Back To the Future

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The year is 2030 and drinking natural water is banned in most nations. In India, citizens are forced to hydrate with tablets and clean themselves with specially manufactured blow-dryers. Commuting via helicopter is standard, and the left palm serves as both ID and credit card. But our passive protagonist, 70-year-old photographer Paresh Bhatt, still enjoys writing with a fountain pen on thick stationery and mourns the loss of fresh coffee. He is determined to hang onto the past, which in this case is the 1980s and '90s.

This is the world of Ruchir Joshi's The Last Jet-Engine Laugh (Flamingo; 384 pages) a first novel that tells of three generations of an Indian family stretched over a century of political and social turmoil. Mahadev and Suman Pathak, Bhatt's parents, fall in love during Mohandas Gandhi's nonviolent agitations of the 1930s. Paresh Bhatt himself is a world traveler who wanders aimlessly through life, finally following his offspring back to India and settling down in his hometown of Calcutta. It is Joshi's witty fabrication of the future that lifts his work from the rash of century-spanning novels that have followed Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Bhatt's daughter, for example, becomes a pilot for the Indian army and ends up battling a 21st century Pakistani-Saudi Arabian alliance in an air war.

Perhaps because his main character is a photographer who began a still-life series in 2017 by shooting "objects put together bald, like a visual list," Joshi's novel reads more like a photomontage than a narrative. He jump-shifts between the voice of an unidentified narrator and Bhatt; another account comes from diary entries of a young woman smitten with the photographer. These abrupt cuts require careful attention. They also add to Joshi's deeper theme of the complexity of connections in life: particularly, where the relationship between nation and family begins and ends.

Joshi also invents a fictitious computer game called Megalopolis Asia that has in its memory the detailed environment of hundreds of Asian cities along with their histories, and allows players to choose characters and place them in different milieus and time periods. Through this device, Joshi juxtaposes events in India's history with personal experiences of each Bhatt member, leaving readers to puzzle over the possible links. In book two, for instance, the tale of Para Bhatt executing a near-perfect air strike to demolish Saudi Arabian tanks positioned in the Kharan area on the Pakistan- Iran border is intertwined with stories of Mahadev and young Paresh Bhatt capturing the aftermath of the 1971 Pakistan-Indian war on film.

Non-Hindi speakers will find it difficult understanding the smattering of untranslated vernacular in the text. What a reader can't help but savor is Joshi's joy in language. This author does not merely use words, he coddles them. Joshi may have constructed not only a future that lies within the pages of his novel, but a literary future for himself.