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The Last Jet-Engine Laugh by Ruchir Joshi
India 1930-2030: A Novel

Review - Marcel d'Agneau

Purchasing this novel by filmmaker and first time novelist Ruchir Joshi I was attracted to the cover and theme of a novel that wants to explore post-colonial India and attempt a broad generational sweep all the way into its future. India, a nation of a billion people matters to our world and by 2030 increasingly so, whether as a problem area or solution.

Certainly Joshi touches on all these themes. War, famine, shortages, political ineptitude and these are all individually well drawn in small set pieces. The segments set in the future are poignant and offer some of the best written sections, particularly discussing Paresh’s daughter Para who has grown up to be a fighter pilot in an all-women fighter squadron. The end section ‘ Knocking at Heaven’s Door’ is one of the highlights, as his daugher Para attempts her suicidal mission to disable the damaged Indian Space Station before the Americans can get there. The war, between India and the Saudi-Pakistan alliance is one backdrop. The old war, WW2 is another, with a particularly fine piece of writing about a captured Indian soldier Kalidas flown to a prisoner of war camp where a putative Indian anti-British leader Subhash Chadra Bose is being held by the Russians. His job is to translate whatever mutterings the old man says as he slowly dies in this frozen wasteland.

Often Joshi hits big ideas in stray paragraphs. The book is written from the perspective of Paresh Bhatt, a once celebrated photographer who has spent much of his life in France before returning to live in India. His daughter, by a German woman, has grown up obsessed by war and flying. Paresh, old and alone states that we imagine that in the future we will be worried most about Aids, or other fatal diseases, but the truth of the matter is that loneliness is the biggest killer.

The Last Jet-Engine Laugh is however a very difficult book to read. A genuine struggle to continue to turn the pages. This may seem unfair because actually Ruchir Joshi is a good writer with the soul of a poet. He writes with great insight into the plight of India and focuses on the small but essential truths of the future where the most precious thing is finding drinkable water.

India is a country that has already been partly devastated by interminal disputes with Pakistan. He is writing backwards from a time when there has already been a nuclear conflict and places to the north are devastated. Chemical weapons have been sprayed on the mountain snows so the river waters are poisonous. Yet life goes on.

He also writes about the life of his parents, his own childhood, his adult life, bringing his child Para into the world and all his loves and failures. At every turn, his life and those of his contempories are enmeshed with the fate of India in the world.

There are six books in this one. I see it as a complete failure of his editors not to make Joshi break this book up into separate volumes that are more more linear, more digestible. As it stands we moved from 1930 to 2030 and stop haphazardly at any other point along a hundred years. We digress, we converge and the reader is left confused. One wants to know more about one event, but are immediately led to another in a different time and different place.

Joshi can write and I’d love to know more about India in 2030 and how it gets there. But that could be one book. The scenes from his parents time are fascinating and beautifully written, but deserve their own volume. Few readers I suspect will have the patience to read this whole book at one sitting and may tire of dipping in or out of a book with no sustained narrative flow. It is not a question of rearranged the prose into a section of short stories. It just needs restructuring to make it more accessible and easier to digest.

It short, I really wanted to like this book and know more about current Indian attitudes to their future. I learned something about its past and met some interesting characters, but this is more of a smorgesborg than a novel and in the end I was left disappointed.

© Marcel d'Agneau 2001

Buy it here: £16.99 p ISBN 0-00-257089-0 Flamingo


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