Saturday, May 20, 2006

Doing The Indian Thing

John Irving's The Fourth Hand is an example of doing-the-Indian-thing gone bad. Obviously other examples of the genre abound but Irving is one of my very favorite writers - I expect him to have more sense than to allow a circus lion in India eat his protagonist's left hand.

Doing the Indian thing is sadly very tempting - its lures many but few emerge from its quicksand unscathed. Being native does not help and likewise being a foreigner does not necessarily hinder. The country, its history and its people is replete with ideas for stories - it seems deceptively simple to pick one strand and imagine it has a finite beginning and end.

However stories in India are linked infinitely. It is an ancient civilization, there is not one but 330 million Gods, innumerable languages, dialects, parables and myths. The taste of food, the sound of folk music, the rhythm of dance changes each time you travel a few hundred miles in any direction of the country. Most lessons learnt in one part of India have to be re-learnt in the next. It takes a lot of time, cultural and emotional immersion until stories grow on you organically and flow as in a stream of consciousness.

Doing the Indian thing well is far more challenging than may seem at first - even for a master storyteller of Irving's caliber. It is a tantalizingly tempting trap and I am sad to say that in creating Patrick Wallingford - the hero without a left hand - Irving fell where many have fallen before. And yet, because it is Irving, the story overcomes the very avoidable lion-in-India fiasco and turns out to be quite a fun read. In lesser hands, it would have sunk without a trace. I am going to give his
A Son Of The Circus a shot to see if he fared any better with the dread "Indian thing" on that one.

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