Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Twice Upon A Time by Anjali Bhatia

Twice Upon A Time
Anjali Bhatia
2014 from Fingerprint! Publishing
300 pages, fantasy, environmental activism

Thank you to Fingerprint! Publishing for providing a review copy of this book. 

Arpit, the dissolute son of a wealthy businessman, is trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol, drugs, and sex while searching for a way to get back the person he lost (we later find out that this person is his childhood playmate and erstwhile girlfriend Mannat). At a drug-fueled party with the elites of Delhi, he meets Nishimaya (Nishi), a mystic and fortuneteller, who promises that there is a way to turn back the clock. Conveniently, he has also been looking for a conservation architect for an ecotourism hotel project, which just happens to be Nishi's day job.

With Nishi's guidance, Arpit takes part in "redreaming" sessions, which allow him to go return to the past through his memories and make different choices. This allows him to learn important information about his erstwhile love affair with Mannat - and about his father's nefarious dealings with international corporations that are wrecking the environment of their home village.

"Redreaming" as a way to uncover more information about the past is an interesting concept. Who wouldn't like to go back into their memories and see what happens if they make a different choice? But the way in which this process works is unclear and confusing. Apart from gaining useful information, how does following a different route in a dream have implications in real life? The author implies that there is some kind of connection (Mannat is reminded of things at the same time that Arpit "redreams" them), but the actual workings are hazy. If Arpit's "redreams" affect Mannat, shouldn't they also affect his father, ruining the work that they are doing to counter the old man's evil schemes? Why is Nishi supposed to be completely unemotional, and what are the effects of her emotional involvement, exactly? And why does Arpit suddenly gain the ability to "redream" without Nishi's help? The way that "redreaming" works would be the most interesting part of the novel by far, if we were given any information about it.

I found the rest of the book extremely boring. Nothing happens! This 300-page novel consists of people sitting around and having conversations, recounted in some of the driest, passionless prose I have ever read. While political agitation is happening in the village, including Arpit's elderly uncle going on a hunger fast, we the readers are stuck in the organization's office in another city, listening to Arpit and Nishi talk about political stratagems with Arpit's ex-girlfriend (who happens to be the head of the organization).  The main characters are never there for the action; their conversations involve planning for the rallies, but we never get close enough to the actual activities to make us care about it except as an abstract concept.

I am confused about why everyone in the village likes Arpit so much. In my opinion, he is not a likeable character at all, and is, in fact, abusive toward Mannat at every opportunity. I can forgive him for being influenced by his father to go into business, which is only natural, but I cannot forgive him for treating his ostensible sweetheart in a disinterested, heartless manner. When they are together in the village, he acts like he is in love with her; when he leaves, he cuts off all communication and makes no contact for years at a time. For example, when Mannat calls him in New York to beg him to come home, he refuses. Then he ignores her call the next day, and then the next. When he finally arrives in the village (as a surprise vacation visit during a business trip to India that conveniently falls shortly thereafter), he discovers that she is getting married. At this revelation, he is astounded and heartbroken, falling into the drug and alcohol-induced depression where he is at the beginning of the novel.

Arpit's struggles are apparently linked to the environmental degradation of his village. I can see the psychological dilemma that the author is trying to demonstrate here: Arpit's father is jealous of their village family, who have (in his perspective) stolen Arpit's love from him. To revenge himself upon them, he brings in international corporations to destroy the environment of the village. Through this example and the tale about Nishi's village (which was destroyed to make a dam), the author makes the argument that environmental degradation is often (always?) intentional, and an attempt to destroy village communities. But again, the political statements are presented in such a dispassionate manner that I, for one, found it nearly impossible to connect with their concerns (and this is from someone who wrote her master's thesis on these sorts of political arguments...).

If you like novels whose main character is an unlikeable dissolute rich kid, you may find this book interesting. I don't, and didn't. I would recommend the other recently-published Indian fantasy novels Tantrics of Old by Krishnarjun Bhattacharya (also published by Fingerprint!) or The Devourers by Indra Das instead.

Twice Upon a Time is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon IN, and flipkart. 

Further Reading

Here are some articles as background on two of the major environmental controversies in India.

The Bhopal Disaster: 
"Bhopal Disaster" from Wikipedia 

The Narmada Dam Protests: 
"Chronicle of a Struggle Retold" by Shiv Visvanathan from The Hindu
"A Meandering Tale" by Uday Taraga from India Together
"Displaced by 'development': land, water and protest in Modi's India" by Leyla Mehta from Institute of Development Studies
"Narmada Bachao Andolan" from Wikipedia

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