Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Grippingly philosophical

‘If one said to another ‘I love you’ snappishly, would it sound humorous or pitiful?
One community criticises another.
One political party criticises another.
One person criticises another.
Who is criticising all of us, society as a whole?’

Above are the lines in my translation from a Marathi novel: Kheksat Mhanane, I love you, which might be translated into English as ‘Saying ‘I love you’ snappishly.’ The author is Shyam Manohar, whose novel ‘Ustuketene mee zoplo’ was awarded by the Sahitya Akademi in 2008.

No other author, at least in Marathi literature, has been consistently examining, throughout his oeuvre, whether Indians have quest for mankind’s fundamental questions and what happens when Indians try to pursue such quests in the cotemporary political and social structure. His writing is highly experimental. It may not have a usual characterisation. Its events may not be chronologically important. But Shyam Manohar’s writing, however experimental it may be, has an objective. His Sahitya Akademi award winning novel focuses on whether Indian family system that Indians cherish a lot has a place for creativity and quest for knowledge. ‘Kheksat Mhanane I love you’ focuses mainly on following issues:

1) Why people, particularly Indians end up in either just quibbling over trivial issues or simply criticizing one another, though they aspire for grander and higher goals.
2) How Indian society is becoming increasingly susceptible to decadence. (Criminal or venal civilisation)
3) What the role of imagination is in making of civilisation

The novel ‘…… I love you…’ weaves mainly two narrative voices together. The novel starts off with the narration of a text, and it reveals that this text is a tape-recorded story that an educated criminal is writing down from a tape. The criminal is a first person character. He writes down the recorded story of a narrator from the tape on one hand, he narrates his own narration on the other. The tape-recorded narration that the criminal is writing down and the criminal’s narration keep coming on alternately. Initially it seems that the narrative voice of the tape-recorded narration is the narrative voice of the novel. However, since the criminal is the first person character, his narrative voice is the narrative voice of the novel. The tape-recorded narration has occupied most of the pages of the novel. At a point, through the criminal, it is revealed that this narration’s narrator himself is a character who is a very old man.

This old man’s tape-recorded narration has five characters, which are from his imagination: an elderly man, a professor, a dentist, a young man and a young girl. The elderly man is a hard-core Hindu ideologist. The professor is an ardent champion of socialism. The dentist is a spiritualist. The young man is a software engineer. The young girl is a B.Com graduate who comes from a higher middle class family and has no aim in life. There is one more character in the tape-recorded text. He is a friend of the young software engineer. His name is Dayal. The old man says that he has not imagined Dayal’s character. Dayal once happens to go into seculsion. He finds seculsion interesting and starts maintaining diary to write about his experiences of seclusion. The old man takes inspiration from Dayal’s diary to send his five fictional characters into seclusion to enable them find their life-goals by themselves. The old man-cum-narrator finds places for his characters' seclusion, describes their secluded lives in detail and intermittently intersperses Dayal’s diary which not just reflects on seclusion but also criticises Indians and Indian society as a whole. Looking at the diverse backgrounds of these six characters, it seems the old man wants a complete picture of India for his experimentation.

The old man’s fictional characters appear flat, emotionless, like characters from a carton film, as if they are just samples of his experiment. Yet, at the same time, they appear authentic with the vivid delineations of their physical characteristics such as body structure, colour and voice. Some of them are evocative too, for instance, to describe the voice of the Hindu ideologist (the second uncle), the old man-cum-narrator says, "the second uncle’s speaking voice is as sweet as the Alphonso mango". Most characters do not belong to any particular place except the young software engineer, who belongs to Pune. There are ironical, sarcastic and critical remarks on the city of Pune in his characteristic incisive style which Shyam Manohar is well-known for.

Whenever Dayal’s diary appears, the tape-recorded tale gets a different narrative voice. And another time the Novel’s voice ruptures when a long story appears consuming almost nineteen pages of the novel. The old man-cum-narrator shows that the young girl is reading the story. The title of the story is the title of the novel. This story from the magazine is placed almost in the middle of the book. It gives a novel spatial symmetry. It is not just characters or events that ‘form’ the novel but mixing voices in a smooth and structured manner can ‘form’ the novel too. This story’s writer is none another than Dayal himself. However, it is shown that Dayal reveals this secret by mistake. Such arbitrariness in the novel creates a sense of detachment in the reader.

Voices of the criminal, the old man, and Dayal look prominent. Voices of the first two are clear right from the beginning while Dayal’s voice slowly emerges and becomes prominent in the end. These are the three characters who are used as vehicles to carry the main objectives of the novel. However, they look more like narrators than like characters.

At a point in the novel, the old man makes it clear that he fails to imagine his fictional characters achieve their aims by themselves. But he makes them have realisations instead. The Hindu ideologist realises ‘Faith lacks wisdom. The bhakti (devotion) has wisdom. Faith is incapable of inventing anything’. The professor realises ‘He does not have intelligence’. The young software engineer realises ‘Nothing about Physics makes his Physics teacher happy’. The young female graduate realises ‘I lack depth, I am superficial’. The spiritualist realises, ‘He is not spiritual’. Dayal realises ‘He is criticising all Indians’. These realisations look abrupt. However, it is to be noted that they are realisations or revelations but not conclusions or inferences.

The deconstruction of faith as part of realisation of the Hindu ideologist is a case. Let me reiterate the realisation: Faith lacks wisdom. The bhakti (devotion) has wisdom. The bhakti is the word that is used as synonymous with faith in India. Shyam Manohar seems to separate ‘the bhakti’ from ‘faith’, probably because the bhakti movement which was once established in India to fight against the fanaticism and ritualism of that era has itself become the fanaticism and ritualism of this era.

The criminal does not simply copy the narration. He reflects on the narration. He is shown as an educated criminal, a useful vehicle to examine the following possibilities:
1) People (pre) tend to be aspirants of high aims but end up in only fulfilling small aims.
2) Indians are cantankerous in nature. They quibble over small issues and criticise one another.
3) Such hypocritical society becomes a breeding ground for criminals, crimes and a venal society.

At a point in the novel when the old man happens to meet the criminal, he sadly confesses before him that he fails to make his characters achieve their aims. He weeps and feels sad
as he fails to bring any emotions to his characters. He gives a reason why he is unable to do so. And here it looks as if Shyam Manohar himself cites reasons why his characters in most of his novels appear emotionless. Following are a few of them:

‘All of them (all five characters) are sent to seclusion and they are mulling over issues other than family matters, so their emotions are not active’

‘In India a way of acquiring thoughts (opinions) and putting them across is being increasingly established’

‘Newspapers mostly have just thoughts (opinions), and most Indians read only newspapers.’

Here Shyam Manohar seems to make a point that Indians’ emotions are active only when it comes to family matters. He, perhaps, also wants to link emotions to the way Indians
think: Indians tend to give importance to acquiring thoughts (opinions) instead of letting them appear on their own. This means that Indians mostly know how put across only opinions. Is this because Indians like to have realisations but they do not like to come to inferences and somehow the kind of atmosphere or freedom that is needed to have realisations has very little presence in today’s India?

Even the old man’s characters have realisations but not inferences. In this regard, I have an observation that the Indian languages do not have any room or a facility for drawing inferences (no facility for make-believe game), which is clear from the fact that the Indian languages have dispensed with the use of the articles (‘a’ and ‘the’).

The technique of mixing narrative voices has its pros and cons. One disadvantage is clear: no emotional bonding. Characters look emotionless. However, it will be interesting to see whether it is the drawback of the experimental writing technique such as Shyam Manoahar’s or it is an essential narrative technique to examine Indians’ indifference to man’s fundamental questions.

Another disadvantage is that there is a high amount of arbitrariness. Characters are undermined. The objective is undermined. However, it is tough to say that Shyam Manohar’s narration loses its focus, though it tires to undermine the topic, and also the characters.

But such narrative technique gives Shyam Manohar maximum freedom, the greatest advantage. He uses most of it to give a new dimension to a character. The old man’s characters are unemotional. But he becomes emotional. Thus, the narrator himself looks emotional. The criminal is not like a villain; rather he appears an anti-villain when he saves the old man from burglars. He appears like a philosopher, when he raises such deeply fundamental questions:

“For hundreds of years man has been living with the help of religion, race, province, ideologies. Will man ever have to merely live or survive? Is there a mere living or survival?

For hundreds of years a criminal has been doing crimes with the help of religion, race, province, ideologies. Will a criminal ever have to do a mere crime? Is there a mere crime?”

The criminal who does not do any crime in the novel (rather saves the old man’s life) is a link between the failure of the old man’s characters and the high susceptibility of India to a venal civilisation. Only he is the one who brings Dayal in the end as a kind of denouement to give a hint with which this big Indian mess can be solved. The end, thus, tries to seek answers to these questions: How civilisation can have the place for the creation of fundamental knowledge? What is the role of imagination in knowing the universe, and in creating art and philosophy?

Such incessant philosophical pursuits have been interwoven in the narration in such a way that the reader is not supposed to leave them away ever.

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