Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Once Upon a Time: Ashok Srinivasan: book review

Once Upon a Time: Ashok Srinivasan
Review by Divya Dubey

[Published by Hindustan Times, Sep 2, 2016: ]

Ashok Srinivasan’s short story collection, Book of Common Signs, won The Hindu Prize 2014. It was also long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Hence expectations from his debut novel, Once Upon a Time, were quite high. However, the novel turned out to be a royal disappointment.

The protagonist, Brinda Murty’s story is ostensibly modelled on the story of the crucifixion of Christ, though parallels within the novel are almost non-existent when it comes to Christ’s back story or his massive following. As a concept, sure, it sounds intriguing and full of possibilities. However, the author fails to portray a three-dimensional character the reader can root for. Problems with the novel begin right from flawed portraits early on. The novel neither falls into the category of those by Devdutt Pattanaik or Ashok Banker, nor those by the likes of Saramago. Elsewhere Srinivasan has been compared with authors such as Franz Kafka, Bruno Schulz and Haruki Murakami, but the work under review is a far cry from such.

‘Once upon a time, long, long, ago in a land far, far away there lived a doll called Brinda … that is how all my father’s bedtime stories to me invariably began,’ says Brinda Murty in the opening lines of the book, as a first-person narrator. However, as she progresses, the words turn into the most insipid documentary delivered in a detached, clinical voice.  Brinda never manages to establish an emotional connect with the reader.

She is the daughter in an affluent family in Tamil Nadu and has certain superpowers she herself is unaware of. For instance, she can clearly recall places and incidents that happened much before she was born, including her elder sister Sarla’s death. This thread would have drawn the reader into the tale instantly had it been developed well. Unfortunately, that does not happen. The reader keeps waiting and waiting, but this strand is lost amongst the various other unwarranted digressions in the narrative.

At some point Brinda’s family moves to Bangalore in her great-grandfather’s home called ‘Star Home’ – a kind of boarding house for other relatives, storytellers and artists and even strangers and foreigners. New characters are constantly introduced – some directly, others randomly, but none of them ever really finds a voice in the novel – whether it is her actor-father or painter-mother, or for that matter her poet-brother, Janak, or lover, Gautam, later in the book. They are all more or less mute cardboard characters. On the very few occasions when they do speak, their language sounds stilted, contrived and hinged on clichés.  For example, as children, when Janak shakes his sister off because he cannot ‘stand being touched’ and she asks him how he would ever have children, his response is, ‘The married life is not for me; nor the sweet corruption of saintliness. As you can see, I am drunk as a skunk. What I want is the sodden life of an evil-minded hermit. End of story.’

In fact the most important events in the books are arbitrary. There are no convincing cause-and-effect relationships established.  Brinda’s father moves away from the family, but we never know why. The mother lives in her own world, but we do not know why. Brinda finds she possesses strange healing skills, but she never wonders why. Nor does anybody else. Her brother Janak takes to drinking and ends up in an asylum. Again, one never finds out why.  She never manages to form a bond with her lover. The reader fails to understand why. She is taken prisoner by the state for her special powers. Once again the reader fails to understand why. The end is the most bizarre of all.

When Brinda moves to college in Bombay, she is swallowed up by a completely different culture until unimaginable horrors descend upon her, but the reader is still left struggling to make sense of cause and effect, seeking answers to the question why, which never ever emerge convincingly.  Even after suffering rape and molestation her voice and tone remain neutral: ‘The next man turned me on my stomach and raised my hips and took me from behind […] This went on until old Mucosa or his double was into me when from sheer exhaustion I must have blacked out.’

Barely a paragraph later, it is life as usual for her: ‘One Sunday, just as I was returning from home from a shopping spree [italics mine] one of the urchins playing hopscotch on the street […] handed me a grimy, unsealed envelope….’

Ashok Srinivasan
How can you expect the reader to take such a protagonist or her morbid experiences seriously? For a woman, who has been through such devastating experiences, would have a sea of emotions within her that must be communicated to the reader. This major fault shows a clear lack of skill and sensitivity  on part of the author, the inability to enter the complex mind of a woman, especially a woman scarred by the most horrendous experiences in her youth, or the impossibility of articulating or expressing them, leave alone dealing with them.

Every action, every event, every diversion from beginning to end is arbitrary and therefore the entire novel lacks credence or appeal. The book offers too little, demands too much. That is why it remains – throughout – a pretty superficial and, in every sense, unimpressive piece of work. 

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