Same old wine, same old bottle
By Lakshmi Ramanarayanan | Published: 05th November 2013 10:31 AM |
If one asks Indian writers who their biggest literary inspiration is, a good number of them will probably say R K Narayan. It is no different for Bangalore-based journalist-turned-writer Vinay Jalla whose debut novel Warp and Weft recounts the story of the silk weavers and inhabitants of the fictional village Zarivaram. Like his guru Narayan, Jalla goes for simplicity in his novel’s characters and storyline. It is set in Zarivaram, a landscape concocted by the author and falling in the Andhra Pradesh-Karnataka border area, between the mid-1940s and 1960s. It narrates the story of Narayana, an orphan whose wretched poverty hardens his mind to the greatest reality of life that money dictates all. This is highlighted by a sermon given to the young Narayana by the mysterious village boogeyman Gagoopa: “God made man, man made money, money made man mad”. The poor protagonist, drunkard Venkataiah, the wretched housewives Nagalamma and Gowramma, the toddy tapper Konda Kothi and the zamindar Ram Das have an earthy charm initially, but it soon gets old as the novel seems to meander in an almost direction-less manner after a hundred-odd pages. In one of his interviews, Jalla mentions how Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy inspired him to write a “long novel”. This turns out to be a big undoing though. Writing a lengthy novel for the sake of it is never a good idea. One can choose a leisurely tone of narration only if the content is strong enough to hold the readers. In many ways, Warp and Weft reminds one of a Bollywood movie of the 1970s. It talks about drunkard husbands who beat their wives, the oppressed wives who silently accept the ill treatment meted out to them, the rich men and women who treat the lower castes as “untouchables”, the gulf between the silk merchants and weavers and the trials and travails of a poor and abused protagonist. Throw in some romance, sacrifice, conflict, fate and tragedy and there you have it - a story which is very reminiscent of an “Angry Young Man” Amitabh Bachchan movie! It is no surprise then that the novel slowly builds up to a chaotic climax and eventually a happy ending, hurriedly and predictably resolving the conflicts between some of its characters on its way. In other words, it is a story that comes a few decades too late. One may enjoy it if one wants to get a rustic sense of rural life which is so different from the urban one. However, there are many novels which do so much better - like R K Narayan himself, who remains unparalleled to this day when it comes to combining village life, richlyetched characters, humour and tragedy in an engaging fashion. In fact, the clear references and tributes to some of Narayan’s most popular novels don’t do the author any good here. The appearance of Mahathma Gandhi at the beginning of the story reminds one of Gandhi’s cameo in Waiting for the Mahathma and the pranks of young Narayana and his friends are a throwback to the unforgettable Swami and Friends. But frankly, no one can pull off a Narayan quite like Narayan himself. What is more, the name of the novel’s central character itself is a clear shout out to the late novelist. Despite its flaws, the novel does have some memorable moments which hit the mark. For example, when a woman who is beaten up by her drunkard husband asks her friend why all men are alike, the latter responds: “because all women are alike.” The sense of irony is not lost in this simple but cruel truth stated in so blunt a fashion. Sadly, such moments are few and far between. On many occasions, the author loses the reader when he seems to start lecturing on morality rather than use his story and characters to convey his point. To his credit, Jalla succeeds in intertwining the life of his protagonist with many other characters, making sure he presents a wholesome picture of the life of the silk weavers of Zarivaram. But ultimately, the novel fails to fully utilise the opportunity to highlight the intricacies of the art of weaving, leaving it with very little that is original to offer. The author’s dedication to write and self-publish his novel is definitely worthy of appreciation and encouragement, but his story-telling can improve. There is clearly a writer in him as his language seems strong enough. He just needs to tell better stories.