Thursday, July 04, 2002

great takeoff, disappointing arrival

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in July 2002).

The Last Jet-Engine Laugh, By Ruchir Joshi. Flamingo 6.99 ($10.35)

Ruchir Joshi's debut novel begins in post-apocalyptic 2030 when India is at war with a Pakistan-Saudi Arabia alliance. That might seem prophetic, given recent posturings and warmongering in both India and Pakistan, but those familiar with the long, fractious history of the Subcontinent will not be surprised by Joshi's vision of the future.

In Joshi's 2030, helicopters are a common mode of transport, Japanese corporations sponsor religious rituals, and all around the world the water is contaminated, possibly because a country or a group of people exploded a "device."

But although the novel begins in the future, it spans the 100 years from 1930 to 2030 and follows, albeit nonchronologically, the course of three generations of an Indian family, through the eyes of 70-year-old photographer Paresh Bhatt. He has returned home to Calcutta after many years in Paris. His memories and ruminations begin when he realizes that a local newspaper is preparing his obituary.

Bhatt reminisces about the pre-independence love affair of his intellectual parents, Mahadev and Suman, and their non-violent agitation against British rule in India in the 1930s and 1940s. He fast-forwards to 2030 and his aeroplane-obsessed half-German daughter -- a complete antithesis to his peace-loving parents -- who is a crack fighter pilot in the forefront of the war against Pakistan. Bhatt himself is terrified of flying but has travelled widely, won acclaim as a photographer and has loved and lost several times.

The book uses the Bhatt family and actual historical events to pour scorn on war; to show that technological advancement leads to moral debasement, not progress; and that violence begets violence.

The Last Jet-Engine Laugh is divided into four sections, of which the first two are breathtaking. The book whirrs dizzyingly back and forth and sideways through time and space. The prose is crackling, the language energetic, evocative and entertaining, the narrative taut, the dialogues and the detail rich. The wit is bright, but with dark undertones.

It is no wonder the book was reportedly bought for a whopping 130,000. ($192,530), based on just a few chapters.

But The Last Jet-Engine Laugh is memorable only for the first 150 pages, after which it becomes shambolic. Joshi has overreached. Too many events and incidents, which in themselves are charming, weigh down the book with loose ends. Engaging treatises make enchanting appearances but are not followed through.

Still, the novel's scintillating first two sections promise a superb new talent as Ruchir Joshi pushes the boundaries of language and imagination.