A Review of “Waiting for Renée”

Paresh Chandra

Paramita Ghosh, Waiting for RenéeWriters Workshop, Kolkata, 2008, ISBN:978-81-8157-770-2, pp. 70, Price (HB) Rs 150. Contact: renee.miss@gmail.comTwo usual questions asked about a piece of writing: 1) Is it fun? (This often translates into: does it take effort? If it does then it is not fun.) and 2) Does it give a good representation of reality? As a critic, I can afford to snobbishly disregard the first and the second I will try to rescue since it is after all, a result of years of reading of books that ‘reflect life’ and is closer to the canon. In fact there is still nothing wrong with demanding a piece of writing to be a ‘representation of reality’, if we only complicate our understanding of the phrase. ‘Representation of reality’ does not imply verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is one avatar that this phrase took and its age to my mind seems gone. If truth be told some of my favourite writers never tried to achieve this effect in their writing. Descriptions became outdated since Dostoyevsky (even though naturalism had just emerged). If you are looking for easy fun, find another book. Reality is there, not much verisimilitude.

The introduction that the writer wrote for this collection suggests that “The Story of Renée” captures the tussle between a Reneewoman and a man about the telling of stories and ‘construction of narratives’.  Maybe she wants the reader to believe that. In a sense it is true, but I don’t know if she has done the story much good by writing that. It is not just that. Yes, there is the woman and there is the man, and the woman seems imaginative and (pardon me for using such passé terms) spontaneous and the man is all about the facts and there is tussle. Some may find it strange that the names that come up in the tussle are all French – Sartre, Simone, Napoleon (Renée?) – even though as the author points out in the introduction it is about India. Keeping in mind all the hullabaloo surrounding the discourse of ‘Indian Writing in English’, the author seems to be living on a knife’s edge, using such references and yet trying, it appears to pay her way out of strife, bribing her Indian readers with that introduction of hers.

Remember Freud’s dream book? Remember what he said about dream content and latent thought? What you think you see is not the real thing, though you see the real thing as well. The tussle is what you think you see, but it is not the real thing. The real thing is something else, which you also see. To me it seems the more important idea is the seemingly marginalized (repressed?) one. In a subtle way, does the story suggest that Sartre and Simone are Indian? If feminism can be Indian, and if an Indian woman can write about a tussle between a woman and a man, then aren’t they Indian? Is the only way of writing available to the Indian writer (writing in English) one that ignores these experiences that are definitive of her/his aesthetics and reality in favour of descriptions of some ‘Indian reality’ that would get her/him the Booker Prize? Maybe not, says the story. ‘You tell me’, also says the story. The woman in the story, who ‘sang a French chanson’ dreams of writing a European story and the Indian reader might laugh at her inauthenticity but the story has already been written and the reader without knowing has been roped in, into the bargain.

The story tries to negotiate the situation of the Indian writer writing in English, the guilt of being privileged and writing for the privileged, and the anxiety of representing also the one who is not privileged. As ‘post-colonial’ subjects, we like to think of ourselves as special. But in point of fact this problem is universal, in this case more pronounced maybe. The experience of art in a class society is inevitably one of leisure and class privilege. To somehow negotiate this anxiety, this ‘guilt of art’ is the attempt of every artist. The most that a piece of art can do is accept this guilt and bring it out in its relation with the social. If it doesn’t do that the repressed will return in uncomfortable ways and if it does that, the situation remains uncomfortable all the same.

The ‘presenting a slice of life’ approach does not seem to be working for many of these writers; the pressure of negotiating a landscape of which they aren’t a part, always proves overpowering and instead of ‘breaking the landscape’, they often end up ‘exoticising’ it, or reducing it to stereotypes (the two are pretty much the same thing). Ghosh, it appears, tries to do something different. Something, possibly not completely original, but then imitation in art as Vargas Llosa says somewhere, is not a moral but an artistic problem and Ghosh seems enough of an artist to personalize this ‘plagiarism’. In ‘The Kites’ for instance, she is able to handle the antinomy of social discontent pretty well through the boy who wants to destroy the houses so that he can make a long board to iron more clothes only to realize that with the houses gone there would be no more clothes to iron. Some snapshots in this story might actually be a part of her lived experience, for instances that of presswallas having to hurry up and down the stairs to collect clothes in ones and twos. The story is indeed an urban one and is able to encompass nicely the experience of the writer as well as the characters. But she wisely decides not to offer a last word, or at least not an easy one. The enigmatic last paragraph is where the answer to whatever question the reader might ask lies, but it has to be found; it does not give itself up as Adiga’s false ones do.

Ghosh remoulds and brings to life seemingly dated motifs by adding strange perspectives. One cannot be sure if the woman in red is sad or if it’s right to think that she’s. The imaginary stenographer takes her notes, deferring judgement. To express the strangeness of everyday situations, words themselves become strange in their relation to each other. In an uneasy situation of a domestic battle, time becomes ‘uncertain’.  Short sentences become narratives and the longer ones mere frames.

‘The time is uncertain. The lamp posts are so tall that this evening who knows if a bulb or a star will hang itself.’ (23)

Everydayness slips into the metaphysical through the word ‘uncertain’. Drab reality lit by strange but smooth writing presents a similar chiasmatic structure, possible only in the in-between state where matter and anti-matter coexist and nothing is quite final—there is a promise of stability but the promise exists because it was not kept.  In openly choosing typical urban images, the text seems to accept that it has come late in the day, but this acceptance does not imply that it has nothing to add. Difference in form is often a sign of fundamental change, though I wouldn’t throw in all my money yet; I would wait and watch.

The feeling of being in limbo that she preserves, well most of the time, does fade a little on occasions when I think she becomes uncharacteristically eager to cut the Gordian knot. ‘A writer trying to find words’ has been done before, but that has been the fate of most things. And each writer finds words differently and each could be put into a story. In any case, till a point the story seemed to be going in one direction and then it changed route. Maybe the author chose a male persona to distance herself or to give an appearance of distance, but another likely reason seems to be good old verisimilitude—maybe somewhere in the back of her mind, Ghosh thought it would be more believable if a guy gets the call to revolution. I say that because I find this part of the story somewhat bewildering and I can’t imagine why this episode, if it had to be there, had to be there in this fashion unless she wants to give us a taste of ‘bitter’ reality. The revolutionary as a windbag with a beard is a stock image now and in such circumstances when faced with the unsure, dreamy artist seems more of an ass. It seems that this one time in her desire to present the sad face of reality, she gives in to the old way and instead of giving us a type gives us a stereotype. Her style in this part loses its characteristic ease and allows out of place sarcasm to creep in. (‘While my friend fills in the picture, I learn that I am a hidden radical.’) The change in style makes me unsure of whether I should give her the benefit of the doubt and suggest that these feelings are not recommended or valued, though if her intention in choosing a male character was distance, this is possible as well.

The thing about anticipation is that it allows you to keep one foot into what you are waiting for without allowing the complacency of ownership. It keeps you on your toes and never allows you to become comfortable. It tells you that it is not the perfect world. You should not become complacent because there is unhappiness, inequality, injustice (class?). You are insignificant and you cannot afford to become complacent. You can change things but you haven’t yet. You can create meaning but you haven’t yet. You think you can do these things but you can’t be sure. A work that does not preserve or recreate this uncertainty has no siblings in the realm of philosophy and is by extension not art. At the very least, Waiting for Renée tries to be art.

I think the volume is pretty. The binding could be better though. ‘A Credo by P. Lal’, on the last page in spite of the wry tone makes me feel good about possessing a ‘limited edition’ object.

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