Anil Menon is a writer whose most interesting book you probably won’t find in your local bookstore. Menon, born in India’s tropical Kerala state, has gained broad attention in this country as a writer of speculative fiction. As a kid he aspired to be an accountant – his father was an accountant who delighted in his work – but when that kid had completed his undergraduate education he went to Syracuse University in non-tropical upstate New York.
At Syracuse, Menon entered a PhD program and emerged to write papers on evolutionary algorithms. If you can imagine a computer program that mimics the blundering processes of Darwinian evolution to achieve its ends, you might consider exploring the field of evolutionary algorithms. Menon still does work in mathematics, but he has written more and more fiction, short and long, and now defines himself as a writer of speculative fiction. In fact, he’s a writer of complex intelligence, verve and wit.
There can be a playfulness in mathematics akin to the wittiness you hear in Mozart or Bach — and that same playfulness is everywhere in Menon’s recent novel. Half of What I Say, a 436-page work in English, was published in India by Bloomsbury’s New Delhi office, the independent publisher and innovative writer making a good match.
Half of What I Say is structured as a roman policier in which Vyas, an agent of the nation’s powerful Lokshakti security apparatus, is tasked with investigating people involved in making a subversive but unreleased movie based on the Ramayana. At the same time, Vyas himself is desperate to recover a letter he wrote to his wife expressing doubts about the role of the Lokshakti, and the letter apparently had been in the possession of a high-profile intellectual who was murdered, presumably by another branch of the omnipresent Lokshakti. As the story gets going, the author introduces, one by one, a number of apparently unconnected characters who later turn out to be linked in an intricate chain which includes a bright university woman, a wealthy industrialist and his beautiful wife, an exceedingly popular movie actress, an sexually neutral poet, an upcoming computer entrepreneur, plus their sidekicks, subordinates and dependents further down the social food chain.
It’s a real-world fact that Lok Shakti (People Power) was a political party that rose to prominence in the late 1990s in Karnataka, a state bordering Menon’s Kerala, but the Lok Shakti eventually sank in significance, partially absorbed by a another political movement. Lokshakti, as a single word, is Anil Menon’s invention. Menon told an interviewer in the Indian Express that the novel grew out of his antipathy toward Kisan Baburao (Anna) Hazare’s anti-corruption movement. “Many of my Indian friends were in favour of it,” he said, “but the more I learned about Hazare, the more convinced I became that the proposed cures were worse than the disease.” Menon believes that tyrannies are mass movements gone wrong, and that such movements get started because people are easily led by stories. And those stories can be simple falsehoods, national myths, legends from the past, slanted news items, popular movies – in other words, stories of any kind.
The India that Anil Menon portrays is counterfactual — an India where the anti-corruption movement has succeeded and there’s now a central agency, not answerable to anyone, dedicated to rooting out corruption. Half of What I Say comes to the reader first as a police story, but it’s clearly a critique of trends which Menon sees in India’s political world. The author’s deeper, recurrent preoccupation in Half of What I Say is the role of story in the political life of the nation. Of course, Half of What I Say itself is fiction, so, yes, we have a bit of postmodern gymnastics going on here, too.
At this point we might puzzle out the book’s title which is cut down from the sentence “Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you.” In Europe and America, the phrase is most often attributed to the Beatles song, “Julia,” by John Lennon and, possibly, Menon may have had that in mind, but if so, he probably also had in mind the same lines from Kahlil Gibran’s Sand and Foam. So the question arises as to which level of this layered novel was the author’s throw-away part. The danger in writing an adventure tale in order to critique political dynamics is that your reader may simply read for the police story and not take in the criticism at all, or may take in the critique, and merely wonder what the repeated references to story are intended to convey. Many reviewes were content to talk about plot and not much more.
Anil Menon’s very large cast of quickly sketched characters, the broad stretch of society he looks at, his rapidly shifting scenes and the use of public as well as private events to propel the plot — these bring to mind the sweeping novels of John Dos Passos. Menon has said he’s familiar with Dos Passos and, indeed, Menon’s work has many of the virtues and flaws as Dos Passos’. For readers in the United States, the big difference between these two authors is that Dos Passos wrote about the life in the States whereas Menon is writing about India — a country most Americans know very little about and half of what they do know is often wrong.
Despite the very large cast, each person is fully named, and doubtless those names suggest or convey information to Indian readers that American readers wouldn’t be able to grasp, such as where those characters come from, maybe their particular religious affiliation and social class. People in this book sometimes switch from English to Hindi or their home dialect and we have no idea what those nuances might convey to an Indian reader. (There are twenty-two official languages in India and many more that are not official — but you knew that already, right?) Then there’s the question of dealing with any foreigner as to whether his or her behavior is typical of the culture or unique to the person. It’s hard to figure out whether the boorish sexual groping displayed by some men in this novel is typical of India or is intended to demonstrate class or caste or ignorance or simply to show the guy’s an oaf.
There are wonderful things in Half of What I Say. Anil Menon loves ideas and they pop up, page after page, from the conversation of his characters. Indeed, maybe there are too many allusions to this or that intellectual position; some critics are as upset as cook over a pan of exploding pop corn. But Menon has a deft sure hand at dialog and the conversations of his Indian characters — the vocabulary, the zigzags, the allusions and witticisms — might just as well have taken place among Americans on a university campus in Indiana.
The range of reference is remarkably far reaching. Victor Dorabjee, a general in the Lokshakti, in a talk with his subordinate, Vyas, refers to Charles de Gaulle’ attitude toward the electorate and then asks Vyas what he thinks of The Giving Tree. Vyas replies, “Pretty much identical to Raja Harishchandra, sir.” Readers here probably know about Charles de Gaulle and if they’re acquainted with children’s literature they might well know Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. But they probably don’t know the legend of Raja Harishchandra, though it’s found in both the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
It’s hard to understand how people living in the India revealed everywhere in this novel can also be so Western, so at ease with the lingo, the attitudes and intellectual references of the with-it intellectual class in the United States. Half of What I Say offers a fascinating glimpse – alas, only a glimpse — into an elite Indian society that sounds remarkably American. At one point in this novel, Vyas alludes to a trip he and his wife took to the United States. Vyas tells the reader, I was also curious to study the American in his native habitat, and she was curious, I think, to see if she could pass for one.
He goes on to say:
The main thing that surprised me about the United States was the remarkable similarity with India. The same preening self-satisfaction, the same narcissistic disinterest in the world, the same multiplicity of idols, and the same passion for violence, masked with the same hypocritical claims to a superior morality. It gave me a lot of hope; there’s no reason why our toilets couldn’t be raised to the same superior standards.
Bloomsbury Publishing, headquartered in London and with an office in New York city, probably made the right decision not to issue the this novel in the United States. But readers here can hope that Anil Menon will write a novel with an American readership in mind. We need it.