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B+ : appealing, and appealingly far- (and sometimes too free-) ranging
See our review for fuller assessment.
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The complete review's Review:
Falling Walls is the first in a multi-volume novel cycle. Set in northern India in the 1930s, its protagonist is Chetan, and while he has just completed his BA at the local college when the novel begins, it is very much a Bildungsroman: Chetan's adolescence and school-days might be over, but he is still immature, and this story is of a character still very much finding his way. Well into the novel, with Chetan already married and working in the big city (Lahore) his older brother, Bhai Sahib, still constantly tells him: "Chetan, you're such a child" -- and Chetan is hardly insulted; he can't really disagree , and even admits:
Bhai Sahib, I just want to stay a child. I don't want to grow up.It's not that he's unwilling to take responsibility -- at that point he's actually helping to bankroll his older brother's dentistry-business, for example -- but he's still barely formed, still just beginning to figure out who he wants to (and is capable) of being.
Chetan does have big dreams -- professional and romantic, among others -- but finds himself limited by circumstances, tradition, and his own character. He wants to be a writer, but without any real role models or familiarity with literature in general barely knows how to even begin to go about it. His older brother was the more dedicated (but indiscriminate) reader (reading: "only to entertain himself or pass the time, but not to think"), but Chetan remains determined -- if barely making progress: even late in the novel he's still at the stage where:
He hadn't read many novels, and his knowledge of the form was limited to some of Premchand's works, a few novels that had been translated from Bengali, and a handful of extracts from English novels he had read in textbooks, and it was beyond him to write a good novel with so few examples. But he continued to write without fully comprehending the reality of his situation. A strong desire to express his feelings continually bubbled up inside him, so he just kept writing, but because he had no authority over the art of novel writing, he kept getting stuck with his novel.His mother saw to it that he got the best education they could afford in backwater Jalandhar (a city of over 100,000 even back then, and close to a million now ...), but there's no way he can take the next step and get a real degree in the regional metropolis, the Punjabi capital of Lahore. Still, Chetan itches to escape the small(er)-town life, certain that only in the big city could he possibly achieve any of his still indistinct dreams.
The novel opens showing that Chetan has a rebellious side, willing to take some initiative. True, it's about a matter that has been decided for him, without him having any say, but still:
Chetan was fed up at last. And so, one day, he set out quietly for Basti Guzan to catch a glimpse of his future wife.Chetan's first impression is not positive -- "Marry that fatso -- never !" -- but he is unable to even bring up the possibility of marrying another, even when there might be a chance to finagle his way out of this engagement (as he has his eyes on another girl in the same family, a substitution that the involved families could possibly be sold on). His father gave his word, and it's the one thing the otherwise unreliable and heavy-drinking Pandit Shadiram values; ultimately, Chetan sees no way out and goes along with it, marrying this Chanda. His disappointment in her plainness continues, but at least already on their wedding day:
Chetan learned that Chanda -- his plump and dowdy wife -- possessed an extremely fine and sensitive heart beneath her rather ordinary appearance.He also wishes she were better-educated -- a lot to ask for in times when it as still difficult for women to get much schooling, though at least she already comes to him literate -- and he even tries to teach her himself. That doesn't go so well, but eventually she does continue her education, quite successfully. Chetan is big on efforts at betterment, and so, for example, when he discovers what a fine voice she has also invests in studying the harmonium and making music with her.
While Chetan settles into his marriage, he nevertheless continues to lust for others. From early love Kunti, who occasionally flirts with him over the years -- even after getting married and having her first child -- to Neela, Chanda's young cousin, whom she sees as a sister, to even a not particularly attractive neighbor, Chetan's passions are rather easily and often drawn elsewhere -- though his hesitant acting on them doesn't lead to much more than acute embarrassment all around. The treatment of sex is interesting throughout the novel, beginning with acknowledging how ill-prepared young men were for any sort of intimacy with the opposite sex when they reached adulthood -- the topic always having been off-limits, even as the urges naturally emerged. Chetan's ignorance leads to performance anxiety, while the cramped quarters he shares with his older brother and their wives -- generally alternating their presence -- limits the possibilities of any sort of private spheres. Even as he settles into his relationship, the proximity with his wife remains only physical; even in the novel's final scenes they've only established a connection that isn't fully satisfying, and, for example:
Despite their year and a half of companionship, Chanda had never been able to take the initiative in their love.Family structures are fundamentally rigid, yet there's tremendous fluidity to them. Chetan's mother already shuttled her children back and forth, to keep them away from their boozing father, who targeted Bhai Sahib in particular, sending them off to live with a grand-father while she joined Pandit Shadiram wherever he was stationed when she could (to keep him from drinking away all his earnings). After he has set off, Chetan convinces his older brother to move with him to Lahore -- arguing that Bhai Sahib's chances of professional success are much greater there -- and supports him, despite not making much either; meanwhile one or the other of their wives joins them for extended periods of time, the other remaining with their mother back in Jalandhar -- until Ma gets too fed-up with whichever daughter-in-law is there ..... At times, both couples live together in Lahore -- but Bhai Sahib's wife is hard to get along with, so that's not in the cards long-term either. Surprisingly, it's generally Chetan who makes the decisions, for himself and the others -- of who is in Lahore, who back home -- a juggling act he's not particularly successful at, but which both his wife and his brother seem to respect.
The difficulties of any openness in relationships in this time and culture are most clearly shown when Chetan falls ill when he is visiting his wife's family. His wife has to explain to him why she is not the one attending to him while he lies sick in bed:
In an extremely polite but tearful tone, Chanda said, "You don't know; if I sat with you, everyone would start talking. The women of the family would gossip about me, they'd say whatever came into their heads.(Instead, it's the beautiful young cousin Neela who looks after the patient -- something that becomes both understandable and considerably creepier, given Chetan's longing for her, when it's revealed the girl is really only a child, only in her earliest teens).
Chetan struck out for the big city as soon as he could, hoping to fulfil his ambitions of becoming a writer, and he at least manages to break into the newspaper business, with the occasional opportunity to publish stories. He works long hours, and continues to have difficulty making the creative leap he longs for; at one point his carefully conceived plans for a novel are literally washed away. Part of it is, of course, the slow process of growing up: even after he's been there a while, it can still be said of him that:
Chetan was one of those simple, meek young men who hadn't turned wily and crafty in the big city of Lahore. He hadn't yet developed the skills to laugh off every horrible incident, argue about things in a philosophical manner and prove that his daily acts of evil were far better than all the good deeds of the honourable masses. He had a simple soul. He was innocent, pure and good. He hadn't yet soaked up the philosophies of his urban environment.Ironically, his eyes are opened, to a greater extent, not in urban Lahore but in the smart summer-retreat-town of Shimla. An opportunity of sorts arises, a successful Ayurvedic huckster Kaviraj inviting Chetan to join him in Shimla for the summer, offering to pay him more than he makes at the newspaper. All Chetan has to do is write a book for him, to be published under Kaviraj's name -- the sort of taking advantage of others' talents that, Chetan soon realizes, Kaviraj is expert in. Nevertheless, it's too tempting to pass up -- and so:
This was the first compromise he made between his own innocence and the age of deceit.The last third or so of the novel focuses on his time and experiences in Shimla, and narrows the story even more closely down to Chetan, his family not only kept at a distance (they're back in Jalandhar and Lahore), but barely even heard from: there's a disagreement with his brother that (conveniently) keeps them from communicating, while, to Chetan's frustration, Chanda's missives are barely a few words long -- she's not much of a letter-writer. But out of sight the family seems more or less out of Chetan's self-absorbed mind, in any case.
Chetan does experience quite a bit on his own, from how he is taken advantage of by Kaviraj (which, even when he recognizes it, he is ambivalent about), to being able to indulge in other creative passions -- music, and acting in a play. He explores his more creative side again -- not making real progress with his novel, but at least creatively engaged, in a variety of ways. It's something that has been bubbling in him since early childhood:
The irrepressible urge to express himself manifested sometimes in one form, sometimes in another. What the correct medium for this might be he didn't yet know. But he did want expression. He wanted to react against the harshness of his environment in his art, even to take revenge; though in all appearances a meek, orphan-like child, he'd been buffeted by powerful storms within.Kaviraj is a manipulative fraud, but not purely despicable. He even has a bit of a creative soul, and Chetan is intrigued by him, and can learn from Kaviraj's cheery embrace of deception and salesmanship: "It's not enough for an invention to be useful, or for a work of art to be creative. You also need to be good at playing the advertising game". Both Chetan's experiences with Kaviraj and his family, as well as some of local life, whether in the restaurants or the acting-group he joins, do teach him more about life; he sheds some of his naïveté -- though not without some humiliating moments, such as his on-stage embarrassment when they perform the play whih he has a part in.
It's true that: "Chetan was as energetic on the inside as he was passive-looking on the outside", and he is something of a go-getter. He has ambitions, and he screws up his courage and tries to take the initiative quite often. He's also a bit hapless, and his taking the initiative is often a clumsy blurting out. He's neither entirely comic nor tragic hero, but he is a compelling character, well-drawn by Ashk.
Set mostly in the present -- when Chetan is in his early twenties -- there are a few glimpses of what formed the young man. Interestingly, Ashk introduces their father's abuse mainly by focusing on how it affected Chetan's older brother, Bhai Sahib; only very late on does he reveal more of Chetan's own suffering and its lingering effects. As to the politics of the time, there's mention of the (contemporary) 1933 white paper, part of the lead-up to Indian independence, and a look back to 1929, when a younger Chetan was able to travel to Lahore for a Congress Party meeting -- where, typically, the politics barely register, and it's a flute he buys (and loses) that is the most lasting memory.
If politics remain almost entirely in the background, Falling Walls still does offer a rich, fascinating look at the (northern) India of that time. Tradition dominates in every respect, from festivals and prayers -- transcending individual religions, as many partake in at least some of the rituals of each others' -- to behavior and expectations in families, and in public. From veiling to obedience, Ashk shows a broad cross-section of attitudes and behavior -- with Pandit Shadiram a prime example of the failures of the system (and his wife resourcefully trying to minimize the damage). Fascinating, too, is how largely invisible many of the characters remain, especially the children: Chetan's younger brothers, as well as Bhai Sahib's young children, barely make appearances underfoot, and are treated almost as entirely inconsequential; so too, Chetan's apparent lack of interest in what Chanda's life is like when she is apart from him (and her lack of interest in informing him -- as she can barely find anything to write to him about) are striking.
Chetan's lusting, and his behavior with various women, is an interesting example of the difficulties society's strictures (and poor educational preparation) pose. A romantic at heart, he is completely unequipped to satisfy his desires, which Ashk presents very nicely (and, several times, cringe-worthily).
In the end, Chetan still sees -- and sees himself surrounded -- only by walls; rather than falling, as the title would seem to have promised, they have only become clearer and, as such, arguably stronger. As such, Falling Walls is still only the beginning of this, and his, story. It is quite successful as such, however -- a thoroughly enjoyable slice-of-life epic with an appealing (if occasionally maddeningly clumsy) protagonist. Ashk doesn't get the shape of the novel as whole down right -- the Shimla-third is a bit broken off, and there's a certain lack of continuity (not chronology) that's made all the more obvious by the shuttling back and forth of Chanda into and out of Chetan's day-to-day life -- and the character-development is mostly limited to Chetan. Still, most of the story-telling along the way is very good.
This is a fine, big book, and good reading throughout; one looks forward to the next installments.
- M.A.Orthofer, 3 March 2018
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Indian auth Upendranath Ashk (उपेन्द्रनाथ अश्क; اوپندر ناتھ اشک) lived 1910 to 1996.
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