No Direction Rome (Permanent Press, New York, 2017, 200 pages).
No Direction Rome follows a stream of consciousness that frequently shifts off tangent. Thus, the prose neatly reflects the limited attention span of the millennial generation and the age of several browser tabs and incessant distractions. The novel has no coherent structure. Still, it retains the reader’s attention with witty prose at every turn. The protagonist, Krantik, is full of profound questions. But he is constantly looking for escape from his profundity with hilarious observations, soaked in dark skin-deep humor. This is his way of escaping the confrontations brewing in his mind. The escapism in Krantik’s inner world is introduced with finesse. His apathy is not a clichéd stereotype about what is wrong with this generation. It is entertaining. It keeps the reader moving forward, even yearning for more comical anecdotes.
Krantik’s internal monologue of sexuality is most amusing. He never says any of it out loud, so we cannot label it obscene. He normalizes the sexual tension in the air. The book has several witty nuggets of imaginary, flirtatious conversations he has with random women towards whom he may harbor the slightest hint of attraction. The tone is original, like nothing ever heard of in the Indian literary landscape. This is literary fiction written with the language and cadence of casual break room banter, peppered with the slang you would find in chit-chat on college/ high school grounds or in informal rendezvouses over beer or coffee. One might raise an eye-brow to find this tone in the written word and not just confined to speech. There is no denying, however, that it reflects the speech in vogue of the era. It is scattered with words found more often on platforms like Urban dictionary and Reddit than within the more formal boundaries of Webster’s or Oxford dictionaries. While these words and phrases have only recently entered the popular imagination, one cannot imagine another way of presenting this contemporary story with the same comical effect.
There are fleeting glimpses of the nomadic loneliness that the privileged millennial faces, with his globe-trotting job. It brings with it a constant yearning to connect with strangers. He lives a stimulating social life in his head with imaginary mental pictures and conversations. His reflections are shallow, full of projection using lighter, simpler objects. There are open relationships which have affection without obligation, chemistry without the gentle flame, anxiety and envy at sharing a partner without batting an eyelid on the surface. This constant non-engagement is achieved by firmly remaining cosmetic should any piercing or troubling thought arise. For example:
And then she said Stop.
So I stopped. Still throbbing like a dog on heat, but I stopped.
…What are you thinking of? I asked her….
…Do you have any questions for me?
I do, actually. Leonardo has nine turtles on his terrace, I said.
I keep wondering: what do the turtles think about when they have sex?
At one point, Krantik dwells on the turtles’ imaginary conversation:
What’s my union?
You and Turtle 4.
Oh, yes. That’s important.
You guys are nice together. Why did you choose her?
I don’t know. But this one time, a great leaf of lettuce was floating on her back. I could already smell the fungus. So I climbed on top of her.
Oh, my… That’s so romantic. Okay, stop now. I’m getting teary-eyed, we need to pay attention.
There is suspense too, whenever the narrative shifts to his fiancée set up through an arranged marriage alliance. His ruminations are deeper (and darker) when she surfaces, but only for a few moments. He then drifts back to the description of life in Rome. Not as a tourist would describe it, but in terms of how he responds to the sights he sees, the things he experiences in daily living: people, metro rides, food, scenes and conversations. One can picture the Coliseum, the ancient Roman temple, Trajan’s market, the Roman forum and the Roman aqueducts with scenic beauty despite their crumbling walls and remains of the glory that once was. On the other hand, one is reminded of uber urban parties seen through Instagram frames and filters. White dresses, satin sashes, smiling faces, group pictures, pizza, wine, pasta, poses, whiskers on kittens, raindrops on rose—each one, not as it would seem in the real world, but as it would be lived on social media platforms like Facebook or Instagram.
The superficiality brings along other unwanted guests of its own. Krantik literally worries himself sick. A paranoid hypochondriac who develops psychosomatic markers with frequent visits to doctors’ clinics. He shops for doctors who validate his paranoia. Not surprisingly, he is drawn to tempestuous relationships with just as messed up characters with tendencies of self-harm. These characters appear to live perfect lives in terms of career, luxury and ambition. Facebook validates their mess. They are good as per the norm.
Krantik makes several obsessive and repetitive inquiries about God. His monologues are filled with questions and irony (with somewhat repressed anger) about the design of the world and God’s role in it. He merits credit for delivering his views satirically. The redeeming quality is in how the protagonist raises some profound questions and gets the reader thinking about tabooed topics like suicide, religion, gods, sex, drugs, relationships, emotional and mental well-being.
There is a part in the book about the banality of ambitions when the hero imagines his colonoscopy—a conversation between the doctor and the nurse who could see “the soul snuck away inside our intestines.” “What’s that? That’s him in his office, note the dull reflection in his eyes: that’s the life he had dreamed of… We are the generation that have lost our parents but have found Facebook.” It is poignant, yet comical. A contrast to this is when he meets a stranger Eddie in his dream who pushes him to follow his creative pursuits in writing his book. Eddie asks Krantik to make him a part of his book and get a cake in return; the other choice being death, whereby the dream remains undone. What terrifies Krantik most is when Eddie says, “When you die, no one will remember your memories.”
Krantik also indulges in substance abuse as a source of escape. It leads me to wonder if he is motivated by the desire to seek self-persecution. A purgatory indulgence in self-castigation and self-deprecating humor. He is never guilty in his thoughts. That brings more persecution from a critical reader. But the interesting part about the twisted character that he is, is that he brings up his pet obsessions (suicide, religion, gods, sex, drugs) in a jocular way. Perhaps his humor is the shield against his obsessions? But one cannot help but notice their effects on his emotional and mental wellbeing.
Despite his flaws, Krantik is not vain. No Direction Rome is a successful experiment in its genre. It is an exposition into the protagonist’s inner world and his shallow, yet courageously honest conscious thoughts. In contrast to Barua’s previous novel which is about revolutionaries living and dying for a cause, NDR is about the reckless ways of a privileged millennial. In the narrator’s crudeness, it is easy to miss the ideas that he presents. This book can easily provoke hearty laughter, but if we dig deeper, Krantik’s ramblings could also be a doorway to important conversations and profound realizations.
This work was first published as part of the Sage ~ December 2017 Issue, of the Coldnoon journal.