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Tradition And Modernity

In the instinctive mode of western scholars, I had once thought of Tradition and Modernity as individual chapters, each of them thinking about its topic as an entity to be understood in its respective essence and unity. But I have come to understand in perhaps an equally perennial move by western students of Indian culture that these two terms do not in themselves exist. But they do function, dialogically. They work in relation with each other. Modernity functions as an economic and social tool to achieve some wealth, flexibility, and innovation for individuals and groups; Tradition functions, partly and at times largely, as a mythological state which produces the sensation of larger connectedness and stability in the face of shockingly massive social change over the last half-century. One might also say that Modernity is an economic force with social, cultural, and political correlatives; Tradition is a cultural force with social, economic, and political correlatives. Satisfyingly asymmetrical in their relation, they require us, in talking of one, to talk also of the other, just as they induce us to move as nimbly as possible between theoretical abstraction and experiential reality. But their separation is itself part of the mythological drama in current Indian thought, just as their mutual implication is the import of the same ironic smile that brings to an effective close any conversation one hears here about them. And so we take them in turn only, finally, to see them speaking to each other through the lives of acquaintances, informants, and fictional protagonists.

Tradition: what is this nonwestern culture?

It is a very western question to ask what is the Indian tradition, and finally we will shift to the more pertinent question of what Tradition in fact does. To play the two questions against each other, however, may be the most "Indian" response to the difference between them, since the interplay between abstracted systems and daily contexts is repeated ad infinitum in the culture. Even as one considers those abstract systems, one must choose to emphasize either their institutions or their logical or cognitive structures. Putting by for a bit the second, we'll think first about Village, Joint Family, and Caste, the latter being the point at which the distinction fully collapses between "Institution" and "cognitive structure."

"Village India" is both the title of a popular coffee table book and the national shibboleth of self-identity. Why the Village, why so obsessive a return to its troubled texture, to crises for its acharya (teacher), to conflict for its young, to disaster for its women? I think the Village is never real, even for those who work the hardest to evoke what they remember very specifically from their early experiences there. There are, of course, many quite real villages, their populations struggling to resist the false promises of urban prosperity and the deadly lures of cinema life and high tech commodities, struggling for fuel, water, harvests, health, and reprieve from developers and environmental exploiters; down infinite unpaved roads are built structures, small corners of which are glowing in the night with lanterns and candles, its people gathered here, walking there, frozen only when a stranger drives by and mutual stares log away snapshots of scarcely imaginable difference.

But in the mytho-cultural life of the nation, Village is always already a sign for the urbanite’s dream of a community raised with sufficient homogeneity of culture and blood that warmth and deeply shared assumptions bind together its members. Though in reality bound together by established power and unofficial violence, Village functions as the place holder for the harmonization of social and gender differences. It is the sign for an ideally functioning caste society in which reciprocal responsibilities bind everyone in humanely conducted relations of caring and tending, a feudal utopia. It is the constellation of points that makes one map of South Asia, confusing the boundaries between nations, and among linguistic and other communities.

The reality of the Village, even in the fiction which struggles most directly to connect myth and actuality, is complicated. Stuck six vehicles wide on a three-lane Delhi street corner, the commuter can only clear the black phlegm from the world's worst urban pollution and project a contrary ideal of an easy stroll across the home village toward the John Constable stream scene omnipresent in Village fiction. But the real stream may contain enough pollutants to work as a laundry bleach, and the Village behind one not only has the predictable internal dissensions of close living, but also the external menaces of other groups (like Muslims), other eras (the modernity of commerce and industrialization), and other social schema (the hulking secularity of the state and central governments).

The second key institution of tradition is the joint family, a usually patrilocal system in which the bride comes to live under the rule of her mother-in-law (in many areas customarily in a village far from her own family) and any senior daughters-in-law, and in which the sheer number and confusion of generations and cousins within close quarters makes both privacy and individuality scarcely relevant values, let alone easily achievable. But the joint family is just as semiotic a figure as Village: it is a sign for a kinship system that goes beyond the orderly distribution of women and property to what Sudhir Kakar calls "a therapeutic model of social organization" (124), with relations of trust, respect, and responsibility nurturing and guiding one at every step, an extended familial utopia.

Kakar is eloquent about the capacity of the joint family as an institution to address "deep needs for connection and relationship to other human beings in an enduring and trustworthy fashion and for ongoing mentorship, guidance and help in getting through life and integrating current experiences with whatever has gone before and with an anticipated future" (124). But he is also eloquent on what happens in the daily realities of life in such a family. "It was great when I was growing up," one friend told me, "but the older I got the more claustrophobic it became." When patriarchs abuse their unchecked power, when matriarchs smother their sons and terrorize their daughters-in-law, the joint family changes from a "therapeutic" system to a neurosis machine.

The third institution is that of caste, and here one must distinguish between varna, the four castes idealized in the Vedas, and jati, the much-proliferated and regionally quite various denominations based mostly upon actual occupations. The second moves us into the power relations of daily life in which one's Brahmin friends complain that jobs are there only for the "Scheduled Tribes and Backward Classes," as the reservation (or quota) legislation terms them, while one's friends from the other end of the spectrum complain about the Brahman (or, alternatively, the Tamil) "mafia" that runs everything. In a social reality being rapidly restructured within a "modern" class system subsidiary to the global consumer economy, there may be plenty of truth in both perspectives. But jati, the occupational castes, organize social life, economic contacts and often basic options, value systems, and family customs, and even ethnosociological profiles of the sort statisticians love best. The varna order tidies into four classes the functional divisions of Indian social organization and derives its authority from its Vedic origins. As an abstract, conceptual order it trips us over into the other emphasis in thinking about tradition, namely its logical or cognitive system.

One of the more illuminating book about caste is by Veena Das, Structure and Cognition: Aspects of Hindu Caste and Ritual (Second Edition; Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982), a book which balances a structuralist sense of culture as a language with a very open and flexible model of linguistic structuring, and which draws upon Das's career of fieldwork to temper her readings of the Sanskrit texts upon caste theory. We in the west typically confuse "caste" with "class," and though there is positive correlation between economic standing and caste, it is also true that particularly since Independence the two are increasingly independent variables. (It is, for example, the middle castes from which many of the nouveaux riches emerge, and feminist Madhu Kishwar has argued that it is upper and middle caste peasant family structure that in its vertical and geographical spread through Indian society is worsening the condition of rural women.)

If caste is not strictly economic, nor is it purely hierarchical as class strata tend to be. Brahmans, that is, are the "highest" caste from a spiritual or religious perspective, but the kings were kshatriyas. Das argues that the king and the Brahman were bound in reciprocal but not hierarchical obligations, and moves swiftly to make us understand the implications of the "statuses" (as she calls them) distributed within the systems of caste and asramadharma (the Way, Christians might call it, appropriate for one's age-related stage in life). That is, these statuses don’t need the geological metaphor of sedimentary levels, but the linguistic metaphor of how, syntactically, a culture articulates its social relations. We can glimpse in what follows just what Das achieves with this metaphor:

Down inside the version of social realities represented in a novel like Samskara, the details of this summary matter greatly. For the moment, most useful for us is how this reading of caste complicates the typical and simplistic Western interpretation of caste as class oppression. That oppression certainly exists, but Das wants us to understand how these social categories and their associated ways of living are more than a rationale for privilege. These dharmas segment existence and enable individuals to transpose the paradigmatic morphology of Hinduism into the syntagmatic realities of history. Amorphous experience becomes the words and grammar by which one's life is spoken.

Das's work is analogous in its effect to that of T.N. Madan's Non-Renunciation: Themes and Interpretations of Hindu Culture (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), which corrects the Brahmanic skew toward otherworldliness in Western caricatures of India. Again and again, Madan takes pairs of terms that strike Western ears as oppositions and shows they do not participate in the valorization inherent in Western binary thought but are instead like Nandy's "exclusive parts" within an enlarged "inclusive whole." [For example, the asceticism of the holy elder and the worldly concerns of the householder are age-appropriate phases of one life, not opposed metaphysical belief systems; the Brahman's management of ritual and the sudra's management of offal are unequal in status and pleasantness, but equally essential dimensions of human community.] Paralleling Das's argument at several points, Madan argues that rituals and categorical schema are "efforts to establish the proper relations between [the relevant terms]" (141). Ultimately, one infers from Das, such cultural forms as ritual performatively maintain "bounded and articulated states as opposed to liminal and disarticulated states" (144). Hence if jati castes proliferate, compete for relative status, disappear, subdivide, then, from the privileged perspective of the ascendant groups, the varna castes continue to parse the grammar of utopian social relations bequeathed from the Vedic tradition.

To conceive of caste not simply as a Western pyramid of power, but as a circular graph of an intimately contiguous set of relations within an inclusive whole, means that we will get quite different summaries of basic principles of life depending upon where in that circle we stand. It is male Brahman voices that have historically held the attention of Western listeners, and only comparatively recently have the effects of that dominance begun to change in response to post-Independence study of Dalits, tribals, and women (to name the most sensationally excluded groups from many ethnosociological studies of India). Ramanujan's "context-sensitivity" prods us toward trying to complicate our imagery of Indian social reality; Das and Madan start us toward a relational grammar with glimpses of the often unheard speakers of non-Brahmanical social dialects.

But it will help also to appreciate the kinds of self-differencing observable through a triad of categories proposed by Chicago ethnosociologist McKim Marriott in a remarkable collection of essays, India Through Hindu Categories (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1988). His essay won’t help us with, say, the Islamic dimension of Indian culture any more than it is fully congenial with tribal or Dalit life. But he begins with a very useful caution. Assuming that "the Western sciences often do not recognize and therefore cannot deal with the questions to which many Indian institutions are answers" (1), Marriott lectures aspiring sociologists in a way important for those of us who would read India through its fiction:

Though it is a bit traumatizing to use any existing vocabulary at all after so sweeping a list, we might recover our balance a bit by seeing how Marriott's terms work. He has distilled these from his own years of fieldwork, trying to infer from the daily life of Indians the crucial structuring categories by which that life is organized. "Mixing," "matching," and "marking," he suggests, name the vectors of the three-dimensional graphing he recommends for understanding virtually any phenomenon of Indian culture. These terms name three points at which a society applying Hinduism, so to speak, encounters ambiguity, even liminality, and hence considerable collective anxiety. Each thus characterizes a continuum along which social practice has measured out fundamental values and natures. To decide under what conditions and in what form differently valued elements can come together is to regulate their mixing, as in the various protocols and rituals pertaining to pure and impure elements. "Mixing" can thus chart the range from an almost classical Western identity to an all but poststructural self-difference.

To place different elements coherently in their interrelations, one grades them from the most transcendentally comprehensive (perhaps the all-seeing Brahma or oversoul) to the most degraded particle so marked up by differentiation and thus degeneration from the absolute as to be at the very bottom of the existential ladder. This marking is a performative process which enacts the cognitive privilege of (s/he who is the) marker and the relative subjection of the marked. To decide where to sanction relative disorder and where to maintain scrupulous fidelity to a conceptual scheme is to preserve sanctuaries where experience matches the ideal while allowing the inevitable scenes where we must cope with the mismatch between experience and expectations.

It becomes a bit complex to work out the shifts in any given cultural form–we Western academics are not accustomed to thinking by triangulating three-dimensionality. But with the example of caste, one can begin to see how Marriott's terms might work. The Saint and the King would share, on a two-dimensional graph, the extreme positions of unmarked (both are at the heights of their respective spheres) and matched (the worlds of both are thoroughly prescribed and organized); but along the third vector of mixing they are at opposite extremes, the King obligated by his dharma to nurture his ties with all in his realm, the Saint obligated to minimize contact with worldly ambitions. And while the Saint and the Outcast might not seem to have much in common, they share the same polar extreme of unmixed, though poles apart on the other two continua.

One begins to understand, then, that the varnas of vaisya and sudra (as a shorthand, the business and service castes) have delegated to them immersion in the unmatching liberal states of commerce and of cleansing and disposing. Commerce requires a more thorough engagement with the "disarticulated" realities of trade than even the Brahmans of the householding stage must achieve as the latter balance material and spiritual concerns. Cleaning and disposing confronts one with the liminal states of decay and death, and to have varnas that are valued and respected for managing the potential metaphysical ambiguities of such events while others attend to the meticulously matched worlds of sacrament and governance is to constitute an inclusive whole quite unlike the dismissive Western reflex of "someone has to do it." Such a relational matrix is an ideal, to be sure, and the thinking machine it constitutes is often betrayed by the sordid realities of abused power and arrogantly displayed prerogative. But it does help explain why the latter are in fact transgressing the dharma (the way of living) of the individuals whose failings they represent. Clearly this system has served to excuse and impose inequality and exploitation, but at the same time, we do well to recognize the terms it offers for a radical critique of excesses among those who find themselves in its privileged but also ethically demanding positions of leadership.

For those of us reading Indian fiction, these categories name the vectors along which traditional thought would perceive experience, even if that perception is now complicated by the inmixing of western categories, individual temperament, and the strengthening voice of the formerly silenced. Both the Englishman and the Indian will think poorly of a prideful Brahman, but only the latter will think the Brahman is "mixing" too much in political and social strata and arrogating to himself the personal glory more appropriate to kingly kshatriya than priestly Brahman. The individual whose moral flaw is noted by the Englishman risks, for the Indian, "unmatching" the distribution of responsibilities and statuses and thus imperils social equilibrium. One might even feel that by rating himself in relation to other social strata, rather than dissolving himself within larger transcendental being, our prideful Brahman "marks" and thus lowers himself.

Finally, perhaps, the Western reader will never read particular narratives in a truly Indian way (and, of course, rather few Indians will either since we are here describing only that part of the Indian consciousness most informed by Brahmanical cultural roots). But we still need to know what we can of this particular version of a nonwestern language of thought if we are to read the fiction that evidences its historical effects. And it is mainly a desire to keep our competency in such a language at its keenest that I remind us here of Kakar's trio of concepts that are considerably more than merely theological. For karma extends individual being across the time line of a person's lifetime as decisively as moksha expands it beyond the boundaries of individuality itself; dharma reminds us that even our stereotypically unmixed matched and unmarked Brahman must mix as a householder, must invoke the sternest of rituals to confront the potentially unmatching effects of a liminal state like death.

These village utopias, these joint family harmonies, these caste reciprocities, can also be argued as blinders to the history of class oppression, gender violence, and power struggles among regions and dynasties and religious communities. Tradition, that is, is always inflected by rulers and carries ruling class interests. But they don’t monopolize the language either. The lexicon and syntax of the language remains amenable to a variety of interests and quite capable of so penetrating the consciousness of a population that it provides the basic terms and mechanics for addressing social and personal issues alike, and from more perspectives than those implied by its valorized terms and categories. I know, in other words, that this modeling of Tradition is not the whole story, but it does provide its most typical narratology.

Perhaps a nonfiction tale may help transform these different elements into a more clearly focused tool. I know well an Indian family with seven now grown children, one which I don't claim as "typical" but rather as typifying the frequent erosion of the family as an Indian social institution. Traditionally, the family is the most Brahmanically high of the class from Madras, where a remaining aunt now blind from cataracts (caste does not equal class) once suspended my wife in a mango swing inside her house, eating her bright orange mango chunks only from silver plates (keeping unmixed the food prepared in a kitchen where non-Brahmans did not go). She took Jane to the family jeweler (whose grandparents were jewelers to her grandparents in the matching of generations to stations) and, at an "auspicious" hour (that is, an hour matched to the deed), had the jeweler cut the chain in half, garlanding (at a second well-matched auspicious hour) Jane and her friend (a "marking" of them as equals bound to each other; the act was untraditional only in the kind of attention accorded an outsider, not in its logic of relation).

The rest of the family is part of the last generation's Tamil diaspora–the still continuing exodus of talented and well-trained Tamils all over the world, particularly in the scientific and technical fields (what would Silicon Valley or the Arabian peninsula be without them?). The father settled in Bombay many years ago, and up to about five or eight years ago, you might even have called them a perfectly normal clan of over-achievers. But one sees since then a microcosm of social change in the multiple registers in which outside destructive forces have played on the internal fissions of a family. The father's authority has exceeded its dharma, hardening into an abusive tyranny under the embitterment of a collapsed career in engineering–fist fights with his sons, the jagged edges of a bottle broken on his daughter's head still traceable in the stitches in her scalp. The oldest son has sublimated his ambitions to usurp his father's place as patriarch in a complicated psychosomatic ailment and a six and a half lakh condominium, the funding of which draws all his resources, the moneys he has held for the sisters, and whatever contributions trickle into the mother now that the father earns nothing. Those contributions, as one might expect, show the effects of the paradigmatic favoritism of the Indian mother toward her first-born son, the figure whose birth validated her as a young wife and who remains the key signifier of her personal success. The Bombay son gives only meals to his parents (and of those, he specified, "only two per day"), busy as he is in the upwardly mobile game of acquisition, a game which has included "taking over" one daughter's share of the patrimony in the form of a prime Mathunga apartment in the scarce housing scene of Bombay. Another son can give nothing because he lives meal by meal on freelance writing assignments (is this the contemporary version of the Sanskrit acharya?). Yet another son mismatches income and expenses in Scotland, while the son most belittled by parental tongues in the wretched comparison game of a large family, won't give anything of his ninety thousand dollar Florida salary because the other (long-favored) sons don't. So the mother wonders how to feed the father, unable to live with the daughter comfortably married in Bangalore (because his parents are still living: what would they say, behind their son's back, to her daughter?).

The mother is also impossibly at sea over how to relate to her youngest daughter (the one whose arm she burned with a flatiron, hissing "don't ever presume to ask for a second helping again: remember, you're not a son"). This is the daughter beaten into a divorce, exploited thereafter into pregnancy, wobbling on her own shaky two feet trying to find a combination of housing, job, and support that would preserve some kind of life for her ("illegitimate") infant son, not easy in the conservative and not particularly friendly margins of low income Delhi. There is more alcoholism than joy in the family, more obliviousness than rapport in the marriages, more frustration and disillusionment in the careers than anything remotely resembling fulfillment. The grandchildren know each other more by photos than personality, their family lives virtually as nuclear as suburban America's, only less comfortable, less secure, less assured about the future.

How foolish it would be to feel that family life in India has gone all to hell, that this despairing saga is a norm rather than a symptom of pressures affecting a more successful norm. Economic necessities break the continuity of family structures, economic reversals transform pressure into catastrophe, and the disruption and violation of traditional reciprocal caring and giving produce the psychological malaise signified by paternal alcoholism and the cardiovascular afflictions of sons in their forties. The "mediated oppositions" within the social language Das defines can become destructive cultural contradictions, all but Western style; the "inclusive whole" within which traditional roles and functions articulate individual parts can become precisely those "liminal and disarticulated states" tradition once sufficed to bound and connect.

This family saga is the darkest possible representation of the fates of the traditional institutions of village, Joint Family, and Caste, the first forgotten, the second dispersed and alienated, the third experienced as a burden (clearly enough for anyone to recognize when a forty-year-old Brahman man with two healthy sons and a good, secure job can look at you through drink-slitted eyes and say, "What is there for us here?"). Perhaps it is fair to say these family members fell from the virtues, but it may be more truthful to say that they were shaken out of the mythic time in which those virtues cohere, drawn into a commercial logic incommensurate with the grammar of dharma and the cognitive style of meditation, faced with an economic and sociopolitical reality in which the sustaining institutions of Village, Family, and Caste have transformed into the menacing new social forms of City, Marriage, and Class.

In a City the fabric of village microcosm unravels into skeins of isolated, disconnected lives with bureaucratic rather than personal interface. In Marriage two individuals fail each other's cornucopia of expectations rather than finding themselves sorted out into a haveli full of mutually accepted predetermined roles. And in Class everyone is a worker but with purely economically determined and defined roles, statuses, privileges, and responsibilities, all conceived within the categories of job skills and consumption rather than of social purpose and reciprocal responsibility. Again the caveat applies: the reality of the traditional is often, as we shall see, horribly abused, but it also implies an ideal vision and other critical resources, both theoretical and practical, against such abuses.

In Indian visual art repetition means something very different from the alienation and failure of individual creativity connoted by western mass-produced uniformity. Copying is a form of meditation. The carvers' repetition of one Ganesh after another; the rangoli-maker's repetition in rice flour or paint of curvilinear borders and floral or geometric mandalas; the embroiderer's image repertoire of animals, icons, and stylized margins; the silk painter's typologies of Moghuls and divinities; the Tibetan thang-ka maker’s precise knowledge of Buddha’s "ideal," fixed proportions–all these are like visual mantras, performatives which in the doing thereby continue a configuration of wisdom and transform the viewer into a participant in a harmonized conjunction of time, place, and event, the very type of which is the parameter-laden but also extemporized raga or rice rangoli at the threshold of an exhibition or a performance: their temporariness and sheer physical vulnerability are part of the point, signifying the moment of that conjunction which performs tradition's immanence within event.

Tradition thus depends upon a certain ongoing coping with the relation between the matched and unmatched, one which integrates the unmarked and variously marked, which invokes the relatedness of unmixed and mixed within a comprehensively inclusive whole, which itself places human life within an ecosphere of being that is intricately interfiliated and vibrantly alive. Finally, then, we have shifted from the question of what tradition is to the more engaged question of what it does. We have followed Ashis Nandy's trajectory from a scholarly understanding of a culture to understanding its strategic use of Tradition to resist the homogenizing, atomizing, and alienating effacement of history and particularity, a cost of postmodernity that to many seems inevitable in the new global order.

The brother-in-law now trying to usurp the role of the elder brother and restore some order and stability in the family I described is in his way invoking Tradition slightly edited, or perhaps simply extemporized within. Playing traditional patriarch to counter the effects of patriarchal capitalism is a neat trope and successfully counters, to some extent, the reification of this family into Workers and Discards. If a rangoli is like a dharma is like a raga is like a mantra, then the relational grammar parsed out by ethnosociologists, the nostalgia for myths of Family or Village, the ecological metaphysics in the back of the mind, and any number of other formulations of the utopian ideal behind Tradition may be mobilized in new and perhaps disorienting contexts in the effort to confront, consider, and resist what menaces the culturally as yet Non-Aligned Members of the global community. We won't understand much about that confrontation unless we try to detect the extent to which Tradition enables and disables the combatants.

A River Sutra

Gita Mehta's A River Sutra (New Delhi: Penguin, 1993) is, the cover's blurb tells us, "a seminal book." It is, we are also told, "a lyrical series of interlocking stories that transport the reader to a contemporary India that is also the living present of myth," the present seeded by myth but also, the argument runs, "the mysteries of the East that need no confirmation from the West," as if the book somehow were part of the battle against the old masters. It is, finally, a novel that "reflects the depth and complexity of India's spirituality like a diamond reflects light." I both agree and am put off by this paragraph collectively written by premier review media. The book does involve myth, spirituality, and contemporary India, but not in relation to the West, but rather at the turning point between being in the world and being, in both senses of the term, "out of it." Myth, religious asceticism, art, and, well, obtuseness, all are varieties of being "out of it" when "it" is understood as the galaxy of upper level bureaucrats deserted by the narrator at the outset of the story, the world of police and corruption and poverty and market places that filters through the stories, and the busy expedition with which Professor Shankar pushes closed the otherwise open narrative.

As a book looking for its own version of the Middle Way–between reason and instincts, world and renunciation, ego and its beyond, artifice and genuine love, the fleshly mix of daily life and the pure spirit of religion or art–it can neither permit itself to become an essay, nor slip altogether into the encompassing identifications and seamlessness of a traditional novel. And so it pulses between, on the one hand, the commentary of its obtuse scribe and his wily associates (his clever administrative assistant and a wise old mullah), and, on the other hand, its stories told by a variety of narrators. These stories are to some ears incomplete–we meet them as the old priest says we meet people, "like water flowing water through our lives .... We learn something from the encounter, then they are gone. We never find them again" (259). The stories teach us, touch us, for a time and then are gone, but are not sealed and delivered with more than a grace note or two of exposition. Each story disturbs, the way a sage should, taking from seekers the security of a Way and forcing them back upon the answer within. In that sense, the book is Gita Mehta's love song to the spirituality that rouses her ironies in Karma Cola, the nonfiction book in which she devastates the westerners coming in for a hyped up hit of orient wisdom from gurus both pure and reconstituted. But these days, even Indians are in many ways westerners, sometimes as befuddled as this narrator who "withdraws from the world" before he knows the world he "leaves." And so Gita Mehta shifts her course, in this book recovering the character of oral discipleship and of wisdom not taught, but allowed.

To look at any of the episodes of A River Sutra in the light of "How Art Works" is to understand why some might feel that the book's only flaw is its ending, the point at which the ruthlessness of the Novel's form requires Mehta to scurry about like the dickens (Charles, to be exact) to impose an ending that does not too brutally crush the living spirit of this sutra. The narrator keeps hearing extraordinary stories of those who are highly accomplished falling under the power of the banal. From the past of tradition is the awesome ascetic Naga Baba, living embodiment of the millenia. From the present, Professor Shankar (his name is another word for Shiva) busily writing up the river in academese. Moderns and Venerables fill the stories and interstices between making its lore as Heraclitian as the river Narmada itself. When Naga Baba and Professor Shankar turn out to be mutual mirrorings, one worries, they may break the book. The terse ending fails to heal or even negotiate "his" division as two halves of the same spirit, however great. On the sublime plane of spirituality, the ending can be made to work, but not so easily on that of quotidian reality where, as a novel, its ending seeks its beginning, Shivite to Shankar. It is deeply satisfying to think that reality has been finessed for us. But it’s troubling when we read that the narrator who has all along been profoundly obtuse about the stories he hears, is suddenly "wondering for the first time what I would do if I ever left the bungalow" to which he has retreated (282). His initial break from the world was too amateurish, too recreational for his return to resonate at all like Shankar's. My unease is, perhaps, the knell of postmodernity sounding for the distance between world and whichever contrary you choose to set against it–myth, spirituality, even art. But we must come back to Professor Shankar after a digression through these stories to see just what sort of experience Mehta has staged for this narrator and, of course, for us. It may be that we must rethink this apparent mesalliance between Sutra and Novel.

These half-dozen stories are stones on a thread, and, just as a Tibetan jeweler knots his string to keep the stones from striking against each other, so this narrative ties knots of puzzlement between each story with the responses of the narrator, taunts from "the wisest of my friends" Tariq Mia (the old mullah), Mr. Chagla's one liners, Dr. Mitra's rowdy secularism, and finally Professor Shankar's enigmatic ironies. These knots space the narratives but do not resolve them, and they segue into the next story, sometimes on the teller's pretext of "answering" the riddle of one story with another tale. "I don't know the answer, little brother," Tariq Mia tells the narrator after one such story when the latter begs for the bottom line. "It is only a story about the human heart" (91). For Tariq Mia, Sufi singer, teacher of young clerics, the love in the human heart modulates unproblematically between the love of a woman, the love of a river, the love of god. He delights in staging episodes that show up the narrator's excessive restraint, and is given to "mischievousness" that ends in gentle teasing: "Think of your misfortune. To hear of love without ever having melted in its embrace. To acknowledge beauty with your eyes and never carry its image in your soul" (229). His Sufi songs are full of the imagery of disfigurement, beheading, melting, and other violations of the individual ego in religious ecstasy.

Dr. Mitra, on the other hand, thinks the Narmada "is already too holy by half" (151), and his "eyes shine with excitement as if he is describing a work of art" when he tells of "some particularly horrible form of elephantiasis" (151). Sarcastic about Indian mythologizing, fascinated by the tribals, impressed by the density of Brahmin scholars along the riverbank, he says "it is as if reason and instinct are constantly warring on the banks of the Narmada" (153), the continuing saga "pitting Aryan reason against the primal beliefs of the tribals" with their earth goddess religion (150). Dr. Mitra collects stories about the Narmada, shedding their mythic garb to savor instinct demystified. He is not of much use to our narrator, though he does take him to meet Professor Shankar "as if he were leading a patient with a migraine into a darkened chamber" (261). He is the converse of Tariq Mia it seems, for if the cleric dissolves the gulf between the flesh and the divine with a nonrational surge of deeply felt love, Dr. Mitra finesses the gap between instinct and reason with his buoyant scientific sophistication.

The tales themselves repeatedly stage breakdowns of just what these two so easily, perhaps too easily, manage. The first tale, for example, is about a Jain monk who discovers too late "that [he] should have heeded his [father's] warning" (38), realizes that "I do not have the strength to endure the deprivations of my new life" (39), but knows he must "abandon all hope of retreat" because "the ceremonies of renunciations have progressed too far" for him to retreat or recant (37). He must endure "shame," for his wealthy father has decided to duplicate the mythic extravagance of Mahavira's own renunciation ceremonies (from the founding of Jainism in the time of the Buddha), complete with painted elephants, showers of pearls and banknotes, and meals for twenty thousand at a sitting, all at the cost of some sixty-two million rupees.

His response to renunciation, in other words, is complex. It is too hard, the ceremony is too mortifying, the shift from luxury to extreme asceticism too much–but it is also "the ritual with which I gained the freedom to pursue this [one thing I] love" (14). His response to his father, an apt representative of the World with his massive diamond business, is equally complex. The sheer waste of the ceremony brings to a head his recent realization that his father "was unmoved by the conditions under which the diamonds are mined, or the distressing poverty of the miners" (25). More sweepingly, he tells the narrator that

As that last comment suggests, he does have his own difficulty with the way wealth makes other people into abstractions–he speaks of the "shell of numbness" for which only his old Jain preceptor seems to know "a secret of the heart" as antidote (31). With his own father, the "secret" happens during the ceremony when he sees his father's fear at the riot that breaks out because "people might kill each other for the chance to escape their lives with a handful of gems thrown by his son" (26). His father's grief and sorrow further the effect of being "overwhelmed by tenderness at his anguish" (33). Before his decision to renounce had become final, he has a brief episode of the attitude that becomes his new life's object: "I was overcome by compassion for him, for myself, for my concerned and curious wife, for the human helplessness that linked us all. It was my first experience of ahimsa" (35), that state of compassionate nonviolence that is the aspiration of Jain asceticism. At a far enough remove, perhaps, there’s also a touch of "cold mathematics" in the austerities of renouncing his ties to family and society.

I lay this tale's foundation lines so clearly because the Jain undoes the simple logic by which ascetic renunciation is supposed to be the pure inverse of the materialist world, his regret over his decision and his uneasiness over its extremism undermining the one, while feeling deep compassion in his last margin of the world discovers within it the secret on which the old Jain monk finally has no monopoly. Both contain their other; both make a mirage out of the theological rhetoric in which worldly sign is thought to mirror a spiritual referent. Once he has "finished" his tale, the Jain begs leave of the narrator lest his fellow monks go on without him, requiring him "to join a new sect of mendicants. ... I am too poor," he ends, ironically, "to renounce the world twice" (41). His comment is witty, sad, and complex in its undermining of every option he can imagine for himself, as if he were a player in India's spiritual game who failed to stem those tides of displacement by which the silt from one field is washed on to another (perhaps the way the Narmada washes down to her husband, Lord of Rivers, the ocean). "My father is looking for me," he concludes his narrative, "but he will not find me. I have become a stranger, my features hidden behind a muslin mask" (41).

Tariq Mia's reading is simple enough–that the "one thing" sought by the Jain was "the capacity to love" (48). The narrator doesn't get it. Tariq's "answer," as we've already seen, is "only a story about the human heart," and it puzzles the narrator as much as the Jain monk does. But Tariq Mia’s is in fact a chilling tale of the Music Master, his inhuman wife, and Imrat of the angelic boy's voice who actually makes the record the Master himself just missed making as a child. On the threshold of fame Imrat’s throat is cut by a rich sahib to "steal an object of worship so no one but himself can enjoy it" (90). But with tears on his cheeks at the boy's sufi songs, the great sahib says, "Such a voice is not human. What will happen to music if this is the standard by which God judges us?" (89). More than just a perversity of "the human heart," more than exposing the lust for ownership among the wealthy, the tale seems more about just this mirage of the beautiful voice that seems to cross with purity from the human to the divine, the perfect sufi transubstantiation. In this story we are talking about the perfect purity of art rather than the muslin mask of religious asceticism, but a similar absolutism distorts everyone's perceptions of reality. The sahib kills this power, Tariq Mia worships it, the Music Master kills himself over the loss of its vehicle, and the narrator is "upset by the old mullah's accusation that I did not understand the world" (92). Extremes will not do, the worldly sahib and greedy wife are no less killers than the ascetic Jain or the Music Master, neither of whom could "understand the world" either until it was too late.

The story of Nitin Bose comes next, a young man who enjoys his retreat from the Calcutta business world as manager of a tea plantation, especially the nightly love of his mysterious tribal Rimi who arrives like a dream after he's asleep and leaves before he awakes. Until, that is, his recall to the city breaks the spell and leads him to see Rimi's real squat form and try to pay her off. He is also unsettled that her husband is a "coolie," a class degradation that offends his suave and urbane Calcutta alter ego. She cups his soul between the halves of a coconut shell during the eclipse of the moon, and the gothic tale of possession by a female soul runs its course until his ritual exorcism in the Narmada. The narrator’s assistant tries to explain the ritual to him:

The narrator is "wondering if [Chagla's] open face and rotund body hid an understanding that I did not possess" when he keeps going on about how "desire is the origin of life. For thousands of years our tribals have worshipped it as the goddess" (143). But all his talk about "the harm a man does when he is ignoring the power of desire" is difficult for this staid narrator. Chagla is, in other words, pretty well aligned with Tariq Mia who tries at one point to sway the narrator by saying, "Don't you realize you were brought here to gain the world, not forsake it?" (228). "But, sir, without desire there is no life" (142), Chagla remonstrates.

Both the narrator’s bureaucratic dullness and Bose’s class-saturated reaping of sexual harvest displace the intensity of any relationship as well as its connections to the other scales of significance. Thanks to his decadent youth in Europe, the Jain from the earlier story has acquired a consumerist ego that obscures his ability to grasp ahimsa until it is too late, and the Music Master’s own frustrated childhood ambitions drive his ego to push Imrat into harm’s way. Similarly, Bose has lived a period of decadent privilege which feeds the ego, makes it a consumer–of women, of the residual Britishness of his status on the tea estate, and hence itself a thing to be consumed in turn by the CLOP of Rima’s magical coconut shells. Not till he immerses himself in the larger flow of the Narmada does he "get" the sheer mixedness of Being imaged in the mythical underground Naga kingdom about which he had developed a mainly intellectual curiosity. Human and serpent, above and below ground (the unconscious?), sexual and spiritual, the Nagas imply a fluency in the relatedness of contraries. That conversance is quite unlike allowing their reification within the order of ego, commerce, class, or gender, each of which stakes Modernity’s claim on young Nitin Bose, until the only outlet for the privileged term of a neocolonial binary is his transvestitism, his infantilism (chanting children’s songs), and his psychological disintegration from Ego to multiple identity. Ritual ultimately heals him, perhaps by performing his daily immersions in the river’s inclusive flow that suggests our inclusive relational whole of Tradition. A westernized ego, in other words, functions for these characters as an exclusive part that walls them off from feeling the flow of energy across such cultural boundaries.

In the next tale, the sheltered old-school courtesan, mistress of all arts and learning, triumphant concert artist of the nonmodern even in New Delhi, uses the seductions of form to drive wild her notorious outlaw abductor. But the ground shifts as her "brittle artifice" shatters before the love relation he claims across reincarnated lives. She realizes that Modernity’s criminal is the nonmodern Robin Hood who struck back out of honor at landowner abuse and police corruption. Once he is killed, however, it is clear that even in the jungle beyond the towns there is no place for this kind of relationship: rather than become the accomplice jailed amidst the cruelties of a provincial police station, she commits suicide in the Narmada. Her arts transform from an ego’s sterile power to a form of sexual relation resonant with the artistic and religious analogies to her physical presence. It is the modern world that crushes them.

Consider too the tragically ugly young musician whose father manipulates her and his other pupil. He agrees to teach them only if the young man promises to marry his daughter. The young man readily agrees–the musician father is pre-eminent–and their love grows along with the musical abilities. The training is as spiritual and intellectual as it is musicological, just as the courtesan’s training bridges many cultural categories kept fully separate in the West. But that larger vision does not prevent the father from excusing the boy at the end of their education, expecting his daughter to sublimate her heartbreak into an even richer music. This scheme to concentrate her being into the pure veena of transcendent beauty is a failure: "it is an impossible penance that he demands of me, to express desire in my music when I am dead inside" (226). Once again, , desire is badly abused and its value misplaced amid manipulation, exploitation, and the loss of a comprehensive art’s traditional relations with its spiritual wisdom of compassion. The paternal ego, echoed by the young man’s, devastates this young woman’s life and art. She has learned the lessons of his Tradition better than he lives them.

After all of this, the narrator can still say no more than that "I was suddenly overcome by a sensation of–how shall I describe it–being adrift in the strangeness of other people's lives," feeling that "all this emotion alarms me" and "strikes me as somehow undignified" (228). In his frustration, Tariq Mia pulls out his ultimate story of Naga Baba, the ascetic of a sect respected and feared for its extraordinary powers, acquired through long years of penances and training, and the little girl he saves from prostitution and to whom he spends years teaching the songs of the river. This story ultimately exceeds even the old mullah's understanding, because he cannot understand why Naga Baba left Uma to become a famous river minstrel and disappeared on his own quest for further enlightenment. "Maybe it's only an old man's foolishness, little brother. But if the Narmada was born from Shiva's penance, then surely Uma was born of the Naga Baba's penance. Tell me, what higher enlightenment could he acquire by leaving her?" (258).

It is a genuine question in a novel in which Desire has been floated as a sufficient rationale. Having created a minstrel seems to this Sufi singer a sufficient accomplishment, but he has not seen Naga Baba for years, and would not know how to think about his subsequent career as Professor Shankar, "the foremost archaeological authority on the Narmada in the country" and "chairman of the Indian Preservation Trust" (260, 262). The narrator doesn't either, of course, and though he is warmed in the bones by the liveliness of the Professor's young work crew, it is not until after he has been all but melted by a minstrel's performance of the river cycle that he overhears her and the Professor recognizing each other as Uma and Naga Baba.

With an irony that unravels every code for desire, or the life force, except the fluidity and movement and transformation imaged by the river Narmada itself, the Professor finally answers the narrator's agitated questions with his own riddle:

The narrator is a few lives-in-training short of having become a man, although this is no usage according to the gospel of machismo. To "travel through" births demythologizes under the spin of that "ironic smile." It has to do with a metaphorical travel that is nonetheless real, experiential, and that takes him through his own multiplicities, through the Sanskrit literary densities he alludes to at lunch (264-5), through "the unbroken record of the human race" that the river is for him (268), and through "the individual experiences of the human beings who have lived here" (267). The rest is "mere mythology!"

Earlier, ill-equipped by the premature character of the question, we tussled with the split between these two very strongly drawn characters of Naga Baba and Professor Shankar, their names both rooted in Shiva worship. Premature, because the sequence of Mehta's flow subjects us to the seductions of any number of historical and religious and aesthetic forms within which the relation between reality and transcendence can be managed. It is as if we needed to be baffled and confused at times, aroused to desire this satisfying conclusion or that engaging oversimplification.

It may be, finally, that this pure split between Naga Baba and Professor Shankar is the schizoid residue of a culture of survivors that found itself at the bullseye of millenia of imperial ambitions. The utter intensity of the energy that exalts flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, the stars of bharatiyanatyam, the shivite ascetics, and the variously configured "saints" of these stories, was placed in these vessels of excess where the nomadic warriors of central Asia and central London would never find it. The fury of communal rioters, the venality of political poltroons, the obtuseness of A River Sutra’s bureaucrat of narratology–these are what's left when the good stuff has been secreted elsewhere. Is this a tiresome rerun of India, Kingdom of the Spirit? No–because that audience watches only Naga Baba and lumps together modern types like Professor Shankar and the friendly IAS officer.

Mehta's practice is different: despite our difficulty seeing them her way, her Naga Baba and secularist Professor Shankar are the same person. We are no less obtuse than the narrator if we cannot come to some understanding of this narrative trope–this placing of a temporal distance to explain the spatial form of modern Indians. But this is no fundamentalist reversion on the part of the urbane Mehta. We must do more than honor in passing a passage in which Naga Baba turns professorial ("The elegance of his translation made me wonder what he had been before he became an ascetic–an academic perhaps, or even a scientist with his grasp of the botanical terms he was using," 235), or in which Professor Shankar acts the part of the sage ("Minstrels sing about gods and goddesses. I am a man, and only understand songs about other men. The rest I leave to you," 269). He emerges with his intense sense of the human history that is a residue in all these historical forms of belief, not with the arresting distractions of myth itself. Holding the relation between these two is the Indian's art of survival. Resting in one of them, even imaginatively, the way a politico's true believer rests in a saffron daze, is the loss of the bicameral soul to the reorganizing mania of Postmodernity. Inclusive whole rather than exclusive parts, Shankar articulates a demythologized version of the Shivite insight implicit in the half-male, half-female ardhanarishvara, or in the lingam with its phallic totem emerging from the vaginal base rather than heading into it.

The form of the Novel is ill-suited to this project, confirmed as the genre is in the convention of the unitary psyche, the univocal voice in which we grow acquainted with the Style that is the (Wo)Man. And so we are distressed at Naga Baba's return in a different identity, we mark the gap, the schism, and name it the cultural contradiction River Sutra tries to suture. But it is a schism only to a true believer in the Novel–less so to the reader of Ovid, much less so to the culture of tales, great pouches of puranic (not puritan) multiplicities. ... The book is a mirage in its formal exactions, and Gita Mehta has found one of the ways to mirror that mirage artfully enough for us to find ourselves midway between the two, or three, or more. That kind of self is more multiple than the novel has commonly found its protagonists to be, and if we are to shift our thinking to flow along with the Narmada, we must learn its lesson:

There is no going "back" to some simple harmony with nature, as if it ever existed. But Tradition’s vision of inclusive models of both being and doing remain relevant. Speaking generally, narrative provides forms for sustaining the continuous struggle to hold in healthy relation as many as possible of the forces and elements of a people’s experience. Such a narrative may seem to have passed through 84,000 variations along the way before enabling readers to re-enter the world without the illusion of a fixed, singular rule that would constrict a context-sensitive playing of the historical givens. The interplay of A River Sutra’s lush tales and its austere frame succeed in engaging with the nature of traditional Indian narrative and its values without either sentimentalizing them or subjecting them merciless degrading of postmodernity. And that interplay also sets us vibrating the way the tantric Madhubani paintings do and with some of the same intensifying effects even as we find the novel inflecting tradition’s language in postmodern syntax.

Churning of the City

Gita Mehta arrives at an almost Jamesian sense of Experience, though far more charged with life force than anything Lambert Strether really grasps, as what lies behind all the forms of fervor in India. But not many writers demystify Tradition so relentlessly, even if they share her impatience with the anesthetized spirit of bureaucratic man. While she writes about recovering the energy of engagement that has been formalized as mysticism and art and historiography, others redeploy the values and perspectives of Tradition. A short Dogri novel by O.P. Sharma, "Sarathi," is a case in point (Churning of the City [New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1983). From Sarathi’s point of view, what sweeps in with Modernity churns and destroys the city–Indian collective life–and its citizens’ very core. The book is Kafkaesque, for its narrative is both simply told and fantastic. Language is utterly mundane, but events–the mortgaging of brains and eyes for masks, for example–are surreal.

The episodes of this nonrealist narrative work by making literal or external scenes out of concepts and relations. When the neighbor of the focal "he" wants to become a big man, common Indian slang for someone important enough to address meetings, his mahatma rigs up lightbulbs to throw a huge shadow on the wall behind him. To the neighbor’s anxiety that he won’t be recognized as a big man unless the mahatma is there to manage the lighting,

The "great soul" (the literal meaning of mahatma) who has set up shop where a waterhole used to be gives out the waters not of life but of media presence. It "is now part of the charter of development of the city" that the way one is seen by Everyman determines one’s image more than one’s inner nature, real beliefs, or actions.

Repeatedly the protagonist returns home with his neighbor, confused, dispirited, and restless. "In the recent churning of the city," the novel begins, "it had been difficult to make out who were gods and who were demons" (5). The allusion is to the story of the gods battling the demons for the nectar that surfaces when the ocean is churned, with Vishnu the Preserver intervening to be sure the demons fail. There seems to be no Vishnu in Sarathi’s city, and the novel opens by saying "He was no Siva," no destroyer of the city and its regime, just a writer who "had to take poison" from this modern churning. He loses his job to automation (15), his beloved trees to corruption-filled construction projects (14), his belief in politics to the cult of the big man (19), his respect for religious institutions to their commercial exploiters (24), his respect for fellow citizens to their sale of their "essential nature" for the masks necessary to success (26f), his admiration of marriage to its cash for beauty economics (33), and any number of other evidences of the reorganization of life according to the priorities of wealth and commerce. Indeed, it seems that "churning" is what Marxists call reification.

That pervasive social poison causes the writer "sadness" when his questionnaires about nearness and relations make a husband dismiss the neighbor as having "a screw loose," and draw from a wife her sense of being split into two parts, one tired of worldliness, the other choked with desires, and "close to no one" because of her schizophrenia. He starts painting eyes on his posters, trying to see what is no longer apparent in the churning city around him:

He wishes that "people started thinking about the meaning of" all the pieces of this narrative, but he also knows that trying to write or show such meaning may be futile. Even after people start taking over for themselves the right to make their own posters, instead of obediently reading those prepared by the mask vendors, he notes that "whatever was written did not, however, find any correspondence with what existed. Whatever existed as reality did not find any place in what was written on posters" (45). Posters proliferate. And in that proliferation of views and counterviews, no "straight and right" version of "truth and reality" seems in evidence.

The posters began with one paradigm’s repressive message ("a new way to happiness has been found. the way is to stop seeing, hearing, speaking and thinking"–36). They end with a postmodern proliferation of stories in the wake of the master narratives. By the penultimate chapter, we have half-page vignettes of the violent disintegration of relations between brothers, married couples, friends, worshippers. The decay of the social is represented by the man who spends the collective purse making a brain factory that makes people mechanistic nihilists ("Man is nothing ... The machine is man, the machine is god ...."–59). And the decay of the relation between the writer and reality is most telling of all:

He still has the structure of belief in both truth and representation, but it is lost in the sheer multiplicity of the age. Both his subjects and his mirrors, a metaphor intended here with great if unfulfilled confidence, are lost. Life, that is, has a true pattern–no doubt some version or another of traditional beliefs haunting the novel’s subtext–but that pattern is not visible in contemporary culture.

The final segment contains the ultimate loss. We read of a gathering "at the crossing of the roads" at which a series of thefts are reported–of "the pictures which could never be stolen," of brains, of the bundle of "whatever was left of the pride and name and self-respect of my ancestors," of a woman’s road (through life, one assumes). But most devastating is the man who laughs uncontrollably, for "I have lost my ‘I’" and "I myself am the thief" (63), as all are who participate in a churning culture of decodification that takes up such terms not in the older sense of "decode," that of interpreting, but in the ruthlessly postmodern sense of stripping a term of its densely humming roots in the workings of an older art, leaving it, instead, a sign with amnesia. The kind of "I" that flows out of traditional culture’s interpellation of selves is fragmented, multiplied, and reconfigured in this narrative’s mirror works. The writer experimented with ripping up the new culture’s masks (31), and he experimented with posters critiquing the effects of the media-driven simulations that replaced traditional reality (37), but without effect. He has become, as we have seen, a "nothing" who has "lost everything."

As they leave the crossroads, the writer muses, "I do not understand if it is the beginning or the end of the play" (63). Beginning and ending are indistinguishable in his perspective, for the narrative structure that sustains his traditional way of seeing, with its beginning, middle, and end, is displaced by the postmodern babble that is "pandemonium," "cacaphony," in his ears. That babble works like the screen-refresh function of television monitors, pulsing with a continuously renewed simulation that is to be received as representation, as a window upon, or mirror of, reality. Other than the writer’s dismay and nostalgia for what has been swept away, the narrative finds no way to put that lostness into words. It functions as the Unsaid, the absence that Tradition desires as the complement and corrective to the presence of what is.

Once or twice, the book slips into a different Indian voice than that of the narrative artist, into something like that of the Sage. Two thirds of the way through there appears an unexplained, partly cryptic paragraph in the genre of spiritual teaching:

I love the gaps in this teaching, its choice of unexplained metaphors and aphorisms in place of the novel’s detailed representations of social reality. The paragraph is the writer’s commentary on a poster of a reaper of gold to which pursuit all citizens are required to conform. The lesson is about the misrecognition of the needful and the needless, and the loss of those who would arise to stop us all from the poster’s materialist pursuits. But the cryptic, gnomic character of the paragraph indicates how difficult it is to take up the voice of traditional wisdom in the churning city.

The novel ends with a similarly stingy, almost stillborn parable. The writer and his neighbor "started walking–walking on the road which belonged to all but to whom nobody belonged, which joined everybody but was itself alone" (63). Much had been made in his questionnaire about things belonging to people and people belonging to things, the implication being that we no longer "belong" to the world we have made. We have lost the reciprocal relations that bind the traditionally conceived polity together. The road, classic metaphor for the path of wisdom or life, still joins everybody in the common human fate (however differently it may be understood across the panoply of traditions). But nobody belongs to its straight and true spiritual line through the pandemonium of history, and hence nobody belongs even to themselves any more. Sarathi finesses a fusion between the genres of fiction and spiritual teaching, modulating at those points when his narrator is most disfranchised from his role as writer. People spill blood to defend what has no ultimate value, but the writer can barely find the ink and words with which to mirror such emptiness. Such is the state of affairs for writing that is from tradition, in the hybrid zone of fiction writing, and within the world of (post)modernity.

Inside the Haveli

Mehta and Sarathi represent logical extremes in relation to Tradition. Neither, that is, has lost tradition, but they split over whether Tradition is alienated, even excluded, from contemporary reality (Sarathi), or whether its intensities are transmutable within the contemporary arena. Most fiction that finds itself tangled in this relation between Tradition and Modernity works out an even more complicated negotiation of competing, seemingly irreconcilable demands. Rama Mehta’s Inside the Haveli (New Delhi: Arnold-Heineman, 1977) demonstrates just how disturbing such negotiation can be for western readers. Few institutions challenge more deeply our western beliefs in individual freedom and equality than that of purdah, the separation of women from all men except husbands and brothers, and their sequestering in the women’s compound of gendered mansions like the golden sandstone Rajasthani "havelis." The cover blurb begins the assault upon one’s feminist sympathies: "In the havelis of Udaipur, where the story is based, still exists the tradition of women who must justify their presence by upholding the customs of their proud ancestors." We read with increasing uneasiness the story of Geeta, a Bombay girl educated to be outspoken, spontaneous, the equal of anyone regardless of generation or gender. By choosing Bombay as her protagonist’s home, Mehta has taken on the vanguard of westernization and modernity in India and transplanted it to one of the most culturally conservative spots left in upper class society. Geeta’s parents arrange a match for her with Ajay Singh, heir to the second most wealthy and most respected of Udaipur’s three-hundred year old havelis, one under the patronage of the Maharana until his powers were absorbed by the newly independent state of India.

Geeta is no more prepared for the daily realities of purdah than is the western reader. Even the geography of Udaipur epitomizes the problems we face. Inside the ancient walls is the old city, complete with bazaars, alleys, throngs of people, the havelis, and the palace. "The palace with all its splendour was near the humble huts and houses of the people. They looked at the lights and heard the grunts of the elephants and were content. Their king the Rana was there to take care of them" (2). An even clearer indication of how nostalgic the book will become follows shortly after this sense of closeness: "the people in the Old City remember the days when everything was bright and gay, when the Rana sat on his throne and received his people, rich and poor alike. No one in the city can forget those days when Udaipur belonged to the people" (2). In the light of The Churning of the City with its ruptured reciprocities of belonging, we may be able to sense a little how Udaipur belonging to the Rana could belong "to the people," a phrase otherwise indelibly populist for American readers.

It is easy enough to read past this opening description as one waits for the characters to move into place "for the story." But it is necessary for the Westerner to think twice about the passage, neither skipping it indulgently (out of unthinking deference to cultural difference) nor consigning the volume to the purgatorial fires for its unreconstructed patriarchal feudalism. Neither a patronizing pluralism nor a fervent individualist critique can grapple with this narrative in its own complicated terms. Why does so current a book argue, almost insidiously, as we follow Geeta’s life in the haveli, for the value of seventeenth-century social practices? Of what is this unlikely utopia woven? And to what is it opposed?

Most immediately it is opposed to the New City, with its

Note that this road is utterly emptied of the metaphoric charge Sarathi places on his road of parable, and that modern city planning realigns topographical and economic boundaries. The population is a labor force, mercenaries in India’s industrial modernization. Their structuring consists of individual connections to corporate entities, not webs of reciprocal and traditional relationships woven around an agricultural economy. Mewar is a landscape to be consumed, not the presence of a sociohistorical "soul" as sensuous as cowdung smoke.

The "enemy" to the havelis is the "broad tarmac road" of social mobility and economic fluidity. Along its concourse moves the machinery of political and economic change that removes ancient structures like that embodied by the Maharana, lures the talented aristocrats with prestigious appointments and government posts, and displaces the economic base that had supported the feudal havelis. This force remains the barely mentioned Other to the havelis through the novel, but many signs of it appear in the book. They must worry over shrinking budgets for the elaborate traditional entertainments and expensive repairs to the buildings themselves. They are tempted by seductive offers like a chief ministership for Ajay’s father, or a professorship in Delhi for Ajay himself, posts in new social machinery that are lucrative and prestigious. Though both turn down these posts to preserve the haveli, less wealthy havelis feel more keenly the lure of relocating "because of work". All feel considerable anxiety over the inevitability of change and how to manage it (best exemplified in Geeta’s "school," to which we’ll turn shortly).

Hence the emblematic design of the havelis themselves. They "may have no shape from the outside, but inside there is a definite plan" (3). Geeta sees no shape or form to the life when she first arrives as a terrorized bride. She learns that the haveli "expanded through the years but without any plan, it recedes in places leaving empty land, and yet it pushes out in other directions" (3), ebbing and flowing with history rather than according to the gridlike conceptions of the modern township. The "definite plan" is the interiority of a culture behind fortress walls with their high aloof windows and gendered spaces. Allowed no exteriority–female protocol is neither to speak nor to reveal emotion in the presence of elders–Geeta finds her interiority quite transformed from the gay and spontaneous individuality she feels as a Bombay schoolgirl raised by her indulgent and progressive parents. She becomes something the book struggles mightily to convey as a nostalgic, utopian ideal. More communal than individual, her interiority relates diachronically to the continuity of tradition, represented iconically by the six generations of portraits Geeta sees early on when she sneaks into the male half of the haveli. Her interiority is more immediately determined by the chain of command from the grandmother-in-law to mother-in-law to Geeta as utterly unempowered daughter-in-law, barely able to hold her own against the senior servants, let alone Kanwarani Sa or the more fearsome Bhabha Sa. This hierarchical weave of generations of mistresses and generations of servants, complex in its patterning of personal loyalties and power rivalries, is the synchronic pole of communal identity, for the book shows repeatedly the emotional investment everyone has in everyone else’s lives. "There are no secrets; there could be none in the haveli. It is one household, all the courtyards are connected" (4).

This weaving of lives into an interconnected whole greater than any of its parts is the utopian social ideal which the novel endeavors to rescue from our preconceptions about purdah. Geeta, who begins as a resentful outsider to the haveli and ends as its advocate, shows us the transformation of assumptions one must undergo to embrace the ideals inside the haveli. When she first arrives in Udaipur, the shocked women "exclaimed in horror, ‘Where do you come from that you show your face to the world?’" (14). One of the book’s many emblematic moments, this scene makes clear how far away that other world of townships is felt to be. More strikingly, it suggests how thoroughly the women disapprove of the face as a text of individuality, especially since all of them throughout the novel are always trying to study it through the veils they wear even to each other. Such attempts to read a face do not come during those scenes in which the protocols of the haveli are unshaken–the magisterial visit of Daulat Singhji’s wife, Sita’s wedding, or a number of similar scenes in which communal harmony and linear tradition are preserved. But whenever anything like individuality threatens, the reading begins in earnest. Everyone scrutinizes Geeta at the wedding, helped by her slipping veil; the daughters, their mother, and Geeta study each other when the sisters criticize Geeta’s school for maids; Kanwarani Sa reads and is read when she goes to her brother’s sickbed to insure that his will is honorable and fair rather than favoring his second wife’s sons at the expense of the son of his first marriage. These "interpretive" moments are more important in their performative than in their hermeneutic effect: they blank out the text to be read, effacing individual interests by the force of a gaze bearing the communal values and interests. They perform a discipline more significant than the clues they might yield to individual desires and feelings. The effect is to restore the equanimity of the haveli society.

Under such an onslaught of collective will, Geeta early on struggles and falters, flares and retreats, rebels and regrets. She can see Ajay only in the evenings–appropriately enough, he is more a sign than a character in the novel, and he stands for an inactive supportiveness. The potentially individuating marriage is peripheral to a daily round of deference, listening, and chores among the women, for even their spats are monitored through the latticed partitions. "Geeta got no confidence from her college education. Nor did the admiration and constant reassurance from her husband make her feel more at ease" (25). Neither the other world of modern education nor the private world of marriage are of real consequence here, so that neither principal resource by which her Bombay friends could change their lives have any effectiveness for her. Her child is one locus of her resistance:

Fortunately for her, only their servant Dhapu overhears. For her and the other servants, the celebration for Geeta’s baby is "a very special day" for which they have waited "for twenty-seven long years." What for Geeta is an issue of individual determination is for Dhapu a figure repeated at intervals along one family’s line in the Udaipur haveli tapestry. The confrontation concretizes the clash between worlds Geeta lives through as she changes over the fifteen or more years covered in the novel’s three sections. Perhaps she never quite submits to the havelis, for her last great rebellion also concerns her daughter, only many years later when a marriage proposal comes from another haveli. "If I have ruined my life, the children are not going to ruin theirs" (164), and she tells her husband that she can’t "be fooled again. I know nothing matters more than money and prestige to you all" (165). She feels immediately punished, for so individualist a thought, by the communal discipline she has internalized: "the violence of her thoughts sent shafts of pain through her head" (164). For the haveli, the union of the two most distinguished houses in the community is the issue, not whether "my Vijay would languish in that vast haveli" (175).

There is no danger of her husband becoming a factor in Geeta’s confrontation with purdah–men are simply outside the frame of discussion in the women’s world. But her children do become one sign contested between the Bombay girl’s desire to set her own life aright through her child’s and the community’s need to weave another generation of reciprocal relations among its elements. Significantly, though she does not accept the proposal before the novel ends, she has begun to rethink her reaction against it and to see the boy’s virtues.

The other point of contest is education, beginning with the haveli’s distrust of Geeta’s when she marries Ajay, and recurring through Geeta’s efforts to moderate the effects of purdah by educating first Sita, a runaway servant’s abandoned baby, then Ravi, a bright servant boy, then increasing numbers of servant children, then servants, then daughters of the havelis. For Geeta, education has served the modernist function of individuation, and she desires that for Sita and the others with whom she spends hours telling stories and teaching basic literacy. Its modernizing effects are tangible–servants’ children start getting jobs, Ravi goes on to regular schooling, Sita undergoes a positive personality change, and maids begin wondering if they really should stay maids. Rumors and delegations from other havelis arise at the point when the ability to attract and keep servants seems threatened. Those who had approved the ideal of education suddenly denounce it for "undermining our authority and making rebels out of our servants" (134). Pari, the senior servant, is quick to notice the economic underbelly of the complaint: "Their own daughters and daughters-in-law come and sit for hours with Binniji [Geeta]. It’s only the poor that they prevent from coming" (153). Those already literate can get work; they "don’t have to depend upon the havelis" (152).

The matriarch chooses to defend Geeta’s school, but for two reasons that hold her despite her own disapproval of the modernizing effects Geeta and Pari (momentarily, perhaps) espouse: she defends her haveli by reflex from outside criticism of its members (if necessary, she will discipline–but privately), and she must acquiesce in the general approval her husband has given Geeta’s project. Hence while the novel may toy with this sign of modernization, its value shifts almost treacherously. Whatever it means for Geeta or Ravi or the poor seeking economic escape, it is something else within the larger economy of the havelis–a way to make purdah less tiresome to the daughters and Geeta less bored by her fate among them. Indeed, once education becomes an issue of the master’s judgment and the haveli’s reputation, even Geeta discards it. "She had no right nor the desire to humiliate her mother-in-law or compromise the name of Jeewan Niwas [her haveli]," she thinks after her mother-in-law defends her publicly. "The desire to change the life in the haveli seemed to have subsided in her. Instead she said to herself, ‘How dare anyone say a word against the haveli, these classes are not worth having. I will stop the girls from coming’" (136-7).

Nor is this an isolated shift in her valuing of education. Sita does very well, but a good marriage proposal for her includes the proviso that she cease school. Though Geeta rebels at first, she is easily brought around by Kanwarani Sa when she says, giving Geeta credit for insisting upon the education that triggered the proposal for Sita,

Women’s education is to be limited to an asset for the marriage market, just as education of the poor is limited to those the community can afford to lose to the wage forces in the township’s modern economy.

Just as children and education shift as sign values, so too does Geeta’s position as speaker. Throughout the novel she must be the often silent deferential daughter-in-law. On the last page, she takes her mother-in-law’s place as mistress of the haveli. In between, her attitude and position in relation to that finally achieved center correlate perfectly. The more an outsider she is–alone, individuated by her out-of-placeness–the angrier is her resentment of purdah. But the more implicated in its web of relations she becomes, first passively dependent and gradually as more active heir, the more positive her judgment of life in havelis becomes. In Marriott’s terms, her mixing diminishes, her marking dissolves, her match to her place aligns.

Early on she calls Ajay and his gender "pampered" and willing to treat women as "chattel" (45); the women are "no companions at all" but rather "little canaries in a cage who sang and twittered but seemed to know no passion" (69); the rooms "suffocate her" and she feels "trapped" (81); she feels herself "an outsider, an onlooker" to the "fortress protecting them [the women] from the outside world" (93). Throughout the first half of the novel, in other words, Geeta feels her exclusion and experiences the havelis as a trap; her speech is forbidden except in private and her public expressions are diffused into formula and indirection.

In the second half of the novel, however, she has lived long enough to have grown into the web of relations herself; she has scored her successes, performed her obeisances, and earned enough of a place to change the position from which she speaks. We see this most clearly when her mother-in-law defends her school against a delegation of critics. Suddenly,

It would be easy enough for a western reader to understand this as an egoistic discovery of love and acceptance, bought and paid for by her mother-in-law’s defense of her. And with Geeta, this reading may well be part of the story. But I think it far more significant to track the shift of her voice into the communal registers of the havelis’ network of reciprocal and hieratic relations. Those who speak at its nodes voice not the westernized individual self from which Geeta has begun to emerge, but with the resonance of the feudal collective the novel anatomizes.

If children, "education," and "self" are signs that shift into a radically different semiotic constellation, perhaps we can follow more gracefully the shift "male" undergoes as we step with Geeta into the haveli’s world. At the novel’s end she loses her earlier restlessness with male privilege (mobility, special foods) and remoteness (it’s more than a decade before she speaks directly to her father-in-law, and even that is called a "relaxation" of tradition). The great Bhagway Singhji lies dying, the haveli is already mourning, and Geeta reflects in a passage a bit hard on the western reader:

The passage is not quite done with its flourishes, but the identification of the collective with the patriarch and his monopoly of individual subjectivity are two crucial features structuring haveli life for the women. What they "surrender" in order to merge with the communal ideal accrues to the exaggerated persona of the master (though with haveli logic that persona is a role with as little individuating force, as much "self"-repression and control, as much ritual and communal responsibility, as the women’s roles evince). But the master’s role is clearly the emotional linchpin of the structure, the point at which the emotions binding the community are most fully invested.

The novel draws its readers into what the cover self-consciously insists is a "world that is very much a part of India today," seeming to hope that our sympathies will follow Geeta’s transformation of her private world’s crucial structuring agents of family, education, selfhood, and gender. Haveli life is an easy target of Marxist critique–even the characters know that with the forfeiture of feudal estates and the demise of Mewar and its Rana, the haveli’s economic base is gone and only that of the township remains. It is an equally easy target of feminist critique–Geeta’s "proper" western self is fading away at novel’s end as she enters into a bargain of complicity in exchange for the limited power of "matriarch." But perhaps the book can be too easy to use as such a rhetorical target. It is also interesting to consider its efforts to rescue the internal logic of a utopian ideal from its isolation in the "anachronism" of Rajasthani society. As a crosscultural document, that is, it embodies the difficulty even a sympathetic writer has with nostalgia for precolonial models of social structure.

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that, stylistically, Geeta’s resentments and rebellions are more convincing than the purpled swoons of surrender to the haveli, enough bubbles exist in the textual logic to disrupt the equanimity that seems to close over its final pages. Sita’s mother Lakshmi refuses either to speak to her former haveli-mates or to return to the haveli. She achieves an economic independence earned perhaps in part with her body, but it is one she finds preferable to submergence within the haveli. Even after her submission to Bhagwat Singhji’s mystique, Geeta remains unresolved about the marriage proposal that he clearly favors (and recent in the reader’s memory is her sense of a "ruined life"). But perhaps most peculiar is the return of the just married Sita after two days in her husband’s village. She returns with "her head uncovered and her hair flying all over her face.… a dove that had been released from captivity" (196). When reproved for her improper dress, "Sita paid no attention; she did as she liked." Even the mistress’s direct questions are, unforgivably, ignored: "she giggled and ran away. No one could get a word out of her about her two days in the village" (196). Perhaps the blockage of the Word here has to do with Sita’s discovery of an incommensurability between these rival cultures contending within modern India.

Rama Mehta skillfully and meticulously sounds out the culture Inside the Haveli, but that culture’s strength is at best sufficient for survival, not hegemony, its economic base engulfed in the township’s contemporary commerce and politics. For characters like Lakshmi and Sita who escape it, the haveli’s world remains the tightly stitched ground to the colorful figure their lives become as they gain the ability to circulate in the world outside. For Geeta, the havelis seem to contain elements of mutual support and love she finds missing in the alienating, atomizing world of India’s newly "liberalized" economy. Given her emotional agonies during her years in the haveli, given the intensities of her outbursts even near the end of the novel, the nest seems an expensive haven. But all this close tracking of the novel is an effort to attain an empathetic sense of the credibility of that haven for someone who has worked her way into its matrix. The novel is as symptomatic of the collision between Modernity and Tradition as A River Sutra or The Churning of the City. Geeta’s strategy is negotiation, not transmutation or Sarathi’s stunned, understated rant. Her tradition is transformed a bit from within as she takes over the role as Tradition’s voice at novel’s end, the one charged with inflecting its rhythm and phrasings in the pandemonious cacaphony of contemporary debates. Geeta "changes" Tradition, and her version of Tradition can still strike readers as restrictive and minutely legislated. But nonetheless we see "relaxations," we see its rules altered, we see it as a language learned and spoken even by this Bombay girl. She makes it a living and livable structure rather than experiencing the sense of being "nothing" or having "lost everything" like Sarathi’s writer.

How real is the narrative’s vision? Several writers to whom I mentioned this book called it an autobiography. Perhaps it is; I don’t know. But the world it describes certainly exists, or has existed. Tourists today in similar cities like Jaisalmer in western Rajasthan encounter havelis as tourist destinations, their once splendid rooms converted to curio shops. Indeed, I am often haunted by the view back down into the still private quarters of such a haveli, across a sunlit courtyard, to an ancient matriarch lying weakly on a thin mat, still surrounded by attendants of several generations and classes, her tea beside her, her forlorn eyes turned up to the window from which a tourist gazed who had just bought a smoothworn silver Durga medallion that could have come from her own chest of treasures hard-earned from a now long-dead mother-in-law. Mirror to mirror.


Few Indian novels have won such wide respect as U.R. Anantha Murthy’s Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1978), a 1965 novel (a 1970 film) translated from the Kannada by no less than A.K. Ramanujan, used in many syllabi, and one of many accomplishments that have led its author to the presidency of the Sahitya Akademi. Despite its renown, the novel troubles traditionalists who don’t like the spectacle of mercenary Brahmins or of an acharya having sex with a prostitute; it troubles leftists for whom the book fails ever to politicize or historicize its issues; it troubles moderns restless with what can seem a nostalgic return to a premodern era; it troubles feminists frustrated by the absence of any women except withered effetes and sexy shakuntalas; the list, no doubt, could go on, because the novel is, as its translator notes in his Afterword, "a movement, not a closure" in any traditional sense of the term (147). We don’t have an easy answer to a straightforward question; we end, instead, with a protagonist who is on the road, "anxious, expectant" (138).

Anxiety, expectancy … These words signify the crisis of contradictions and the intensity and urgency to one’s attempt to negotiate them. They certainly underlie all the fiction that must negotiate the relation between Tradition and Modernity, contending with the contradictions within each and between the two. In fact, I have thought at times that this novel’s real protagonist was a version of Anantha Murthy himself, traveling into a precolonial idyll of a Karnatakan countryside devoid of British admixtures, and testing out a "modern" existential identity within the orthodox Brahmin discipline of (to recur to Marriott’s terms) an unmixed, unmarked, utterly matched ideal. Meenakshi Mukherjee’s discussion of the novel begins just here with "the author’s attempt to exploit the tension between two world views" (166). She focuses upon "the difficult and uneasy process of transition between the fixed settled order of life and the still inchoate stirrings of self" (167). She pursues the novel as an allegory of an existential form of identity emerging from a static nonexistence ossified in ritual and dogma.

But the novel insists upon several levels of conflict interacting to produce the complicated thematic texture of the book. The title, as the dictionary entry serving as epigraph instructs us, involves purification rituals (consecrating the king, but also any ritual act, including funeral obsequies), and in this novel much purification comes to be required. But the term also more generally means perfecting or refining, and in its associations with "memory" suggests (and this phrase is italicized) "the realizing of past perceptions." Both purification and the full implications of past perceptions are vital to the novel–but first things first.

Purity. For the protagonist, Praneshacharya (from pranesha, god of life or breath, + acharya, teacher), the issue begins with how to maintain traditional Brahminical purity while still managing the proper burial of a reprobate, and then escalates into how he can transform his sterile erudition into a living faith. In this case, he must realize in himself the full living force of the articles of belief he has memorized and debated. For the existentialist, Pranesh’s crisis is how to achieve an authentic self despite the entanglements of his thoroughly defined and relatively privileged position as a high Brahmin pundit. In this case, he must come to understand what he had recognized in others but repressed in himself. Among the "he’s" involved might also be the postcolonial Anantha Murthy, trying to realize the living implications of a cultural past that shapes the present perceptions and instincts of his contemporaries. Such a world is increasingly organized as individual selves defining themselves through their professional and personal achievements rather than through their actualization of collective identities or scriptural precepts.

For readers of the novel, there are three parts to the problem. First is the perplexing issue of disentangling tradition as subject matter from tradition as a way of responding. To realize the extent to which Tradition is a living language for articulating daily life even in these altered times will require that we explore its terms for explicating Pranesh’s situation. Against this finally realized renewal of tradition is the dead identity of Brahmin males reaping the benefits of their positions atop the hierarchy of caste status. Second is the equally perplexing relation between these traditional materials and the existential rhetoric of literary modernism: how to realize Modernity’s international saga of subjectivity at a time when the dominant historical model of that subject is the notorious Number One of consumer capitalism. Third is the yet again perplexing interplay of the timeless time of a precolonial idyll, the specific markers of the 30s or 40s when the story seems to take place, and the subtextual markers of the 60s when this book was written, perhaps during its author’s 1963-66 Commonwealth Fellowship in England, that is, at a time of real mixing of Karnatakan upbringing and cosmopolitan reinforcement of international influences. In this last case, how does one relate "mythic" time, historical time, and individual time?

Murthy’s novel is a complicated thinking machine. It begins plainly enough, with the Brahmins of a celebrated (proud, and a bit decaying) agrahara (settlement) facing a tough choice. If they bury a dead Brahmin reprobate, they avoid the sin of leaving him untended (and can get on with eating and the rest of their routine lives); but if he is considered utterly reprobate and no longer "truly" Brahmin because of his many sins of word and deed, they hopelessly pollute themselves through contact, as they also do if they allow a true Brahmin to be buried by anyone else; aggravating their plight is that word of a mistake in such a matter would ruin their reputation as an especially holy, high settlement, a reputation based on the presence of Praneshacharya, winner of 15 prize scarfs in religious debates. This crisis is complicated by a series of misfortunes that accrue while Pranesh is stymied: he contends with his long-standing rivalry with the victim, Naranappa, who turns out to have died from a plague which begins to spread in the village; he makes love after a day of fruitless fasting and prayer with the dead man’s lover, a beautiful former prostitute; he leaves the village after cremating his sickly wife and commits a series of ritual offenses while he is on the road having a crisis of spiritual identity. His neat, static, apparently stable world goes all to hell, and the novel ends before any "answer" can be dramatized, leaving us to deal somehow with how thoroughly each turn of the novel ripples out both into the plot of Tradition and the plot of Modernity.

These two ripplings occupy the same pond because the "past perceptions" he must face work like those of Oedipus: he does not know himself or the terms and worlds in which he finds himself; his willful ignorance of his key events and decisions rise up to trouble him once a crisis shakes the routine of his preeminence. As in the case of Oedipus, one can think through his life in traditional terms, or translate it into modern existential terms. For example, he married a young girl crippled beyond functioning as anything but a patient. We are a little troubled at the first reference to this marriage: "The Acharya is filled with pleasure and a sense of worth as sweet as the five-fold nectar of holy days; he is filled with compassion for his ailing wife. He proudly swells a little at his lot, thinking, ‘By marrying an invalid, I get ripe and ready’" (2). Later, his confidence is less sure of matters:

But "dharma" now feels like the body of a mother monkey he, the baby, clutched and lost hold of. One could read this as does a rival pundit, as an excess of rigor, and Ramanujan in his Afterword notes that such a marriage might be thought to invalidate the purpose of immersing oneself in the world of the householder, of mixing in the world for that phase of life rather than intruding into it the student’s celibacy or the forest-dweller’s relative renunciation (146). One can consider that the Acharya must now live and feel Vedanta rather than merely performing its doctrines, penances, rituals, and teachings, adding some bhakti to his Bhagavata (fervor, that is, to his scriptures).

Or, one could play out the implications of likening himself to "a baby monkey losing hold of his grip on the mother’s body as she leaps from branch to branch" since "he felt he had lost hold and fallen from the rites and actions he had clutched till now" (75). In this reading, his rituals have functioned, like his marriage to an invalid, as ways of avoiding living his own life, of experiencing the real, of existing. Having made love to the beautiful Chandri, "now he wanted for himself a share of all that" beauty and sexual enjoyment (77). Sexuality awakens the "natural" man, brings him to a break with his inauthenticity, starts him on the road to authentic Being. Are you Traditional, or Modern?

Or consider his relation to Naranappa, Mr. Modernity, a booster of the arts, the Congress Party, alcoholism, sex with shudras, friendship with Muslims, and general free thinking including a devastating reading of why the Acharya and his young scholars like the sexy passages so much (Kalidassa’s Shakuntala, e.g.). "Why had he, the Acharya, objected to excommunicating such a creature? Was it fear, or compassion? Or the obstinate thought he could win some day?" (21). He fears the "rebellious example" Naranappa sets (22), but he is also "angered at the way the man slipped from under his influence" (23). "Let’s see," Naranappa challenges him, "who wins in the end–you or me. I’ll destroy brahminism, I certainly will. My only sorrow is that there’s no brahminism really left to destroy in this place–except you" (23). Does Naranappa function to summon the Acharya into his modern existentialist crisis, or does he prompt the Acharya to shed the obscurations of pride and the will to power and, instead, gain a fully realized form of "past perceptions"?

Chandri is another interesting case, though minor in the novel in her own right. Besides being beautiful, everyone’s sex object, a prostitute Naranappa brought back from a foray into the neighboring cities, she is "an exception to all the rules," a "running river" that "doesn’t dry, doesn’t tire" (44). She is the opposite of the Acharya’s ascetic rulebook, and she doesn’t see her dead lover as a problem for the fine print of Brahminic law, but as "neither brahmin nor shudra. A carcass. A stinking rotting carcass" (70). Since "that’s not her lover, Naranappa," she can get him cremated by a Muslim whom Naranappa had bailed out from bankruptcy. Praneshacharya feels "compassion" for her when they come upon each other in the forest at night, is then "bewildered," then feels "a thrill of tenderness," then "faint," then "hunger … raged," and, finally, "he cried out like a child in distress, ‘Amma!’" (the word means "mother"). She feeds the infantilized Acharya some plantains and they make love. Is she the scriptural fisherwoman who awakens the kundalini energy that can rise and become the power of the gods in him? Or is she the midwife to an existential crisis, gifting him the plantain-phallus by which he discovers his own dormant, smothered individuality under all the prize shawls and sanskrit sloka? Pranesh lives the contradiction between these two ways of understanding experience. Mukherjee reads this encounter as restarting him as a sensuously alive child. The difficulty, of course, will be to prevent in an ignited Praneschacharya a ruthless western-styled consumer self from emerging to use and abuse according to his appetites–a poor replacement for that equally reified ego attached to traditional rituals, knowledge, and status.

At one point, thinking about his competition with Naranappa, he considers stories about sinners and antagonists who reach salvation sooner than the conventionally faithful. "The quicker way of salvation was through conflict" (49), a warning that his way has been too easy and protected to have developed a really knowledgeable sort of strength, or, a realization that he has been such a creature of convention that he has had no being of his own. Tradition or Modernity? There are many passages that suggest the former, as in all the reminders that his present anxieties are karmic results–Putta, a clever youth, sticks to him "like a sin of the past" (106), company clings to him "like one’s lot earned in a past life" (108), and he thinks that "even my meeting [Putta] here must have been destined" (115). Karma is both an instructive reminder (of consequences) and an ethical discipline (of planting positive rather than negative seeds), but only for an individual committed to cultivating compassion and nonattachment. If the child emerging from Oedipal blindness is only a socialized patriarch, then karma degenerates into moral equivocation.

Perhaps the confusion is not so much ours but Praneshacharya’s. Murthy’s postmodern child, he calls with equal frequency upon existential notions to guide him through his crisis:

Against his version of Brahminical Altäglichkeit (everydayness) he risks an assault upon the known, a venture into chance, an acceptance of what comes. "To be, just to be. To be; keen, in the heat, the cool, to the grass, the green, the flower, the pang, the heat, the shade" (83), burning with a hard gemlike flame under a peepul tree. But Murthy does not allow this existentialist hymn to finish without a spin into classical renunciation of ego and desire. The very next line reads, "Putting aside both desire and value" (83). Such nonattachment (both to ego’s desires and ritual’s value) is tradition’s authentic ground for compassion rather than the patronizing condescension his ego feels for the poor prostitute whose patron has just died. He finds himself truly at the crossroads of tradition and modernity, confused as the authentic form of each contests the other’s inauthenticities. That is, the spiritual tradition, faced with the modern’s consumerist, exploitative mastery over others, asserts its own value of relinquishing the modern’s egocentrism. And the responsible existentialist strives to escape the dead weight of empty ritual and static social identity. Each positive form is continuously liable to turn into its own negative alternative.

At times, the rhetoric becomes so specifically existentialist as to upset the balancing act of tradition and modernity. After testing out the theory that he’s not responsible for sinning with Chandri because he did not seek it, he reasserts an existentialist ethic: "Even if I lost control, the responsibility to decide was still mine. Man’s decision is valid only because it’s possible to lose control, not because it’s easy. We shape ourselves through our choices, bring form and line to this thing we call our person" (98). At the end of the novel when he anticipates explaining himself as a "new man" to his neighbors, he distances himself from a theological frame for his change: "When I tell them about myself, there should be no taint of repentance in me, no trace of any sorrow that I am a sinner. If not, I cannot go beyond conflict and dualities. I must see Mahabala [a college rival who abandoned religion for sex]. Must tell him: only the form we forge for ourselves in our inmost will is ours without question" (135). Shaping ourselves through choices, forging our own form, these are heady notions about "leaving the ghostly stage behind" (123).

Note how this language doubles modernist existentialism with traditional wisdom, however: "beyond conflict and dualities" could take you to atma, pure soul, or to the Sartrean zone where existence precedes essence. The "ghostly stage" is clearly one of confusion and inauthenticity, but neither its precise terms nor its actual achievement are at all certain. The quoted passage, after all, ends with "Perhaps," and he also calls himself "a lost soul." Lost to Tradition, adrift in Modernity, not yet accustomed to the self-creating mastery of the modern? Or confused by his own timidity and theological oversimplifications, and very much needing the reality check of an engagement with the world that tempers the soul and transforms precepts to wisdom? Ghost of self, or of religion? He feels tortured by "conflict and dualities," as we saw above, and he wants to "escape this ambiguous Trishanku state" (101) suspended between heaven and earth. Perhaps we are ready just to dismiss him as whiny and duplicitous, throwing up a theological smokescreen around his neocolonial self. But in order to find our way through these perplexities, let us read further in the passage that began with shaping "ourselves through our choices":

Quoting at such length samples the degree of confusion he feels and his scholarly habit of conceiving it in relation to sacred literature. To be "in the ocean like a river" is one classic metaphor for moksha, the formlessness beyond ego (as we remember from Kakar’s summaries). To reach it by "living through" contradictions and dualities is the tantric way of transforming rather than renouncing the passions. To transform the passions is to capture their mutual resonance, the way his college friend Mahabala did through music rather than through Praneshacharya’s logic or philosophy (99), the way art works, as I’ve argued: the vibration that includes all ways rather than leaving them as exclusive parts. On the other hand, to renounce the physical as in the ascetic tradition is to attempt to remove the distractions of the material realm in order to approach through the relative formlessness of the meditative life. These alternatives are related to what we earlier saw in the fast path through conflict versus the slow path through conventional faith and ritual. Engagement and equanimity have both their religious and their existential forms, and within each, both authentic and devalued possibilities. Dharma’s subtleties abound.

The argument becomes delicately theological, but it hangs on the belief that ultimately both paths can lead to moksha, both can encounter the formless beyond these paralyzing dualities, thus offering different means to different temperaments. The "normal" Brahmin gets a sort of homeopathic dose of the tantric by living through the householder’s stage of life, living in the world without becoming of the world, and then passing through the dharmas of the forest-dweller’s retirement and finally, perhaps, the sanyasi’s complete renunciation, full circle with a difference to his celibate student youth. From the perspective of Tradition, Praneshacharya is none of the above, however much he conceives himself in traditional terms, and he is thus very much a "lost soul" caught by the illusion of "dualities." It seems appropriate that the melodramatic scene of self-advertisement, about which he is "anxious, expectant" in the last sentence of the novel, will not take place (the Brahmins have fled the plague, the body is burned, no audience remains on the rat-infested stage): Praneshacharya will need a few more shocks to his system before he roots out his pride and delusory ego with enough rigor to attain genuine wisdom. Both his ritual habits and his emerging modernist egoism block that attainment, clearly, and if we can hope that the positive phases of tradition and modernity might synthesize a new authenticity for him, we’d better also fear that consuming (mere) ritual and ritual (postmodern) consumption may cancel out his sense of expectancy.

We must apply what I’ve argued about how art really works if we are to come away with a rich enough sense of how the existentialist and traditional readings cohabit these incidents, a vibratory pair of soundwaves that we’d like to see aligned rather than as tragically discordant as Pranesh plays them. Praneshacharya weaves in and out of his traditional terminology, perhaps ultimately to embody their best insights, but he also has the existentialist idea of an uncharted path that leads him on a genuinely open adventure of continuous self-creation. Such a modern self becomes first conflicted, then doubled, then decentered and multiple, then ludically postmodern (if it escapes being compressed into the mass subject of the simulacrum), flowing like a Heraclitian river into the ocean of Deleuzian becoming. Praneshacharya is at best a clumsy negotiator between the claims of the normalizing culture around him and the drive to find lines of flight upon which to elude the prison house of social language. He keeps wanting to "go away now, undetected, unseen by any familiar eye" that might call him back to his familiar identity (101) or hold him accountable for the social implications of his delinquencies.

But at least he knows that "in this search, everything gets tangled up again" (100). He realizes that he is a thing constructed in whichever set of terms he uses. "Look at it, one is twined with the other. From Mahabala to Naranappa, from Naranappa to my willfulness, the holy legends I recite, their effects, finally the way I lusted for Belli’s breasts myself. The form I’m getting now was being forged all along, obliquely, unknown to me. I doubt now if even the moment I united with Chandri came unbidden. It must have been the moment for everything within to come out of hiding" (101). By both readings he was ignorant of how he "was being forged all along," by both readings his intensities are transmitted through these sublimations, by both readings he is shaped by forces that slip beyond conscious mastery and that can only be understood experientially, by both readings he is on the road, something of a refugee from the conflict between the decoded social subject and the authentic open subject of tradition’s spirituality or modernity’s insurgent self-creation.

By both readings, a sense of the self as a static essence gives way to what we’ve called "formlessness" in deference to traditional terminology, but which is more like a sign in the diacritical model than anything westerners are comfortable attaching to "self." This form of form seems formless to someone for whom form seems like a rock, like the one thing or the other that Praneshacharya keeps wanting to settle on. But to become the bucket shape of water in the well, but without the bucket, is to achieve so radically existential a self that the Modern and the Traditional almost touch. Inside the Haveli positions these two readings as a timeline along which Geeta begins to "resolve" the difference. Samskara sticks with the very individualist focus of Geeta’s Bombay youth, but, like River Sutra, these two planes are arrayed spatially–perhaps as mirrors of each other–as Murthy thinks out the contemporary inflection of tradition within modernity.

If we feel suspended between two readings, two kinds of time, two prefixes (pre- and post-) to "colonial," two (or more) of any of these resonances with which we began thinking about this novel–we repeat Praneshacharya’s confusion, we perform his crisis, we restage his drama. Both Ramanujan and Mukherjee are at pains to wrest this novel away from traditional binary reductions, and at times the effect is to leave room only for "the pain of transcending one mode of existence to go into another" (Mukherjee 183). But transcending may be misleading. I don’t think the contradictions Pranesh finds between order and fluidity and between tradition and modernity are the kinds of contradiction one either resolves or transcends. The novel ends with Pranesh still on the road because these contradictions are ones you can only negotiate, resisting closures to keep open the margins to fluidity, to continuous and tactical change. Tradition would place you in but not of the world, compassionate but not attached. Modernity hyperdevelops the ego, making it a nomad across the corporately owned and maintained landscape, eluding the slow death of the settlements. Pranesh has neither surrendered his old Brahminical ego nor owned up fully to the difficult art of shaping ethically his modern existential self, and so he risks the least enlightened of both modes.

The more richly we think this knotting together of traditional and modern themes, the more we find ourselves within a most inclusive whole in which "one" is "twined with the other," each rings (with) the other, each vibrates with its others through a logic we approximate a bit clumsily in English. I find it interesting that A River Sutra and Samskara both animate the traditional storehouse of stories of wisdom for the dubious benefit of a relatively obtuse narrator who nonetheless feels sharp anxiety and even crisis, as if that obtuseness were a figure for the extreme difficulty of negotiating this historical crisis in the relation between tradition and modernity. It’s also noteworthy that both books create a living present for the mythic past, inflecting Tradition within a very troubled, fragmented, dispiriting (post)Modernity–inflect it differently, yes, but as a living language that is neither as moribund as the Acharya’s recitations nor as devalued, decodified, as Mehta’s focal character or the buffoonish cartoons with which Anantha Murthy peoples the towns and villages along Praneshacharya’s route. Neither show naivete about how easy the project is. The task is daunting, and these novels we’ve encountered struggle, anxiously, to insinuate the resonance of Tradition within a sobered sense of modernity. Pranesh demonstrates that within both tradition and modernity, one finds versions of the rigidities of the orthodox and the formalist engaged with the fluidities and formlessness of the non-attached renunciate and the postmodern nomad.

If this is beginning to seem complex, perhaps a chart will help visualize the positive and negative forms and the active and "passive" versions within both tradition and modernity (although true equanimity is anything but a passive achievement):

Positive Form

Negative Form
Tradition: Compassion; tantric trans-formation Modernity: the existential adventure of self-creation Tradition: Social etc privilege of high status Modernity: Ego’s economic & political power Active Version




Passive Version
Tradition: Non-attachment, meditation Modernity: Nomadic dis-engagement Tradition: Dead ritual, habit Modernity: dull consumer masses


Murthy’s development of Praneshacharya’s case history is not without its problems. By making Pranesh’s crisis turn in part upon a sexual encounter, he reduces his female characters to mere functions in a males-only drama. By removing Chandri from the scene so abruptly, he costs Pranesh any chance to learn what a human relation might teach him about decentering his very male ego. Even his series of agonized rationalizations, as dutifully as we try to see them within the larger dynamics of this chapter, seem whiny and self-indulgent at times. Murthy is almost wicked in how thoroughly he embarrasses Pranesh by reporting each way station in his thinking in all its self-serving excess. One can imagine readers for whom the novel is simply destroyed by these hard stonelike egos, appetitive, narcissistic, and quite unreflective about their privileges as males and Brahmins. If Modernity’s existential ego is one of the contestants alongside a renewed tradition, so too is a psychopathology wrought by a sort of protestant Hinduism, all rule-books and guilt-tripping, all displaced libido and convoluted ego driven to seek imperial mastery over slokas, rival debaters, shallow fellow practitioners, caste inferiors, and women. By this reading, perhaps finally a chokehold on the existentialist strand, Pranesh’s journey is more evasion than struggle, more intellectualization than insight, more a frightened glimpse of the demands of dharma than the compassion or generosity of spirit to embody it. Perhaps Pranesh will remain childish rather than childlike, male rather than androgyne, and a benefactor of unearned privilege rather than a mahatma, a great soul. If Murthy means us to recoil from the reified stasis in which Pranesh’s categorical logic still holds him at the end, then perhaps we can hold Pranesh to the novel’s best, most enlightened promise of a wisdom that can let go of the refuges Pranesh’s ego seeks in principles and identity and privilege, each of which categories bears on our next chapter which makes explicit their sociopolitical dimension.

What is certain about Murthy’s novel is that it shows Pranesh failing as long as he rests in the despotic or imperial ego encouraged by the socioeconomic reification of, respectively, Traditional and Modern sociality. It has been a struggle to read this novel because tradition and modernity are each among its dimensions, each itself an interplay between authentic being and reifying social and economic forces, each of them clashing, complementing, undermining, and above all confusing each of Pranesh’s attempts to avoid repeating the tragedy of Oedipus. Pranesh has let his spiritual father die into prideful ritual without acknowledging his hand in its demise; he has slept with an earth mother without recognizing either her or his own lust’s progress from sublimation to eruption and back to pathological repression. And he has brought ruin upon his house and city by his obstinacy and egoism. By allowing this ruin to unfold, by playing despot to his own tradition and imperial or even neocolonial master to his own modernity, he has complied with precisely the kind of subjectivity which reproduces the conditions under which Vedic reciprocity degenerates into hierarchy, androgyny into patriarchy, humanity into opportunism. This individual drama, shot through as it is by betrayals of equality and inclusion, is, ultimately, as we see in the next chapter, also a social drama, and may even be the central fable of postmodern politics.

How does one wrest subjectivity away from the form given it by the modern state? That indeed is our next point of departure…