Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Politics and fiction

The title for this post should probably be "Why I love fiction set in a political context."

I just put down Seema Goswami's 'Race Course Road.' I wanted to read it when she first posted about it, finally bought it last month, and picked it up during a sleepless spell the night before last, only to read it compulsively and finish it last night.

I read it playing the usual game one does with such novels, especially those set in India, asking, 'Now who is this supposed to be?' and 'Who is this character based on?' It is easy enough to guess but you realise that the answers do not make a difference to the simple but absorbing story, which is truly fiction. All the characters come alive, seem realistic, and you really want to know what is going to happen to all of them. It was just a really good storybook and I recommend it for weekend reading, holiday reading and definitely, reading on a really long flight. I mean, you can read it whenever you want, but best to read it when you can indulge without interruption--I found it hard to put down.

Seema Goswami's long years as a reporter show in all kinds of detailed references to the politics of the last twenty years, enriching the book.

I loved that the book tells a story, you can see Goswami's view on various issues (especially if you read her columns), but there is no hidden message. It is a clever book but it does not sit on a pedestal, pretending to dispense wisdom to lesser mortals--a problem I have with a great deal of contemporary Indian writing. People try too hard to impress and overload their stories with everything they know, layers of messages and too much else besides. In this book, the author brings a great deal of knowledge to her storytelling but the book is not about how brilliant she is--it is a book about the people whose story she is telling us. That has become a rare quality in this pretentious world we inhabit.

The only quibble I have with the book is the extremely tiny and light print--not the author's fault. But if you read it on a Kindle, and if the publishers produce an easy-to-read edition, I would say this is one of the most fun books I have read in the last year.


As I read 'Race Course Road,' I realised that I am very easily drawn into fiction--in any medium--that is set in a political context. I have binge watched 'Madam Secretary' earlier this year. I have 'Yes Minister' and 'Yes PM' bookmarked. I loved the political parts of the Jeffrey Archer's Clifton Chronicles (which I really enjoyed on the whole!). This context is what I really enjoy about Nayantara Sahgal's writing.

I want to acknowledge that a lot of other novels also merit the label 'political'. So maybe in the Indian context, what I mean is really a 'Lutyens' novel, to borrow a term from Goswami? Something that fictionalises Parliament, parties, elections and so on.

In real life, I am bored by television news discussions about politics, and despite wearing the political scientist tag on my bio, I tune out of everyday whosaidwhattowhom politics--the kind people seem to be enthralled by and for the first time in my life, I couldn't identify most political worthies in a line-up, even with a list of names in hand, without wild guesses. The politics of parties and netas really bores me. There, I said it.

Happily, fiction of any sort uses filters. Boring things get ignored and better still, in the best work, as much is left unsaid as is recorded. Unfortunately, this is not true in the real world. Politicians and even more, political experts, appear to be the most verbose creatures on earth. Where novels and television series cut to the chase, in seminars and interviews, people are hard to stop.

Truth, the saying goes, is stranger than fiction. The real world of politics has long crossed from 'strange' into bizarre, grotesque and evil. So in work like 'Race Course Road' and 'When the Moon Shines by Day' (Nayantara Sahgal), even the worst things people do, still seem not as bad as reality.

In the real world, there are unmanageable consequences for incompetence and evil, which are contained in fiction. You know, that as horrendous as someone's actions or acts of omission are, their consequences will be limited to the page and their comeuppance is imminent before the end of the novel. I don't need to feel anxious about that world. On American television fiction, there is a consistent triumph of idealism that is quite comforting. Take the President in 'The West Wing': there were moments in which one really wanted to vote for him. Moments, but they were there.

Fiction offers idealists like me a larger selection of good people. I know, I know, that's a horribly cynical thing for me to write, unworthy of a Piscean. But it's true. Who on a television newscast makes you feel as hopeful as a fictional character, even for five minutes?

Reading 'Race Course Road' made me want to read another novel like this immediately. I hope the author is working on one!

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