Overall, it was above average. Ok, that was cheesy, I know, but I couldn’t resist. I don’t think it is the greatest work of literary fiction to come out of India in the past decade but in the genre of popular fiction it is good, actually very good. Yikes, this is why I can’t review anything. I can’t do a succinct grading without feeling self-conscious. Let’s just say I liked it. And I think it’s a little more literary than the average popular fiction also.
Books by Indian writers – except the big names like Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh etc. who are beyond the pale on this – tend to be in two categories. There are those where the grammar is a little awkward and, unfortunately, Chetan Bhaghat’s books fall into this category. It’s a pity because his books generally have a great concept and storyline but the awkward grammar and typos keep me wincing throughout. I don’t blame Chetan Bhaghat here so much as I blame his editors. I’ve read a couple of other books in this category and now I realised I just can’t do it. Above Average is in the other category, where the English is fluent and at places almost lyrical.
I admit I’m biased towards these kinds of books because they take me back to India. Somewhere in between Above Average I found myself thinking “Oh, maybe we should go back to India after all” and I thought I had resolved that question. That’s why I used to read even Chetan Bhaghat’s books, because it took me back to that place and those experiences. And yeah, I have a soft spot for books about engineering schools becuase of my sister, they’re so close to home.
I found it a little hard getting into Above Average though, I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because the narrative jumps around a lot. A lot of writers today seem to have adopted this cinematic montage style of narrative and I get it and usually it’s not a problem but I found it a little difficult sustaining a particular mood with this one. Or maybe it was because I was expecting to plunged into an IIT campus and instead I got suburban Delhi life initially.
Ironically, when I look back, this honest portrayal of ‘Society’ life is one of things I liked most about the book. I think I like the parts set in Mayur Vihar best – the friendship between Bobby and Rindu, the little crushes and attachments that develop in a society and the violence that erupts.
I also really liked the insight it gave me into the male mind. This is a story told intricately from the male perspective; the female characters are very peripheral. And although I cannot be 100% sure, I think it’s a very typical Indian male perspective, though Rindu is a bit more pensive than the average joe. In particular, I was intrigued by the way men communicate with each other. As I’ve said before, I grew up in a very female-centric environment and it was a shock to me to realize how uncommunicative men are, how they gloss over the important stuff with platitudes. I’ve always suspected that there’s more to men than they let on and this comes through in Bagchi’s novel. Both that there is some depth to the male sex but also that they communicate in a very obtuse way – the scene with Neeraj where he leaves him after something really poignant has happened to go watch a film, this sort of thing would be unforgivable among women. Neeraj was the odd one out in thinking so. Apparently, it is perfectly normal among men – even if something dreadful has happened – to say “chal yaar I have to go” and bugger off. In fact Rindu was unusual because he hesitated. There is also a pettiness to men that is normally perceived to be the premise of women. I think it was a pretty honest non-caricatured portrayal of masculinity at that age.
Overall, it was authentic. The characters were real, interesting and sometimes surprising. I liked there there was a caste element – now that I think about it it is astonishing, or maybe reflective, that so many novels obscure this point. I can’t comment on the authenticity of the IIT bits but the portrayal of a middle-class boy coming of age in a big city rang true.
Hmmm, and I think that’s all I have to say. Whew.