Saturday, July 21, 2007

Perineum: Ambarish Satwik

How would your biography read if it were written by your spouse? Or by your closest friend? Imagine how different it would have been if it had been written by, take your pick, your barber, your dentist, your beautician, your gym instructor, or your music instructor. Now what if your sessions with the surgeon who worked on your nether region were chronicled by the surgeon? That is what Ambarish Satwik attempts in Perineum, in a fictional sense.

Apart from rhyming with Imperium, I could make precious little of what Perineum meant when I first heard of the book. defined it for me:

Perineum (n) 1. The portion of the body in the pelvis occupied by urogenital passages and the rectum, bounded in front by the pubic arch, in the back by the coccyx, and laterally by part of the hipbone. 2. The region between the scrotum and the anus in males, and between the posterior vulva junction and the anus in females.

The sub-title of the book, Nether Parts of the Empire, er, revealed a bit more.

So there you are, Perineum looks at the usually covered part of the bodies of some of the key people who were part of colonial India. It is a collection of thirteen stories, each examining a fictionalized mal-function in the generally-covered region of the body of one notable character in the British Empire in India. Covering famous characters like Robert Clive, King George V, Vinayak Savarkar, and M A Jinnah (and a few others), with a nod to Mahatma Gandhi, Perineum is expectedly irreverent and decidedly funny.

Experimentation with form, structure, narrative, and plot themes has been quite in vogue in writing, more so in recent times as people from different professions have been lured by ink. First time author Ambarish Satwik, (surprise, surprise, he is a surgeon by profession) has taken it to a different level with Perineum. And he succeeds. The language is also light and period-appropriate, so that accentuates the humor and the authenticity of the narrative.

A big temptation in an approach like this would have been to go into the erotic and sensual, and mix the scatological with it, but the author does well to eschew that and keep his focus clear. The absence of word-play is another significant characteristic of the book – thus making it read almost like a formal report, enhancing the humor even more.

Of course, the book sends you off more than once to Gray’s Anatomy (or an equivalent guide) to figure out the meaning of words and expressions. But the images are useful and help enhance one’s understanding.

Friday, July 13, 2007

In the Heat of the Night: John Ball

Just as movie sequels almost always end up not being as good as the first in the series, so have re-reads of books turned out for me. Of course, there are glorious exceptions. Like Godfather in the film world. And In the Heat of the Night for me.

When I first read Heat many years ago, what struck me was the tightness of the plot, the sharpness of the characterization, and the evocative nature of the simple language. Now, when I re-read it, the feeling is exactly the same.

Written in the mid-1960s, Heat is a compelling narrative on racial discrimination in the small towns of America’s Deep South. Not only the fact that the “n” word was used commonly, openly, and offensively, but that a black person was just not expected to be good, and even if he is, the grudging admiration ends up demonstrating discrimination in the most chilling manner: “Smartest black I ever saw. He oughta been a white man.”

Heat can be read just for the characterization of Virgil Tibbs. He who is Virgil to the local cops of the city of Wells, who is always Tibbs to the narrator. How he maintains his dignity in the face of blatant discrimination and ill-treatment, and how he gradually earns Chief Bill Gillespie’s (grudging) admiration is truly impressive.

Purely as a police procedural, Heat delivers as well. Red herrings, misjudgments, the odd piece of luck, all come together well with the rigorous approach Virgil Tibbs follows in his investigation, piecing together clues like the weather (the title ensures we don’t miss that clue), the state of the victim’s palms, and the behavioral traits of the victim to track the murderer.

Even the movie version could not mess with Heat – Norman Jewison deserves credit for sticking to the book faithfully, and Sidney Poitier does a splendid job as Virgil Tibbs.

It is no surprise that Heat won an Edgar Award and a Golden Dagger, and was selected one of the top hundred detective novels of the century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.

When I read Heat for the first time, I almost took a day off college to finish reading it. When I read it this time, I almost took a day off work to do likewise. Don’t be surprised if you feel the same once you start it. Safer still, start off on it on a Friday evening – you’ll finish it by Saturday morning.