson in itself so I won’t draw any more morals from this week. My rank stays at number 7 even with today’s added effort which brings me to a wordcount of 40,339. The differences between the wordcounts of the people closer to the top are really wide, to the tune of 10K words in one case. On the other hand, the people closer to the bottom are fighting it out for the below 10 ranks over differences of a few hundred words. That’s a characteristic of any race I suppose. I don’t know who’s betting on me on this one. I’d be hard-pressed to decide whether I was a good bet or not, I’m in neither the top league nor the bottom one. So I’ll leave that to the observers while I get on with my writing. See you next week!
Other NovelRace updates: