Slim Pickings

Sonia Faleiro’s The Girl, a book I’d briefly mentioned in this post at Sepia Mutiny, is a melancholy novel set in Goa about two men and The Girl they both loved. The book begins with the young woman’s suicide – yet another tragedy in cursed Azul – and the two men are “achingly curious” to find out why. And when one of them stumbles upon her journal, they use it to reconstruct her life leading up to the suicide – the death of an unhappy woman whose last big hope had vanished.

Just a few pages into the novel, and it is obvious that it is as much about showcasing the writing as it is about the actual plot. The Girl is a carefully crafted book: every sentence is meticulously assembled from deliberately chosen words, each page is filled with precise paragraphs construced from meticulously assembled sentences.

There is plenty of wordplay, and large doses of descriptive detail. Nothing is too insignificant to be let off without a metaphor or two, ranging from the inventive to the cliched.

Thus we have the earth “encrusting the casket like pastry bubbling into hardness,” a bar and its location as mismatched as “vegetarianism and a Goan” and as “profoundly antipodean” as the “Rua’s many little old ladies and the one young lady who lived opposite Breto’s in a stone mansion, and many years later flung herself into the well in the corner of her garden.”

It is also a book where shredded hills of coconut meat stand like “sentinels awaiting instruction” and the boring parish priest read for so long from the bible that “the cuckoo in the clock retired for the night” and so loudly that “a row of miniature Dutch houses slumbering on the edge of a small table trembled with the anticipation of their fall.” “Dewy golden hinged” windowpanes rock in the wind from their roots, “like butterflies pinned to the wall.”

While the care taken with the writing lends an erudite, suave feel to the book ( the classy production helps too), it also robs it of all spontaneity. Even the rare playfulness has a planned feel to it – one can almost sense the author pausing for applause before moving on to the next sentence. Perhaps that’s why The Girl comes off as verbose, a surprising thing for a book this slim. Some things are best left to the reader’s imagination…

At the very beginning of the book, for example, Sonia tries hard – way too hard – to convince her audience that there is something sinister about Azul, the Goan village where the tale is set in. Azul, we are told, enjoys a well deserved reputation as the Village of the Dead and the average Azulian resident has come across an excessive amount of tragedy. So much misfortune that the villagers are now inure to death and sadness and have grown to expect it.

And she doesn’t flinch at mentioning the fact over and over again – this supposed reputation of the village – devoting almost an entire chapter to it. And like the kid who keeps telling us over and over again that he didn’t really tear the five rupee bill (I really didn’t daddy), we start doubting the author, and an incidental detail that should’ve added a bit of intrigue to the narrative ends up creating a vague uneasiness in the minds of the reader about the whole story.

There is a village by the sea, a sea so blue they named the village Azul, the Portugese word for blue. But most people who have heard of or have passed through this forgotten clasp of Goa, know it not because of its unusual name but for its very real reputation as the Village of the Dead.The village is but a pinprick upon a map, so small and, as many believe, so potently cursed, that visitors who thronged to our part of the world after the incidents which I am now about to recount came to light, were unable, except perhaps by mistake, to stumble upon us.

***

In the house beside mine live Maria Coutinho and her three unwed daughters. Six months ago, Thomas Coutinho sunk to the bottom of the sea after his stomach cramped up during a particularly sharp movement of the breaststroke. Now Maria, Rosy, Daisy and Petunia feel like guests in their own home, unsure of the kitchen entrance or the exit door. They sit uneasily in their garden, sewing, drinking tea, weeping soundless tears to fill the empty space left behind by a beloved husband and father. I have another neighbour, a young man of indeterminate age. Perhaps a writer expecting to be discovered. a painter searching for a muse. Most likely he was once a cheery professional, eager for fame, desperate for a drink, who, having lost his way to someplace important, found himself in Azul and was immediately drained of all strength, perhaps even life, to turn back and go home. This is the effect we have on outsiders.

***

Yet I take meager solace in the fact that the entire village shares my fate. That is why we are of the Dead, perpetually in grief for losses real and imagined. There is not one in Azul who has not been denied a beloved too young, too soon. A wife whose husband drowned at sea, a brother who stumbled across an unlit path after too many glasses of arrack. A child born with an eye scooped out, another whose butter-soft skull lolls like a rubber ball on the dunes. A young girl, newly engaged, who lost her fianc� to a motorcycle accident that left the air thick with the smell of burning rubber and iron. A midnight stabbing at Happy Joe’s bar. And, of course, suicides. These are the sort of stories shared by the villagers at council meetings.

***

Soon enough, we realised that nobody understands death like the Village of the Dead, and no one expects to encounter it more. I suppose when you have nothing left to lose, you are finally freed of the terror of losing it.

Behind the veneer of beautiful writing and classy production, the story The Girl tells is nothing new. One girl, two men, unrequited love. The book is almost formulaic: A little bit of background about the girl – her family (dysfunctional), her life otherwise (lonely, boring). One of the men (sweet, lovable, timid). The other man (mysterious, traveler). Even though the Girl’s character is beautifully done – the quiet suffering, the hesitant hopefulness, and later, dignity when all hope fades – the rest of the people in the book veer dangerously close to being caricatures.

Perhaps a Marquez could’ve worked some over-the-top magic with this mix, but in the hands of this talented newbie with a gift for words, the book is just passable. One could be harsh and call this standard issue Bollywood, where you get great camerawork, flawless skin, beautiful costumes, plenty of cleavage, awesome locales and nothing else. One could, but that wouldn’t be fair. For all its flaws, The Girl is a pleasant read, and probably one of the better Indian books this year.

Comparisons can be odious, but I can’t help mentioning Siddhartha Chowdhury’s Patna Roughcut in this context. On a superficial level, the similarities are obvious. A short novel, a new author, a small town setting, released around the same time. The similarities end there though. Chowdhury’s unadorned prose is so much more believable, a quality that Sonia’s suave prose somehow lacks – her flowery prose is the book’s biggest strength, and its biggest weakness.

5 thoughts on “Slim Pickings”

  1. Hmm…The plot reminds me of McEwan’s Amsterdam – one woman who kills herself, her two lovers (only in McEwan’s case, there’s also a husband)…About Faleiro – I wouldn’t be surprised if the novel becomes popular outside India. It does seem to carry an undeniable whiff of ‘exotic India’ about it.

  2. DoZ, Havent read Amsterdam, but after Saturday… I am smitten by McEwan.

    And I doubt the popularity outside India thing… it might happen, but I would be very, very surprised if it did.

  3. Manish,

    It was a beautifully written book – and I guess what I was trying to say was that the floweriness of the language wasn’t jarring at all. In The Girl though, it seemed at times that the language was the book.

    Perhaps I am being a bit unfair to Sonia when I compare her book with one of the better Desi books in quite some time, but I read the two back to back and the difference was striking.

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