We seek to make our own lives complicated, because we are drawn and addicted to drama, pathos, chaos and noise. And thus we turn simple tales to highly charged, emotional tragedies or comedies.
As it turns out, I have made yet another error in judgment while choosing my weekend read. But I will hold back my characteristic harshness and trademark vitriol. Why? For the simple reason that I could have chosen not to read it. Yet I did. And because I did, I must now speak about it. But it’s not nice to act all tart about the book, when it was my own fault that I chose to read it in the first place.
Another reason why I’m holding back is the fact that False Ceilings is a highly ambitious novel. I don’t mean it succeeds, but I cannot deny that ambitious is what it is or tries to project itself as. At least, it’s not a run-of-the-mill love story, and for that we should thank our stars, I must say!
The narrative follows a non linear sequence, a technique that I’m quite fond of [aside: if you think you’re reading a “but” at the end of that statement, you’re right. But tarry a while, my friend, we’ll get to it]. Due to this, I cannot properly summarize this book for you. Well, that, and the fact that there are way too many main characters, all just strewn about in the book like scrambled eggs. The sequence of events takes place from 1930 to 2062. While the story begins with one of the main characters, Aaryan, who seems to have lost his marbles, that part of the narrative is set in 2001. If I were to try summarizing, I should give you a glimpse of Shakuntala’s life – she is born in 1930, to a rich builder named Kanshi Ram. His mother, disappointed that his wife, Kusum, did not give birth to a son, keeps torturing and taunting everyone in the family. Kusum dies giving birth to her second child, a boy. Contrary to the custom of the time, Kanshi sends his daughter to a convent, so that she gets a proper education. However, soon after she turns ten, Kanshi dies in an accident. She decides to leave the convent and goes to live with her uncle. A few years later she gets married, and on the day of the wedding ceremony, her uncle hands her a “secret” and asks her to use it wisely. Does she? Doesn’t she? Who does? What is it?
Nothing turns me off of a book quicker than poor editing. In addition to that are those sentences that leap at you like artificially ripened fruit – the ones injected with a word from the thesaurus that is just slightly… off. Most importantly, it is the little things that matter. Even if the sentences are laid out perfectly one after the other, one misplaced preposition just turns the whole thing around. I know I make a lot of typos on my blog, and sometimes misspell words, or leave some out, leaving you to wonder who am I to judge? But the reason is, I don’t pay an editor to look for typos, and I rarely go through my posts before hitting Publish. Hell, I’m lazy, so sue me! But a book isn’t like that. It has a wider reach. It has a responsibility, so to speak. So when I turn to the first page and I see the word “Acknowledgment” without the “s” at the end, when clearly there were more than one person being acknowledged, I get a wee bit irked. And everything that follows is like an annoying hiccup in my head. A sentence that does not quite sound right or even outright wrong makes for some tedious reading. As a reader investing my time in someone’s work, I don’t want to be on the receiving end of something so tedious, so hiccoughy, like a jagged cut in a piece of wood.
Now let’s talk about why I called this an ambitious work that did not succeed. It had the ingredients of ambition. But a few things must complement that ambition: complexity, research, layers. For a book set in the pre-independence era, one that records the horrors of partition etc, the right atmosphere needs to be set through the narrative – which isn’t. Sure, a paragraph about bloodshed, but that’s it. Secondly, even in the later parts, a simple mention of when Maggi noodles or colour televisions made an appearance in India does not constitute as research. Show me details, show me intricacies.
Why else couldn’t I be convinced of the setting? The dialogue. We have people from the 1930s and people from the 2060s. They all sound the same. None of them even remotely sound like they belong to the eras they’re supposed to belong to. The dialogue’s potential in a novel has not been utilized at all in this case.
There are several instances where I felt the chronology was all wrong. For instance, Shakuntala’s father dies in 1940. An actual sentence from the book reads, “A few months later, the Quit India Movement begins in the year 1942.” Let’s forget the syntactical blunder in the sentence for a minute, and only look at the timeline issue – how are 1940 and 1942 a “few” months apart? Something similar happens between 1942 and 1946. Four years. Separated by a “few” months. Apparently. Is this science fiction set in some parallel universe?
I could go on – in 1984, Aaryan is 5. He spends three years in school with his friend Priya, assuming his age to be 8 by the end of said three years. The year should be 1987. He is an excellent student and participates in all kinds of extra curricular stuff [aside: in my personal opinion, I find him too young to be as competitive as he is described] However, his family moves away from Priya and the school in 1986. So much anachronism that I have a headache trying to keep track of all these events.
Coming back to language, the sentences sound too literal (example: “she pointed her nose to the sky” “He uprooted his hair from his head” uprooted? really?). Too literal. There are no idioms, no style, no phrases. It’s all thrown in the face.
And now back to the plot. Why did I keep reading if I kept groaning after every few sentences? Well, I now know there’s some sort of secret, might as well find out what it is, yes? But the climax left me rather deflated. I don’t wanna give out any spoilers, but once you reach the climax you say, “What? Is that it? You built all that up for this?” Then you realize there were hints right in the beginning. There usually are, of course, but this one leaves you meh. Which explains the line I started this review with – by the end of this book, you feel everyone involved was just being irrationally over-reactive. Reminded of those Indian soaps where they repeat a word thrice and then a loud clap of thunder is heard.
Overall, a giant plot that topples on itself without the support of the right legs to stand on. You may still pick it up if you wanna read something slightly different from the usual fare. But do I recommend it? I’d like to safeguard my credibility as a book reviewer, so no.