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Literary Review

The swirl and the sprawl

Dangerlok, Eunice de Souza's debut prose work, brings relentless social critique to life in the seductively malevolent city of Mumbai, says ANJANA SHARMA.

IT is acrid and lingering in its aftertaste — tasting possibly like the many cigarettes smoked by its protagonist in her search for the quiet centre in a world full of dangerlok. Culturally hybrid postcolonial term or just a simple yet meaningful descriptor of life in an Indian megapolis? Given the narrator's own acute distaste for "poco studies", it's safe to assume that when Eunice de Souza named her debut prose work — a novella? — what she wished to capture was the swirl, the sprawl, the scum and the slime of life in the seductively malevolent city that we now know as Mumbai.

The story that we meet here is the dangerlok — all those whose sole agenda in life is to short-change, to make impossibly difficult, to fleece, to corrupt or moralise to death — who encircle the life of the ageing Eng lit college teacher who lives on the fringes of Mumbai. Dangerlok thus becomes a portmanteau term whereby she describes a range of acts and persons: the local bus service and its erratic and troubled route, the local thug with his encroaching tendencies, the gossipy, petty and spiteful neighbour's wife, the joyless and cramped local train ride with its sharpers and bullies, it could even be Lily Languish who never teaches her college classes but religiously comes to the staff room to drink her tea, eat a limp dosa, and take a nap. Like Narayan — though without the depth of characterisation or the relentless social critique — de Souza too brings in quiet and sustained irony to display both the venality of the average Indian and their strange and sublime ability to float — an inch — above the maelstrom of their crazed lives.

It's a tale simply but elegantly told, the spare prose and the sharp images evoking the poet de Souza and her ability to make the commonplace speak in memorable ways. There is also found in this slim volume a note of rare pathos and empathy that one very rarely finds in most English language fiction from India currently. It's images stay with the reader — of squawking, demanding parrots in a shit-stained, mildewed apartment, parrots who overwhelm and take over the life of their quondam owner, of Utter, the quiet but powerful downstairs neighbour, who retains her Uttar Pradesh mohalla roots despite years of a transplanted existence, of her mother-in-law whose traditional self is clothed in bidi smoke. Moreover, images that speak of desperation and loneliness and sexual insecurity, of emotional lacunae, of professional jealousies and bitter turf battles.

For me, personally, the writing worked because it came so very close to my situation — or should I say subject position? For I too teach Eng lit in a cosmopolitan, very metro and "with it" college and like de Souza's protagonist, Rina, am daily subject and witness to the bittersweet joy of teaching the love of something as functionally useless as good writing. Teaching Eng lit in an environment that steadily invalidates its existence — it's esoteric, unIndian, remote and of uncertain pedigree — the effort to restate its "value" cut too close to the skin.

As did the numerous skirmishes about the nature of the term "Indian". The novella repeatedly examines the dangerous narrowing of the term Indian and its consequent backlash. Here are some samples: to a colleague who speculates how students who dress Western and trendy can be Indian, Rina famously responds, "Is picking your nose Indian?" In another instance, an elderly gent in a university library comes and asks her name, is told Rina Ferreira, immediately draws back as if stung and says, "I thought you were an Indian."

It's all here — neatly and cleverly packed in — ideological critique, political skulduggery, the loneliness of love lost and maybe found, in the stinking, perspiring armpit of Queen's Diamond. Read it if you like writing that does not try hard to please, or a story that refuses to turn its back on the everyday and the ordinary.

Dangerlok, Eunice de Souza, Penguin India, 2001, p.114, Rs. 150.

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