Dilip M Menon
Saturday, August 30, 2008
The Paradise Trail
Vietnam, drugs, murder, hard rock, Dylan, the Bangladesh war and a
geography that extends from America to London, Calcutta and Thailand.
This is a novel about the 1970s and its fallout. It is also about the
generation that moved compulsively eastwards only to become rooted in
the West by the end of the 20th century. The characters of the novel
congregate in Calcutta on the eve of the war to liberate Bangladesh,
some in a crumbling hotel, appropriately named Lux (a popular brand
of soap as much as the eternal light of the East), meant for those on
the hippy trail. There is the hotel owner, Anand, wistfully drinking
his Sandemans port and musing about his student days in London.
The novel revolves around a journalist, Hugh, in search of sex and a
war story; a photographer, Britt, in search of herself and the
ultimate war photograph; Duncan, a dissolute, disillusioned
copywriter; and Larry, committed drug dealer and shooter-up. There
are others like Remy, ex-French Legion, who end up murdered; and a
man calling himself Freddie Braintree who has his head smashed in.
The mysterious sign of the murderer appears at all of these sites:
the yin and yang symbol. Meanwhile, the war to liberate Bangladesh
happens in the background, mercifully brief for some, too short for
others since it means their return to their humdrum lives back in
Europe. The characters lust after each other, some actually manage to
have affairs, and some develop attachments which will mature thirty
years later in another space and in another incarnation of their old selves.
This is a marvellously written, witty and wry novel about the
illusions and passions of the '70s replete with references to the
music, the drugs and the mood of the time. It is also artfully
crafted. The welter of detail about popular culture rock music and
literature which seems overwhelming at first, comes together in a
clever way in a stylistic history of the characters' lives since the
1970s, written as a series of news headlines.
Watch out for the details in the book, a seemingly throwaway phrase
surfaces later as dramatic denouement. The characters themselves grow
on us; we empathise with their angst, their weaknesses and their
reluctant growth away from their illusioned youth. Every piece fits
in the novel. Almost.
Yet, this novel, rich as it is in description of people,
relationships and milieus, disappoints as a crime novel. The author
artfully signals towards Agatha Christie and last page resolutions of
murder, but the resolution when it comes disappoints. There is no way
the reader, even an attentive, intelligent one, could have even
guessed the identity of the killer or the circumstances of killing.
The author has held all the cards and then reveals them to us in the
end in an act of omniscience. But then, read it for fun and for
nostalgia about the time when it was heaven to be alive. Or was it
just the hash?
The reviewer teaches modern Indian history at Delhi University.