There is merit to be found in the vivid imagining of such a problem and the attempt to write contemporary noir fiction straying away from dominant post-colonial themes
In Review, Pakistan Today, 6th February, 2011.
Greed for money or power has been what traditionally has led to human nature showing its nasty side, but there are other sides to pain like anger, revenge and then pain for pleasure. Causing suffering just for ‘viewing pleasure’ is a very different aspect of human relations and there is no denying that it exists. Kanishka Gupta’s ‘History of Hate’ is rightly about ‘hate’ expressed through cold calculated harm that two individuals inflict on the people of their Delhi neighbourhood.
This odd couple, Sonny a middle-aged housewife, and Ash a would-be writer in his twenties with suicidal tendencies, have something in common that brings them together. Both being unhappy with life hate the happiness of others and love to watch people suffer by their brutal acts. Their victims keep adding up to include Sonny’s paralysed mother-in-law, a seven-year-old mute maid, a pregnant mother, couples in parks, Sonny’s own sons, and even ultimately Ash by Sonny’s hands. Sonny and Ash have no remorse about the lives they destroy. The victims are punished in strange ways, there is no rage involved, plans and traps are laid out for an almost voyeuristic thrill.
Before you try to pick up this book, beware that you may not be able to understand the motivations of the lead characters or relate to them, unless you have had irrational urges to hurt or humiliate people.
You keep reading till the end, waiting for the realisation that these two characters might have redeeming quality; that the book would give some satisfactory emotional, physical, spiritual justification for the sick crimes of its antagonists/protagonist, but the only explanation one can reach is that Sonny and Ash are sadistic and disturbed. Gupta frames Sonny’s excuse for her mental state as her middle class poverty and jealousy of the success of other people, while Ash’s excuse is that he is a homosexual.
These are not unique problems; there are people in the world who suffer more without it leading to such troubled behaviour. Yet the book touches on the issue of sadism, though not a valid diagnostic category, yet an accepted personality disorder and an important issue in social life to explore.
Kaniska Gupta has tapped into a niche market, where such a dark subject piques the curiosity of people. The content being good or bad is a matter of opinion, of course, but it is definitely a unique piece of work. Of course, there have been other books that have explored disturbances of the human mind like ‘Lolita’, ‘Perfume’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’, all of which have achieved a cult status. In comparison ‘History of Hate’, though a flawed piece, and maybe not as stellar, may well have the same fate in India.
This unapologetically unpleasant narrative has been well received by many readers and since others have enjoyed this book there needs to be a serious effort to understand why. With its cringe worthy content, it is not a book for everyone to stomach and was rejected by many publishers in India until Rupa publications gave it a chance.
‘History of Hate’ was long listed for the yearly Man Asian Prize that is reserved for literature from 27 Asian countries (including Pakistan); a great achievement for a young writer.
There must be a serious attempt by critics to understand its appeal. With the ambitious title, the book should have explored the dimension of self-hate, and maybe given Sonny and Ash some semblance of normality so that a reader could accept them as multidimensional humans. If our antagonizing pair are ‘in so much hate’ with the world, are they happy with who they are as people and what is their relationship with their self?
Sonny’s character though more despicable is easier to grasp. Ash seems more complex and less threatening than Sonny and remains a bit of a mystery. The power dynamic between the two could have been formulated better. Do they actually love each other or hate each other? It is unclear whether, in their very brief “history”, their hate for other people’s unhappiness could have extended to their relationship with each other.
The author has said elsewhere that: “The novel… is a strong critique of the sadomasochistic, voyeuristic nature of all social interactions.” The book seems not so much a critique as a narrow documentation of the issue. And this is fine as well; there is merit to be found the vivid imagining of such a problem (maybe for the first time by a South Asian writer) and the attempt to write contemporary noir fiction straying away from dominant post-colonial themes.
–Saadia Gardezi is a political economist based in Lahore