Friday, February 06, 2009

Book of the year for the Wall Street bunglers, and you

Whether you are a winner or a loser, Ashish Jaiswal’s True Dummy should be on your reading desk

True Dummy
A Fable of Existence
By Ashish Jaiswal
Publisher - Rupa & Co.
Paperback - 247 pages

When I started reading Ashish Jaiswal’s debut novel, True Dummy, I was hoping to read something familiar—and I mean it not as a compliment but a complaint that I hold against most Indian writers. The first few pages seemed to read like a pastoral with its bucolic charm or a tale from a small town. Is it another Slumdog Millionaire set in the mountains, I wondered. Village life, mountains, valley of flowers, rivers, small boys, Ammas, shopkeepers, minstrels—was Ashish treading on the Ruskin Bond territory?

Turned out it was no Ruskin Bond, no Slumdog Millionaire, but more Paulo Coehlo, and more Luck by Chance, perhaps even deeper than them.

Honestly speaking, the narrative might not grab you from the start—I had to struggle a bit (which happens with most novels I try to read) and keep the faith. Paragraph after paragraph failed to make me suspend my disbelief (you might have a different experience—every reader brings his own experiences to a text) but there came moments when I recognized the wisdom of the writer, the genuine observations of an extraordinary mind, the imagination of an adroit narrator.

As I kept on reading beyond the first few chapters, I was defeated in all my expectations—soon I was on a heroic journey along with the protagonist of the novel who starts out to seek fame and fortune in this world like most underdogs. He fails by all standards, even his own. And then he succeeds, not realizing what he was doing—until we are shown an unfinished piece of the puzzle.

Like a skillful magician, Ashish creates a mirror of the world (a mayanagri, if you will) in the novel where our basic human motivations and failings are reflected in a stripped down version—as if in a TV show, a la Chocolate Factory, where we all come seeking fame or riches, to be the next American Idol or the next superstar or the next whatever. And we fail: “I wanted to be the most famous and found myself amidst faces that nobody cared to notice. Nervous faces, cowardly faces, depressed faces…faces that said at the first look that they were born to lose.” Sounds familiar? There you go.

Ashish’s novel is so different in many senses. Though he lives in Oxford, UK, pursuing a DPhil from the University of Oxford, his work has been brought out by an Indian publisher. The novel’s title itself is so uncommon (I am talking in terms of the usual stuff that we see coming out of the Indian writing in English stable): the title is intriguing and yet has a refreshing allure about it, not reminding you of the Red Bulls, The Boat in the Mangrove and The Bride of Sitapur (all made up titles) type of commonplace titles.

Ashish’s novel may not be a great literary work (perhaps he did not even attempt to achieve any literary greatness in his work) with its many cardboard characters, uncomplicated and trick-less language and a straight narrative structure, it has great potential to be turned into a video game, with the Rings and its crooked tail and its three gates—MoneyGate, PowerGate and FameGate. Or it could be the next Slumgdog Millionaire meets The Lawrence of Arabia. Are the UTVs and the Warner Brothers listening?

Ashish’s tale might be Indian in tone and setting, but in terms of its ethos and message, this is a universal book (even the characters’ names such as Geoga and Verona are translation friendly). And so insightful, you might want to re-evaluate your approach to life after you have read it. If you are successful in life, you might see your success differently after reading True Dummy. If are a failure, you might feel otherwise about yourself. You may be inspired to do what the protagonist does in the novel.

If you like to read a book full of pearls of wisdom or quotable quotes, I bet this is the book for you. There are some dialogues or observations that you may want to note down in your diary. How about this one: “A fallback plan is for people who walk backwards, hence they all end up where they start.” A good quote for a film poster, with the Rings and all that, nahi? Or how about this one: “If a person has to tell what he does, then probably he does not do anything worth telling.” You find it cheesy? New age humbug? (Humm, are you a snooty high-brow lit reader?). Never mind. Salim-Javed would have liked it.

On a serious note, I strongly recommend this book to all those guys at the Wall Street and the big banks who have created a huge mess in our world, to the Bernie Madoffs and the B. Ramalinga Rajus of the world—it could be a good read in prison. At the same time, I think this book should be read by our ambitious youth, from Chandni Chowk to China to Connecticut, who ought to know what is truly valuable in life.

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