“ Genre: Fiction / Author: Chhibba Neeraj / Paperback / 220 Pages / Book is published 2009-12-01 by Rupa & Co „
Pankaj is a young man with a plan and all the skills he needs to achieve his goals. Admittedly he's poor but he has a lot going for him despite the barriers of class, caste and poverty. From an early age he's ambitious beyond measure, fiercely intelligent and has the true entrepreneur spirit. With absolute determination to win a place at India's finest Institute - the IIT - he's not going to let anything stand in his way. What could possibly go wrong?
Sure enough the only thing he couldn't plan for comes to pass and through no fault of his own he misses the exam, ensuring the Zero Percentile score of the books title. With a card-carrying Communist for an uncle, his family come up with an alternative. Unable to afford the cost of waiting to give Pankaj another go at the IIT entrance exam, he's soon sent to the USSR, the recipient of a scholarship to study engineering at the hands of the Soviets.
~A Fish Out of Water~
Pankaj finds himself very far from home in Volgograd where men are tough (it was Stalingrad before the big guy went out of fashion so if you know your history, you'll know just how tough they are out there) and the women ought to be easy. At least he's assigned to a western part of the USSR and not one of the Muslim areas where wine, women and song would be rarer than hens teeth. Pankaj needs to find his place in a very different academic forum; a place where it's not enough to be clever, you've got to be able to keep up with a different kind of manliness than he's known back home. It's colder than an Indian could ever imagine, the day to day politics of the university are not something he really understands and there's the burdensome issue of trying to get rid of his troublesome virginity to deal with. Thrown into a student hostel where he and his fellow international scholars have just a year to learn enough Russian to take the rest of their courses entirely in Russian, he soon finds that his skill set isn't matched to the needs of his environment.
~A Moment in Time~
The time during which the story takes place should be interesting. He arrives with the Soviet Union in its death throws and the newly capitalist Russia in its infancy. It's a time when a young man with entrepreneurial spirit can make a mint if he knows who to speak to and how to get round the protection rackets. Corruption could be said to come naturally to anyone who's grown up in India so he ought to be a natural. We have all the makings of a great book - the childhood in New Delhi followed by his student days in Soviet and then de-sovietised Russia - what's not to like?
~Missed IIT - Missed a lot more too~
The subtitle of the book is 'Missed IIT, Kissed Russia' but sadly this book misses the mark on so many levels that it's hard to know where to start being rude about it. I'll try to ease into my 'shellacking' (as Obama would call it) of the book by saying that I didnt' hate everything. The childhood section was my favourite although at times his three-way friendship with pretty but privileged Priya and clever but chunky Motu reads like a cross between Harry Potter and the Three Musketeers but without the magic and the swords. It's really nothing that hasn't been written before. Their pursuit of national quiz circuit fame was fun but the childhood section is rather too long for a book that's supposed to be about his student life. Soviet Russia is mildly interesting although his cloistered life in the international hostel reduces his ability to really say much of any great insight about his time and place. Post Soviet capitalism offers lots of opportunities but the sheer speed and scale with which he builds his little business empire was so silly as to be almost unreadable.
The book does touch on important issues such as corruption within academia and the wider business world, the stigma of HIV (though quite frankly the epidemiology of who gets it and how left me thinking that the plot was seriously flawed) and the easy availability of prostitution. The problem is in each case it really does only 'touch' the topics. In general the book is superficial to such an extent that it's just plain silly in more parts than I would want.
~The Man on the Metro~
So how do I come to be reviewing a first book by a new Indian writer whom I seem to hold in such contempt? I was crammed into a metro train in New Delhi during my holiday whilst a young chap standing nearby was chatting to my husband and holding a copy of this book. I squinted at the cover and asked if I could have a proper look. He said he thought it was pretty good and recommended that I get a copy.Strange as it might sounds, I have a prurient interest in crappy Indian writers. After decades of reading the great Indian literary writers, I'm drawn to the modern 'populist' writers with the same kind of self-shame that I get from very occasionally reading the Daily Mail. Yes I'd rather stick to the good stuff but once in a while it's good to dip into what the man in the street (or man on the Metro in this case) thinks is fun. This particular genre targets young hip Indians who don't want to read the heavy stuff but want to buy into a racier, more modern style of writing which - to my western eyes - is clumsy, gauche and often down-right embarassingly bad. It's also undeniably cheap. At 95 rupees cover price (about £1.30 ish) it's less than half the price of most local publications of a decent literary novel.
The characters are poorly drawn and very shallow and many are very hard to relate to. His 'love interest' in Russia didn't ring true for me in any way and his fellow students just irritated me more than interested me. The evil Russian Dean of the university gave a little light relief and his promiscuous room mate was mildly interesting. His childhood friends were better developed and I couldn't help but think they were based on real people that he actually cared about in a way that many of the other characters weren't.
On his website Neeraj Chhibba is asked if he thinks the book can become an international best seller. He says he's confident it can because it tackles the aspiration to get into IIT (shared by every bright kid in India but practically unknown outside the country), examines Russia from a different angle (hmm, not one that will interest too many Russians I'd have thought), covers the period of change in Russia in the 90s (should be interesting, sadly isn't) and is set in Volgograd (now that really isn't going to get the tills ringing - how many people even know or care that it used to be Stalingrad). I think the poor chap is deluded. It might just hit the best seller list in India but at an international level I can't even think why the publishers would even bother. I just don't know who is supposed to want a book of this type. It's pitched at the racier slice of the market but it doesn't deliver on the sex and vodka titillation those readers might be seeking. It might appeal to would-be university students if it actually had anything to say about getting in and staying in University, but it doesn't. And anyone thinking it might be fun to go and start up an Import-Export business in Russia has long missed their window of opportunity.
If I haven't put you off, you can order a copy on Amazon - it's not in stock, not surprisingly. I might just list my copy to get rid of it. Chhibba currently works in an IT company in a suburb of New Delhi. I would advise him not to give up the day job just yet.