Saturday, May 07, 2016

Reshaping reality: on Manoj Kumar Panda’s One Thousand Days in a Refrigerator

[Did this review for The Hindu]

When you first encounter a writer who works in a language other than the one you’re discovering him in, you sometimes struggle to identify tone, style and sensibility. You second-guess yourself, wonder if cultural nuances are being missed. And this confusion is compounded if the writing is formally experimental: did an over-zealous translator chisel the original into new shape? Reading the first two or three stories in Manoj Kumar Panda’s collection One Thousand Days in a Refrigerator, I was stimulated by the narratives – and Snehaprava Das’s English translation seemed clean enough – but the shifts in perspectives, tenses and streams of thought were a little puzzling, and I wondered if I was “getting” Panda the way a seasoned Odia reader might.

That question still lingers in my mind after having completed the book, but on the whole I think I know him better now. Das’s note at the end puts a few things in context: she mentions that Panda is a post-modernist, uses symbolism, and intersperses prosaic sentences with free verse. This helps account for the disorientation a first-time reader might feel. But as you read the stories one after another, little signatures, thematic and stylistic links begin to show themselves.

An important motif is how the dream-world and real life can intersect with, or bleed into each other, especially when the people involved are underprivileged, exploited or facing personal crisis. “Rajula had two passions: sleeping and dreaming,” we are told of the protagonist of “When the Gods Left”, an old man who disposes of carcasses for a living, even as he makes his own lonesome journey towards oblivion. “He sleeps and he dreams. He dreams that he is sleeping, and in that sleep he dreams again. In this dream he sleeps again and dreams once more. Like Chinese boxes – a small box; within it, a smaller one; a still smaller one inside the smaller box and yet another inside it.” We are invited to wonder what this man has apart from his dreams (and his memories, which too must seem like hazy dreams by now).

This theme is addressed most directly in “The Dreamer’s Tale”, with its imagery of a bright red horse and a white gourd that has been blessed by a holy man – all of which is neatly subverted in the final passage – but to some degree nearly all the stories here are tinged with surrealism. They are about escaping, but they are also reminders that flights of fancy can be tethered by the imagination and experiences of the dreamer (one character imagines flying past towns, oceans and mountains on his horse, but once he reaches the clouds he can imagine no further because he has no idea what lies beyond them). Many of them are about people at a crossroads or facing a moment of epiphany where a world might be remade or ended forever. In “The Aesthetics of a Supercyclone”, after a storm destroys a young man’s house and kills his mother and sister, his transformation can only be expressed in non-realist language. (“The storm had passed through all his organs – his bones, his lungs, his liver, his stomach, his intestines – and washed them clean […] He had the power to devour every law, every norm, every rule. He could gulp down all the venom of this world, all the sleeping pills that had ever been produced.”)

Repeatedly, we meet people who are looking for ways to fill the empty spaces in their lives – an idea that finds explicit mention in at least two pieces, “Kaniska” and “Filling in the Blanks”. The second of these was also the story that really set this book roaring for me. A simple plot made darkly, intensely poetic in the telling, it begins with a description of a 12-year-old girl running desperately across vast cornfields – but even as the narrator vividly describes this scene, he draws attention to his storytelling by asking us to imagine this “wide panorama stretched over a massive canvas”, and the allegorical nature of the tale is made obvious: a predatory man who enters this canvas advances with such powerful, purposeful steps that a butterfly lies crushed to death under every step; there are no children in this dying, almost-forgotten village, we are told, and the people don’t even remember what paper was used for.

Other sorts of butterflies are crushed in “The Testimony of God”, where a seemingly upbeat premise – God appears in court, wearing a white hat, no less, to defend an unjustly accused woman – yields to the suggestion that even divinity can be of limited use in situations involving oppression and earthly justice systems. (To invoke the title of the first story in the collection, even Gods must leave sometime! When the carrion-picker Rajula’s wife dies, he tells her: we are untouchables, our mortal remains won’t make it to a holy river, they will go into the gutter. “Go, my dear, may your soul cross all gutters on its way to the other world. I will follow you soon, and we will resume our jobs.” It is a shattering admission of the hopelessness of their situation, both in this world and in any that might lie ahead.) This despair runs through the book, but there are occasional glimmers of light too: “A Picture of Agony”, in which various members of a family collapse one by one because of heatstroke, can be seen as a parable about survival and coming of age.

I also liked the two wryly moving stories that are told largely from the perspectives of men directing accusatory remarks at their wives. In “Sentenced to a Honeymoon”, an oddball named Nachiketa disappears for a month and then summons his wife to a courtroom where he provides a list of ways in which she has made him feel inadequate. And in the title story, the woman is even more passive, being comatose: her husband addresses her (and through her, us) in the refrigerated chamber where she lies, and a series of dark revelations – but are they real, or only in his head? – emerge. Very specific though these situations are, each touches in a general way on the conflicts that attend on most marriages, and on male insecurities.

Panda’s prose is self-consciously “writerly” in places; in others, it has a loose, casual, rambling quality. But throughout the book, there are unexpected bits of wordplay and echoes, as in a passage in “The Hunt”, where we are told that flies performed the Naroo dance around the bodies of three soon-to-be-dead people. (The dance has been alluded to in another context earlier in the story.) This makes the reading process akin to putting together a jigsaw puzzle, one of the clues to which may be found in the book’s epigraph, a Gabriel Garcia Marquez quote: “Ultimately literature is nothing but carpentry…with both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.” Most of Panda’s stories involve the bending or reshaping of reality, hammering it into a new form to reach deep truths about people and their predicaments.

1 comment:

  1. I initially read it as “Manoj Kumar’s Pandas” and surreal images came to my mind. Lol