Sunday, February 4, 2018

Ursula Le Guin and Amish Tripathi

Ursula Le Guin died a few days ago and I took up her books to read and re-read. Amish, as he calls himself, was announced as visiting nearby and I was teaching the Ramayana so I re-read his The Scion of Ikshvaku. Some thoughts.

What is wonderful about Ursula Le Guin’s writing is that it is loaded with detail. Not as in Arundhati Roy, hammer, hammer, hammer. But as in the best of realist fiction, with a little verb here and an adjective there. At the same time, it is not the no-nonsense self-important realism of a Bharati Mukherjee, Ernest Hemingway, American creative writing class. “The lane was dark. I stumbled along.” She would rather say, “The night was smoky with darkness. He stumbled along, bone-weary, expecting no light to shine through the darkness, yet with a flicker of hope in his heart.”

That brings me to my second point. She uses warm, intimate words and phrases: the heart, the legs, water, land, fire. Not in  he ways they could also be used in science fiction, to denote power and suggest evil or at least mystery, rather in ways that do suggest power and mystery, but as wound up in the friendliness of, or at least our comfort with, the universe.

Her work is about us. What we would also think and do under the circumstances.

So, amazingly, I do not feel alienated from Ged’s wandering around among the cold rain and snow, his battles with fierce winds and waves, his pursuit of the dark shadow over places that no one goes to—in short all those physical trials that turn me off in a James Bond adventure, or even Sherlock Holmes now. In Le Guin, the bettles with harsh conditions under no-food, no-water circumstances feel doable and definitely readable.

What is so not wonderful about Amish’s writing is that he is devoid of details. He has a stock of cardboard characters called Dashrath, Kaikeyi, Ram, Sita, etc. None of them have an ounce of life in them. They do not speak anything real or act as if they were real. Why did he not infuse them with life? Obviously he does not know how. Nor does he want to learn. He tells us in an interview that he reads non-fiction, not fiction. Compare the Wikipedia entry on J.K. Rowling, on the influences on her I believe (yes, a separate entry), in which she mentions scores of authors she likes and has learnt from and been influenced by.

Amish thinks that the plot is all. There is no question that he is inventive about the plot. His Ravana is a successful banker and trader who controls the economy of India through his sheer intelligence and purposefulness. Dashrath is a loser. Ram is condemned by the citizens of Ayodhya, and is such a stickler for rules that after he is party to the detonation of an atomic weapon to defend Mithila, he claims fourteen years of exile for himself. Sita is a warrior. The rakshasa as well as the monkeys and bears, are all humans excommunicated from mainstream society because of birth defects, and angry and keen to conspire and take revenge.

And so on. The inventiveness is intriguing. Much of the time it makes you want to read on. I have certainly read all of Amish’s books, in this case twice (it must have been so bad that it left no mark on me until I read it again and faintly recollected some parts). I can be made to read bad books, just as I eat laddus and cheap sweets on a railway platform because I need the sugar. In both cases, the thing consumed is bad without qualification. You have to be clear that it’s not the thing itself but some need in you that makes you see it through.

Amish may certainly be allowed to be a best-seller. He should just not be mistaken for “a Tolkien” or among India’s “best” or even “good” authors. The pity is both that he is not critically received and put into a context, but also, since he does not read (is not educated in his field) that he does not, can not,  acknowledge the niche he belongs to.

It is not that of Ursula Le Guin. I am sorry for Indian mythology which needs a contemporary voice sometime soon, as Celtic, Welsh, Scandinavian, etc. mythology has found.

- Nita Kumar, Director