Manu's Reviews > Deaf Heaven

Deaf Heaven by Pinki Virani
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's review
Jul 27, 2011

really liked it
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I'm quite a fan of Pinki Virani's earlier work - Once was Bombay, so there might be a bit of a bias here. :)

'Deaf heaven' is billed as her first work of fiction, but is perhaps as close to non-fiction as it can get. The characters are clearly based on the contemporary personalities - from movie stars to politicians, and the descriptions are such that a little knowledge can easily help you identify them - the 'caterpillar -eyebrows' actress to the leader of the saffron army, to the famous film star and his wannabe famous son and the lesbian maker of daily soaps. See? :)

The narrator is the cleft lipped and recently dead Saraswati, librarian by profession and collector of facts. Over a weekend, with an eclipse that serves as a climax for the multiple narratives, she traces the lives of the characters, a mixture of the famous and the ordinary, connected to each other by varying degrees of separation.

The book is a commentary on modern India and its mixture of contradictions, with representatives from different geographies, strata in life, age, and religion. Though primarily a woman's perspective, the author manages to tackle the paradoxes of the emerging superpower - from female infanticide (and an ingenious way of communicating the unborn child's gender - an illegal act), and tribal exploitation, to the mechanics of religion-politics, the effect of chemicals on vultures and the 'death by railway track' on Mumbai's famed local trains, all interconnected, just like the characters.

Though a preachy tone does dominate the last part of the book, it is definitely a must read, not just for the pertinent and fundamental questions the author makes us think about, but also for her razor sharp wit.
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Nayana Sahgal Quite by accident I found Pinki Virani's 'Deaf Heaven'. I was, actually, looking (for my book club) to seek whether we had any Indian Authors who could convincingly do a Junot Diaz. Admittedly, it makes for a very different kind of reading experience when one picks up a book from the likes of a Diaz -- another language alongside English (in Diaz's case he does a lot of 'Spangliesh') , detailed notes which suddenly pop up as footnotes and asides (Diaz patterns it on David Foster Wallace's style).
Pinki Virani's 'Deaf Heaven' presents its own challenges as a reading experience, more so since she uses several Indian languages alongside the English. Doing better than Junot Diaz, however, she does not create a "khichdi" of English and the several Indian languages, instead she transliterates alongside. And she informs the reader that she has done so, right at the beginning of the book. As for the David Foster Wallace and Junot Diaz style of footnotes and asides, these are splendidly presented in 'Deaf Heaven' as post-its.
I didn't even know Pinki Virani had written a book of fiction. I am aware of the Author's activism and advocacy post both her non-fiction books 'Aruna's Story' and 'Bitter Chocolate', with both of which she has secured far-reaching laws for generations of Indians to come. But I have always been a fan of that other, absolute cult of a book 'Once Was Bombay' -- non-fiction -- which is a sad, savage set of true stories grieving about the death of a once great city. It was published at a time when everyone preferred to pretend that it was still a city maximus, urbs primus. Unsurprisingly, she appears to have adapted that title from Tennyson's Once Was Paradise. With 'Deaf Heaven' -- the use of which appears to be from Shakespeare's sonnet -- she expands the geography, she holds up a mirror to all of India. She laments losses -- this time through fiction, even though she uses the afore-mentioned NF post-its -- and she warns against a tipping over into fascism.
She does all this through the stories of women who know each other through six degrees of separation. And does she pack a wallop! If 'Deaf Heaven' is perceptive, it is also brutal. No wonder learned critics such as Khushwant Singh have called it "profound and profane, all at once'. I can see how a certain set of people who want easy reading will not like 'Deaf Heaven'. Those who want their fiction to not deal with reality or if so, deal with it very gently. Or those who want their fiction to lull them. Or very, very slowly get them to think, if at all. But then such book-buyers are not likely to be Junot Diaz or David Foster Wallace readers either.
As innovative writing in fiction goes, I would any day recommend 'Deaf Heaven'. As fiction on today's Indian society I would, again recommend 'Deaf Heaven'. But read it at your own pace, and your own peril. You might find different meanings at different levels on the scaffolding of the basic plot -- that of the dead sutradhar, Saraswati. My take-away is that it's a very disturbing work (which will undoubtedly follow 'Once Was Bombay' in publishing history) on what we as Indians are allowing to be done to ourselves by our politicians.

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