No stranger fruit than ripest ‘imaginary’ banana republics

Saturday, 13 September 2014 00:33 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

If you like to read, but can’t be bothered with reviews, this isn’t for you. But if literary criticism is half as much fun as the book itself, read on – or, play on. Afdhel Aziz likes to explain. A lot. But in a literary sort of way. There’s pedantry in his prose. And some poetry. And although you know may already know the story of the word “serendipity’s” origins, you might enjoy rediscovering it unexpectedly in one of the many didactic conversations between the lovers Malik and Maya. That, and much else besides. This, much of what follows, is not so much a review as a literary appreciation. The devil is in the literary details. (‘Strange Fruit’: Serendipity:2004:331 pages) Mostly positive There is some violence. It takes on a balletic rhythm; cadence; movement. A burning man is “bent double in the hot tar, writhing with agony” – but “he moved with the strange, languid grace of a dancer, curving from side to side, his mouth open in a perpetual scream.” And there is “a strange geometry of violence” in the twisted limbs and bombed landscapes of ’83. Alliteration there is in good measure. “Back inside the cool cave of the classrooms, her classmates talked excitedly.” “Pursuance of the path to peace.” “A bicycle, a bucket, a book.” “The clockwork of the city under attack would continue to turn.” Aziz’s attempts at this are like décolletage. It’s too low for the highbrows and too high for the lowbrows. Nice counterpoints or contrasts cheer up depressed readers. A couple is “amiably estranged.” There is humour. Main squeeze Maya’s boyfriend describes her as a “persecuted minority” – “as if she had been some sort of endangered species, like an ocelot.” There are “women in their Mysore saris inspecting each other like botanists inspecting rare butterflies.” And is it a sort of dualism that makes a girl’s pet fishes “Elvis” and “Presley”? a boy’s pet dogs “Shelley” and “Byron?” The writer has an ear for the local tongue’s indelicacies. Snatches of a single conversation: “I caught and blackguarded the bugger in raw filth…” “Who the bloody hell does he think he is?” “A real haho in Maho, no?” “I, of course, have told the buggers from the beginning; it just won’t work…” Other elements of sound-based writing dominate, such as consonance and assonance. “The monumentally incompetent and corrupt bureaucracy that plagued corporations and government alike;” “A majority could casually and brutally bully a minority with impunity.” Unexpected similes may make readers smile: “Bats expanded like a gigantic Rorschach test in the sky above him, billowing in inky clouds as they winged their way out of the trees.” There is something of the aficionado of everything about Aziz. Writing about bad-boy Kiran’s penchant for movies, he has his character watching a Fellini film “with the same rapt attention as watching a John Candy movie, treating van Damme and Verhoeven with the same reverence as Kurosawa and Kubrick.” Surreal imagery adds a dash of sugar and spice. At a disco, there are “preening teenage girls: all hair and high heels, angelfish under the predatory glances of the shoals of young boys, all moving and turning with the same instinct.” Somewhat middling The book’s adjectives weave in and out between the customary and the unexpected. Traditional descriptions abound. School principals are “immaculate;” best friends are “dapper;” girls’ schools are “genteel;” and suburbs are “genteel,” “sleepy,” and “neighbourly.” One encounters nondescript “lanky Swedish ornithologists,” “bluff Germans working for UNESCO,” and “taciturn Bangladeshi accountants;” while there is also a nontraditional lover who is “loud but inarticulate.” Passing references are made to poets and poetry. Langston Hughes, Dorothy Parker, Pablo Neruda. Describing Sri Lanka as an “immense scintillation of light.” Psychology plays a subtle role. Mental landscapes have aromas or odours. Sri Lanka’s peculiar smells are “a breath of cinnamon, heat and dust, salt water.” Priest-craft suffers a brief mention, as does islander superstition. Epilepsy is thought by some naïfs to be a virulent and often inexorcisible form of demon possession. This is counterpointed sharply by the sophistication of the major characters, for whom there is only the material world and no excluded middle of angels and demons. There are exotic locales. Hikka, Charlie Don’t Surf, Count de Mauny’s island/Taprobane, the tranquillity that the serene Buddha Beach induces in the stricken travellers. There are experience junkies who indulge themselves in night-swimming. A drag ball. Gun-brandishing in the VIP lounge at nightclubs. Fireworks on a deserted Yala beach that almost starts off a brush fire, and leads to the most devastating discovery of the book. There are entertaining characters. The gentle giant Fish. The scoundrel of a recluse “the Colonel.” Sundry gangsters, drag queens, et al. There are eclectic flavours in “prayers to Shiva Buddha Allah Vishnu, any deity that could intervene.” (Jesus is not mentioned here, simply reserved for another reference, when a foreigner in Sri Lanka  – the abovementioned Fish – is likened to “Jesus, teleported into Asia.”) Some minor chords The writer overdoes some adjectives. All skies are “translucent” and all seas are “luminescent”. It would be “iridescent” if it was not so irritating! Is it unreal in bits? A very young and innocent Maya in a heated room in Britain thinks, “That’s what being British is all about. Insulation.” Really, isn’t that more the author’s voice intruding? There’s the occasional overwriting. “A purple silk dress that was almost the colour of midnight.” Purple prose or nothing! In all of this, it is ‘tell’ rather than ‘show.’ We rarely see the main characters do anything. We are simply told they did. Trite realities and clichés occupy a fair bit of space. For example, on board a return flight to the island, housemaids want their obviously more sophisticated companion to help them fill their embarkation cards. Stuff we know and lament or ignore and neglect about Lankans are painstakingly paraded. Repetition in the actions of some characters makes the tome heavier than literary soufflé should be. Both mothers in the book “put [her] foot down.” Most unforgivably, maybe, there are some mistakes – it’s “Sinhala” (the language) not “Singhalese” (the race). Also, do Muslims go to Kataragama on pilgrimage, “to worship gods and saints”? Then again, it’s a “discreet” exit, not a “discrete” one. BTW, Mr. Aziz, the Judas of the Bible is not a saint: he has no place with other saints in the diorama of the church down south that Maya (the main woman character) and Malik (the main man) visit after her mother’s death. An end Some trivia to conclude: It takes until halfway through the book (p. 127, to be precise) for the writer to explain the Billy Holliday connection with the eponymous song (‘Strange Fruit’, 1939) that gives this novel its name. Revealingly for an admirer, Aziz quotes Ernest Hemingway twice. “The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.” He’s at his best when describing what he knows best: music. “He played brooding techno, sparse with almost no instrumentation, just a stripped down beat. He played soulful, uplifting house that bounced along fuelled by gospel joy and disco attitude. He played jazzy breakbeats, fat chunks of percussion slung into a crazy stir fry, laced with horns, samples, scratching and cowbells.” More such cadences lend music to even the most casual reading. There are “stultifying dull tutors who droned on and on, drilling facts and figures, equations and histories into their heads by dint of sheer bloody repetition.” There is much internal monologue, externalised and conducted by Aziz’s syntactical orchestra – music being a dominant part of his wordplay. The father has “a riff of ideas.” Music is made out to be a great equaliser. Referring to the baila, he writes – “accompanied by music that was rhythmic, melodic, and spiced with the bawdiest of lyrics, it was the national dance of Sri Lanka; everyone danced it from the President and Prime Minister to the fisherman and farmer.” When his characters listen to music it is John Coltrane, Aimee Mann, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Massive Attack they listen to. When Malik as a DJ plays records, it is Smashing Pumpkins, Joni Mitchell, and Astrid Gilberto. And in the crescendo to the romantic scene on Trinco beach, there’s “a slow tenor saxophone” leading a “trio of bass, piano, and drums.” And for foreplay between the would-be lovers, there’s a short, bittersweet explanation of what a blue note is. And in the end, Erik Satie and Lena Horne beat the Beastie Boys, ACDC, and Led Zeppelin any day. Both in Aziz’s invented world as well as in his own loud imagination. Last but not least, there are tropical hideaways like Hikka and topical giveaways like sound bites from the movie The Matrix. “You take the red pill, I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” It’s about the “glorious, nonsensical minutiae of the world.” Any dilettante and/or lover of music, the food of love, love itself, the romance/adventure genre, an unapologetically nostalgic look back in disbelief, would be happy to have and hold this strange book and be fructified by it.                                    

There’s no accounting for some tastes

Food is the music of love in Afdhel Aziz’s ‘Strange Fruit.’ There are the tastes of memory. “Milk toffee, hard candy that tasted of cinnamon;” “Pol toffee, shards of coconut and condensed milk shaped into tiny squares that melted in her mouth;” “Mango chutney and love cake;” “Sweet, juicy rambuttan and mangoes;” “Ambulthiyal, the pickled fish curry with the sour goraka, godamba roti, the large, stretchy, golden brown deliciousness… crab curry, spicy and hot, served with all the trimmings of a Sunday lunch, yellow rice, lentils, peas and potato curry;” “Koththu roti, the savoury snack that was a staple of late night dining: chopped up roti bread, chicken, vegetables, spicy and delicious;” “A treasure trove of treats: fresh loaves of bread, baked that afternoon, crust still warm to the touch; dainty little cupcakes with flowers iced onto them; ‘kimbulu bunis’, buns shaped liked a crocodile and sprinkled with sugar; and éclairs and doughnuts and cakes and more, an endless cornucopia of delights.” And grub in this book is like the “all-you-can-eat Sunday buffet: large helpings of steaming rice, chicken, fish and aubergine curries, all the tastes of home that you couldn’t get in cold, grey London.” It is “food that blessed them with heat and spice, washed down with furiously coloured carbonated drinks from their childhood – Elephant House Ice Cream Soda, Ginger Beer, Necto, Lanka Lime – and, to finish, warm wattalappam, the supersweet Muslim pudding.” As soon as you think you are “sated,” the author “staggers back” … “clutching plastic bags full of fish cutlets and vegetable patties, mutton rolls and crispy vades that would be hoarded in their fridges and eaten on gloomy mornings, so that for a brief moment, home would blossom inside their mouth again” over “a leisurely breakfast of hoppers, crispy pancakes with a doughy centre, and chilli hot pol sambol, a red coconut dish that took the roofs off their mouths with its fierceness” … “freshly fried vade, spicy doughnuts, crunchy and textured” which would “sting their mouths with plates of devilled cuttle fish, washed down with soapy wet lion lagers” and “paper thosai, its crispy ends sagging over the side of the plate, which they ate with green sambol and hot, hot mutton curry.” Not unlike his characters, Aziz is “endlessly obsessed with finding the best food in the city: from the best ‘pittu and babath’, deliciously rich tripe curry from a simple shop on Malay Street in crowded Pettah to the best ‘lamprais’, a Dutch delicacy consisting of rice and curries baked in a banana leaf.” His exploration encompasses the plebeian Elephant House Hot Dogs with their special sauce through the pedestrian “lunch packets” – “a small plastic wrapped parcel of fiery curries, heaps of rice and small bits of devilled fish” to the patrician swilling of champagne with the diplomatic corps at an embassy party or frequenting “the French bistro with linen napkins and obsequious waiters.”