No Direction Rome
Price: Rs 399
Publisher: 4th Estate/ HarperCollins India
The ramblings and delusions of a stoner idiot form the heart of No Direction Rome. It employs the services of Krantik, an insecure, disaffected young number-cruncher of some sort settled in Rome, as its neurotic, unstable, hypochondriac narrator — an old trope, if not necessarily a stale one. The aimless, low-stakes narrative — with the occasional digression into something more meaningful — is essentially symbolic of the lost generation that is the post-teen-pre-middle-age youth of today, swirling around in multiple layers of irony and post-irony in the Internet Age. Self-aware and self-involved to an insufferable degree — possibly a manic-depressive — Krantik guides the reader through one metaphysical crisis in his life after another, all the while launching into missives about Facebook likes and Instagram “potatoes on the side” tedium (“These people could be nostalgic about dinner by the time dessert comes.”) and iPhone selfies and Reddit boards.
“They were taking photos from their iPhones. Some smiled, but mostly they kept their faces at about thirty degrees from the camera. Pretending they didn’t care, and they wouldn’t spend hours obsessing over the photographs after they’d been tagged. Everyone tries the casually disinterested look,” he muses at one point. Not particularly novel, but the depiction and critique of detachment and ennui is an accurate one. The conflict between vilifying and embracing (only half-ironically) this modern state of being is the very foundation of the intellectual angst that tugs at urban India.
A fair number of funny, scathing and sometimes just really rude observational riffs keep the story ticking. His sardonic appropriation of multiple religious virtues as a sporadically recurring theme — “I have a lot of love for strangers. I’m Buddhist that way.” Or: “I’m filled with Christian charity that way.” — is funny in a droll sort of way. And then there’s the “head up his own ass” motif, as Krantik spends very long ruminating about his haemorrhoids and the accompanying pain and discomfort, while retaining enough headspace to wander off into paranoid flights of fancy about imaginary illnesses.
But I should admit a lot of the humour was lost on me because of the narrator’s very special brand of “woe is me” apathy that I took a very personal distaste to. His worldview seems worryingly solipsistic and the voice used — needy, aloof, trying too hard — takes some getting used to, but the writer, Kaushik Barua, keeps things light, allowing the reader to make her own assessment about the many neuroses of its protagonist. At under 200 pages, it’s a ridiculously quick read without getting pulpy (not that there’s anything wrong with that), making No Direction Rome (I’m choosing to ignore the weak pun in the title) a dilemma in terms of its form.
The detached quality of the protagonist is deliberate, as is probably the absence of a well-defined structure or plot. This naturally places a heavy burden on the characters that surround Krantik, which is where the book suffers a great deal.
The detached quality of the protagonist is deliberate, as is probably the absence of a well-defined structure or plot. This naturally places a heavy burden on the characters that surround Krantik, which is where the book suffers a great deal. The external characters seem to exist as plot devices that nudge him toward something, not as real people. Pooja, his arranged fiancé, tries to kill herself before heading off to a godman for spiritual guidance, sending him into a spiral of superficially obsessing over the incident, even as he ends up making it about himself. It takes far too long for her personality to even remotely come to the fore, by which point — during a hazy flashback — it doesn’t matter as much. There’s Vineet, her snarling caricature of a brother who threatens him over a couple of passive-aggressive phone calls after the incident, or Leonardo, the sympathetic father-figure/landlord with all the existential turtles whose conversations the protagonist dedicates considerable time fantasising about.
Then there are Markus, the boss spouting middle-management isms, and Massimo, the damaged stoner confidante. Massimo does get this hilarious little aside about his pot-smoking and the massive head injury he suffered as a kid: “His mamma found his marijuana tree when he was in hospital. She let it grow. If that will bring him back, let it stay, she thought. And he came back, with a spaceship on his head for a year […] Mamma died when he moved to Rome. Not because he moved to Rome, though one never knows with Italian mammas.”
Beyond that, there’s a doting mother back home in India who treats him like royalty; and Kiara, the mysterious woman with whom he shares a confused relationship. And most problematic of all is Federico: psychopath madman, loony taxi driver, betting man, pimp, drinking buddy, thug and broken man with tragic past all rolled into one. These half-formed outlines of characters, while further adding mileage to the overarching sense of solipsism through No Direction Rome, also bring the narrative down a little, serving mainly to propel Krantik toward the climax (it’s not some great suspense since the story is more about the atmosphere as opposed to any big reveal at the end, and you can see the momentum building up to it). Presenting a colourful picture of the city of Rome, the book — despite its flaws — does partly succeed in some of the things it seemingly sets out to do, capturing a widespread impression of indifference through its hyper-intensive approach.