(First appeared in the Hindustan Times, January 2005. Thoroughly enjoyed doing this one; it was a no-holds-barred hallelujah. For a more balanced but equally enthusiastic take, read Jai Arjun on Rana and Tokyo Cancelled.)
Rs 395, 383 pgs
This is the oldest way to tell a story, and the newest. A tribe, huddled around a campfire, flames dispelling the darkness; a circle of strangers, stranded in the no-man’s-land of an airport after hours, cigarette smoke tracing wreaths around their heads.
From Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Boccaccio’s Decameron to Rana Dasgupta’s Tokyo Cancelled, this is how stories are created. Pilgrims on a journey, passing the time; a flock of people, fleeing a plague and warding off boredom; passengers, marooned on a modern-day island. The stories they have to tell are more important than the stories of their lives; their presence is just a device, a convenient way of building bridges between tales that could have stood on their own, as isolated short stories. Listen: once upon a time: in a land far away: many years ago, there lived a man who: a long, long time ago, just the other day, this is what happened.
Rana Dasgupta’s stories echo these familiar openings, classic phrases that ease you into the rites of story and urge you to settle down in a comfortable chair. Give in to these urgings. Get as comfortable as you can while you can, for Tokyo Cancelled is one of the most unsettling, discomfitting and utterly brilliant debuts you’ll encounter in 2004. Dasgupta has been compared to Borges and Calvino, tellers of tales that slipped in and out of worlds so fantastic that they were far more real than our own, which is generous—for all his obvious talent, he has a distance to go before he can match them. But he writes as though he had inherited his imagination from Cortazar with a benediction thrown in from the gods of cyberpunk.
A doll fills the empty space in the life of a Japanese salariman; as she becomes more real, she becomes more demanding, until his dreams of a business founder when he shoplifts a dress for his plastic love. In another time, another place, changelings are feared, declared outcaste, shunned for the fact that they will be ageless, relatively changeless by a human society increasingly infiltrated by their kind.
A sailor and a woman meet, arrange an ill-starred rendezvous and are rescued by an unusual, wingless bird. A German man remaps the world; in his new cartography, it is the speed at which change occurs that sends new lines arcing across the planet. None of the characters in his stories are whole; some find ways of change, of transmutation into plants, or luxury stores, some move on. In the middle of this circus of hallucinatory images, one story is told straight up, a plain tale of loss–a motorcycle accident, unlit speed bumps—just to break the flow, just to let the author remind you that some stories can be left unvarnished.
Just the images breeding in the author’s imagination are worth the price of this book: mushroom clouds of memories, a city visited by a mysterious plague of monkeys, a woman whose dreams bring forth saplings, shrubs, trees. But beyond the images, the locations shift and blur until for all their specificity, they don’t matter any more. Buenos Aires, Paris, Delhi, Tokyo; he captures each place while distorting it in a hall of mirrors of the imagination, but these stories go far beyond space and time. The central device, the group of thirteen passengers sharing cigarettes and stories, the only coins of any worth when you must pass an endless night, breaks down fairly early for the simplest of reasons. Each story here bears the author’s unmistakable stamp. Forget the comparison us reviewers can’t help making—yes, he writes a bit like Borges, yes, you can smell Calvino, and yes, that’s a hint of Murakami, perhaps even William Gibson, at the edges. It may be valid; but it’s like a wine-taster’s spiel. The point is that with just one book to his credit, a fabulous collection of short stories pretending to be a novel, Rana Dasgupta has a signature. It’s a brilliant, compelling voice, but it belongs to him, not to 13 fictional characters.
Where did these stories come from, then? From the netherworld of an airport in stasis, a place of transit, when the lights have been turned off, the shops shut down. From the loneliness of too much travel and a sense that the world over, people have the same stories to share, the same myths and warnings, the same sense of mystery, of awe, the same need to love, betray, cherish and kill. Once upon a time, there lived a man who moved between many worlds and wrote stories, the oldest stories ever told and the freshest, for the lonely, the homeless, the stranded. Listen to him.