GOWANUS Spring 2001

Reviews, by Anjana Basu
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Memory of Elephants
Boman Desai 
HarperCollins India. Rs 195
Asylum USA
Boman Desai 
HarperCollins India. Rs 195

It is hard to forget that Boman Desai is a Parsi. His Memory of Elephants (1988) centres around the question of Parsi identity. The four elements of this identity are—religion, ethnicity, history and a consciousness of being set apart, of being one of the elite. But then, Parsis have always been conscious of their difference. They are inbred, they claim not be Indian, insisting on their Persian ancestry-- Persian, not Iranian, and they have their own special religion. Most of them, in fact, claim to feel more for Queen Victoria and the British Royal Family than they do for the Indian constitution. Which is why Parsis have been writing novels that deal with the knotty problem of who they are and why they feel like foreigners in India and estranged abroad.

Technically too, Memory of Elephants is one of the most ambitious of all the recent novels written by Parsis, barring Bapsy Sidhwa’s Ice-Candy-Man and Rohinton Mistry’s novels. Of course, the book is also clever. Some people say too clever. It has all the fashionable post-modernist qualities of its time, the element of magical realism and the disorientation of time and space. It also has the didactic and allegorical strain, which everyone is familiar with after Rushdie and Vikram Chandra.

Desai’s ‘hero’, Homi, has been dumped by his American girlfriend and resorts to inventing a 'memo-scan in' the hope that he can relive his life with his girl. Instead he finds himself reliving the past of the Parsi community. The memo-scan gives Homi the ‘memory of elephants, the memory of whales, the equation of the universe’. The memo-scan activates the collective unconscious of the Parsis, what Homi’s long dead grandmother calls the ‘memory of the soul’. However, by understanding the Parsi past as well as his own, he comes to terms with the present, just as the Parsi community has also been able to adjust to present-day realities by understanding the components of its own identity.

The character of Homi is the Parsi Everyman, the archetypal ‘Bawaji’. The memo-scan enables Homi to zoom in and focus on important scenes from his and his race’s past. In fact, Homi’s personal memories are constantly intercut with those of his race as the memo-scan pans the collective past unconsciousness. Cinema is used as a metaphor to emphasise the cinema verite quality of Homi’s memories. The memo-scan splices the past and present, and images of Homi’s family are superimposed on those of Arabs and Persian soldiers.

The memo-scan makes Homi a witness to the clash between Zoroastrian tolerance and Islamic oppression. Arab atrocities drive small bands of Zoroastrians to the seaport of Hormuz, in the province of Pars, and from there to India. Juxtaposed with Parsi history are the concerns of modern Parsis—the identity crisis of a race which doesn’t know where it really belongs. This is reflected in Homi’s crie de coeur, ‘Home? Where? Aquihana or Bombay?’

History gives away to ethnicity, and the memo-scan takes us through the rituals that are an integral part of Parsi life, first in Gujarat and then in Bombay. The Navjote ceremony at which all Parsi men are initiated into Zoroastrianism is highlighted. This ceremony is crucial to the ‘we-consciousness’ of the novel. The death rites, the unique Towers of Silence, are described; Parsi cuisine and its distinct flavours brought out.  Homi is also confronted with the clash between his Parsi identity and the Indian identity. His mother’s westernised family typifies the Anglicised Parsis who distance themselves deliberately from the Indian reality in which they live. Homi’s mother’s contact with mainstream Indian society is restricted to the men and women who work as domestics in her home. Bapaiji, Homi’s grandmother, on the other hand, is more integrated into her Indian context, just as she is also more rooted in her Parsi identity. This is not as paradoxical as it sounds. Belonging to a wider community does not necessarily exclude the individual identity. In fact, only those Parsis, like Bapaji, who belong to a narrower ethnic identity, can assimilate into the macro-identity. Homi’s Bapaiji, a strong persona, a Parsi woman rooted in semi-rural Gujarat, is our ‘guide’ through the intricate maze of the collective unconscious. She stands not just for Homi’s past, she also represents the Parsis’ link with India. She is symbolic of those first Parsis who made a pact with Jadav Rana of Gujarat to embrace the Gujarati language, dress and customs. She refuses to speak anything except Gujarati with her ‘American Grandson’, as she calls Homi.

Bapaiji attends municipal meetings, leads marches and mingles with both Hindus and Muslims. She also shrewdly manages to avert a Hindu-Muslim riot.  Since she is a Parsi, she is considered by the Indians to favour neither religion, so her word carries weight with members of both. This was the role Phirozshah Mehta had envisaged for Parsis. However, Bapaijis are in a minority among Parsis today.
Most modern Parsis are closer to Noshir Daruvala of Asylum USA, who is enchanted by all things Western. He sees America as the new El Dorado, the Promised Land, after Maggie Thatcher’s England shut its doors to Asian immigrants. Noshir, however, is not easily accepted by White American society. To the Americans he is as much a foreigner as any Indian, despite his diet of American films and Hippie pretensions. This is what happens to most Parsi youths when they go abroad. They reject their Parsi identity and choose to migrate to the West, but to the Westerners they are as unacceptable as any other Indian.

This is a blow to Noshir’s ego, as it is a blow to most elitist Parsis. The elitism so carefully nurtured in India crumbles in the face of Western rejection. In a bid to salvage his superiority, Homi, who also faces a similar rejection, waxes eloquent on what he considers his trump card—the Zoroastrian religion. He sets out to impress his American hosts by telling them about the historic past of his religion. Zarathushtra’s value-based religion is expounded in considerable detail, in fragments, throughout the novel. The two best-known Zoroastrian prayers are translated and their importance explained. This is where the religious aspect of the Parsi identity comesin.
The memo-scan’s zigzag movements allow Homi to explore all the facets of his identity. These fragmented pieces of his past build up not just his identity but also that of his race. The identity-building exercise complete, Homi is returned to his home in India. The wanderer through time and space, who has meandered through Persia, Rural India, England, Scotland and America, over a period of thirteen hundred years, is back where he belongs, in his flat in Bombay.  Noshir however, is too far gone for this salvation. He marries Barbara, an all-American ex-Playboy bunny in his search for a green card. But the marriage is a marriage of convenience, since he pays her a thousand dollars and Barbara in any case straddles two societies, since she has a lesbian live-in lover. He has to find a Wertern girl to love him, however, since that is part of the Parsi deal. So he moves on to Blythe.  But Blythe also has a lover, male this time, so he moves on again. In the end he gets his green card and successfully affirms his identity.

The novels resolve themselves into two distinct realities. That of the stay-at-home Parsi attuned to an Indian existence and the ‘American’ Parsi assimilated into the expatriate ethos. Both these Parsis, however, retain a common identity which they are unable to shed, since all Parsis are in actuality cursed with the memory of elephants. Those who cannot learn the lessons of the past are forced, they say, to repeat it.


The Last Jet Engine Laugh 
Ruchir Joshi
Harper Collins India Rs 395

Kolkata, city with an attitude, the armpit of India--it all depends on how you look at it. Of course the Kolkata diehard intellectuals will insist that despite its defects, it is a city to die for. Even the ones who leave Calcutta can’t get it out of their veins. Amit Chaudhury--though he’s back in the city singing and writing about long dusty roads with rabindransangeet at the end of them. His books are all songs to a poetic Kolkata. Raj Kamal Jha sitting in Delhi and writing about incest in a midnight blue Kolkata.  There’s a side to Kolkata that all this poetry and music misses out on. A down-to-earth side where lovers have no place to go to hold hands. So they resort to the back seat of taxis, after dark, hoping that the driver won’t notice--though the hope is usually in vain because the driver shifts his rearview mirror  and all the other cars behind get a peep show through the rear windshield of  two heads bobbing together. This is the Kolkata that Joshi describes in his book. A Kolkata all the rarer for being seen by a Gujarati who is part of the city but yet not part of the city.  Ruchir’s is the neighborhood fiction I own this city kind of Calcutta book.  The kind that brings out the aggressive nosy side of the city. It is in part Calcutta attitude with the Benglish, Hinglish English that everyone speaks--and of course, since Ruchir is Gujarati, Ginglish--thrown in to bring out the attitude.

An aggressive Kolkata where a sub section of the people insist on believing that a 123 year old political legend named Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose is still alive and waiting somewhere to return and lead them to victory. Where would he be, where could he have vanished if not in a plane crash--half of Kolkata refuses to accept the plane crash. So Joshi takes a leaf out of Solzenytsin and plonks the old man in a gulag, a prisoner with no name and babblings of Bengali identity. No one recognises him there, though his guards bring in a Bengali to interrogate him. This while Bengal celebrates his birthday and sets off sirens at the time of his birth every 23rd January.

The language of the novel is typical Indian English--something that is certainly not English but a lingua franca peculiar to the subcontinent. Born out of Independence and cultivated by Star TV. In fact, this is a novel that ’s easy to read for the Indian male who is convinced that ‘English is a behnchod limited language’ anyway but you have to struggle through it to be recognised as cosmopolitan. That’s where the novel stands apart from the other Indian novels in English--because this one is written in the authentic language of India. Refreshing and unforced.  So Paresh Bhatt, the typical Indian male at 70, saddled with the memory of freedom fighting parents and with a daughter out of Top Gun, doing a Tom Cruise number. Paresh has the fashionable ‘don’t know what to do with my roots’ problem since he swings between many cities and many memories. Also a few lovers. This is where the typical Indian woman would sit up and sniff, “Just like an Indian male!” Because his women are there only to be tasted or sensed but have no real existence as woman.  They come and go--not necessarily talking of Michelangelo. Sandy, who surprisingly becomes a social worker--surprisingly because she is undermined by her sexual antics long before we realise that the girl has substance to her. The chapter in which she makes her main entrance was apparently a talking point in Delhi and London because it was a first in dessert sex. Dessert sex? Well, whatever. Sandy merits a jet engine whiney laugh between Paresh and his friend. Teesta Ila Ray. Anna Lang--distinguished by her German accent--why did they really break up? Para seems to know, Paresh seems to regret, but the reasons are lost in wistfulness and a Hemingway murmuring over the handprints that lovers leave behind them. Joshi does Hemingway--there is a streak of that. “Laddish’ as someone put it, bad boy memories of women left behind.  Paresh’s daughter, Para is the only woman barring his mother that he tries to get to grips with. Para is modern, has her grandmother’s fighting spirit, but gets bogged down in the details. She wears diapers while spinning in space. She has detailed air to ground missiles and plays detailed computer games--one of them a death of Diana and Dodi game spun out in an arrondisement in Paris.

Joshi is very good at the details--his descriptions of daily household things, his coffee maker; these ground The Last Jet Engine Laugh in an earthy reality. The novel is in fact held up by the belief that everything matters, that every breakfast, every touch, sound and word relates to the heart of some genetic movement, whether it’s Kolkata or Ahmedabad. But the same details that work for Paresh’s day to day life, while vividly outlined, make us lose our grasp of Para and, in the end, obscure the father-daughter relationship.

In fact, the relationship between Paresh’s parents and Paresh’s relationship with his parents is far more well rounded than his relationship with Para, or Anna Lang or any of the other people in the book. Like many other great Indian novels, this book too tries to do the vast canvas cosmopolitan thing.  Paresh’s parents bring in the freedom struggle with Netaji dovetailing neatly. The only thing that actually holds all these stories together is Paresh. He is the glue that links the generations.  Several scenes catch the imagination in this quirky debut novel -Paresh’s father caught climbing out of a train at Kolkata onto a platform thigh-deep in monsoon water, with a  coolie whose hands form dancer’s mudras above his head; Para planning her escape from an orbiting spacecraft. Things are noted and described with an artist’s touch, as when the ladling of liquid onto a griddle to make dosas summons up the swelling of a mushroom cloud, or a woman’s snore “begins its soft argument with the night air”.  Paresh leaves Kolkata behind and moves on to other parts of the world, but it is the Kolkata flavour and Paresh’s childhood that remain the most memorable parts of the book. Netaji, the Zeros, Para’s flights into space are bravura set pieces that are bravely embarked upon and that are entertaining in their own right but they pall in comparison with the city and its bustle as described by Joshi. In fact, in the book, it is probably Kolkata and the Bongs, or the Gujarati Bongs,  which have the last jet engine laugh.

(Anjana Basu does advertising work in Calcutta. Formerly, she taught English Literature in Calcutta University. A volume of her short stories, The Agency Raga, was published by Orient Longman, India. Her poems have been featured in an anthology brought out by Penguin India. Her work has also been published in The Wolfhead Quarterly, The Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)