Saturday, April 02, 2011

Red Earth and Pouring Rain!

Our book today is Vikram Chandra's immense and phantasmagorical 1995 novel Red Earth and Pouring Rain, which is on one level about the fearful bargain struck by a wounded monkey to postpone his own death: an American college student on vacation back home in Bombay shoots a monkey that frequently visits his parents' house in Bombay, and when the death-god Yama comes to claim the wounded animal, it's revealed that the victim is actually the reincarnation of Sanjay Parasher, an Indian idealist and patriot from the days of the Raj. The monkey-allied god Hanuman makes a deal with the god of death: if Sanjay can tell stories that keep his host family entertained for two hours every day, he gets to keep on living. But the criteria are as harsh as ever ("Boredom is to be defined as an internal state, externally recognizable through signs such as shifting restlessly, talking to neighbours, playing with shoe-laces or other items, drooping of eyelids and nodding of head, et cetera, et cetera").

What's let loose by this fantastic premise is an endlessly inventive take on Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights, only Sanjay is not only the teller of the tales, he's also their relentless, ever-changing subject. It's the perfect vehicle for Chandra to indulge in his natural penchant for storytelling, and you might wonder if it isn't a trifle too perfect - nine out of ten authors, having dreamed up such a great premise, would proceed to use it as a justification for shameless laziness, for chucking onto the helpless page every single word that's ever appeared in their mind (this was the greatest failing of the late David Foster Wallace, and the encouraging of this laziness is the chief sin of McSweeney's-style Internet 'tendencies' that mistake self-consciously precious garrulity for anything other than a fast-flowing stream of pig-crap).

Luckily for all of us, Chandra is the tenth author, the exception, the one whose prolixity is actually both tightly controlled and enormously enjoyable. Readers can see this right away, in the crass admonitions the spew out of Yama when, at the book's beginning, he's closing in on his quarry, the hapless Sanjay-in-monkey-form:
'You mean, what next?' he said, suddenly laughing uproariously, exposing great white teeth. 'Where on the wheel is the next time around? Is it to be up a ladder or down the slippery back of a past misdeed, suddenly fanged? I don't know, Sanjay. Karma and dharma, those are mechanical laws sewn into the great fabric of the cosmos, you understand, mysterious in their functioning: there's no predicting the results of those deadly calculations, each deed producing a little burst of kharma to be weighed in those inscrutable balances; who knows, who can understand the subtle ways of dharma? - but you've undoubtedly been a bad monkey, Sanjay. Instead of attending to monkey dharma, you've haunted the dwellings of humans, begging to be captured, to be reintroduced, in one way or another, to the society of these clumsy but admittedly lovable creatures. In one life you allowed yourself to be captured by a princeling's hunters, and spent your time happily amusing spoilt young royalty, in another, you allied yourself with a blind holy-man, thus adding to his reputation as a miracle-worker and enabling him to carry on a life of debauchery and dissolution. In all your monkey-lives, you've ignored your natural relatives and hidden by ventilators and windows, listening to the speech of another species; haven't you noticed how easily you understood what these friends of yours were saying? Somewhere in your soul all those lives have left a sediment of the knowledge you acquired unknowingly, so now your speech is a curious melange of living words, dead expressions and buried and forgotten phrases.'

Red Earth and Pouring Rain isn't afraid of such garish elaborations, and Chandra is confident enough to wink at his readers about them:
As a rule, I am told by the ancient legends, Yama is shunned by inhabitants of the three worlds. It is hard to make light conversation with one who wears that deadly silver noose at the waist; consequently, when he gets a chance to talk, he tends to run on.

The stories that Sanjay tells range over two centuries and many dozens of settings (including an excursus on Jack the Ripper that's as unexpected as it is entertaining), and one similar, paradoxical flame lights them all, the dream of permanence ('You want never to die' Sanjay accurately tells another character, although given the novel's premise, the same obviously applies to himself as well). That dream is well-served by the storyteller's art, and that art is hardly better exemplified anywhere in modern fiction than in this novel of Chandra's (ironically, one of its only superiors might just be Chandra's next book, the booming, utterly masterful Sacred Games). As with many of the best long novels from the Tale of Genji to The Sot-Weed Factor, Red Earth and Pouring Rain leaves its readers both immensely satisfied and wanting more. It's a novel to read

and then re-read

(always remembering that when it comes to reincarnation as an animal, there are worse fates than being a monkey ...)

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