If I knew Swedish and had read “Tandooriälgen” in 2006, I wonder if I would have found Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story” stale. Because “Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan“, the English translation of “Tandooriälgen” which was published this month, is certainly not feeling novel. Zac O’Yeah and Shteyngart have the same idea in essence: it is the future, the First World has been ruined and the Third World has taken over. Shteyngart’s novel is set in a civil-war ridden Manhattan and China is ruling the world. O’Yeah’s “Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan” is set in a Gothenburg colonised by India, rechristened Gautampuri.
Reading “Super Sad True Love Story” gave me the chills because it seemed too close to reality. But in “Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan”, the whole business of Gautampuri with its Dr. Ambedkar Avenue and Mollywood songs on the radio never settles into credibility. It reads like the writerly device that it is and it doesn’t seem logical that this could happen to Sweden. At least not as quickly as O’Yeah imagines it. People remember ABBA and randomly reference things from the twentieth century as though the novel is set about 50 years in the future. Yet global warming has turned Sweden into a tropical country with coconuts. Let’s say you believe this might happen, that world temperatures may go completely nuts in the next few years. But do you find it credible that Sweden’s welfare state completely collapses in that time, India colonises Sweden and turns the country into a chaotic cocktail of poverty, disease, crime and dirt? Would the Swedes really let that happen? Can you imagine a future where Ambassador cars, which have almost disappeared from India, and rickshaws grunt through Swedish streets? It might have felt mildly more real if O’Yeah had given his Indian characters normal names. However, aside from Kumkum (the love interest of the hero, Herman Barsk), the names are entirely incredible. Phillumappa Ishtarjee, the film star. (‘Phillum’ and ‘ishtar’ are the lowbrow pronunciations for ‘film’ and ‘star’ respectively, to those who aren’t familiar with our local dialects.) Patiparmeshwar Gharwallah, the philandering husband. (‘Patiparmeshwar’ translates to ‘My husband is my lord’ and is a standard Sanskrit phrase for husband; ‘Gharwallah’ is the colloquial word for husband.) Then there’s Salman Kitabwallah, who is a police officer in the book but whom I keep imagining as a young Rushdie. Oh, and Happyne Wyear.
The plot of “Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan” is a standard thriller and O’Yeah writes that part of the book well (although I think the end is a little anti-climactic). There’s murder, a plot to destroy the city, some sociopathic villains and lots of red herrings. Swedish food may have disappeared from O’Yeah’s imagined world but the red herrings are all over the place in the story. If O’Yeah wasn’t continually distracted by a temptation to takes us on a guided tour of life in Gautampuri, then the murder mystery would have been a fun enough read. As it stands, O’Yeah keeps detouring into descriptions that feel tiresome after a while. “Super Sad True Love Story” was chilling because one can see the world hurtling in that direction. In contrast, the world of “Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan” seems fake. It’s a primitive, gadget-less age populated with lawlessness and Indians with silly names. Surely that’s not the future?
Then again, what the hell do we know about the future? It takes a couple of seconds for a perfectly-healthy man in his early forties to fall off a horse and die, like filmmaker Manish Acharya did. No warning, no lingering, just whoosh and he’s dead. The gadgets still think he’s alive. Look at Twitter, where people still write “@manishacharya” as though he’s going to check replies and mentions. Or Facebook, where his wall with his messages and conversations stands as impassively as it did when he checked it 5 times a day. Or my phone, in which there’s still the message where he told me it was about time I realised that he was indeed a prince among men and not just because he got me a dvd/passes to a film screening. Or the phones of my friends which seem to be waiting for the next message that he’ll send to continue conversations that were never meant to be completed but are now finished.
So maybe O’Yeah’s vision is bang on the money simply because it’s something we can’t foresee, and maybe people will react to it with the kind of callousness that seems vaguely ridiculous in “Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan”. Because the future is unexpected and the way we react to it is equally unpredictable. Like how some people, like Manish’s family, are doing their mourning with dignity and strength while some are behaving like selfish sods. While two little boys and their mother hold on to a lock of hair they cut off a corpse they shouldn’t have had to see, there are grown people making an exhibition of their grief to whoever will pay attention as though it’s all about them, their loss, their pain. Well, it isn’t. If there has to be an exhibition, it should be of Manish Acharya. Because he loved the glamour and the spotlight. Because, despite all the fervent “we will remember you forever” messages that are pouring forth, there are bits and pieces of him that we’ll all forget. It’ll become harder and harder to remember all of him, to recall the things that can’t be found in photos and dvds. It’s suddenly chilling to remember the standard beginning of a Manish opinion: “See, my whole thing is…” Because it’s only been days and already there are only parts of him that people are clinging on to. Plus, there’s a weird competition of grief – “my friend”, “no my friend” – that some are entering as they try to avoid facing up to the reality of what they feel and what it means for Acharya to be dead. Because to some, it should have meant a lot more. To others, it means much more than they thought it did.
I can’t write Acharya’s obituary. And this is surprising, because it’s not like we were terribly close. He was dear to people who are dear to me, which is how I met him in the first place. We didn’t get along very smoothly at first. I thought he was arrogant (and he was, frequently) but I also knew he was smarter than most people in the room so sometimes, he had a right to be arrogant. I just didn’t think I deserved to be at the receiving end. He probably thought the same of me. Ok, he probably didn’t think I was smarter than the people he knew since I’m not, but I’m quite sure he thought I was a touch snotty. But I think over years of dancing on tables (that was him, by the way, not me), drinking terrible cocktails (that, on the other hand, was me) and munching street food, we got past that edginess. Because I argue and he hated losing arguments. So we disagreed and sometimes we ganged up against people with whom we disagreed. And because he really knew and loved films. He could spot nuances and tricks and oddities in storytelling with incredible sharpness. But most of all because he was always looking ahead. The present was never enough for him. He’d glimpsed greatness, in himself and in the things he wanted to do, and he didn’t have time for the present because it wasn’t as magnificent as the future he’d imagined. That’s what made many people think he was entirely too full of himself. He was, in a way, but not of himself as much as his dreams. I’d like to believe those dreams would have become reality (and then he really would have been seriously full of himself). I’d like to believe they still will — through the efforts of his friends and the fact that his sons will grow up thinking they had a brilliant Papa. And as they do, Manish will be dancing on a table somewhere. Or refusing to look me in the eye because he can’t believe I just said something as stupid as relegating him to dancing on tables in the afterlife.