"The truth is never pure and seldom simple." -- Oscar Wilde
In the courtroom, witnesses swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. This has always bothered me. Sure, I could recite the facts as I know them, but the truth? How could I, or anyone, really, tell the whole truth without knowing everyone's histories, telling everyone's stories?
Readers of "Nobody Does the Right Thing" are drawn to this conclusion along with one of its main characters, Binod, an idealistic journalist hired by a Bollywood film director to write a screenplay about the murder of a poet by her politician lover. The facts seem relatively clear, but facts do not, of course, make a good screenplay; there must be motivation and drama and, in Bollywood, a few good songs and dance numbers to boot. But Binod wants to make more than a B movie about a sleazy murder: He wants his script to tell the truth about politics and corruption, about the longings and ambition of village life. His quest for understanding takes him back to the villages of Bihar, where he and his amoral cousin Rabinder were raised, and reconnects him with his cousin, who is, as the novel opens, jailed on charges of running a cybercafé pornography ring.
As with the murder, the facts seem simple enough. Rabinder did run InTouch; villagers used the café to watch Internet pornography (though in some cases the booths merely provided a private space in which young couples could be alone); he was also secretly taping the customers as they watched. But the facts don't tell the truth of Rabinder's imprisonment: While officials happily turned a blind eye to cyberporn, they could also be bribed, in an election year, by Rabinder's political enemies -- and bribed once again, as it happens, by his mother, an influential politician -- to secure his release.
As the high-minded Binod attempts to shape his screenplay on a Chekhov story, the ever-optimistic Rabinder complicates the script by interrogating motives, recalling family history and spinning off screenplay ideas of his own. News stories, movie plots and family reminiscences spiral around the characters; narratives intersect, clash and merge. Binod realizes what Rabinder has known all along: To tell one story accurately, one must tell another, and another, working them like the warp and weft of a loom, with every detail adding to the pattern.
Near the end of the novel, Binod recalls Rabinder -- who understands the narratives of Bollywood movies far better than he ever will -- talking about the way in which a film scene reminded him of an incident in his life.
Even though these are Rabinder's expereinces, they became Binod's through the very act of narration: storytelling is that powerful.
"These were little details from Binod's life and he didn't know what they meant, other than that they made his solitude whole. They were all a part of who he had become -- this was who he was." All the stories we encounter--from movies, books, essays, the lives of others and even, in Binod's case, an absurd Hindi translation of the Ken Starr report ("The only piece of porn Binod had bought in his life") -- ultimately weave their way into our own stories, becoming part of who we are.
If you're willing to have Indian villages and metropolises and pop culture and politics become a small part of who you are, pick up a copy of "Nobody Does the Right Thing." You'll be the richer for it.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.