Norstedts, 2011. ISBN: 9789113037288
Reviewed by Anna-Lisa Murrell in SBR 2012:1
Once upon a time India was the goal and destination of the hippie-trail and, for serious students of yoga and meditation, the ultimate venue. Eventually, in 1980, Muz Murray published the comprehensive guidebook to the numerous ashrams of India, Seeking the Master (Neville Spearman).
How times have changed! It’s 2010, and Göran Borg, the first-person narrator of Mikael Bergstrand’s latest novel, looks back over the past twelve months of his life, which he spent in India. He is a middle-aged journalist who lost his job at Kommunikatörerna (once known as Smart Publishing), after taking too many liberties at work, spending too much time surfing the Internet and enjoying long-drawn-out lunches. As he is divorced and living on his own, he eels totally devastated and lost. But he is rescued by his friend Erik, who works as a travel guide, taking parties of tourists to India. ‘India? Never in my life!’ Göran doesn’t like travelling, but he finds himself on a Golden Triangle tour with stops in New Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and Rajasthan.
The author gives a convincing description of contemporary India, with its traffic jams, vibrant crowds of beggars and tourists, colourful markets and ancient temples. Göran suffers from a version of ‘Delhi belly’. In his cheap hotel he thinks back to his wife, their lively and varied sex life, and the tragedy of their divorce and seeing her marry a richer man.
Then suddenly the door opens to admit the inimitable Yogendra Singh Thakur, called Yogi for short, a real-life chubby Santa Claus, with protruding eyes and jerky movements reminiscent of Mr Bean’s, who comes to his rescue like an angel. This kind and amusing optimist is a charming creation, expressing all the best of modern India. As in a fairy tale, Göran is whisked away from his slummy surroundings and taken to Yogendra’s Delhi home by the latter’s formidable mother with her six servants.
Soon we find Göran and Yogi in a gym in the exclusive Hotel Hyatt in Delhi. No yoga or meditation here: we are back in our own time. And in the hotel he meets the beautiful Mrs Preeti Malhotra, owner of a beauty salon. We follow them celebrating Holi in Preeti’s luxurious home. To impress Preeti, Göran tells her that he’s going to interview the famous Bollywood filmstar, Shah Rukh Khan. Göran’s pursuit of Preeti continues, and against all odds he manages to interview the star.
Delhi, with its bazaars, traffic jams, beautiful monuments, mosques, monkeys, and changing seasons is a fascinating mega-metropolis for tourists and travellers, and Göran decides to prolong his stay there. He rents a small flat in the Rama Krishna district, where he comes into touch with more of the real India than in Yogi’s middle-class home, with its servants, driver and gatekeepers.
One of the most ridiculous episodes in the book is the trip made by Göran and Yogi to Rishikesh, famous for its ashrams and yoga centres. The time spent there gives the reader a totally farcical impression of one of India’s holy places. More realistic and down-to-earth are the story of Shania, the deformed Indian girl who works for him as a cleaner, and his investigation into child labour in the textile industry.
On the whole, the novel is a delightful comedy with touches of realism. Mikael Bergstrand is a master of dialogue, which characterises both Swedes and Indians and gives local colour to both their espective countries. Incidentally, the text provides the reader with excellent examples of Swedish usage, ones that would present a translator with some interesting problems – among them, a set such as gumma, käring, tant, etc, with their subtle, pragmatic distinctions.