Review of Divine Elemental by Kulpreet Badial


Review of Raywat Deonandan’s Divine Elemental

by Kulpreet Badial
Feb 6, 2010


This is a delightful read. The locale is Bihar in north-eastern India and the cast of characters is not quite what one might expect. Kalya, a Canadian, is out to find her roots and place in the world. Iskander, another westerner, is an entomologist studying wasps and in a manner typical of graduate-students, does a lot of exploratory research in areas that are directly-related to the topic of their thesis. Greek History. Meaning of Life. The interconnectedness of it all. And he is high on local booze for the most part; resulting in some amazing vignettes of stream of consciousness type writing:

Iskie looked upon this world without the benefit of a Lamas observant discipline, but rather with the time-dilation effects of premature drunkenness.

The book starts with a ghost-tale and for some time it is a bit of a struggle to come to grips with the setting and the believability of the characters. But science comes to the rescue. The best writing comes in various discourses where science clears the mist like only science can. It is here that the writing is precise; the logic unflappable and the characters are in their element.

The scientist on romance:


Romantic love –its desperation, futility, ecstasy and agony– is best observed amongst the insectoid angels.


On infidelity :

One part of the biological imperative is to obtain the best possible genes for ones offspring while simultaneously securing the best resources from ones mate. You see? Often that combination requires infidelity.

I have to remember this one.


On religions:

Christian, Islam and Judaism were all desert religions whose fundamentals were established upon Vulcans searing Middle Eastern forge, hence insisting upon their austerity, their hallucinogenic contradictions, and their water worship, despite the inapplicability of such things to the myriad environments to which the faiths had spread. Madness, it all was madness.


Write fiction in English and set it in rural Bihar. It is a challenge that could easily see the best of even the established literary stars fail miserably. The author cheats somehow by transplanting his characters from the west but once you give him that, the rest is fantastic. The chemistry works; and so does the entomology. Hell, there is even a bit of casual sex with a woman amazingly liberal for the eco-system of the place. I grew up in a place like that and we had none of that; but then again, maybe there was.

I will let the author have the last word:


It is the arrogance of men that prevents them from perceiving the imperceptible, from allowing themselves to consider that which is not obvious.


Read it. Divine Elemental is unconventional, edgy, funny. And you will learn a thing or two about the amazing sex-life of the fig-wasp.




Kulpreet is an Ottawa-based tabla player and all-around gadabout. Visit him at Tandoori Beavertails.


Review of Raymond And Hannah (Unedited Version)


Review of Raymond And Hannah (Unedited Version)Review of Stepehen Marche’s Raymond And Hannah

by Raywat Deonandan
July 4, 2005

This is the pre-edit version of a review which appears in Ideas magazine.

I once went to a party where I met a doctoral student in English literature who bored me to tears with talk of his thesis (on “despair in the works of Spenser”.) As painful as this was, the situation worsened when he was joined by another English doctoral student who added her insights on the “deconstruction of the post-Renaissance motif” or something like that. Now, English doctoral students are among my most favourite people –they tend to be engaged, intelligent and thoughtful– but listening to them talk to one another is less preferable than yanking out one’s pubic hairs with a tweezer.

I don’t know if Stephen Marche is an English doctoral student, but it would not surprise me if he were. The first few pages of Marche’s first novel, Raymond And Hannah, brought back terrifying memories of that evening in which I despaired for Spenser and for the humourless generations who have deconstructed his work. Fortunately, the terror was not sustained, as Marche’s smart, original love story quickly sheds most (though not all) of its literary pretense and settles into a tight, parsimonious and almost Zen-like narrative. And like a Zen choan, the tale is told in meta-poetic stanzas that hint at deeper meaning. It is the story of Raymond –an English doctoral student!– who has a week-long sexual affair with Hannah, who is seemingly a professional Jew, since her obsession with discovering Judaism is described as one would a vocation. After their week together, Hannah spends nine months in Jerusalem, and the pair must sustain their fragile love through emails. It is, however, as much a tale of life in the cities of Jerusalem and Toronto as it is one of romantic struggle.

Initially, one’s sensitivity to the stereotypical pretenses of English doctoral-ness is justified, as Marche has chosen to tell his small story by using a peculiar visual technique: he has titled each stanza within the book’s margin. For example, a portion titled “Conversation in a taxi” consists of exactly four lines of dialogue which are, not surprisingly, spoken inside a taxi as Raymond and Hannah begin their affair:

“I live in a basement.”
“I have an attic.”
“Can we go there?”
“I think yes, there.”

The eyes roll, the forehead is slapped and one settles in for an excruciating adventure in urban literary pretension. But –thankfully, surprisingly, gloriously– Raymond And Hannah lifts itself above such mediocrity and becomes something entirely unique: a truly modern romance for the age of globalisation. Our protagonists, like so many of us struggling to find human comfort within the ever expanding isolations of modern city life, collide in a happenstance of sexuality and mistake their gonadal good fortune for genuine organic human love. That their proto-love is interrupted by a separation of thousands of miles, yet sustained through daily, casual electronic communication, is a character of our specific time and place in history, wherein the illusion of intimacy can happily and invisibly co-opt the reality of solitude.

Raymond And Hannah is, of course, an imperfect work. With a plot that is necessarily thin, the narrative is flushed out with seemingly pointless asides. The titular pair takes a side trip to Hebron, site of Jewish-Palestinian violence. It is a ripe opportunity to suggest something revelatory and metaphorically about Hannah’s relationship with Raymond. Instead, the journey is notable only for a star cameo: “Ed Bradley from 60 Minutes waltzes through with his coffee.” But Marche’s true persistent failing is that the intellectual diversions of his protagonists are not very interesting. For example, Raymond’s thesis on Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is particularly snooze-inducing, yet Marche has dedicated many paragraphs to its description and to the uninteresting quirks of Raymond’s thesis advisor. I’ve often said that writers writing about writers can be unbearably boring. I think the same applies to graduate students writing about the graduate student experience.

Despite these stumbles, Raymond And Hannah is an intriguing experience. It is said that all stories are essentially love stories. As the most Spartan of love stories, then, perhaps Raymond And Hannah is an elemental literary impulse, the purest of cogitative expressions upon which one might layer one’s own experiences and desires. For those who have loved and lost and loved again, and for those who have endured and reveled in the dramatic changes of being that life in a foreign place inspires, this is a story that will touch a place somewhere between the heart and the head, and perhaps even leave a smudge somewhere on the soul, as well.

Raywat Deonandan is the author of Divine Elemental (TSAR Books, 2003) and Sweet Like Saltwater (TSAR Books, 1999), winner of the national book award of the nation of Guyana.

House for Mr. Biswas


House for Mr. Biswas

V.S. Naipauls A House for Mr. Biswas

by Raywat Deonandan

Feb. 11, 2002

A version of this article first appeared in India Currents Magazine in February 2002, under the title, “A Jewel In A Sparkling Collection.” It is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

I was a teenager when I first read V.S. Naipauls A House For Mr. Biswas. That was 17 years ago. It was an assigned book in my Toronto highschool English class. Ours was a programme of rare multicultural outlook, thanks to my teacher Ms. Anne Carrier. You see, back in 1984 it was unheard of to be exposed to Asian or Caribbean literature in a North American highschool, an oversight which still seems trivial to White or non-immigrant Americans and Canadians today. But make no mistake, then as now, there is inherent value in an enriched global reading list. Written in 1961, Biswas was an unanticipated treasure of validation, a fresh alien gem atop the well-thumbed Faulkners, Salingers and Twains.

My family had immigrated from Guyana 15 years earlier during a time when Asian Indian culture was mysterious enough to the mainstream. Indo-Caribbean language, history and behaviour were yet years away from entering the awareness of the general public, and would prove a near impossibility to explain or to describe to friends and teachers. As any immigrant child will attest, there are few things more isolating than cultural loneliness. It serves as an impenetrable barrier that separates one from friends and colleagues, and compels both a heightened closeness and subtle resentment towards family members, ironically the only people who truly share the condition.

So the discovery of an Indo-Caribbean literature at such an impressionable age was doubly important. I recall well the awe, nervousness and excitement elicited from Biswass opening pages. It was set in Trinidad, mere miles from my birthplace of Guyana! Its major characters were Indians descended from indentured servants, the same as me and mine! The books cadence of angst and subdued anger –an alternation that ripples through all post-colonial societies, yet is missing from most American literature– kept beat with the displacement in my own heart. And, most interesting, the rhythm and tonality of the characters speech was the singsong Caribbean patois with which I had grown up. You see, that way of talking was a source of shame to many early immigrants; Jamaican cool was yet to reach North America and give public resonance to the Caribbean modality. To have discovered its usage within the pages of a book validated by no less than the Toronto Board of Education was to truly realize personal cultural arrival.

The book itself tells a simple story. It begins with the emergence into this world of Mohun Biswas, six-fingered and born in the wrong way, foreshadowing the bad luck he would have and cause. A poor journalist turned civil servant, Biswas lives a brief humourous life punctuated by battles with his in-laws and a strained relationship with his writer son, the essence of his angst symbolized by his quest for a house of his own. Naipauls genius is in elevating the seemingly mundane and comedic to themes of timeless importance, injecting his writing with subtle imagery and allegory. His hated in-laws the Tulsis, for example, live in a home called Hanuman House. That Hanuman is the Hindu monkey god is Naipauls sly intimation of the houses more zoological or chaotic nature.

The allegory of Biswas is an inspiring one. Mohun Biswas is compelled toward a rebellious nature through various cultural traditions for which he has little patience. Biswas is at the bottom rung of society because of his work, family history and poorness. He is further at the bottom of the pecking order in his extended family, kept there by the weighty demands of his culture. But a modern hero infected with frequent emotional outbursts, his aspirations are never quelled. After enduring a beating by an in-law, Biswas declares, I am going to get a job on my own. And I am going to get my own house too. I am finished with this. The goal of any descendant of indentured servants has yet to be better or more simply stated.

In many ways, Biswas is the Indo-Caribbean archetype, a man from an ancient cultural tradition of castes and unnavigable religions whose sudden proximity to the world of Western modernity fills him with hope for more. His behaviour is sometimes reprehensible, but his predicament is one with which so many of us, particularly Indians caught up in a new world, can relate. His quest for a house of his own mirrors well the quest of colonized peoples for a nation and an identity of their own. To appreciate the plight of Biswas is to understand the history of his nation and that of the entire Indo-Caribbean milieu: a people uniquely positioned between the rich traditions of the East and the commercial demands and promises of the West, yet tragically benefitting from neither.

V.S. Naipaul, knighted in 1990, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, taking his place among literary immortals like Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway and Rabindranath Tagore. They say he was honoured for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories. Certainly, A House for Mr. Biswas is but one jewel in the sparkling collection of the lifes work that earned him the award, as it slyly tells of Indo-Caribbean emotional history within the modern dynamic of cultural collisions. It is generally agreed that the story of Biswas is largely autobiographical, with Biswass writer son being Naipauls literary avatar. Hence Biswas is likely the tome for which this great writer will be most fondly remembered throughout the ages. For those unfamiliar with his books, Biswas is an excellent beginning point. It was certainly mine, and started me on a marvelous path of literary adventure and self-discovery.

Raywat Deonandan is an owner of The Podium. His personal website can be found at