February 22, 2020
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Life In The Slow Lane

A spontaneous, evocative tale about life in a mining town

Life In The Slow Lane
In The Light Of The Black Sun
By Rohit Manchanda
Penguin Rs:200;Pages:318
IN Graham Greene's classic Travels With My Aunt, the protagonist sets out on a rollercoaster world tour with his aunt. Greene provides hilarious twists to the tale through quirky characters his protagonist meets on the way. Manchanda's book has echoes of that Greene classic. While the plot is anchored in a small town, the book's hero Vipul records a series of vivid experiences that mostly result from his encounters with characters drawn from diverse walks of life. Most of these meetings take place in unlikely circumstances. And as Paul Auster might have put it, it is chance that plays the decisive role in making these meetings memorable. The children of a coalmine manager, Vipul and his brother Sameer live in the privileged privacy of their huge bungalow. And, in the initial phase of the book, appear to be leading rather placid and self-satisfied lives. Having grown up in the Jharia and Raniganj coalfields of eastern India, Manchanda is easily able to communicate the atmosphere of a small mining town to his reader. His descriptions of the ambience within the house are evocative and he lends charming personalities to the people his protagonist meets in his home and outside it--in school, in his immediate neighbourhood and on his occasional visits to far-away New Delhi. Manchanda portrays the idiosyncrasies of his characters with brilliant flourish. Take, for instance, Father Rocqueforte, the moral science teacher who is "supposed" to teach "essays, parables, and incidents from the lives of saintly men and women". "'Degeneration,' he says, 'Absolute degeneration is what is happening to America.... The moral fabric of the society is gone-like that.' And he clicks his fingers." For a debutant, Manchanda is exceptionally aware of the virtues of precision in a descriptive novel. The story's narrative seesaws between the writer's observations of Vipul's sanitised domestic environment and the coalblack world outside. Invariably witty, the author also makes some insightful statements about middle class attitudes in the town. Vipul's mother who is preparing to go to Delhi, "packed a large number of saris; even though not remarkably prone to grime and dust, saris needed nevertheless to be changed twice a day, and she couldn't repeat a sari in Delhi". There are other times when Vipul ventures into the worlds of missionaries and rogues, swamis and his own friends. The author obviously enjoys portraying them picturesquely, if not very accurately: "His name was Father Kendal; not his primogenital name, of course--that might have been Mr Nair or Mr Annamathaiah before he became Father Kendal - for it was obvious from his physiognomy that he was from Kerala." Throughout the work, Manchanda's prose is effortless. There is no jerkiness, he makes his intentions clear from the start. Far from playing truant with the narrative technique, or ascribing pretentious motives to his literature, Manchanda is content to write about the boyhood of an observant child. His humour is natural, the structure in the story accessible to just about anyone, and the story immensely enjoyable as a consequence. What ensues reminds one of the Swiftian desire to make a book comprehensible even to a chambermaid. Vipul never seems to get tired of his experiences, and the language is such that even the most casual reader would not abandon the smooth-flowing text halfway through. A beautifully told story, the simplicity of In the Light of the Black Sun endorses the fact that lives lived on the slow lane can still have a lot to write a book about.

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