Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reflections: The Splendor of Silence

With this book, I can now say I have read all books written by Indu Sundaresan thus far. With most of her books, excepting her short-story collection, I’ve experienced a love-hate relationship. Hate is probably a harsh word... let’s call it frustration. But because of my adoration for her writing, I keep going back, and continue to alternate between two states of mind (and heart) as I read her book.

The Splendor of Silence had an enticing premise for me. In the pre-Independence times of India, when the Nationalist movements were simmering and bubbling, an intriguing and dashing American with a whole lot of secrets in his bag, enters Rudrakot and sweeps the heart of a well-educated, refined Indian woman. As he sets fire to a series of irrevocable events, hearts get shattered, peace gets violated, but romance lives on. Sorry for the cheesy introduction, but that’s how the book comes across - a little cheesy, but surely entertaining! I am a sucker for such romances no doubt, but there was a part of me that scoffed at the story, as much as another part of me got attached to the idealistic images. If I had written a novel when I was younger (and a romance novel at that), I would have likely written (or conceived) something exactly like this story. It has all the elements that point to the dreamy, naive, idealistic me. In that regard, I feel a special kinship with Indu! She thinks very similar to me, sets the stage and characters in a fashion almost identical to my imagination.... of a younger me.

But a few things didn’t come together to make this a cohesively compulsive and impressive book. The book contains plenty of rich history surrounding India’s independence struggle, the class discriminations of the snobbish British Raj compounded with the Indian caste system, and the acute identity crisis suffered by both Indians and British alike. Although this book is hence showcased as a historical fiction, it is basically a romantic story that is couched in a historical context. The background is historical, and some characters symbolize the different kinds of attitudes and mind-sets worn by people of that time. These aspects surely portray the political, social, and culture climate of India accurately, but they don’t weave into the story well. There are paragraphs and pages of narration and explantions on the history and social commentary, and they stand alone from the story and some of the characters. There are many “asides”, digressions, and tangents that delve into facts and history, while the character would have uttered just a sentence. So, it sort of became a frustrating mix of fiction and non-fiction. If there is one scene, one dialogue, it is then accompanied with two whole pages of factual writing, explaining the caste system, the characters’ history, past etc. In essence, most of the book was a narration, a commentary, and it kept switching from one character’s point of view to the next, most of which didn’t fit in line with how the story was delivered - as a letter from a character. So, while the main story did not leap to life until the last 75 pages of the book, the remainder of the book involved a very slow process of setting the stage and providing all the history. I would have preferred if the characters (and the story) related and portrayed the history, rather than it being delivered through detailed, explicit narration, which defeats the value of fiction.

Secondly, the characters, excepting one, were flat. I don’t have the faces of the two main characters in my head. I couldn’t imagine them all through the story - they were caricatures in my head, and did not bloom into personalities with a face and voice that I will remember for a while. Indu Sundaresan writes such gorgeous prose, but she somehow misses out on what details to give shape to, to bring her characters to life. A whole page of beautiful descriptions of the characters’ attire, or the chair in which they are seated does not help define the character. It makes the environment alive and vibrant, but not the core of the characters. Further, it was incongruous to hear all the characters speak the same, impeccable style of English as that of the narrator. How can all characters speak alike? That too speak in such good English all the time? True, people spoke much better elite English in the 1940s, but still! And like me, brevity is not Indu’s forte :). There are so many words, so many pages, tiny text crammed into 400 sheets of paper, but the volume does not indicate depth, unfortunately.

Digested Thoughts: Still, I enjoyed reading the book. I love reading about strong and refined women of the early times, especially one so strong as to break barriers and fall in love with an American. Although the protagonists’ courage seemed a notch too unrealistically scandalous and fickle at times, and the romance seemed amateurish, I still liked reading the book. The prejudices, insecurities, and confusions of the British and the Indians come at you strong. We still face the colonial hangover of those heady times. Although it has its flaws, I have to concede that this is not an easy subject to write about - India's history,  past, society, and culture is far too complex anyway. But more than anything, I loved savoring Indu Sundaresan’s writing and for mainly that reason, I give the book a high rating.



Anne said...

Lovely review :-)
Haven't read any of her works as yet-but will pick it up next time!

Neeraja said...

Thanks Anne. You should surely try - In the Convent of Little Flowers.

Kannan said...

I started with the 'Feast of Roses' and rapidly lost concentration. The flowery language supplanted story movement and I did not complete the book. You must try Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. One of the best books that I read recently. The next in the trilogy was a pale shadow though.

Neeraja said...

Thanks for the recommendation Kannan. I've been meaning to read Sea of Poppies for a while.
Yeah, Indu Sundaresan's writing can get too flowery and distracting. But her short story collection is very different, and I recommend it.

Lounima said...

Hi Neeraja,
I discovered your blog several weeks ago and I like it : yours reviews are very nice !
I like very much this writer and I read all of her novels. I think "The Splendor of Silence" is very pleased to read but I prefer "The Twentieth Wife" which is very great ! ;-)

Neeraja said...

Thanks Lounima. Yes, Twentieth Wife is a very good read :)