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Underwater Exploration

A novel populated with dogs, elephants, wise teenagers and unwise scientists is a deep dive into the state of India

Underwater Exploration
Manoj Kumar
Underwater Exploration
By C.P. Surendran
Fourth Estate | Pages: 272 | Rs. 499

As a piece of contemporary literature, there are many asp­ects to Hadal. First and most basic, it may be admired for its unwavering plot and its lifelike characters, presented in a manner which keeps the reader engaged. As such, it could easily find its feet in a burgeoning marketplace of newcomer readers whose tastes may be ready to move on from Ravinder Singh and Chetan Bhagat.

Second, as author C.P. Surendran acknowledges, the book is not pleasingly exotic or prettily clever and correct. It is inspired by a true story: the story of an Indian rocket scientist fals­ely accused of selling secrets of the Indian space research programme. Also, one of its main characters is a confused, wishy-washy, inappropriate role-model, victim of a woman. For a publishing industry grappling with self-esteem issues since historic times (and one whose decision-makers today are mostly women), it marks a kind of coming of age to have let through an important book without a ‘wow!’ theme with a nondescript protagonist.

Another aspect of Hadal is a fabric of common-sense backed by a weft of satire. Located in Kerala, it has coconuts, street and pet dogs and a wannabe tourist industry. There is an evil nuclear power plant, and a foreign  activist who tries but is unable to convince young people that basket-weaving and idyllic village life is the way forward. Another of Hadal’s main characters is a rocket scientist—what could be sexier than someone who understands everything—who turns out to be someone with a deep, fundamental instinct for what women want. Ironica­lly, he will only learn, too late, that there are things fathers should never do so that their sons could be happy.

Every writer, as Surendran says, is at the mercy of others’ tastes, beholden to how a million others were brought up.

This book shows us that dreams are real—why else does your heart continue to pound at the mere hologram of a few mismatched memories? Shadowy women determinedly express their individuality. Villainous men (addicted to cough syrup) come undone by their deep love for and dependence on their mothers. A teenager feels complete, and with his well-lived life behind him, is all set to welcome death. An elephant recognises his mistress eight years after she, having fallen on lean days, had sold him to a temple. A gentle dig at the self-righteous mental health professionals of a certain Nordic country where Indian parenting has been considered lacking, Hadal exposes how we, as a people, have yet to come to terms with adoption.

This vigorous and colourful context comes to the reader in short, powerful sentences that conjure up striking portraits and landscapes. Then, all of a sudden, unexpectedly, the territory transforms. Abyss, whirlpool, torrent— dramatic, self-indulgent, exquisitely beautiful—a dancing panorama of sentences unfolds. It turns out that the author of this novel is a poet. He is not just a poet, but an activist too. It turns out that the innermost thrust of this book is not just self-expression. It is to hold Indian democracy—not just Indian democracy but Indian civilisation itself—under a spotlight.

What is the fundamental problem we face as a people? With sixty per cent of us defecating in the open, could it be, maybe, toilets? Or is it just that old thing we always knew, that the people in charge are irresponsible and crazed, career fascists? Is it that we ourselves are nothing but liars and cheats? Is it just our helplessness against our biology, and sometimes our geography, that makes us all so laughably weak and ridiculous? Are we as different from Pakistan and Nigeria as we would like to believe?

Every writer, as Surendran observes, is at the mercy of others’ tastes, beholden to how a million others were brought up, the books they read, the schools they went to, the kind of parents they had. How many in that burgeoning mar­ket­place of newcomer readers, bro­wsing boo­­kshelves or top-ten lists, would connect ‘hadal’ with the Greek Hades, the abode of the dead? How many would know, without consulting Google, that hadal also refers to the deepest trenches under the sea? In these trenc­hes, pressure and density and opacity are extreme. Reading this book, it appears the author chose the title with the intention of conveying that, though we tend to delude ourselves that we are a great, open people, maybe we are actually hadal.

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