False ceilings drops you into cloudy cauldron as soon as you step into it.
Some years into the future, a man sits alone in his room on a college campus where he has spent his entire lonely existence teaching. He writes an enigmatic and quaint If-Else statement and begins to laugh uproariously. It is obvious that something has unhinged his mind. With that, you land in the midst of a flurry of lives that go from pre-independent India to many years into the future.
As Amit said in response to a reader somewhere, False Ceilings is to be read as a collection of short stories. The threads of connection run deeply embedded in all the stories but do not make themselves obvious- at all. By beginning each story at a different time from where the last ended, Amit has managed to create an engaging lack of uniformity. Even if the stories were not gripping, his treatment would surely keep the reader tied.
But, to me, the stories were as gripping.
I loved Amit’s robust characterization. The people who walked the pages of False Ceilings were real to life human beings. They were good when happy; they were ugly when denied; they were mean when angry. They manipulated and were selfish. Yet, through it all, you never forgot the traumas they had undergone. And so you were able to empathize and understand why they did what they did.
The characters and events are drawn from Amit’s own life. To maintain the balanced objectivity of a story teller, even as personal memories try to pull you into different directions, is even more creditable.
There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.
When creating multidimensional, complex characters, the biggest pitfall is the lack of consistency in how the character behaves. There were no inconsistencies in Amit’s characters. When they were good, they remained good. When their goodness wore thin, they behaved accordingly.
The constant reminder of the mysterious yellow package kept the story alive all through the various twists and turn the story took across five generations. Five generations of characters playing out their individual dramas on the common family stage! What a saga!
While the debut novel was an interesting read on many counts, there were some disappointments too.
The grammar fell strangely apart in many places. Words were inappropriately used given the context. Certain Indianisms crept into the most interesting parts and ended up giving an unpleasant jar. The book would have improved a lot with tighter editing and proof-reading. At least there would not have been anything taking attention away from the story if nothing else.
The final revelation too left me disappointed. It was rather expected. As I read, I was hoping the revelation was something other than what I guessed it to be- but it wasn’t. If that were not annoying enough, the expected revelation was neither justified nor logical. Perhaps the shallowness of the reason was deliberate. Perhaps that was the final word on the absolute pointlessness of people’s grand pettiness. I hope this was the reason. Else it doesn’t make sense to me.
However, I liked the way Amit created an authentic backdrop for each of his characters. As the say, the magic is in the details. By referring to the routines and cultural mores of the times- recalling popular television programs, the political scene, concocting soups from capsules and the essential Indian-ness of the time in which the various characters lived, Amit effectively recreated the aspirations, attitudes and biases of the typical Indian middle-class. With that one thing, he created the whole mood without having to define it in particular, excruciating detail. That was an amazingly efficient tool to employ.
A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.
~ Graham Greene
Another thing which I found intriguing is the way the thoughts of the characters were echoed across the generations of the family. This made me wonder whether there was some subliminal residue of world-view that each generation passes on to the next. This world-view manifests itself even though the circumstances in which each generation is raised is different. Is this how we inherit certain familial biases, I wonder? Is this how we become like our family even though we swear we never would?
The book is certainly a labor of love. Since this is his debut novel, some hiccups were expected. Despite the few places the narrative fell apart though, the story still hangs very well together. It’ll be interesting to see what Amit presents to us in the next novel.
Do connect with Amit Sharma if you’d like to keep abreast with his work.
False Ceilings was published by LiFi Publishers, 2016.
Note: This is not a paid review. I did receive a complimentary copy of the book, however. The views are strictly mine.