Their Second Opinion

SOMEWHERE SAUL Bellow says that a writer should be like your surgeon — you should be able to trust her enough to let her take your hand and lead you away. Lifelong friends Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed are used to the advantage. They’re both active paediatric surgeons who write jointly under the takhallus . They’re one of our most enjoyable storytellers and prolific writers, but as fellow-critics point out, they’re regarded much more strongly as literary critics. Why then have few people outside the country’s hardened literary crowd ever heard of the pair?

More readers are likely to know Mumbai-based Kalpana, 54, who also writes under her own name. She won the Crossword Vodafone Fiction Award in August for her short story collection Venus Crossing. Her 13 include murder mysteries, short stories and children’s fiction. Her Lalli detective have been translated into several languages. Kalpana’s writing partner Ishrat, 52, has participated in several exhibits and spends half the year each in Mumbai and Mississippi. He’s never published anything alone, though for 30 years he’s been privately translating (and retranslating) Ghalib.

, “that fabulous writing beast” turns 14 this year. They have published six for adults, including a health compendium, a history of Mumbai’s epidemics and a thriller novella as well as 10 titles in Puffin’s Panchatantra series. This year they published their most expansive project yet — a medical, historical and literary mystery called The Quarantine Papers (QP). Over the years they’ve edited the Books section of The Sunday Observer and written a dozen newspaper columns. More than anything else, the name rests on their mordant book reviews.

Here is what a looks like in most Indian publications — one-fourth plot description, one-fourth generic praise, one-fourth minor censures and a mutually congratulatory wrap-up. It is common to blame publishers and readers for cleaving to the lowest common denominator, but our critics are the most culpable. After all, they volunteered to discern through the culture clutter. Their unwillingness to do their only job absolves the publishers and readers too.

MOST PROFESSIONAL reviewers are fence-sitters safe in their tinny insulation of ‘objectivity’. When they do take a position, they say things imprecisely without attention to style, language and without quoting evidence. Ishrat likens Indian reviewing to “chaatna”(sucking up), saying, “Most reviews are not honest. They’re doing convenient reviews, they don’t want to ruffle feathers. Most are a rehash of book jackets and publicity material.”

Contrastingly, Kalpish is unbothered with trumpets of foreign praise or enormous advances. Critic Nilanjana Roy agrees that their judgement is not always agreeable but always compelling. Witness when Kalpish calls Sarita Mandanna’s book “the juvenile effusion of a distinctly un-precocious schoolchild” or accuses Amit Chaudhuri’s last novel of “lassitude” where “convoluted sentences obscure the moment’s luminosity, and a sly malice does duty for wit”.

The duo follows an almost unheard-of discipline for reviews. First, they try to understand an author’s backlist and context as much as possible. (For Anjum Hasan’s A Lunatic in My Head, Kalpana tried digesting some Pink Floyd and heavy metal.) Next, both claim to read a book twice if they’re favourable to it, and four or five times if they’re going to pan it. Only then do they write the review, irrespective of its length.

“You only get an impression the first time (you read),” explains Kalpana. “When you’re hungry, everything tastes good. If you really want to judge a dish, you must eat it when your stomach is full.”

Like many with a mask of severity, Kalpana can surprise you with her sudden japing. She speaks in rotund sentences and Oxonian phrases (“chappie”); her nervous energy and ‘posh’ accent leave you uncertain if she’s about to claw you or kiss you.

Ishrat is more what you’d imagine the pair to be like. He’s passionate but retiring, with a monomania for precision. He’s punctilious, clipped, finite — a bear alert at the other end of the phone. She’s persnickety, acute, infinite — a cat in high spirits. Together, they write sentences seared with attention and plush with wit. She’s better at plot while he’s master of research. He prefers Tolstoy to her Chekhov, and says he’s more like Coetzee in his writing to her Updike.

“Writing together is like doing surgery together as one brain,” reasons Kalpana. “We might be 5,000 miles apart, and often we’d produce the same sentence.” Most dialogues begin with her while most descriptions begin with him, and they meld everything together through “worrying the idea” out.

What makes rare is their emphasis on style and enthusiasm for literary gamesmanship. This can be seen in both their fiction and their reviews. QP, for example, is based on years of historical research in the Mumbai Archives and shifts rapidly between two centuries in one man’s mind — Ratan Oak lives through the Babri Masjid’s demolition as well as his grandfather Ramratan Oak’s days through the Bombay plague of 1897.

But a vast river of serious work and a tag as respected critics means little in Indian literary culture if, like the duo, you refuse to join the clubby literati and use its social leverage. Publishers don’t market your and publications don’t give serious reviews. Says Ishrat, “Publishers still feel they’re doing you a favour by publishing you — it’s reverse colonialism. Fiction awards are seen as the acme of achievement. We don’t belong to a clique.”

While Kalpana is firm about not feeling victimised, she notes, “Nobody has reviewed The Monochrome Madonna (her new Lalli novel) so far. Penguin has done nothing about it. They’re in a state of extreme shock (about the Crossword award). They’re good people but… people read us through word of mouth.”

Both grew up in a climate that valued intellectual curiosity. Kalpana imbibed her mother’s love of reading and a habit of observation from her father (a painter when not a civil engineer). “I read Lihaaf very young and didn’t understand. My mother read everything, including Coolie, to me.”

Ishrat, the son of a school headmaster, met Kalpana at Mumbai’s Grant Medical College in 1981. “I don’t believe in this doppelganger stuff,” he says, “but when we met I found we knew each other’s sentences.” He married a paediatrician and worked in Saudi Arabia before joining Kalpana in paediatric practice in Mumbai. They began writing together in 1996 and continued even when Ishrat moved to the US in 1997 for his wife’s work.

Kalpana and Ishrat both cite Borges to diagnose the landscape: Ishrat notes the “Borgesian exercise” of writing 300-word reviews, while Kalpana points to publishers printing “invisible” in a Borgesian library. A devotion to style can’t be separated from the language, and Kalpana says “we’re proud to write in English. We don’t apologise for it. We consider it an Indian language.” She continues, “Quarantine Papers won’t be read abroad because it’s so deeply Indian. It’s so nice to know here are the people you’re writing for.”

The two friends are now planning a collected works of their non-fiction, a series about a hill, a river and a tree in Mumbai and a book about syphilis. They’re also working on a biography of the medical naturalist Garcia D’Orta, but focussing more on fiction now (they’ve already plotted five Ratan/Ramratan ).

Roy says one reason their have stayed under the radar is that they tackle esoteric subjects like medical history. Ask Ishrat why they persevere and he says, “We’ve to bring ourselves out. One of us should set the world on fire. Writing has to hurt like sand under your eye lashes.” The duo’s increasing emphasis on literary fiction may improve their fashionability. Or not. The other reason they’ve been ignored is the aspect they’re most proud of in their work — their very local vision of an Indian prose. We won’t want their native , not yet anyway. Not till some fair-weather critics explain to us why.

First published here.