Tag Archives: wit

Polite Society by Mahesh Rao

PS Title: Polite Society
Author: Mahesh Rao
Publisher: Penguin Random House India, Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0670091003
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 312
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

I remember being on the fiftieth page and wanting to give up reading, “Polite Society”. I mean I had read Emma multiple times and saw no reason to continue with the shenanigans of the Delhi elite. It just didn’t make sense to me. Till I persisted of course and then too I wouldn’t really call it a smooth-sailing ride, oh but what moments we had – the book and I. It was read everywhere. I carried it everywhere with me – from the South of Mumbai (which the characters would approve of) to the North of Mumbai (don’t roll your eyes now, come on, be kind or at least pretend to be) to places I shall not mention here, but you get the drift.

So, we know “Polite Society” is modelled after Emma by Austen. Austen brings it out in us – as writers and readers to take the imaginary baton and pass it on, keep passing it on, and more so till something can be done with it. When something isn’t Aisha (thank God for that) or even Bride and Prejudice (thank Heavens, I left in the interval), and something then becomes a Bridget Jones’ Diary (the sequel was a disaster) or even Polite Society (the right turn on the 75th page or so).

“Polite Society” is an out and out, witty and most certainly a satire that you just cannot put down after a couple of chapters in. Might I also add, that it is dangerous and quite risky to adapt an Austen novel. It isn’t about the time or the characters or even relevance (some works are universal and break through barriers of time, no matter what), it is about the urgency, the speed, the context needs to drive fast in this time and age and not languid as Emma or Mansfield Park is. Rao takes care of that aspect brilliantly.

Set in contemporary Lutyens’ Delhi, we meet Ania Khurana, a native of Prithviraj Road. From the first page, you know that you have bumped into Emma. Miss Taylor is Renu bua, Ania’s unmarried aunt who she eventually sets up with Colonel Rathore. Dimple of course is modelled after Miss Harriet who is Ania’s special project to work on. Mr. Knightley is Dev, a close friend of the Khuranas. And the stage is set, well almost.

We all then know how it proceeds, don’t we? Ania is a 20-something who just is a meddler and thinks she can make matches, after she sets up her aunt with Colonel Rathore. All she wants now is to find a great match for Dimple, which of course she fails at miserably. So, what is different in this book you ask? Isn’t it just like Emma? Well, I revere Austen and everything she ever wrote, including her letters. I think for the major part so does Rao. Actually, throughout the book that is.

Till the third portion of the book when things become darker and oh so yummy! There are a lot of twists and turns which as a reader you will not see coming and which as a reviewer, I just cannot disclose (spoilers and all that, you know). The framework of Emma is intact, and yet Rao has given himself and the characters more than enough room to play and act out on their own. The style of writing also veers right from the very beginning – an almost mocking tone used for Lutyens’ Delhi and what they represent. Unlike Austen, who wrote in the third person, Rao takes the route of making his characters visible – they are transparent to the reader and have the much-needed gravitas.

At the same time in “Polite Society”, Rao’s maturity comes from the auxiliary factors – the sights, the smells, the touch and what Delhi and its people are made of. There is the sense of discomfort present in all characters – it’s as though they are aware of their shortcomings and flaws and yet will never call them out for what they are. There are neat sub-plots, that when mingle as well do not cause confusion or stir up a storm for the reader.

What is also of interest is how Rao’s characters demand empathy and in more than one-way Mahesh Rao gives it to them straight up. Whether it is Dimple’s dilemma at balancing Ania’s decisions and hers at the same time, or Ania’s failed attempts over and over again, there is always empathy. There are no caricaturist Austen-inspired genteel creatures so to say. The world of Lutyens’ Delhi as presented in “Polite Society” is cleverly funny and satirical, though sometimes it might feel a tad bit exaggerated. There is a lot of back and forth in the plot structure and sometimes internalisation, but it is needed to propel the book. All in all, “Polite Society” is a very interesting and dynamic read, which most of the times comes into its own, and away from the shadow of Austen.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

I received, “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary” by David Sedaris in the mail yesterday and finished it this morning. I could not stop reading and loved it to the core. I remember reading, “Me Talk Pretty One Day” a long time ago and also the fact that I could not stop laughing. I was almost in tears at the end of it and “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk” was no exception.

What we have here is a unique and absurd collection of what appear (on the surface) to be anthropomorphic animal characters- squirrels, storks, cats, toads, turtles, and of course a duck. Each story starts out benign and normal enough, more or less like an Aesop’s Fable, but then gets more preposterous as far as animals go and then more and more relevant to life as we live it today. In other words, each story holds up a mirror to our everyday life- but this being David Sedaris it’s more a Wonderland or Funhouse mirror. Perhaps the closest I could come would be Aesop’s fables written by a very modern Lewis Carroll.

Sedaris says to not expect a Moral for each Fable, but if you read them carefully, you should find some insight. “His morals are not spoon-fed cautionary tales of cause-and-effect but rather seemingly matter-of-fact observations that pack a subtle aftershock of insightfully insinuated scrutiny.”

The mirror has shattered, and each little tale here is a sharp shard. There is a danger that if you handle the jagged pieces you will cut yourself. The sardonic self-interest of the cat, the anxious spirituality of the brown chicken, and the bemused acquiescence of the chipmunk—David has exposed these all-too-human characteristics but he has not given us himself as a human lightning rod to accept and defuse the psychological voltage. The animals in these parables, true to type and operating as they do out of unapologetic instinct, certainly can’t absorb any of the shock, and we are left alone, face-to-face with our own pettiness, cruelty, wisdom, ignorance, tenderness, heartbreak. The tales are sometimes laughable and sometimes excruciatingly uncomfortable, and almost always brilliant. As fables, they are simply written—but they are definitely not for children despite the cartoonish illustrations. They are not for adults who wish to remain ignorant of their human failings either. Like all good fairy tales, they are instructional, but only if you pay attention and apply the parallels.

The cruelty and darkness that some reviewers mention is a standard function of cautionary story-telling, and it’s there to grab your attention; it provides the necessary tension so that the reader is drawn in, either through outrage, fear or discomfort. There is a grotesque element operating here that gentler readers will have difficulty reckoning with. I am one of those, and my first instinct was to say: forget it! But I went back over the parts that had first offended me, and with a second reading found that David’s sense of humor was intact; it was mine that had been lacking. His insights remained unflinching and devastating.

Although SQUIRREL SEEKS CHIPMUNK might not be the usual fare readers have come to expect from David Sedaris, it has all the earmarks of what makes his nonfiction truly remarkable: biting wit, caustic satire, and an ever-so-subtle detection of a wink aimed toward his readers. Ian Falconer’s illustrations provide the perfect accompaniment to these acerbic tales. Unexpected, yes, but this slim volume provides a refreshing change of genre from one of our most treasured and talented writers.

As you read, the pieces of the broken mirror reassemble, and by the end of the book you will be able, once again, to see a reflection. It’s you alright, with the tail of a rat, the talons of the owl, the pecked neck of the fowl. Cringe. Laugh (sheepishly). Change your attitude. Think twice. Hold your tongue. Examine your motivations. It’s uncomfortable but it’s necessary. How else can we become more aware if not through the shock of self-recognition? And how else can we grow unless we see how small we really are?

Here’s a youtube sneak on the tale “Squirrel and the Chipmunk”

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk; Sedaris, David; Little Brown and Company; Hachette Book Group; $21.99