Monday, 15 February 2016

Book Review - Child / God, by Ketan Bhagat

Book Review: Child / God, by Ketan Bhagat



Publisher: Rumour Books
Purchase URL: Amazon

Before I even get into the content of the book, let me answer the burning questions that readers of this blog (all three of you) must have.

1.     Yes, Ketan Bhagat is related to Chetan Bhagat. He’s the younger brother of India’s best-selling author and columnist.
2.     No, the book is nothing like the typical Chetan Bhagat book.

In fact, Child/God is not a typical book at all. It’s something quite different, and refreshingly so. Far from the dumbed-down, stereotypical stories of boys and girls that have flooded the Indian market like a Mumbai downpour, Child/God is a sincere attempt to depict a middle-class Indian man’s journey from mindless corporate slavery to a person at peace with his life and his choices.

Plot

I have said before that Child/God is not the dollar-paperback sort of stuff that characterises the output of most Indian writers today. If anything, it veers towards – yes, believe it – literary fiction.

The book deals with the life of Raghav Malhotra, a Delhi boy with an unremarkable academic record who nevertheless manages to go to a premier MBA college and gets a typical middle-management job with an IT Company. His wife Leela is a yoga instructor and Raghav’s primary ambition appears to be the success of her enterprise.

The biggest influence in Raghav’s life, however, is his elder brother Rishi Malhotra, whose own career has been spectacular – IIT, IIM, Investment Banking and then a career as a bestselling novelist. The other is his mother Seema, whose abandonment of the boys’ father in their youth has been a definitive event for both the brothers.

From here we are taken through the next couple of years in Raghav’s life during which he runs through a gamut of emotions and events, from a near-breakdown in his marriage to serious strain on his relationships with both his brother and his mother.

As Raghav slides into a moral quagmire, the Book shifts to the titular subject Рthe emergence of his son as the driving force for him to re-examine his life. Avoiding spoilers, all I can say is that Ketan stays away from the clich̩s that would typically attend such a transformation. No soppy father-son moments (well ok, a few, but not too many). No sudden transformations. Under the guidance of the redoubtable Dogfather and drug-addict-turned-spiritual-guru Balraj, Raghav plumbs the depths and rises again, with the transformative impact of his son Ish being not so much by way of actual divinity as by providing an example of the key to a happy life.

It is here that Ketan really handles his subject with maturity. There is nothing personally remarkable about Raghav’s son. He is a healthy, attractive child, subject to the same foibles as any other. Neither is there any actual imputation of godhead on the child. Rather, the ‘God’ of Child/God is the God of the deists, an entity who would be acceptable to atheists as much as to the devout. (In fact the concept of God as brought forth here might not be acceptable to the modern devout, but let’s not follow that line of thinking too closely for now).

The coming of Ish into Raghav’s life is not presented as an end-point, and there is no happily-ever-after. Rather, it is a mid-point in the book, and Ketan bravely ploughs into the quagmire of marital relationships after they have frayed to breaking point. It goes on to speak eloquently on the philosophical principles of detachment, stoicism and even the importance of building trust in business practices. But that’s something I’d rather not delve too deeply into, since it would end up being a spoiler.

The side-plots to Raghav’s personal transformation centre around his career at Abacus Ltd., the occurrences in the life of his brother Rishi and his family – comprising Rishi’s wife Aparna, his son Shiv, the marital problems of Leela’s friends Nikhil and Tammy, Raghav’s relationship with his father, the Colonel and the progression of Leela’s yoga classes.

Characters

Ketan has done a very fair job of drawing relatable characters. The main characters – Raghav, Leela, Rishi, Aparna and Seema are all well fleshed out, and avoid veering into stereotypes, all with shades of grey.

Writing

With an interesting and different – one might even say difficult premise, Ketan’s certainly had a tough task of writing it in a relatable way. I would personally say that he deserves praise for writing a book that is not a copy of anyone else’s style, and is very real in its convictions.

This is not an easy book to read – and I do not think that the writer was trying to make it easy either. At the same time, it is not the sort of self-conscious or pretentious writing that characterizes many authors who profess intellectualism. Neither does it veer into self-help or didactic territory. The best part of Raghav’s journey is that the writer presents it is his journey, not as an example that the reader must necessarily emulate. No preaching here. Just a simple narration of how a changed outlook to life positively affects the protagonist.

Some of the side-narratives are not narrated as well as the main story, and the Nikhil-Tammy relationship in particular, veers into ‘why is this here’ territory at times. Sometimes a jarring phrase or slightly below-par scene might make one sigh, but these are few and far-between.

Is the writing of a stirringly ‘high’ class? Frankly, my answer would be ‘not yet’. This isn’t a stylist, or a refined wordsmith. This is a writer with a voice, telling a story he evidently believes in – and he does that well. I definitely liked the fact that Ketan does not sound like anyone else, but as of right now I do not know whether he definitely has a style at all.

Nevertheless, there is distinctness to his story and sincerity to his efforts as well as a conscious effort to write well that has my approbation. In a literary scene where far too many writers are content to fling a metaphorical inkpot at the page and publish whatever comes out, Ketan has tried to craft a story he believes in, and there is reason to think he will only get better at it.

The Little Things

From an aesthetic point of view, the paperback is a bit too tall, almost unwieldy. In places, phrases are repeated or missed out (hardly two or three over the course of a 350 page book, but still) and that’s something a second edition (I sincerely hope there is one) should look into.

There is little I could find otherwise to criticise. Of course, Ketan is not a polished storyteller in the Amitav Ghosh – Jhumpa Lahiri mould, but he is someone who’s clearly serious about what he’s writing and not at all blasé about the quality of it. This is one writer I think I want to read more of, not just for the stories he will tell, but to see his growth as a craftsman.

Conclusion

There is a lot to like about Child/God and very little to dislike. I started this review by making two clarifications. Let me end it with two statements:

a.     This is a more complex, difficult book than you might at first think
b.     You may not necessarily agree with the premise, but if you persist with it till the end, you will definitely learn something, maybe something about yourself, maybe a fresh way of looking at life – well, it’s hard to say what, but I doubt any reader will come away from this completely unaffected.

Disclaimer

The review has been made basis a paperback shared by the author for reviewing purposes. The reviewer is not acquainted with anyone connected with the book on a personal basis

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