Fictional Fetish

There’s more magic than realism in this portrayal of India.

With three novels (The Cripple and His Talismans, The Song of Kahunsha and, now, Dahanu Road) and three plays (The Matka King, Bombay Black and My Granny the Goldfish) since 2003, Anosh Irani is demonstrably not a victim of writers’ block.

By any measure of varying commercial (sales in Canada, India and Italy) or critical standards (Governor General nominations, Dora Award wins), he is a successful author. A successful Canadian author, even if he has only been a resident of this country since 1998 and despite the fact that his oeuvre is predominately inspired by or set in his native India.

Much of the critical reception of his work so far—and that, for the record, includes my own responses as a former theatre critic—has focused on the Indian part of this Indo-Canadian success story. He is often praised for tales in which Indian mythology intersects with history and spices fight with excrement for odour supremacy. But as a playwright and novelist, Irani is also Canadian to the core in his penchant for quirkiness as a defined aesthetic. Reading him is like sharing a bed with M.G. Vassanji and the McKenzie Brothers. It is so Indian. It is so Canadian. It is, at least in appearance, multiculturalism at its livable, offbeat best.

Dahanu Road—an entertaining but flawed novel described in the dust jacket as an “irreverent, epic love story”—plays up his insider’s knowledge of India against his appreciation for Canadian whimsy.

A prologue set in the Iran of 1920 gets the story off to a gripping start. Young Shapur’s dream trip to the most celebrated confectioner in all of Persia turns sour when his father is humiliated by the ruling Arabs who, the narrator makes painstakingly clear, treated Zoroastrians like dogs. “No, we are worse off than dogs,” father tells son as both leave their homeland (on a donkey) in search of a new life in India. The novel then stays put in Dahanu—a beach and farming community outside of today’s Mumbai—but moves in time between the 1940s and 2000.

Shapur is now the patriarch of a land-owning family who employs the local Warli people as, more or less, slave labour. His grandson Zairos is man-about-small-town who represents the more modern India while retaining his bloodline’s sense of feudal power and entitlement. His world is forever changed when he meets Kusum and, well, it is kismet. She turns to Zairos for help when her Warli father commits suicide as “the only statement of revolt” the dispossessed possess. Attraction and taboos (and some hilarity) ensue. Sandwiched between the two generations of Iranis is Aspi, Zairos’s father, whose role in the book is relatively minor but essential to the evolutionary—devolutionary will do as well—tale of Dahanu and the Irani clan’s power struggle with the Warlis.

As the above summary indicates, Anosh Irani is working within familiar literary and dramatic tropes—from star-crossed lovers to mad women in attics (well, fruit farms) to the transformation of the oppressed into the oppressors in a single generation. He shows a conscious desire to add the weight of history and literature to his multi-generational tale. That desire is at once impressive and self-defeating.

It is impressive because it allows Irani to do what he does best: tell salacious stories of love and lust for women and for lands—seemingly the two preoccupations of the Irani men in Dahanu Road. Both are ripe for colonization and worth fighting over.

But in telling a story where life, history and literature meet—literally so in the case of Zairos’s mother to whom fictional characters are living, breathing people—Irani creates a novel that turns India into one overextended fetish session. His compassion may align him closer to E.M. Forster than Rudyard Kipling but their Indias are cut from the same romanticized cloth. It is perennially exotic, permanently different. Despite violence, revolts and the previously mentioned and prevalent excrement, Irani’s India comes close to being other-worldly. This in a novel where British and Muslim colonial legacies reverberate through everyday life? Is there an India where the realism trumps the magic? (Rhetorical questions aside, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger comes to mind.) If so, it remains an elsewhere even in this politically informed novel.

It is hard to justify carrying the novel’s historical weight when so much of it is overloaded verbally or merely anecdotal quirkiness. Or, more fatally, when one side—the Warlis—is so noticeably underwritten as to be as silenced in fiction as, the narrator claims, it is in real life. The voiceless do not get a voice in Irani’s novel.

Furthermore, Dahanu Road is structured on the family-secret model, which eventually comes more as a disappointment than a revelation. For a playwright, Irani seems particularly uninterested in building up and releasing tension in a timely fashion. Disclosures and explanations come in bulk in the novel’s last 50 pages, leaving readers in the jittery hands of an author trying to tie up loose ends instead of the assured ones of a master storyteller.

More damagingly, the romance between Kusum and Zairos feels particularly forced and, strangely, unromantic. Perhaps this tepidness has something to do with the minor complication that Kusum is already married when she first meets Zairos. Her husband, Laxman, is a certifiable wife beater who, unintentionally I assume (and hope), recalls Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire. Initially, the narrator is at pains to portray Zairos himself in equally brutal terms as if to convince us of his heterosexuality. “All he wanted to do was lick every inch of her skin, and he did not know if it was a hunger that a man has for a woman, or a master for a slave, but he did not care. He was exactly like them [the Irani landowners].”

Against the background of a helpless woman and a horny man, it is hard to believe in the purity of the romance or the intensity of the passion. And it is in this part of the novel that Irani’s tendency to overwrite is officially ridiculous. Here, for example, is how he conveys Zairos’s internal conflicts about sleeping with a Warli woman: “Each time he undid Kusum’s hair, hundreds of Warlis came cascading down, and he was listening to all their stories … After Kusum and he made love, these men and women appeared out of nowhere, from decades ago, and down the torrents of her hair they slid until they rested on his chest.”

Talk about guilty pleasures.

But if the lovers’ relationship left me cold, that of Zairos and his grandfather Shapur had warm and confident overtones. Irani is magnanimous when he writes of male friendships. (I would not go as far as saying that his women are stereotypes but they certainly do not get the rich inner lives of the men in his universe.) This particular male bonding in Dahanu Road substitutes for the flawed romance at its heart and forms a line that bypasses the middle generation of Aspi Irani—Shapur’s son and Zairos’s father. There is complexity in the two central men that comes through when in each other’s company or when they are revealed as mere human beings. In other words, when Irani sees them less as agents of destiny and more as blood relations.