Mishq bag


Six minutes past midnight and I am at work. This is now what Tuesday night looks like.  It is similiar to other nights except that when I get home today it will be too late to watch an episode of Ugly Betty. Betty Suarez is cute and the show is great fun only because of the resurrection of Vanessa Williams. Who knew Ms Blah had it in her to be so fabulously bitchy? She is the best thing about Ugly Betty apart from the hilarious vignettes from faux Mexican soaps that Betty's father is always watching. I laugh at the OTT sequences from the Mexican soaps with a mixture of amusement and outrage. After all why on earth do the creators of Ugly Betty think they are superior to soaps? Clever buggers borrowing the plot of a hugely successful Columbian soap, using the dramatic techniques of soaps and then making fun of them.


Once upon a time a prince decided that he would only marry a true princess. One stormy night he gave refuge to a delicate, young woman who came to his castle. The prince and his family hid a pea in her bed under forty feather mattresses and were delighted when, the following morning, she complained of a terrible, sleepless night. She had passed the test. After all, only real princesses had such sensitive skin. What always puzzled me about the tale of The Princess and the Pea is this. Once found, what was she good for? 

When commissioning editors embark on quests for writers with Asian blood and well-stamped passports, then readers are stuck with literary princesses who write about peas and recline on forty feather mattresses. Priya Basil’s first novel Ishq and Mushq (roughly Love and Musk) reeks of publishing cynicism in its hotch-potch combining of themes that have dominated Indian writing in English for years. Priya Basil is not a Cambridge graduate writing rudeboy argot. She probably will not spark wild debates about authenticity. Has she therefore passed the only test that the world seems to have for South Asian writers?  Basil may truly be who she writes about or maybe she is not. The more relevant question is whether her book is well-written. 

Family sagas can be delicious and satisfying. When the young and beautiful age, when the revolutionary becomes a rich oppressor, when the aristocrat becomes part of the great unwashed, when the poor hero buys his first mansion, we are hooting from the wings. A great range of writers from preachy John Galsworthy through Isabel Allende and Ian McEwan to the rhinoceros-shooting Wilbur Smith have successfully attempted family sagas. Not so Priya Basil.  

In 1947 Sarna of Amritsar marries Karam of Nairobi, she experiences the power struggles of a young woman in a large traditional household.  After the death of one of their children the couple strikes out on their own in Kampala. Their early passion for each other sours.  They have another child and eventually move to London where they make a modest life for themselves. Then Sarna’s illegitimate daughter Nina, borne of a relationship she had before she married Karam, writes to Sarna insisting that she takes responsibility for her. Sarna manages to bring her from Amritsar to London and even marry her off without divulging the truth. Every now and then Nina tries to get Sarna to publicly recognise her as her daughter but fails. Javed Jaffrey would say, same plot, different bungalow.  

Ishq and Mushq does not have the exaggerated conflicts of a toothsome melodrama. Nor does it quietly document the lives of immigrants like Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake which drove many readers insane with its plotless meandering but demonstrated an admirable capacity for painful, precise detail. 

The first problem is that Basil seems to have given up on her characters early on. Sarna turns inexplicably from a resilient minx into a hysterical woman. Without the redeeming tug of a spotty-handed villainess, her stealing and sabotaging is merely tedious. The motivations and impulses of other characters are more compassionately, if thinly dealt with, but none of them are particularly memorable.  

The second problem is that leitmotifs are forced willy-nilly onto the plot and then lazily dropped. Literary buzzwords such as memory, trauma, racism and exile appear and disappear like sulking children. If Salman Rushdie had known what other writers were going to do to us because of Saleem Sinai’s nose and amnesia he may well have reconsidered that playful allegory. We are told that Karam has a tendency to miss important personal and political events. He is in India during the Partition but falls ill and is unconscious for many weeks. He tries to attend Queen Elizabeth’s coronation but his flight is delayed and he faints in the plane. In Ishq, the gaps in Karam’s memory, far from having allegorical meaning only seems like the ploy of a movie director who takes the easy way out and tells his novice actress to cover her face with her hands when crying.  

Again, Sarna’s ‘thing’ is that she cooks extremely well and reacts to unpleasantness in her life by continuously farting!  In Like Water For Chocolate, Rosaura’s death from gas, is a brilliantly integrated comic sequence, spoofing deaths in Mexican soap operas. In Ishq even this bizarre scatological detail comes off as derivative and dull.  

Is Basil operating on the assumption that publishers will take any old tripe written by an Indian and print it with blurbs proclaiming its ‘universal truths’? Was it Basil or her editor or her agent who had decided that an element of ‘excess’ was necessary? Are novel being assembled from a DIY kit like the members of a boy-band? Is there a South Asian equivalent of Roald Dahl’s Great Automatic Grammatizator, a story producing machine? This wild-eyed paranoia spoils even the interesting vignettes such as the scandal of Chatta Choda chopping his hair in front of his brother’s wedding party and the granthi. 

Those who have been scarred before by what critic Amardeep Singh calls the ‘Opal Mehta's Arranged Monsoon Marriage Under the Curry-Smelling Mango Trees’ school of fiction, will heed this omen: the book cover has mangoes.  


I refuse to go to any parties if there is no dancing.


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