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Book Review: Lost and never found

Book Review: Lost and never found

Clever writing cannot save this collage of contrived coincidences.

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The coincidence must have been prompted by the publisher's choice of date. I read C P Surendran's novel, Lost and Found, on 26/11/2010 – exactly two years after the day on which the central action in the novel is set. Poet, journalist, and undoubtedly gifted wordsmith, Surendran has deliberately picked the twins-separated-at-birth meme that gave Bollywood an undyingly successful a few decades ago, marrying it to the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. Of course it has to be an ironic choice, although the parallel with separated-at-birth India and Pakistan – if intended - is too pat to be a surprise.

Salim a terrorist sent over from Pakistan and his twin Nirmal, a Mumbai urchin who's got a magical break in a big movie, meet when events bring them together in porn actress Lakshmi's flat, where she's holding hostage someone she suspected of raping her many years ago. Only, it's not just private madness, but 26/11. With a twist, of course.

The trouble is, the classic device of private lives intersecting with momentous historical events, each acquiring the texture of the other, has been – pardon the pun – done to death. When Gunter Grass's dwarf hero Oscar (in all likelihood an inspiration for Salman Rushdie's Salim Sinai) is holed up in a post-office, he has no idea that the gunbattle that's raging outside will signal the beginning of World War II. After that, the use of the device has mostly been imitative.

In the case of Surendran's novel, it's even pointless. First, the settings and characters just don't add up to a tight theatre of tension, as they should have. There's a great deal of detail that leads nowhere: about Hari - the accidental father of the twins separated at birth – when he was in Kerala and how he broke up with his girlfriend; about Roy, the failed editor with the detachable dentures; about the idealistic mastermind of the terror attacks on Indian soil, who is depicted on a magic realist canvas; about the twins' mother Lakshmi's neighbours, who speak English with a pronounced Tamil accent. Maybe these details were meant to make the people seem real, but they end up sounding like notes on how to create unusual characters for a novel.

It's all a pastiche of individual sparks of engaging writing, flashes of humour without context, attempts at detached irony and wry aphorisms that many of today's Indian Writers of English fiction feel the need to succumb to. By themselves, they make for entertaining passages, perfect examples for a creative writing class. But add up to a terrific novel? Afraid not. A collage of improbable coincidences needs the writer to inspire that infamous "willing suspension of disbelief". Here, that feeling is lost and never found. Despite a beautifully written, unselfconscious, final chapter.

Lost and Found, by C P Surendran, published by Harper-Collins India, Rs 250

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