Saturday, September 22, 2012

Thugs, terrorists, survivors: two novels about violence and its echoes

[Did this composite review for The Sunday Guardian]

Discussions about contemporary Indian fiction in English often touch on the lack of truly startling work that aligns stylistic experimentation with political engagement. Meanwhile, those who read more widely point out that these qualities are still to be found in the literatures of other Indian tongues. Such generalisations can be misleading, but two of the most provocative books I have recently come across are just-published English translations of a Hindi and a Malayalam novel. Coincidentally both works are, in different ways, about destruction and its effects – on perpetrators, victims and survivors – and about violence that transcends boundaries.

Geetanjali Shree’s The Empty Space (original Hindi title Khali Jagah; translated by Nivedita Menon) begins with a bomb exploding in a college cafe, reshaping human beings, inanimate objects and victuals. Body parts mix grotesquely with food items from around the country; this is a truly egalitarian act of slaughter. As the narrator puts it, “Ashes, fire, flesh. Fans, gulab-jamun, pav-bhaji, idli, vada, all whirling in the air, like an argument gone astray in the cosmos. You know how cafes are these days. You get everything everywhere now. Idli-vada in the North, pav-bhaji in the East. As for bombs – anywhere, at any time.”

An echo of these words can be found in P Sachidanandan’s The Book of Destruction (original Malayalam title Samharathinthe Pusthakam; translated by Chetana Sachidanandan). Reading a long letter written by a man named Seshadri, whom he briefly knew 45 years earlier, the nameless narrator comes across this formulation: “All those who respect the philosophy of destruction become brothers irrespective of their caste, religion, ideology and profession.” The destructive impulse, in other words, binds the human race.

Despite a shared emphasis on nihilistic violence, the contexts of the two stories are different. The blast in Shree’s novel is something the modern world is all too familiar with: a terrorist attack. But Sachidanandan’s book – written under his pen name Anand – deals with a more ritualistic mode of killing. Seshadri belongs to the ancient cult of Thuggee, which practises murder as “an act of sadhana”, and he is baffled by terrorism, which seems to acknowledge the "purity" of destruction but also deviates from old customs (while thugs respectfully dig graves for their victims, suicide bombers crassly join them in their final resting places, he observes). Perhaps the difference reflects changing times and attitudes. “Does this mean that mankind has finally begun to see clearly and accepted the fundamental and basic role destruction plays in life – to the extent that secrecy has become superfluous?

Both The Empty Space and The Book of Destruction are formally inventive works with abstract, often elusive, narratives; though their prose is uncomplicated, you need reserves of concentration and patience to read them. The former appears at first to be driven by a conventional plot: an anonymous three-year-old boy (also the book’s narrator) is the sole survivor of the cafe blast and is taken home by a family who lost their 18-year-old son in the tragedy. But the story – characterised by staccato sentences and very short chapters – soon takes on a fragmented, dreamlike quality. Like Oskar in Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum – stunted at a similar age – this boy refuses to speak to those around him, but his narrative creates for us a world of pain, resentment and a macabre merging of identities. Though the book’s title ostensibly refers to the space in which he was found amidst the post-blast carnage, it also denotes the physical space formerly occupied by someone who no longer exists. The picture of the murdered son on the wall, his phantom voice on the phone answering machine, the unreachable grief of the parents who celebrate their adopted son’s birthday on the birthday of the dead boy...these are among the constituent elements of this harrowing tale.

Compared to this claustrophobia-inducing premise, Anand’s novel has a larger canvas and is more overtly a book of ideas. Its narrator, having just come to terms with Seshadri’s musings on thug practices, finds himself in a series of surreal situations involving the bombing of a hotel discotheque, a mysterious stranger whom he regularly meets during train journeys, and the possibility that the artistic process is itself an act of destruction wherein an artist is colonised by his creations. The prose is breathless and searching; there are hardly any detailed descriptions of people or settings (“The darkening Bengal countryside stretched in all directions…one side of the dirt road bordered the fields and the other, mango orchards” is about as far as it goes) and one surmises that Anand is more interested in inner lives and in theory than in external details. But by the time the story reaches its third act, where a tailor is cannibalised by the people whose personalities have been shaped by the clothes he stitched, it becomes clear that this meditative book is not for all tastes. Though admirable for its directness and ambition, it is also a little laboured and repetitive in its critique of social conformity.

It can be said that The Book of Destruction presents a way of looking at violence as something that is hard-wired into us, the symptom of a large appetite for cruelty and savagery. (Implicit here is the idea that destructiveness doesn’t have to take a form as extreme as murder or terrorism; it can be manifest in the everyday threads of human relationships, and even "respectable" people from all walks of life participate in it.) The Empty Space, on the other hand, gives us the consequences of that destructive impulse, in the form of a family who live in permanent stasis and a young boy who can never be a person in his own right. If literature holds up mirrors to what we inherently are and what we are capable of becoming, these two books, read together, provide a fascinating look at the shadowy places in the human mind.

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