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When fiction is humour, but humour isn't satire

Kishore Singh | January 14, 2005

Bookswhat can one say of the reading habits of the young?

My son, who has had to be coaxed to read from the huge collection of books at home, has tended to spend days over a [John] Grisham, tedious time over [Arthur] Hailey, only consuming [J K] Rowling faster than one can say 'muggle'.

[Agatha] Christies and [P G] Wodehouses have been ignored, [Stephen] King has been found wanting, Mary Higgins-Clark is a bore. [Arundhati] Roy and [Jhumpa] Lahiri inhabit a different planet as far as he is concerned.

Then, on the night he ought to be studying for his UT (unit test) the following morning, he picks up Swati Kaushal and devours her like, well, a Piece of Cake (Penguin, Rs 250) in a matter of hours.

In the minimal way kids have of discussing most things with parents, he passes judgement: "Good book."

Kaushal should be flattered. In the me-too genre of wannabe-Bridget Joneses, she has cracked a tale that's a fast, good read. And she has done it with flair.

I too picked up the book as bathroom reading, was hooked, and finished it at one go (not all of it in the bathroom).

There is nothing in the book that is gripping. It could easily have been the moan of a 29-year old that would bore past the first chapter.

What keeps it from flagging is Kaushal's even tone. Her style never changes, the pace never drops, the clearly alien way of writing (and thinking) never loosens.

She is in control of her protagonist and her environment, and she doesn't deviate from the story at any point in the way débutante authors are given to meandering.

In the process, she writes up a story of corporate one-upmanship with enough insights into the workings of a multinational firm (with marriage as a side accompaniment).

This insider's knowledge, so important in a book, is often ignored by most authors and may well turn out to be Kaushal's albatross if and when she writes her next book (here, she is clearly drawing on her experiences at Nestle and Nokia, where she worked for a bit).

But for now she can be assured of handsome sales and at least a couple of reprints, mostly from an adolescent audience and housewives addicted to their Mills & Boons, even though this is by no measure a love story.

In fact, if Piece of Cake is wrongly cast in the fiction mould, Gautam Bhatia's Comic Century (Penguin, Rs 350) is wrongly classified as humour when clearly it is aiming at satire.

For, satire, unlike humour, can draw blood.

There's no doubting that Bhatia does set out to draw blood. The architect who is known for his blistering attacks on architecture in contemporary India, and on clients who patronise it, has in recent times tended to move away from writing purely on design and buildings (even in fictionalised format).

Comic Century is the first full premise. As a concept, it couldn't get better -- a satirical look at the century gone past with all its foibles and festering wounds the way no historian would be able to appraise.

Bhatia begins in crackling form, picking on Queen Victoria, who came to the throne when 18.

"When kids her age were wondering whether to have sex on the first date or go all the way," -- isn't that the same thing? -- "Victoria had slapped a levy on Indians for producing their own tea."

Despite the mistakes -- and there are many -- you know this is going to be a cracker of a read. So settle down comfortably with a drink at hand. And fall asleep!

I admit to snoozing a record number of times reading through Bhatia's discovery of the last century. Not because he was boring, but because the satire does not hold.

At times it is inexplicable (okay, so I am a moron), at other times it is forced, and often it's just angry—which is not a good way to be if you intend to kill with kindness.

Even for an admirer of Bhatia, and I am one unashamedly, Comic Century doesn't carry the punch of his attacks on an architectural society and those wonderful phrases he gave us: remember Punjabi Baroque and Gothic Bania?

Two things redeem the book. The first is the illustrations by Vishwajyoti Ghosh.

Here, for once, is a book where the publisher has not shied from using a very large number of illustrations and montages to support the text.

And often these images reflect Bhatia's eclectic erudition far better than his own words.

Even so, I was mostly unprepared to recommend the book, but for a reference towards the end to a magazine I once used to edit, and which has since folded up.

That it finds any mention in any round-up of the last century is the second reason I now endorse the book.

If that is poor reason to foist it upon readers, you will do well to remember that this might be as unreliable a review of Bhatia's satirical century as is his book "an unreliable history of the 20th century".

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