This clever period novel about a Parsi boy born without a future (almost) wins you over
Tashan Mehta’s first novel almost wins you over; almost.
It all boils down to the kind of reader you are. Of course, when I say, Tashan Mehta’s first novel The Liar’s Weave almost wins you over, I am talking about me, myself. She almost won me over, with her confidence and her troubled, Edenic landscape, alternating between a heavenly refugee forest and a colonised Parsi Colony. All of this did seduce me into imagining Mehta’s multiplying, alternative history of India under the British Raj (her protagonist is a boy born without a future, and in one of the many parallels between her themes and Salman Rushdie’s, it made me imagine the boy’s country without a future as well.)
And so let me go on for a while in praise of this young, imaginative author, whose greatest quality thus far, for me, has been her ability to write fiction that is not bad, not one bit, not at all. Because let’s face it: young people write a lot of rubbish, and the forcefed cherry on top is, they get it published too. Here, instead, is someone with a plan, an understanding of panorama, and an undeniable sense of perseverance.
Give Tashan Mehta a chance if you’re in for some cleverly personalised mythology and, as her Twitter bio accurately puts it, some “unnecessarily profound” things. (I must say that it has always been the case with me that whatever is profound is always unnecessarily so. Like travelling into space and realising how inconsequential politics is. You didn’t need to spend all that money and catapult Laika to her death in order to realise that.)
So, here we are, in early 20th century Bombay, in British India, in the home of a Parsi family with an unusual kid: Zahan Merchant, who – like his last name – has been blessed with the power to trade in some destinies, some futures, some heavy lies and truths here and there, you know. Why? Because Zahan was born without a future, in the sense that the most noted astrologist couldn’t read his birth chart. The consequence? If Zahan lies, he creates reality. Sounds like me on my Facebook profile, but it’s obviously much better than that.
The Rushdie conundrum
There’s not much to be gained, however, by summarising any part of Mehta’s plot, unlike some other cases, where summarising is crucial to explaining why I liked or did not like a book. Here, the challenge is different, and here, I’ll return to Rushdie. Have you ever read a novel where you could feel the writer sitting back at times, smiling, looking at you, going, “Are you going to continue? Hmm? I thought as much.” It’s a bizarre form of love, and it first happened to me with Salman Rushdie.
It was – I mean, it had to be – Midnight’s Children. Which is to say, this is not a mark of bad writing. Growing exasperated with Mehta’s prose did not repulse me, or make me put away her book with the wish never to pick it up again. This is not that kind of a novel. I’ll repeat: it’s not a bad novel. But there is a method to drawing your reader in; Mehta fumbles on that count.
I won’t say I’m all for confusing, withholding narratives. I take much more to something like the voice of Tristram Shandy, who is so eager to tell you everything about his life, so very eager, that he just goes on and on in a highly articulate yet delightfully clumsy manner. Even Rushdie, whose magic realism most works on his ability to build a door which only his protagonist can open from time to time, relies on exposition and a cleverly engineered foolish voice that just talks so much.
Mehta would do well to reflect on the nature of description. A fiction-writing workshop might convince one (as it did me, for a while) that description and narration don’t always go together. But it’s like making tea: if you add milk and sugar, yes, you will be making it conventional, but you will also be making it so much better. So go ahead, Ms Mehta. Combine description and narration. Give me more non-conversational histories, more spaces, more cavernous homes, spoonfeed me. And not at the end of 200 pages. Spoonfeed me now, or sometime around now.
This is not just the warcry of the reader who heads straight for Wodehouse past all the Tolkien and George RR Martin titles, it’s also the invisible Instagram bio of every millenial, armed as they come with a five-second four-emoji attention span. (Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking the author to pander to useless, unthinking demands. All I ask is that she give me more to keep me there. It’s capitalism, when you look at it that way.)
And here’s why I’m begging for help here! I won’t leave without citing my reasons. Because Zahan Merchant has the ability to lie and create (and a general proclivity towards the magical), he is drawn into a secret forest full of ill-fated people, and even as he keeps secret his dealings with the people there, he has to deal with astrologers, parents, siblings, best friends, the whole birthday party, here. And there are intelligent references to British atrocities, a careful crafting of a relevant political backdrop, a hyper-aware, sylvan consciousness.
But it is, for lack of a better explanation, too intelligent. Far from taking a small step back, Mehta plunges right off the board and straight into the deep – she does it with grace, and that’s the saving grace. She tells her story with feeling, with a keen eye and ear for an other time, an other space. And above all, she tries to understand difference: the figure of Zahan, the forest full of outcasts, the Sanskrit terminology mixed into English speech. But before and after all the intricacies and the intelligence, there comes the eternal virtue of simplicity, false indicators of which include short sentences, easy words.
Simplicity is necessary, and for my pen, that is the bottom line. Tashan Mehta’s prose makes me think about the nature of fiction itself, which is a good thing, but it also makes me think, this book should probably have been either 200 pages longer, or Tashan Mehta, less ambitious.
The Liar’s Weave, Tashan Mehta, Juggernaut Books.