Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System is something of a chore to read. An ambitious undertaking with a sprawling narrative composed of gossamer threads, delicately often barely interwoven together, this novel spans across four decades from 1970 to 2010 and seeks to capture the defining historical moments in the troubled transitional period of a nation as it attempts to find its place and conscience in a brave new world, still carrying the scars from an ugly past while dealing with the horrors of the present. It is loaded stuff and ought to have felt like a sock to the solar plexus. Except it doesn’t.
It must be confessed that I was tempted to close the book forever on multiple occasions after wading laboriously from one chapter to the other and feeling that the struggle wasn’t really worthwhile. Coovadia flits and floats through the lives of a bunch of characters from different social spheres—passionate thinkers who are unwilling to die for their beliefs, crooks who steal with varying degrees of charm or integrity, artistes who need to believe their work matters, corrupt politicians, opportunistic businessmen, activists, and musicians, their stories set at different points in the time period he seeks to cover.
By simply skimming over their tales with airy dialogue that starts to feel leaden and merely touching on all things shocking and sordid, he makes it impossible for the reader to plunge into the depths of this chunk of history, teeming with detail and swirling with immense feelings. It is the sort of thing that makes you grind your teeth in frustration.
The book begins in 1970, with the threat of expulsion that could be averted with a timely ‘donation’ before flitting on to the politics practised by the student’s stepfather, Neil, who is on the verge of divorcing his mum, Ann. The Security Police are keeping a close watch on Neil’s movements and it is clear that nothing good is going to come of their scrutiny. From here, the action shifts to 1973 when Victor Molloi has the rug pulled out from under his feet as he works with a team of promising artistes to stage a play with potentially explosive content.
In 1973, a guitarist, Yash, who loves his music and young son, contemplates pulling the plug on his life. The following chapter returns to Ann and her clandestine work in Defence and Aid before thrusting us into an episode where a young thief faces mob justice. Then, it is the Rugby World Cup Final of 1995 and Yash’s son Sanjay decides to marry but hardly for love.
The year is 2003 and a close Presidential aide meets a harrowing end because the doctors are instructed not to treat him for HIV, since the government refuses to acknowledge its existence. Before we can grasp the horror, Sanjay’s daughter has her cell phone stolen and almost falls in love. Twice. In the final chapter, we revisit Neil in the moments before his demise and with his passing, the reader’s suffering ends too.