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City of Rains

by Nirmal Dass

The unnamed narrator of Nirmal Dass’s first novel is a Canadian of Punjabi descent who returns to the land of his grandfather, the source of the stories and songs that so enlivened his childhood. Although he realizes his image of India exists only in his imagination, the prospect of some ephemeral insight persists in luring our narrator along.

His yearning for self-definition is mirrored in Raj, an enigmatic schoolteacher in the small Punjabi village of Dhanoa who was born in England and lived for many years as an expatriate in France before fleeing, heartbroken, to India. When a taxicab accident leaves the narrator laid up in Raj’s house, their emergent friendship leads Raj to lend the younger man his journal of years spent in the French city of Rouen, the “city of rains” of the title. The narrative alternates between the cyclical serenity of life in present-day Dhanoa and the melancholic drizzle of Raj’s life decades earlier in Rouen, as excerpts from his journal are interspersed with the narrator’s ruminations on the experience of transcribing them.

Little occurs in the present narrative. Long expository passages on Indian myth and history are only superficially attached to underdeveloped characters and, although written with erudition, ultimately impede the narrative flow. By the middle of the novel, the most compelling insight the narrator can come up with is to ask himself if perhaps he is working out his own life through Raj’s journey. Over a hundred pages later, when he himself travels to Rouen as a tribute to Raj, his self-examination has become no more probing.

The journal excerpts are slightly more successful, rich with incident and an eccentric cast but so relentlessly episodic that characters and ideas are rarely developed beyond cursory sketches. Abstract musings on the nature of love, time, and identity far too often end in ellipses, and whole pages suffocate in aimless lushness. Although it strives to be a deft exploration of fragmented identities in the postcolonial era, City of Rains is clumsy, unsubtle, and ultimately incoherent.