"Sit down, little brother. Don't abandon me to my students yet. The young believe they understand the world. My games are for older men." (The River Sutra)
"The garden is like the inside of a bubble, nothing and no different. It's worse than a cloud of desire; it lures by its absence." (The Other Garden)
"May I never rest my head again upon a shoulder that does not quiver but a little under a patina of untruths, let my palate never be soothed but by the grazings of tongues thick with secrets, let my lust never be quickened but by the sheen of deception upon trembling eyes, may you all thread my tale with intoxicating inexactitudes, may the glass of my coffin sweat beads of imposture, may a tissue of lies be my shimmering shroud." (Moonlight Into Marzipan)
Mirror to Mirage
Mirror to Mirage ... the idea that fiction is not useful for the truth of its reflection of reality. In India, one will find those "canceling" each side of this chapters titlethose poststructuralists critiquing with gusto the "mirror of nature" brought by the imperials and burnished by the babus, but also those who cancel nature instead with some avatar or another of the ancient ambivalence to Maya, that salacious veil of illusion that slips an ankle, juts a hip, tosses a head, to fixate us upon the lay of revelation and concealment, that weds us to successive births in samsara as we try again and again to take the sheen of its skin as our destiny. The games of those no longer young, the lure of absence, or the intoxicating inexactitudes of untruths, secrets, deception, imposture, a tissue of lies...
One also finds fiction that works between mirages (of representation, of reality), and concerns itself as something between a mirror representing Indian experience and a mirage warning us off any easy credulity in someone else's glittering surfaces (or shimmering shrouds). To study how this fiction works we read English, Marathi, and Hindi, but we are also shadowed by the Malayalam story with which we began and many others along the way. For these fictions are the most taxing, asking us to invoke both sides of our now internalized cultural divide, to bring into play the further dividings from these sides, to use our footnotes and parentheses to maintain our balance as these fictions transform our moods and the very character of our response to writing.
We begin with Sunetra Gupta's Moonlight into Marzipan, a novel of alchemy, of the relation between the gently real and the discomfiting mirage, the latter neatly imaged in the miracle transformation that defeats the material sciences, requiring circumstances almost unique in order to recur. Next to that I place the Marathi stories of Vilas Sarang, stories so understated in their narrative style and their quotidian material that we risk utter deception as we stand staring into them. Their quiet surfaces ripple and roil into eddying subtexts when we take these stories not as mirrors but as mirages, a kind of fiction that makes Reality the least interesting of the details before us. Then we move to the intricate resonances of Githa Hariharan's Vasu Master, a game with ourselves as the stakes, the playing of which takes time and which also restages this book of mine, chapter by chapter, as we work through the novel. Vasu Masters therapeutic narratology allows us a passage through mirage quite different from other responseslike halting in despair that the mirage is not real, or believing, disastrously, that it is. A few musings on other works will round out these explorations of how to think about fiction once it passes from mirror to mirage.
Moonlight into Marzipan
Sunetra Gupta's Moonlight into Marzipan (New Delhi: Penguin, 1995) is a densely poetic book about a young Bengali who is brought to England by the wealthy Sir Percival Partridge to develop the process he stumbles upon in his garage laboratory, a process in which sunlight is turned directly into food; during five years of frustrating inability to reproduce his results, all the lives around him fall, more or less, apart, until his return when, alone, he does manage the trick again by using the matching earring that fell five years before, by accident, from his wife's ear into the laboratory brew. "For five years," Yuri Sen puts it in his customarily sardonic way, "he has been kept in this chintz dungeon on the promise of turning moonlight into marzipan, and all he has managed to make is molasses out of his life" (41).
Gold into grass, Promothesh calls his process, and it's a neat enough allegory, reticent enough to puzzle us a bit until we've read enough about these characters' lives to know just how to begin drawing it out. There's plenty to distract the allegorical readerthe characters are dense and surprising, the lovely intensities of language almost never misfire, the whole chemistry project stays in the background. But I think gold into grass is an alchemical countertransformation of the raw and the cooked, the soul's panacea and the materialism of postmodernity, desire and death. The magic catalyst, after all, is that rarest of things, the pure gift beyond affording. (It is, to explain, his wife Esha's unearned devotion that enables Promothesh to work, her earring that triggers the process.) The formal corollary of this alchemy is Gupta's exquisite prose styleI kept a special basket, far too full to quote for you, of particularly striking phrases that fall, brilliant flashes, like Esha's earring, into the contraries tensing up in this narrative.
But there's more to the novel than that. "What is the true shape of loss?" Promothesh wonders in the Epilogue, contrasting his reactions to Esha's suicide and Alexandra's death in the rocky hills where she pursued her other lover. It is, I think, the shape of this narrative structure, like incense, like wisps of incense redolent with the spice of metaphor and exquisite in their turns of phrasing. And just so, the lives snuff out, or twine around again in unexpected shapes. Characters are never prepared for the emotions that rise within them, they are surprised, reminded again of what perhaps they should have already learned.
A most minor of examples, though as it happens the book's final paragraph. Professor Robin Underhill, callow ex-lover of the voluptuous Russian Alexandra, takes his grandchild, finally, to the Royal Ballet, buying tickets so cheap she cannot see: "she will find her view badly sliced by bands of old darkness, but the audience will be sympathetic, she will watch Giselle with her chin on the balcony, between the kind knees of a cauliflowered matron, and Robin Underhill, in the shadows, will wish he were dead" (170). All these characters have their views "badly sliced by bands of old darkness," and all of them watch their own lives from the witty, sad, or ironic distances of their own chosen balconies. Like Underhill, however, they will never "solve" their own dark narcissism, nor master for anyone else's benefit the alchemical moment when basic properties can change for enriched lives. Promothesh, when finally he duplicates his magic, has used the other earring without analyzing its alloyed structure: the success is for himself only.
The novel's plot machine is jumpstarted by the excitement of Promothesh and Esha when they "stumble upon the sternest secrets of life" (136). Promothesh thinks "it" is the process, but I think it is the structure of the process by which a miracle ensues when two reactants are brought together in the presence of an unanticipated catalyst. Without the catalyst there is only the shape of loss, that is, absence. Perhaps the catalyst is simply named, after all, is the unexpected welling up of genuine feeling for another human being's plight, and out of all proportion to the calculating egoism rampant among these characters.
This novel is not conceptually daring, one might easily argue, its values of compassion, even love, long cobwebbed in the annals of narrative thematics. But I've placed this novel here in my study because of how far it pursues the logic of self and postmodernity, and, in doing so, alters the timbre of those sentiments. Consider Yuri Sen, for example, Sir Partridge's "pocket Lucifer" (95), labeled by Promothesh a "dark presence," a "pocket Narcissus," "the devil's own apprentice" (8), and a host of other one liners seeking to sprinkle holy water safely around him. As for Partridge's newest focal exotic, a young Hindu "divine child" gifted with complete recall of the Hindu epics and therefore worthy of the status of Mystic Sage despite the incongruity of loving Smurfs, she "stood up and shook her long flowing hair loose. He is the devil, she declared in Hindi, shaitan himself ... he has brought the dark age, kali yuga, upon us" (53-4); Yuri Sen's effort to dismiss her as "a silly old cow" results in his banishment from Partridge's patronage after seven years of elegant loafing. And, indeed, his early role is disturbing; he "snarls" about having to edit Promothesh's memoirs, condemning the latter's prose as "a female orgasm, many-layered and formless" (11). And he is absolutely thoughtless as he plucks the rose of young Anya's innocence:
I put my shawl across Anya's trembling shoulders, raised my vodka glass to her lips, washed them with the palest of fires, and then, without reason, pressed my own cold lips upon hers, felt the sharp edge that divides disgust from desire cutting keen into my loins, she dropped to her knees among the sodden leaves in numb rapture, pulled me down with her, and then, like the smashing of a precious china service, it was over, mercifully over. I got up and began to walk away, feeling no remorse, no release, not even the faintest trickle of relief ... that is how it happened, said Yuri Sen, and my blind seed, scenting perhaps that this was their only chance, and pampered by the unfamiliarity of her blood, found their quivering quarry. (30)
I quote at length to capture the cold distance of Sen's irony and the absence of "redeeming social value" in his action. Anya is sure that as they walk out to a nearby park one evening, she is, a pregnant seventeen-year old, about to be dumped as callously and as casually as Yuri disposed of one Fiona some years before when her lease on novelty had expired. To Fionas tears, his response: "his eyes clear and bright, finally unburdened of cosmic ideals, you take the car, he had suggested, I can catch the train later" (55). We see him turn to Anya when her ineffectual father arrives and say, "Cheer up, funnybones, Daddy has come to take care of you" (42). He is without ambivalence when he says "I am getting a little fed up with all this, to be frank" (47), "all this" meaning the pregnant Anya. And when she returns from an hour of being unceremoniously hidden out in her father's unheated basement, away from the new family he cannot bring himself to tell about her, Yuri asks, "What will we do with her?" (59) as if she were the broken television on which Esha's uncle wanted to view the Ayodhya outrage.
But he does not dump Anya, walking with her there, in the park. All "out of character" with this build-up, he says, instead, "I will never leave you" (78), and fulfills his promise utterly disconcerted by the "hollow tendrils of affection" (147) that come to bind him to the woman with whom he faithfully coparents without loving. Perhaps it is his change (discovery?) of heart that arouses both Promothesh's relentlessly diabolizing imagery for him and the latter's fidelity as nurse during Yuri's illness.
Staying with her, though not loving her, scratching in the dirt of Calcutta to raise organic vegetables for his daughter, puzzled by the affection that grows through the unanticipated catalyst of a child . He starts out not so different from the rest of them, ends better than many, but they are all roiling in the prize-winning inorganic chemist's primal brew, radically decoded postmoderns shuffled intercontinentally beyond all hope of origin, place, or identity. Any image you chooseeven of Sir Partridge sitting before his window listening to Beethoven's Symphony of Springis wisps of loss curling around other wisps of equally pathetic but differently curling losses. And there is nothing but the kindness of strangers to insure that the novel's youngest orphan does, in fact, get to see the Royal Ballet.
This novel seeks the narrative counterpoint to the drastic decoding of Postmodernity, though not by yielding up either contrary of that grass and gold. Instead, it fingers an earring, fondles a child, catches even Robin Underhill in regret and the treacherous Juan Gorrion in a fleeting moment of dedication (sort of) to war orphans, and it does not spare the curt self-pity and isolation of Promothesh in his "final communion with the devil" (164). It suggests the shape of loss in the absence of what we ourselves fail to achieve with the others we chance upon. Though it is strongly marked by the pathos of people scattered within themselves beyond most hopes of recognition, it also delineates moments of quiet contact despite the monsoon floods of disorienting change and the sheer penuriousness of love unexpended.
Tradition remains in scrapsbits of Tagore's poetry quoted here and there, old songs redolent with deaths and other losses, parents and uncles struggling on with their own lessening energies to make meals and homes for a generation lacking the skill. But the prime slice of characters remains that generation for which the global community of postmodernity has meant an explosion of egoism without values. Even Esha, crushed beneath the phallic rush of Promothesh's egoism, as surely as she is literally crushed by the train she jumps in front of, even gentle Esha cheerfully struggling to cook for her husband's seven-member family waiting for her to return from teaching all day and serve them and who shelves her own thesis to help Promothesh write up his research, even Esha turns to him after his self-exculpating attempt to blame her for destroying their blissful Calcutta balance with her ambition: "I do not believe you, said Esha quietly, why, then, did you turn the garage into a laboratory, why, if you had not a secret taste for the kitchens of hell, did you turn that innocent garage into a laboratory?" (82). Promothesh's only response is, looking back, to say "why indeed, but who cares now" (83), grateful that the garage was in good enough shape to shelter the survivors from the monsoons.
Esha can not transform her life, only photograph it, as she does compulsively her last months of life, making a passive record of what has happened as lives "turn to molasses." Esha "would sleep, thinking that if numbers could be so perfect, why not life?" (45)why not, indeed, is the novel's business in tracing the miscarriages of such alchemies. Eshas belief in this order of numbers and the fullness of romance are twin myths of the same cultural father and her anger at Promotheshs egoism aims at that father as much as at this particular son. Alexandra, similarly seduced by a rover, "his eyes packed with lies" (36), is left to die in the rocky hills after being impaled by his "Decameronesque delight" (90). However unadmirable she is, she is so reduced in the relationship as to render their coupling a species of the egoist's onanism.
The geography of the novel is global, but the ground is long since rinsed from characters' roots and swept away as mercilessly as an old man's stiff and plastic-bagged corpse of a rabbit in the Calcutta floods, the same night Anya's baby sounds an unexpected chord in Yuri Sen. It is painful to see young Anya cooking for her elders, questioning the father she sees so little in her life about the mother who has abandoned her after only months spent together. Her mother has rejected her poem, telling her "something as obdurate as language will only bruise your gentle fingers, it is charcoal and garlic where you are at home, ma petite, sketching and cooking, hopelessly girlish talents, I know, but perhaps you can release them from their feeble reputation" (38). It is as bruising as Esha's last drink with Yuri Sen when she brings herself finally to say, "[Promothesh] does not love me," and Yuri replies, "My dear, I imagine he must despise you, ... you have twisted his life into improbable candysticks, you have turned his life into a fairground of deceit, you have made him turn gold into grass, when all he ever wanted to do was to chew the cud" (97). He is allied at this point with Promothesh who, as "dreaming scientist," reaches the state when "suddenly her death seemed distant and small, a necessary sacrifice, an invited martyrdom, her meagre role in a grand cause" (89).
These are eloquent, witty post-humans, in love with their own verbal brilliance and ruthless in their erasure of the impediments of mere relationships. Bad children, bad lovers, bad managers of their own daily affairs, they feed off Sir Percival's largesse, the "manic tenderness" of a sibling hit up for cash after seven years without contact (65), the impoverished cowherd who provides both the supper and the dry hay for Anya's childbirth in, yes, a manger (complete with "and so it came to pass"94). Educated, provided for, even pampered and protected from the harsher vicissitudes suffered by the less fortunate on every side of them, they allow others to care for their offspring, solace their castoffs, sustain their benefactors. They are the generation detached from a tradition cracking and peeling and collapsing like the teastalls and old bungalows in the book's apocalyptic monsoon, and they flow like the molasses by which Yuri Sen describes Promothesh's life, moving slowly, down a hill of self pity and abandonment to unilluminated passions. There are saints of modest pretense and considerable if not spectacular sufferingAnya and Eshaand there are, too, those quietly managing as they can, like the nephew who tracks down his uncle in the night of floods and unburied pet rabbits, Esha's mother who cooks without complaint for the returned prodigals, butlers who refuse importunities and attorneys who get themselves bashed for calling the oblivious pleasure seekers "impervious bastards, couldn't you see [Esha] wasn't just walking out to take the night air" (18), a doctor who wades through flood waters to deliver a child, a cowherd who returns with his own "lentils and rice for our dinner" (94).
They are not this novel's focal charactersthey are easy to miss in the pyrotechnic prose streaming freely from the ever-open mouths of the self-indulgent children of postmodernity. But they are, perhaps, its quiet norm, as muted here as their real-life counterparts are in the pages of India Today or the New York Times. It is they who have found that quiet margin between the era's catastrophic re-engineering of social and personal space and the rigors of simple survival in genuine contact with each other. The novel is the evocation of the kali-yuga within, and if Yuri Sen is the only reprobate who reforms, he, at least, remains a striking antithesis to the egoistic alchemist who can make the stuff to feed the world and "restore Eden on earth" (32), but only for himself, only to confirm his own grandness, and at the expense of one of the world's sweet children.
The novel's other pathetic child, Anya, is invited by Sir Percival to return for a lunch once she has undertaken to resume the abortive biography of Promothesh. Her dream is, as they say, revealing:
Anya dreams that a mysterious captor has covered her body in the finest of Braille, tattooed every inch of her in this inscrutable tongue while she has slept, drugged by violets. For a week he has worked, madly, without sleep, written on her body in an unknown language, wrapped her in the invisible lace, for looking at her you would not know how she was inscribed, holding her even you would not feel the precious weight of these words, only the lightest and lovingmost of touches would yield this vast secret, these thinly etched vowels, the soft swell of each consonant, only the most patient of fingers would know. She knows it will take her years to master this language, she must devote herself to learning Braille, until she is confident that she will understand every word of what has been written on her body by a stranger, long-departed, never seen again. And all this while she will fear every scar, every small blemish that might wipe away his art, she will shield her skin as she might shield her soul, lest some careless encounter with a rusty nail should besmirch his message, splinter his poetry ... (164)
She has indeed been captured in her life, repeatedly, by parental strangers who depart and are never seen, by grandparents who "loved and ignored her, and spoke in rapid Russian to each other, sealing her into a world of her own small selves, the threads of her being working humbly towards coalition, wrapping slowly into a sibilant whole" (39). She has been "taken" by all manner of culturally-empowered figures who nonetheless are the ones to script her in a language of the body "invisible" as her gendered lace, a secret that could be found only by touches light, loving, and patientnot by the hasty abusers and casual dilettantes of momentary care or passion. To be drugged and tattooed is to seem like a victim, as Anya is in many ways; but she also fears for the survival of the message, she shields skin and soul lest this fragile script, her one great clue to being, be lost in the kind of "careless encounter" she knows too well. Between the lines of this "unknown language," in the utter tactility of a script never intended for the eyes of strangers and those who view from the cold distance of egoism, is the secret of a "precious weight," this "soft swell" of a language that "covers" the body the way journalists cover a story, her body finally the repository of her history in however puzzling a language.
She is matter of fact about it, later, when Yuri calls to check on her. "Just perfect, says Anya, I really needed it, the kid really needed it, we went for a walk before lunch, and she picked a flower for me"and Yuri must interrupt her at just such a moment of sweet sharing, "I have to go" (165). Well, we all have to go, and we all have also to find our own ways of learning the secret language by which experiences write us, write the lace through which we see our bodies and our lives, coming into visible form only at such moments as the birth of a child or the curious rebuses of the dreamworld. Such language is the sibilance of our "own small selves," and it is Gupta's catalyst for us to follow moonlight into marzipan, despite all the larger forces uprooting us and scattering us in this inorganic process of postmodernity.
Fair Tree of the Void
The title of Vilas Sarangs collection of stories comes from a Buddhist lyric (a text fed through the translation machinery of a Penguin edition of Buddhist Scriptures, and thence into the hands of this Marathi writer translating these bold stories for a Penguin India title). Theres irony somewhere to be thrashed out in this series of transmigrations, but, for now, the poem:
The fair tree of the void abounds with flowers,
Acts of compassion of many kinds,
And fruits for others appearing spontaneously,
For this joy has no actual thought of another.
So the fair tree of the Void also lacks compassion,
Without shoots or flowers or foliage,
And whoever imagines them there, falls down,
For branches there are none.
The divine intentionality underlying western metaphysics and Hindu theology is absent here. What we think of as "acts of compassion" and "fruits" and "joy" appear without the paternal support which an "actual thought of another" might give them. This tree of knowledge is "fair" but unsupportive to those who need a cosmic father, and its branchless trunk strips bare the luxuriant projections of the religious imagination.
It is difficult for western readers to see phenomena appear and disappear without seeing them signify. In the kind of full and centered universe we imagine, everything must signify, if only in affirming that fullness and centeredness. But if Sarang is respected among his peers for appropriating Kafka, Camus, Beckett, and Borges for his own quite Indian ends, we can also say that these fellow travelers in the demystified, materialized Void must have helped greatly in confirming his own instincts about its fair tree. His fiction is a relentless and often starkly funny passage through the veils of culture, shredding its institutions and discourses and pretensions to truth, and revealing the kind of individual it produces as an alienated and obsessive-compulsive organism ill-equipped for healthy association with others.
Sarangs fiction chips the flecks of silvering off the back of cultural mirrors, and one sees not the anthropomorphic reflections of cultural constructions, but that void beyond the glass which human culture has rarely chosen to confront directly. Hence his collection propagates no new master narrative, western-style, which could serve to acculturate a readership casting about for new norms. The purely political meaning of his work, in its largest sense, is that a network of internationalism can be tapped and used to resist not just specific ideas and historical moments, but the cultural machinery itself. Sarang puts the international avant-garde to work undoing the ability of the mechanisms of popular ideology to replace the Void with even an "Indian" simulation.
I saw him in that role addressing the literary elite of India at the Sahitya Akademis forum on "Indian Literature: An End Century Assessment." Sarang called for "writers who will advance towards new territories" and leave behind "drab, mulish realism devoid of any imaginary spark" (Times of India, 22 February 1991). I think those "new territories" are out in the Void beyond the cultural assumptions which, nation by nation, community by community, we take to be Nature. Whoever imagines them, goes out on a limb, so to speak, "falls down," as Sarahas Buddhist lyric suggests.
I take the key story of the collection to be one that, at first glance, is a "small" tale in the scheme of things. Sarang was a bit surprised that Id picked this one to start with"I had generally thought of [it] as a comparatively minor story," he wrote me, though a "greatly fascinated" film maker had already bought the rights to it. "But perhaps you are right in seeing it as central in a way," he kindly noted. But if we take it to be central, we may be able to tune in to Sarangs thinking about the fair void of new territories. It is a deceptively simple narrative about "Kalluris Radio," a transistor model brought into the life of a hill tribe. The story plays with the radios puzzling voices from not very veiled Delhi and Islamabad, security troops zooming through by jeep to root out such treasonous devices as the radio, and the "boy" who rescues the batteries discarded by the troops because his mentor called them the "testicles" of the technological beast.
It quickly becomes apparent that the literal content of the radios voices is less important than its effects of power:
The box spoke Jattus language, though in an unfamiliar fashion; it used many words that Jattu didnt know. Jattu couldnt follow what the box said. He asked Kalluri, who didnt appear to have grasped much more. The two became absorbed in listening to what they couldnt understand. (123)
The language of urban ideologies escapes them, but they are hooked by an almost molecular longing for what the radio offers, something like a passage into the context and semiotic of a different culture. We western readers are like Jattu, picking up "the box" of Indian fiction and plugging Sarangs batteries into it, trying to understand its "unfamiliar fashion."
The story does more for us than providing a general image for cross-cultural reading. Kalluri, something of a wise man steeped in the lore of rare birds eggs and trade routes into "Shufaristan," begins to listen less to the national radio stations than to the night static:
The supernatural sounds continued in the night and in fact were more powerful then. This was natural, night being the time of the spirits: they took over the box when men retired to bed. Listening to their voices and observing the repetition of many sounds, Kalluri came to believe that they had a language of their own. He felt that if he could make out the sequence of various sounds and their configurations, he would be able to grasp the language of the spirits. If he did in fact manage to do so, what a treasure-house would be open to him! (126)
From human semiotics to transcendental metaphysics is an oft-traveled road in human history, and needing to imagine a language of the spheres is a bit like attributing intentionality and consciousness to the fair tree of the void. We Jattus can see this desire for transcendence more easily in Kalluri than in ourselves
That desire is cultures will to power. Explaining the batteries to young Jattu, Kalluri tells him, "We pick up round stones on the bank of the stream, paint them and turn them into gods; some magician has charged these cylinders with power in the same way" (125). That "same way" is how any cultural apparatus projects an ecosphere of ideas as the nature and truths of its citizens. To this equation between technology and religion we may add, with the arrival of the troops and their concern about Shufrastani infiltrators, the politics of nationalism and its corresponding ideologies. After a nationalistic speech which "scarcely anyone had understood" (129), the soldiers haul Kalluri off as a political agent and disappear over the crest of the hill, imposing "a language of their own" upon his possession of this technological fissure in their nationalist walls. Given the violent and paranoid character of their intervention, the soldiers also take with them any credibility of a culture as "natural," its fabrication of its gods from river rocks and industrialization more like narratizing the static in the void than a "drab, mulish realism" of the spirit world.
Leafing through the collection, one sees the impressive range of concerns with which Sarang engages. The stories are simultaneously surreal and unsensational, compounded of dream logic and the almost prosaically mundane in tone, if not always in event. Which is to say that they mark the disjunction between collective dreamings phantasmal transformations and the Real, the void, which that dreaming must narratize. The pretensions to Truth in religion and history is unraveled in, respectively, "A Revolt of the Gods" and "History is On Our Side." The former imagines all the Ganesh icons escaping the annual Mumbai festival in which they are ritually cast into the sea, the titles indefinite article (i.e., a revolt) suggesting that "gods" operate in an imaginary zone (like night static?) where they are quite routinely in revolt against the complex of needs theyre designed to serve. "I didnt really care," the narrator tells us, "if what I had seen was real or the play of my imagination. To have seen it was enough" (60), quite like the astrologer who dies in a thunderstorm he no doubt supposed was fulfilling his prophecy of the end of time. The neatness of the narrative closure is what generates the energy, not that narratives correspondence to ultimate states of reality.
The title of the other story is the parrots line who dies when forced to watch himself in a mirror and hear a tape recording of his line on historical truth. As a construct, we presume, history is on our side until we see it as a construct, its ideological persuasiveness destroyed by, say, a story that mirrors its sound and image. In one story, religious spectacle is more significant than its truthfulness; in the latter, the historian finds battles from all historical periods invading his account of the battle of Kurukshetra, making explicit the interpretive and intertextual dimensions of historical accounts. The tactic is especially resonant since Kurukshetra is the crucial battle in the Mahabharata, Hinduisms focal epic. But the latter story takes an additional step when its appropriately diarrheic author kills off his visitor as the other killed off his parrot, using mirror and tape recorder to shatter the crafted self of his would-be disciple. It is the latters line that teases in its counterpoint to the parrots slogan. "The solitary one wears his shoes out. The other takes one by surprise at the end, one day or another, a gun in his hand. Whose steps are imprinted backwards?" (80). Whose steps indeed, as he staggers back and collapses at the spectacle of his own image and sound. Both the solitary and his other back out of their respective shrines, and the reflexive exposure of writing as steps "imprinted backwards" from some great cultural intertext surprise them out of themselves. First religion, then history, finally identity itself
Such characters wear out their shoes backing up through time to the end predicated by the limbs and branches they imagine into place on the fair tree. The absurdity of cultural constructs naturalized and believed in becomes even more comic when Sarang plays with gender. In "An Interview with M. Chakko," we read of an ax murderer who has tried to segment his lover the way he found women, supposedly, on a desert islandone could marry either a top half or a bottom half, for whole women were not to be found. The specifics of this gendering are less significant to us than Sarangs sense of the spectacle of gendering itself and its splitting of the individual into self and gendered culture-self. That unhealable divide becomes, in "Anil Raos Metamorphosis" (into a giant penis), the basis for a deadly humorous reading of Indias pre-eminent Shiva cult. Anil Rao wakes up as a giant penis, suffers misadventures bidding his girlfriend goodbye, then heads off to the countryside to become an oracle. After a sudden detumescence, the oracle reads its collapse as a sign of divine abandonment of the world. Sarang, among other things, finds this sort of religion to be a monstrous projection of ego needs, a megalomanic anthropomorphism that takes narcissism to its logical extreme. One thinks of Sudhir Kakars comments in The Inner World: "the Shiva linga with which the adult devotee identifies, thereby possessing its attributes, incorporates the boys twin restitutive themes of bodily perfection and psychic invulnerability" (157). Sarang, however, seems considerably more acidic about egos, perhaps even cultural egos, that take their own notions as the measure of the void.
Religion as psycho-pathology, gendering as the mutilation of the physiological being that culture colonizes, the self as a phantasm zealously held aloof and apart from the wounding process of social assimilation. Culture seems not just duplicitous, but violently injurious, the darkest image being that of a carrion eater: in "Testimony of an Indian Vulture," the high-minded aloofness from "the meaningless complexity of human life" (155) is voiced not by the Brahminical priest but by one of those huge prehistoric buzzards one can see roosting in the trees near New Delhis Lodi Garden tombs. Cultures effects in dividing to conquer the organism are further explored in a cluster of stories which register the psychopathology of individuation in a society.
"An Afternoon Among the Rocks," for example, imagines an arrested adolescent, drifting between a lackadaisically pursued job as a salesman and a marriage he cannot afford to solemnize. He can function sexually only by splitting a monitoring self off as the man in the blue shirt. "I begin to feel Im silently watching myself sitting on the rock. Do you see? Im another person, but Im myself watching me sitting with you among the rocks" (116). Its a feeling that goes back to "when I was nine or ten years old, [and] she [his mother] used to hug me and kiss me" (117), as if he were Sudhir Kakars case history of the Indian male fleeing the "bad" mothers ravenous sexuality (Kakar, 87-103). When this adult superego self comes over and marches his lover off at phallic knife point, Bajrang is rendered helplessly infantile, awaiting the police who are looking for a smuggler (the man in the blue shirt, we presume). Kakar argues that Indian male identity can founder because of its overly intense mothering (itself driven by emotional starvation elsewhere in mothers lives), and the disregard of the boys emotional needs by the extended familys male network, a devastating and sudden shift from smothering to hierarchical aloofness. If Kakar is right, then Sarang has here managed a darkly comic sendup of male pathology.
The police in this story function as representatives of the entire cultural regime, one more explicitly addressed in "Return." This story is a fantasy of the incarceration and torture encountered by a graduate student returning to the omnipresently monitoring and judging culture he has escaped for his eight American years. To transform the many eyes of the extended family and other social guardians into the military dictatorship the story imagines for India is to parlay what Kakar describes as a "heightened dependence on external authority figures" (136) into a cultures feelings of love/hate, need/fear, toward its guardians of Law. Bajrang acts out both the identification with the powerful and the anxieties of the infantile, while Sudhir (in "Return") evidences the latter in his stymied relationships where both friends and lovers are held at a distance. These crises of identity hinge not so much on the conflict between desire and law, as in the west, but between flows of desire and their arrested, institutionalized form (as identity, as police, as State). Secret Police are the dream form of cultural norms asserting themselves against his incipient "difference" from being abroad, its agents lurking behind all the social eyes that watch with disapproval. And psychic doubles split off channels in which the contradictions of desire and (self)-surveillance are played out.
Anesthetized psyches are another result of that surveillance and normalization dragnet weighing down the self beneath the overwhelming mother and ever critical superiors, as if paralyzed between contradictory demands, conflicting desires. One pair of stories dramatizes this enervated identity as lives mediated by letters and by delusions of conspiracies which provide both focus and force to lives otherwise suspended. In "The Terrorist" and in "Letters from Nikhil," the protagonist is linked to another by a bizarre correspondence. The first person narrator of "The Terrorist" writes one who is allegedly a control agent, but who
was getting carried away by his imaginative impulse, and elaborating stories needlessly. I admit that I found his letters more absorbing now, but I was often at a loss to separate the true substance from mere fabrication. I spent a great deal of time pursuing different interpretations of each letter. My own letters may well have acquired a similar character, for I had the impression that J.G. often missed my point. (150)
While on the one hand this might be a demonstration piece for poststructural assumptions about écriture, it more immediately transforms correspondence into solipsism, denotation into ambiguity, substance (of the real) into fabrication (of delusion).
Are we all terrorists waiting our instructions through a channel of ambiguous and bewildering language? Perhaps, but Sarang goes further than this at storys end to implicate the more basic drive to convert marks into significationto imagine branches on the fair tree of the void. Catching himself amid fantasies of cinematic arrest during the curfew of martial law, the narrator finishes the story by exposing his paranoid exaggeration of cultural employment:
But then, as one might either concede the truth or delude oneself utterly in a moment of helplessness, I persuade myself that the thought of being tracked down is absurd, for Ive never joined a plot, have seldom received any mail, and have nothing of consequence in the brown paper bag at the bottom of my trunk. As I spent my life in the south making few friends and shunning relatives, Im living now in the north, stuck with a dull job and caught up in confused dreams of love or freedom, like hundreds of other people. (152-3)
The narrator ends the story by choosing to see his corner of the void as such, and his program of demystification dismisses the circumstantial evidence of any real participation in a political underground, detaches the James Bond signified from the brown paper bag, and floats the signifiers across the confused inner seas of mundane fantasy. We can speculate about the compensatory mechanisms at work, the need to explain his boredom and alienation as part of the larger order of a thriller, and wonder what will happen to him now that he has dropped the pretense that the void has a secret inner fullness.
His admirable clarity about the "confused dreams of love or freedom," the twin illusions of global media concoctions, names the absence of either in daily life, the very absence that sends droves into the theaters to experience them vicariously, temporarily. Fantasy and reality make a less clearly defined relation in "Letters from Nikhil," a story in which the latters missives detail his efforts to cope within a corporate organizationhe slides from initial bravado through increasing paranoia on into collapse. The narrator/recipient himself shifts from his initial failure to remember Nikhil to an oddly bumptious enthusiasm for wanting to shelter Nikhil during the latters supposed stage as a fugitive, and finally to bewilderment. And although Nikhils letters give us a nice reading of an Organization Mans paranoid defenses against corporate invisibility, it is the narrator, bound to a rented room and living for the half-past-ten mail, who is the more interesting, particularly when he goes to Nikhils apartment and finds the crucial Nehru notebook blank, the one that is supposed to contain Nikhils entire report on the confused tangle of Punjabi syndicates and industrial espionage:
I turned again to the last page of the notebook. Was this his own hand? I couldnt be sure of even that! His first letter had a typed signature. Afterwards, I had letters under different names in different hands. Could I swear that all these letters were written by him, were written by one man? If I had shown all the letters to someone and if he had said, Youve written all these yourself, how could I prove it wasnt true? (180)
He thumbs the blank notebook until it is "dogeared," its empty pages holding his attention as strongly as the assemblage of letters he has chosen to see as meaningfully connected, linear in its plot of Nikhils discoveries, and authentic in their singular authorship.
Again, it is a case of assimilating objects as signs allowing one an important role in a drama. The paranoia we find in Nikhil, or the narrator, or both (depending on your reading of the storys end), marks simultaneously the most extreme engorgement of ego but also its greatest fear of dissolution. Culture provides both the semiotics of selfhood and the forces which imperil its integrity, as if signs even in the form of individuals were made to burn in the socioeconomic furnaces. Our narrator, after all, lives alone in his room, focused on the daily delivery of mail, anxious about sleeping at night, cut off from old friends, apparently has no life outside, and only occasionally busy at his craftmaking paper bags. Letters from Nikhil arrive erratically, with gaps of months between them, the mail mostly containing advertising for a doctor who used to work in the room. Assuming Nikhil and the narrator are different people, they are mates. Exaggerations of urban workers by degree rather than kind, their pinched lives fuel intense needs for significance and order in a world made neurotic by the corporate economy in which Nikhil tries to function.
Perhaps ultimately the point is that cultures anthropomorphism is itself a paranoia at odds with a more ecologically conceived Real. By "ecological" is meant a vision of the void in which fruits may appear, but not as the branches of intention and individualized giftings excluded by Sarangs epigraph. For man to be a material organism in an interdependent physiological web is a kind of being difficult to conceive for those of us socialized to a more imperial form of ego. These narrators, their balances tipped to the dysfunctional, no longer respond efficiently within the usual stimulus-response loop of the culture, but they retain the cultural machinery of that loop in its most disabling and pathological form. The serenity of the materialist Buddhist of Sarangs epigraph is incomprehensible to someone who has found the culture loop empty, but is still attached to it, invested in it, as the deepest spring of his being.
So it is too with the narrator of "Spider in the Clock," an inmate of what seems like a massive bomb shelter, who is fearful of walking down the dark hallways outside his room, except in dream, lest "self" disperse and be lost in the undefined and the unknown. The story plays the cultural world regulated by clocks, lights, and canned food supplies against a mostly absent world of sunlight (present only on a cans label), open space (some distance away "on earths surface"), and death (he must labor to conceive the difference between a dead man and a stopped clock). His alienation within his sim-world is so complete that when the alarm goes off at the end of the story, he cannot tell whether it is a "death-knell" or a "clamouring: Arise, arise" (88).
"Musk Deer" imagines society as the bondage of beggars to a ruthless chieftain who polices their earnings and their attendance records at their duty stationsnot a flattering image of the political and economic spheres, and a bit reminiscent of corporate monitorings of the computer duty-stations of employees. The title character is a gofer, almost an enforcer, who becomes increasingly convinced that one of "his" beggars is in fact his long lost older brother, and he plans to escape from the city and take Narayan back to their childhood home, "a picture [that] flashed before his eyes: the sea at one end, then palm trees, a house, chickens clucking in the courtyard, a lane" (28). This nostalgic utopian vision is aborted in a pool of blood in the back of a taxi. His "musk," as it turns out, is a stench from an abscess in his navel that, upon bursting, feels "as if a thousand lotuses were blossoming at once within his navel" (28). The story ends at the hospital, but the religious resonances of the lotus-born with the birth, abortion, disease, and pheromonal connotations of his musky abscess, verge on the starkly comic. Given that the navel is the point of primal knotting of soul and body, we may think of his bodily pathology as a many-branched metaphoric tree, cultures wound upon his body. He may die from its invasiveness and its multiplicities, but its fibrous mat entangles religion with sexuality, bodily with fraternal blood, the economic network of beggars with the utopian impulse in nostalgias of place and relationships.
In a footnote to the storys second paragraph, Sarang explains that "Musk is produced in a musk deers navel, and the popular belief is that the deer roams about in search of the origin of the intoxicating scent, not knowing that the scent rises from its own navel" (15). One is reminded of Nietzsches parable in which man "finds" the metaphysical needle he has previously hidden under his textual haystack: Musk Deer, the character, seeks in his experience an "answer" to what he has internalized from his cultures repertoire of ideals, its channeling of invested energies, its often brutalizing social and economic forms. From the perspective of the fair tree of the void, there is no such answer, and these branches of culture are just that rather than connected in a singular arborescence of ultimate meaning.
"An Excursion" models the aimless wanderings to which were doomed by these absorbing but contradictory branches of culture. Its narrator begins by telling us of his tendency to delusion; driven to wander by the illusory sound of airplanes, he seems psychologically transfixed by the desire for the planes lines of flight and a paranoid fear of war. He emulates the former in his desire to walk long straight lines across the city, and he enacts many versions of the latters symptom of an insecure egohe interprets moving lips as someone speaking to him, he is dismayed to discover "that teeth, which looked so firmly embedded in the body, were just clinging precariously to our flesh" (36) as a classic image of disintegrating ego, and he draws the sun god on a bit of paper that fluttered down onto his balcony to reclaim his fancy of "God in heaven, writing a poem, or drawing up a legal document, not happy with the drafts he was making, and tearing them up" (37). He has to reclaim the vision because he discovers the pieces being dropped by a little boy a few floors above him, and the vision matters because it puts trees and branches on the fair tree of his void, even if they are rough drafts about to be discarded.
These anxieties and the restlessness to somehow outpace them sends him out on An Excursion. He finds himself helping an old woman carry a bundle back to her flat where Chimu, a little girl, has decided to emulate her mothers death. She cannot be placated until he carries away a new doll who becomes the (at least) third in a chain of signifiers for death. Back in his own flat, the doll becomes a focal center in a way that the living "can hardly be the centre of anything" (42). Similarly, he has "this nagging feeling that I hadnt returned home" rather than having successfully, as he had intended, returned home without retracing his steps exactly. That is, he has not coincided with himself, but, like only the living, can "never keep still," can never return to a home as the same being that left, can therefore never return to a home that is the same one that he left. Only the inert (a doll) and the dead have that fixedness and stability.
Another metaphor of such flux is that of lightelectric lights switch off suddenly and completely, whereas natural "darkness increases only to a certain point, beyond which it cannot grow at all" (42), only hang in a liminal state till dawn turns the movement back towards light again. If the dead are thus the only fixed conceptual centers one can derive from humanity, if ones living self always changes in the course of experience, if "natural" light and darkness is always liminal and relative rather than absolute, then this story follows its narrators borderline of madness, one perhaps akin to Nietzsches, to a recognition that goes beyond good and evil, beyond Man, and beyond the fixities of fictions (whether metaphysical or mundane).
What does it reach? A void in flux that is as compassionless as it is fruitful. Sarangs fiction finds the self blossoming on the edge of pathologies, one of them our own credulity in the fictions we have made, the others those of the not quite sane ones who, though they have fallen down enough to know that "branches there are none," still prefer the fiction of a supportive Tree of Life promised by most of our cultural mythologies. The fairness of the Real tree, that of the Void, perhaps comes only from the light struck by the writers flint against the wall of Platos cave. Is culture a machine for transforming night static to spirit voices? We come back around to "Kalluris Radio," and the suspicion that Sarangs fiction is one of the most complete arguments we might encounter for seeing the mirrors forms as cultural mirage, one that includes, of course, ourselves as we look and write.
The Ghosts Of Vasu Master
Given the rootless, devalued, decoded lives in Guptas narrative, and given Sarangs austere confrontations with the void, where, one must wonder, can one turn for ways of thinking a recovery from this pervasive sense of lostness, these intimates of mirage where we might have thought wed benefit from a mirror of self and knowledge, if not necessarily from a window upon enlightenment. Its not clear that what Guptas characters finally see of themselves will help, or that Sarangs protagonists can return from their encounters with the Void to some renewed engagement with the world. These works have taken us past the banks of Mehtas Narmada, past Roys History House, past the humanist hopes of Anand or Salammas receding contact with militancy, past the securities of another Mehtas Haveli of tradition, past the hopeful moments of emerging Dalit self-consciousness. Weve achieved a rich density of perception of what we find by playing out all these possible analogs of the mirrors at hand, but we may need some detailed help to know, finally, what to do with our perceptions.
I would not try to argue that Ashis Nandys The Intimate Enemy is the whole truth about the "loss and recovery of self under colonialism" (his subtitle), because I also think someone like Aijaz Ahmad is a vital guide to the recently colonized academic state of "postcolonialism." Of the many one might choose, perhaps the following quotation makes clear why Nandy is helpful when one begins picking up novels and figuring them out:
[C]olonialism colonizes minds in addition to bodies and it releases forces within colonized societies to alter their cultural priorities once for all. In the process, it helps generalize the concept of the modern West from a geographical and temporal entity to a psychological category. The West is now everywhere, within the West and outside; in structures and in minds. (xi)
History is not segmented into homogenized periods (colonialism lives within); neither the colonized nor the colonizer escapes damage, and each has his/her symptoms as well as strategies of resistance; neither West nor East can be thought within any list of neat binaries, each having its own version of whatever you might first want to assign the other. His colonized Indians, for example, arent "simple-hearted victims of colonialism" but rather "participants in a moral and cognitive venture against oppression" (xiv), an oppression that takes place "in structures and in minds" as well as in official state apparatuses.
The oppression persists a half-century after formal Independence, though the "moral and cognitive venture against oppression" now targets such structures not only in their literal colonialist forms, but in their postmodern forms of reifying capital, the virus of new media, and intense domination by Japanese, European, and American interests. Weve seen the cost of that domination within individuals in Guptas gallery of casualties, just as weve seen the west everywhere in Sarangs work in characters who nonetheless are, finally, engaged in a "venture against oppression" in its postmodern, postcolonial form.
But what does one do in such a situation, and how. Ahmad dismisses Nandy in a footnote as a "neo-Gandhian" (Ahmad 321n8) and elsewhere hurls terms like "obscurantist nostalgia" and "idealized indigenisms" (Ahmad 240) towards those who want to make use of tradition in some way or another. But clearly Nandy thinks tradition is a valuable resource, if it hasnt been turned into a westernized political device ("the Hindu who announces himself so, is not that Hindu after all," 107). Perhaps making use of tradition is a Necessity, not simply because it is still everywhere you look in Indian life, but because the sociopolitical and economic forces ranged against us are so overwhelming. Finding a way to think both Ahmads and Nandys insights remains a vital crux to our venture. And so we will do our best to conceive a response within the postmodern mirage by reading very closely a remarkable novel by Githa Hariharan which, it seems to me, works in a way that is virtually paradigmatic of what I expect, this month, "postcolonial fiction" to be about. So paradigmatic, in fact, that Ive organized this section with subtitles that mirror my chapters titles.
A Wilderness of Mirrors. Vasu has retired from teaching. Hes toying with writing a memoir about his career. His sons want him to act his age and begin dying. He keeps a journal about the memories being stirred up, and also about his efforts to reach a mute boy with animal fables. We read stories about stories, in other words: someone is always telling someone else a story in this novel, and Vasu comments. He recalls his dead wife uncharacteristically telling a story, her friends stories, the teaching parables of his friend Venkatesans Swami, and other narratives from almost every character in the novel. He tells his journal (us) stories about his sons, the master of the school where he taught, his wife, himself, his dead father (an ayurvedic doctor with his own kind of story), his grandmother. The novel is in one sense about "as I see now," as is often the case when a narrator looks back and fills us (and himself?) in. The Ghosts of Vasu Master include all those undigested bits of life (karma, as he calls it at one point) that have passed through his chronically diarrheic system during his working life.
But even more than this familiar dialog of the experiencing and narrating selves, the story is "about" the shifting in and out of various discursive frames lined up in the novel. There is his son Vishnus materialist frame (Vishnu is all common sense, bent on preserving a rational empiricist pragmatism), the very predictable spiritualism of Venkatesans Swami, the political activism of Gopu. But there is also the world of the animal fable (especially Vasus ongoing serial of the Grey Mouse), his wife Mangalas ghost story, her friend Jameelas wordless tapestries and her own fable, the memoir Vasu is writing of his career as a teacher and his more personal autobiographical musings, his fathers ayurvedic (medical) lectures, and, powerful in its absential character, the young Manis muteness, the Great Unsaid of the book.
Let us try this another way. Githa Hariharan finds herself at the nexus of the structures of narrative, education, gendering, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. All of her narrators and narratees and characters are conduits for the multiplicity of GHs that cohabit her space at that nexus. As these multiplicities pulse outward through the formal devices of these stories, their interaction performs the many internal conflicts determined by the nexus. The performance dazzles, puzzles, perhaps deceives. Vasu has some things to say about these conflicts, but most of the saying must be supplementary to his own accounting. In fact, Vasu is pretty perplexed by the jumble of memories, stories, and images that seem to come to him of their own accord. He often says "For some reason, I thought of" whatever story comes next: he seems not to know (12). "I am not sure" what different pieces have to do with one another; "I am digressing," he often says (17).
He rarely is, for us, unless we expect the same linear form and the same question-answer rhetoric with which he begins. What we have, of course, is a Wilderness of Mirrors in which the angles of refraction and reflection are for us to chart. Its only slightly disconcerting when he says "but now that I think about it, perhaps the words I thought then, spoke aloud, were different" (28), another recurrent expression that keeps explicit the temporal mirrors of experiencing selves, narrating self, and reader. What he calls "the necessity of reconstruction" (223) means that each of these temporal slices, including the timeless zones of the fables and the twilight zone of the dreams, is a reconstruction of all the others in this "queer junk shop of incompatible scraps" (223). Reconstruction is mirroring with an unavoidable difference.
Near the end of the novel we learn something of value about the deep structure of this wilderness of mirrors in which Vasu feels himself lost, confused, distracted. "Of course, something happened before that. I have to constantly be on the alert, edit, correct my memory which jumps from one event to the other like a restless pupil, if I am to make a coherent narrative" (235). Pupil of the eye, perhaps, jumping from one mirror to another, losing the connections or reporting them uncomprehendingly. Vasu is alert to the dissonances among the mirrors available to him, their multiple claims upon him, and he feels the schoolmasters need to edit toward a line, a need he surrenders only at the end of his own line. And to correct? That degree of refraction we cannot ourselves correct; we have only the narrating selfs report. But Vasu gives that up too, in the end, in the distinctive form with which he ends his narrative.
He ends at least twice. The first requires him to surrender the closure promised by narrative:
This story I am telling: I would like to believe it, I would like it to be credible with all its warts and blemishes, its missing limbs. If I do not have faith in its authenticity, if it is all make-believe, I can end it the way I want to. I could wrap it up neatly: come to terms gracefully with ancestral legacies; punish and banish Veera Naidu and his minions; spurn the Swami and save Venkatesan; cure my mutinous stomach and my head full of fantasies; or at least learn to keep decently quiet about it all. I could live up to my inherited tasks of healing, resurrecting Charaka, Shakespeare and Gandhimy formidable trio of friends from Nageswaram. And I could put words, rich polysyllables into Manis mouth, at long last. (260)
It isnt all make-believe, but its "authenticity" is not the documentary realism his son Vishnu might expect. He cant "end it the way I want to" because however puzzling the specific ricochets may be from mirror to mirror, it all nonetheless gets him to an ending, his own, that other ending of the novel which, Vasu having already finished off the "what-next" narrative, ends the expectation of a closure to the larger composite discursive form of this book:
But what I wrote now was a somewhat unusual examination paper; to be set perhaps only by a teacher in retirement. The object of the examination was not to uncover deficiencies and losses, but to light up one or more of the manifold paths that confront the examinee. The paper was written with the assumption that something had been learnt, so that the student now stood at the crossroads. What remained was confirmation: of the truth (and ambiguity) that awaited him on each of these paths; of the ability to perceive the worldreal and imaginaryas one poetic whole. I wrote a series of ten riddle-like questions. I did not, for obvious reasons, try to jot down answers against which to compare examinees responses. (266)
Manifold paths, crossroads, ambiguityimages of openness An "ability to perceive" claims not the status of truth in any philosophical sense, but rather something more like advisability, a light with which to see. "Real and imaginary" mark a difference less significant than their mutual participation in a larger whole, echoing in a sense Ashis Nandys rhetoric about the confrontation between an exclusive part and an inclusive whole. For it to be a poetic whole reminds us that "world" is a thing made strategically, one hopes, to avoid disappearing forever into the existential homonym (hole). Vasu is certainly obsessed with his own "hole" until working with Mani enables him to change his "ability to perceive." Imaginary mirrors contain their own truths and truth effects, and the merely "real" is never enough without them, any more than "truth" is of final value without the "ambiguity" that keeps truth in motion, individual, and "context-sensitive" (to echo A.K. Ramanujans suggestion
This wilderness of mirrors, then, does not despair of reaching a wisdom, though it eschews a Truth or a Real as the kind of rhetoric or discourse or understanding to which it aspires. Perhaps that is why Vasu Master, faced with the utter silence of Mania boy who plays the readers role, in one sensemust surrender the discourse of the Master and become plain Vasu, as in the dream where he finds himself in the fields with his classes, and without books for tools but rather with an axe that turns into the knife with which he is to cut his name into a tree. "Vasu, or Vasu Master?" he wonders. That dream story is about giving up the masters discourse and turning to the rhetorics of fables, stories, and open-mind exams.
Mirror to Mirror. Those particular mirrors we see in the novel matter, and as one might well expect, some stories are about mirrors just to show us of what these devices are capable. Early in the novel, he can "see my own mangled body in the mirror of [Manis] eyes" (25), a way of telling us before hes able that Mani is the mirror of his own youth, silenced for hours at a time in his authoritarian fathers office, himself "mangled" the way Mani is deformed in skullshape ("papaya-head") and in his pathological silence. A bit later, he finds his dead wifes mirror:
I looked into the mirror and I saw an ugly stranger. He had grey, thinning hair. His face was scarred: pockmarks, creases, a map of lines and grilles. The eyes were what shocked me the most. They were a hounded animals. (40)
Mani, too, is a hounded animal (hounded by teachers, other boys, his family, people in the street); finally, everyone is one, hounded by death, by the "hole" over which Vasu worries.
As he gathers notes to reflect his "Forty Years in a Classroom," Vasu sees a number of ways to name this hole. One is physical, the body locked in temporality and measured as deterioration:
The body is so easily damaged, its mutilated ruins disposed of. I knew this now as never before. All I could do was look into the mirrorthe mirror I found in Mangalas trunk; perhaps keep track of more than one body, one facethe before and the after. In the depths of the mirror, this actually seemed possible. The face of the present loomed large in the foreground, a reflection that often seemed sharper than the reality, each pockmark a permanent scar or wound. But from this vantage point I could also look back in snatches, remember all the parts of the changeable body, its ancestors and descendants, so that I could see it whole again. Otherwise I became a flat, one-dimensional figure, a man in the present of an empty room, on the verge of eviction. (90)
This mirror sharpens the scars of time, but it also offers him a virtual depth in which he has the "ability to perceive" his body through time as a "poetic whole," to recall a passage quoted earlier. The "present" of the rational empiricist is one-dimensional, deceptively flat, and renders the subject as a passive object of its surface. Vasu learns the principle of "resolute action," a version of which is enacted here when he constructs in the mirror the whole if changeable body. Poesis is his praxis, his desire a whole beyond all the exclusive parts and the frames that exclude.
Vasu must contend with several ways in which culture encourages only "snatches," only unidimensional figures. The "ghosts" of the title are these people, these discursive frames that narrow ones vision, these particles of living and doing. Though at times the novel rings a bit tinny with an almost New Age educationist fervor, at its best we hear temple bells ringing in a profound moment of reformulating how each particle might be perceived and used. Even if Vasu never fully understands the women in his life, or what to do with the large and small political conflicts around him, he does work toward a way to take up whats around him with a new understanding. He feels how "the fatal hole I saw before me had moved closer and closer till we occupied the same space" (36), and he uses mirrors strategically to fathom these dark depths of an "I" that is not the sort of thing or entity he might have anticipated. Eventually, as well see, he finds a kind of answer, but not before he achieves a different "ability to perceive" individuals, and through them, individuality. And not before he transforms his discourse from rhetoric to poetic, and most of all, not before he weaves his postcolonial world back together into a different kind of whole than anything modeled for him by others.
Like the rest of those whom he knows, Vasu hardly feels like a Master except when he embodies a role already scripted. In his case, its when he is surrounded by the boys in 6B, a "central figure flanked by fifty bodies and minds in my care" (5). The caste marks of the other teachers (they "would paint themselves like clowns") would mean only "that I was the son of my father," but his position, his function, gives him an active role to play. Of sorts, though, because its enclosed within an institutional practice Mani teaches him to shed like an old snake skin. An unusually kind and gentle teacher (not for him "the eloquent cane"), Vasu wonders why he is criticized all round for his kindness and gentleness by those who want to show students the roughness theyll encounter later, out in the world. The relationship between an institution and the discourse within which it thrives is thrown into crisis for Vasu when Mani appears before him, a living symbol of its effects.
And so Vasu must look at himself in many mirrors, studying the shadows in their depths. He looks at each person in his life through his/her reflections in yet another, the way the Swami and his father show him the authoritarian ego they have in common, or the way his own boyself silenced in his fathers study shows him where Mani is when the boy sits in front of Vasu, silent and resentful of the standard books and exercises Vasu tries with him at first. Turned pupil for a moment in the face of Gopus proud and aggressive activism, he has to see his fathers late doubts mirrored in Gopus cynical bitterness before Vasu is himself again, free of Gopus way so that he may find his own. Its difficult for him to learn that the unkind forcefulness of both Gopu and his father is driven by this hole of doubt in them. At his most extreme, hell have a dream or revery in which a face modulates through a cycle of Mani, his dead wife, her "earthy" friend, his father, Gopu, and his boss, as if positioning and repositioning himself in relation to his changing understanding of these characters. Through that radical relativity, he discards the hard, fixed form of his old assemblage of learning, professing, being.
How Art Works. Vasu was not given his fathers ayurvedic bible. The novel is full of Fathers who reject Vasu through denigration, condescension, confident criticism: his boss (the capitalist moralist, Veera Naidu), his son Vishnu, fellow teachers like Raghavan or his friend Venkatesan, the Swami, such hormonal high points among his students as Raman or Gopu (Manis brother). But he brings these rejections on himself because he fails to invest himself fully in the patriarchal order that has hold upon all of these figures. He is constantly complicit in its workings, but he also breaks its rules of speaking, attitude, action. "I often thought," he muses early on, "of Veera Naidus summing up. Were those qualities he listed virtues or signs of weakness in a teacher?" (3). Vasu Master doesnt know until he learns how his fathers ayurvedic art works, until he learns to set aside a teaching rhetoric as stern in its way as his fellow masters canes, and to take up instead an art of making. The two arts join at the point of healing.
Like a character in the Shakespeare that father and son both quote, "[m]y father, dead some thirty-odd years, began to stalk me like a stubborn ghost" (2), a ghost who withholds his most precious book (the ayurvedic recipes) and his approval (his ghost mocks Vasu as he tries to teach Mani , he mocked the boy Vasu by quoting Shakespeare ironically to the boys pockmarks ). "Boys in particular," he would say, "need a caning every single day" (49). He was Vasus fierce Sanskrit teacher; he was the man who would hold forth with the unrelenting authority of the patriarch with Vasu his helpless object, helpless because nothing about Vasu in particular much matteredthe discourse was the composition of The Father, and Vasu was expected to fall "flat, a passive inert sponge, at his feet" (12), "quite happy to be a Tamil-speaking subhuman" (20). Thirty years later, in a dream he finds himself again in the room he and Mangala shared during the bereavement rituals after his fathers death. Both "actor and spectator," he examined a swelling wound on his body; when he cut it, there was pus, but also "the wound was choked with maggotshundreds of tiny, restless creatures, feeding and growing, filling up the gaping hole" (122).
The hole marks what Vasu never received, the pus his poor defense, the maggots the gnawing carrion feeding for a lifetime off that hole. Vasus lifetime diarrhea and his poor sleeping sends him to doctor after doctor, none of whom can diagnose this wound, this hole. "Maybe you should try something else, [a doctor] finally mumbled. Have you considered homeopathy? Or ayurveda?" (1). We could say that Vasu becomes a teacher, a master, in the effort to become the father he had and the one he didnt, to become the master he could not be around his learned father-teacher. But more importantly, the dream is a way for him to gain access to the ayurvaids wisdom outside the failed lineage of patriarchal transmission, to follow the physicians advice to take hold of this ayurvedic wisdom: "I had to conduct my next medical examination in my own half-baked and haphazard fashion" (109). You could call the novel his medical examination; you could call Medical Examination one of the mirrors he uses; you could call its diffraction through memories and fables a way of reclaiming its wisdom and effectiveness from the position of difference, from abjection.
A kinder healer than father. He nurses a cousin for a month, knowing she will die when she returns to her in-laws. "She knew what her ailment was, he told my grandmother. She learnt to feel for it as you should for a wayward sister. She did not have the time or will-power to confront the cause. But I prepared her, he said. I saw the way she had to go, and I eased the journey. That is all I can do" (16). This is not fatalism, resignation, but rather an active, strategic response to conditions that arent his to control. Call it compassion, perhaps, a suffering with, a rhetoric fused with life akin to Vasus recognition that "Mani was a puzzle. Not a riddle A riddle tends to have an answer, sometimes a simple solution that you merely look up in the last pages of a book. It is only a question of time before you read between words, decode gestures, and detect the trick" (99). Theres no "trick" to Mani or their dying cousin. They are "the kind [of puzzle] you suspect has been given to you without all the pieces you need," as if one could ever have all the pieces of this kind of puzzle: "And here was a puzzle I had to put together if I was to understand Mani, even in part; if I was to know ; and if I were to find myself before it was too late" (99).
Its the kind of puzzle that makes a poetic whole, a whole made of the relations among its pieces, the way he made a whole of his body across time by looking in the mirror. "Life," his father declaims, "is nothing but one long balancing act" (21), keeping food and organs and fluids in good relation. "All natures manifestations," he goes on, " go through a process of change. A change that is inevitable and that follows a cyclical pattern" of birth, growth, decay and death, and birth" (22). Balancing implies a spatial relationality, cycle a temporal; weaving them together suggests a spatio-temporal continuum without the limited frame of a riddle-and-answer. To understand Mani or himself, he must also understand "what I was to him and he to me," a kind of understanding that requires the poetic whole of this continuum with all that this means about weaving together lives, dreams, memories, knowledge, and action.
"A person is three things at a time. To reach him, educate him, all threehis body, his self and his social involvementmust be touched. This is why an ayurvedic diagnostic examination investigates the seekers (or the patients) digestive power; the emotional and social spheres which encase him; the peculiarities of the land in which he grew up, and where he contracted his disease; and the distinguishing disease patterns of that land" (178). Three things are of note in this passage, beginning first with the emphasis weve seen on analyzing a poetic whole that includes the body, feelings, and ones social and physical ecologies. The second is the grammatical equation of "patient" and "seeker." The piece missing in the dying cousins puzzle was a will to seek, and Vasu passes beyond his father at precisely this point. Vasu phrases it first as a simplistic question: "Does the healing power (or the path to self-realization, or the pupils learning) reside primarily within the seekers mind?" (153). Simplistic, because this suspicion merely names the third noteworthy aspect of his fathers triad: it belonged to "an earlier picture of my father still in the days when he could say [this] to his patients with confidence" (178). Vasus question names his fathers hole of self-doubt: he lacks the gift to awaken that will, though he can sometimes finesse it.
Vasus question aligns the religious seeker, the patient, and the student; it could as well, as we shall see, include the activist and the abject. "I had to somehow build a bridge between us," Vasu sees early on as he puzzles over Mani, "so that I could validate, confirm, encourage, support, enhance" (52). To say that the rhetoric of healing and the conduct of life fuses is to name the cables that suspend this bridge over that dark hole Vasu fears. His fathers rhetoric is about healing, but it is not itself healing so much as a use of knowledge as powerpower not only over those who need his cures, or over his son who instinctively recoils from this perversion of knowledge, but perhaps most of all, power over the hole within that finally leads him to his death at the bottom of a well. His fathers rhetoric is like that of the Swami, who has much to say about self-realization, but who disgusts Vasu for the extent to which his sessions are about power.
Partly, this power is the desire for life to be a riddle, and to have the Answer. "Once, said Venkatesan, a young disciple asked the Swami why he did not say something different each time. How can I do that, smiled the Swami. Does the face of truth grow a second nose between one week and the next? (Later I wondered: can a single face contain all the features of truth?)" (55). Vasu already knows that the character of the Swamis discourse is one-dimensional. And, partly, it is the sense of dominion: "His hand went slack and he shut his eyes, a saint weary of his own miracles. My children, he then sighed, you see before you a parent weighed down with responsibility. Can you imagine the size of my task? Digesting the stray pieces of karma all of you have packed and hidden away?" (149).
Vasu doesnt care to be infantilized; he feels the pull of human bonding in Venkatesans affectionate motives for bringing him to the Swami, he feels the allure of Gopus boldness. "But the obstacle not one of us seemed to leap over, resolve to satisfaction, was the need to find a leader who combined all the qualities that would enlarge our own incomplete selves" (174). That enlarging comes to him through Mani. "A story can be peopled with named and recognizable terrors, so that the child is less afraid to look his own fears in the face. If Mani can acknowledge his fears through mine, through my private mythology, will it help him name themaloudat last?" (181). He learns to stifle his annotations, his explanations, and give Mani just the story to take outside the teachers (or ayurvaids, or swamis) rhetoric of power. It works for Mani; it also works for Vasu because the relation is not one-way but mutually transferential.
Their relation, and the rhetoric that supports it, grow out of (in both senses) Vasus nostalgia for the ancient study grove of the gurukula, the relation between guru and student. Early on, Vasu is drawn to it because the students are more disciplined, more anxious to learn, more respectful of their guru than the Ramans of 6B. But later, he sketches an ideal guru who tells his students, "I do not want to cheat you with half-truths; or intermediate truths. If I am to teach, and you are to learn, both of us must use this gurukula for self-fulfillment" (195). This gurukula is not a pair of roles and dogma, but a "living relationship" in which "the pupil imbibed the inward methods of the teacher; the secrets of his mind and the spirit of his life and work; all too subtle to be taught" (199). And, finally, he surrenders this whole nostalgia for a past ideal and preserves only its ideal form: "is there anything else as hopeful as a healing love? What Mani and I face together is our common need to make more sense of the world around us; so that we are able to do more in it. Together, can we prove that learning to live and knowledge are not two separate things?" (221).
It was an easy thing to dismiss all this as latter-day Dickensian sentiment, but not if one considers the fusing of healing and loving, of knowing and living, and most significantly of understanding and doing. Without these fusings (poetic wholes?), "doing" is the exercise of power rather than a "common" need for a social healing. In his ongoing autobiographical tales of the Grey Mouse, he tells of when the Grey Mouse "stopped brooding over the pain in his hole and nursing it. Immediately, the vapoury ghosts and devils who had taken refuge in the hole, like homeless tramps in a derelict building, began to fade away. He felt in their place the beginnings of something solid and dauntless" (251-2). This "unfinished tale" may be a rhetoric with a long chain of equivalent labels, including "story (allegory, parable, fable). Or unreality (fiction, myth). Or falsehood (lie, invention)" 103. But it is a healing, enabling one (with "truth effects," as Foucault might say), as this revery suggests (hes not sure whether its a daydream or nightdream):
Then I looked at Mani in the dim light and saw that he too had a wound. I examined it carefully and tended it. I forgot my own for a brief and blessed intermission. When I remembered it again, henot being squeamish; not being full of hypnotic lies; not being ruthless; and being entirely without wordsstroked my wound till I thought a hard, thick scab might grow over it. (258)
Art works the way this relationship works, whether it is mirrored through an animal fable, a dream, Vasus story about Vasu and Mani, or their lives. He dreams the "something solid and dauntless" that begins to form as a reflection of "a huge snake, its hooded head lifted enquiringly" with "a thousand eyes embedded along its sinuous body." His own is more like "a hardy rope; all the weak, disjointed strands now linked and strengthened," a poetic whole rather than a literalist kundalini snake that rises out of a hole that is now womb-like.
And then? "Then the Swami and other extraneous familiars faded forever. In that precious moment, at the blessed point of release, the undigested chunks that had clogged my heart and intestines all my life were subsumed; and made whole. When I woke up, I felt refreshed, even exhilarated. The day ahead was no longer full of empty time, or the fearful waiting of a lifelong fugitive" (265). Woven together in live relation, no longer haunted by The Father in any of his "familiars" or discourses, the "undigested chunks" of life and wisdom are now part of "doing," not chunks to fill emptiness, and not ideals that hunt down and expose the pockmarks of his half-lived former days.
Vasu has had to contest the transformation of ancient arts of caree.g., teaching or healinginto disciplines sited at the nexus of power and knowledge. Consider Foucaults comments about the "pastoral" relation as a medium for a culture of normalization in which experts are shepherds of infantilized flocks of model citizens. Modernity instrumentalizes these disciplines, making them means of reproducing its social relationswith the side effect of evacuating their traditional hearts, the hole" Vasu must transform to a whole as he recovers a mutually pastoral relation from Modernitys form of these arts. This novel does not harp constantly on the relation between the larger forces of global capital and the microlevel mechanisms Vasu describes. But it does, as we are ready now to see, know enough about them to cue a fully Ahmadian complement to this Nandyan reading of its pages.
Tradition and Modernity. Vasu, early in his frustration with Mani, discovers the character of the challenge put to him by this silent boy. Vasu begins with the question "did he really need a teacher?" and goes on to realize Mani needs "someone my father would have called a truly pragmatic healer" (14). We have seen what this distinction might mean for the art of healing and living, but Hariharan has also foregrounded education as a means of thinking out her agenda. As Vasu changes his understanding of the relationship between teacher and pupil, he also changes models for all kinds relations in ways that matter for such related spheres as the political and the historical.
Weve already noted one appeal of teachingVasu is gratified to be the central figure among a crowd that needs him (5). That centrality is part of the libidinal allure of power, its attraction to the ever-fragile ego structure: group respect and even admiration mirror precisely the kind of recognition desired by the ego. Those needs are part of whats produced when teaching is institutionalized in its modern form as Education. Hence the "eloquent cane" often employed by his colleagues, their general roughness with their students, and their high value upon order, all relate to their sense of education as the dispensation of information from the master to the passive recipient. Education even more literally aligns with larger social structuresVasu can lay out for us the variation of work and punishment according to the class origin of the students. Venkatesan tells him "its a mistake for you to be so patient with your boys. In a few years they will find out that there is very little kindness or patience in the world outside. They will have to spend their lives doing things they dont like; or being pushed around. You might as well get them used to itthat would be the kindest thing you can do for them" (207). Vasu realizes that his beloved Srinivas, "a very sweet child" and "a general favourite," is not in fact what hes pleased to have produced: "I recognized him for what he was: a good servant; a loyal, reliable subject" (209). Vasu has been only a milder version of the socializing machinery of Modernity. Though with great patience and kindness, he has nonetheless reproduced the class and managerial skills called for by the State, Shakespeare as skills-development.
Two asides point us to how and why Vasu changes his practice with Mani. Immediately after retirement, Vasu becomes a regular ("a devotee") at the town library, lugging back "volumes of wisdom" that supply an inclusive whole around the exclusive part of knowledge contained in his curriculum. "As I read them day after day, the remnants of the Golden Path Reader that had contained my life in PG and drawn the boundaries beyond which I could not explore, dwindled; then faded away" (24). Hereafter, Vasu begins learning to dissolve boundaries and the roles and proprieties they dictate. He flattens the hierarchy, using his fables as an outlaw genreits not a "proper" discipline of Knowledgeto stop "playing at adults and children caught on the opposite sides of a story" (82). He also uses his fables to evade the whole logic of boundaries and disciplines:
The only way we know (and teach) is running an obstacle-race. You jump over a hurdle only to find you are facing the next. Battle again; then yet another hurdle. To overcome each, you need the password someone else made up. (119)
In place of a linear route with gatekeepers passwords, Vasu substitutes the relationality of a poetic whole, one offered in the wilderness of mirrors Vasu supplies with his stories, but not made except in the silent depths of Manis eyes.
The second aside shows Vasu abandoning his role as "Master" in a chapter called "Hot Iron, Ready to Pour," one in which he reflects upon a lesson featuring "advice to young men by william cobbett," an illustrative session of neocolonial subject-formation through the educational apparatus. Vasu recognizes whats missing. "When a child stands alone at the blackboard, the chalk in his hand his only armour to fend off failure, what does he dream about?" (84). The teacher, master, and neocolonial agent in this multi-level allegory (of education, of class, of history) doesnt know whats inside his pupil: that subject position remains unknown, uninvestigated, unlistened to. Hariharan makes sure, within a page, that the allegorical levels include that of the Father: "It was an odd thing: I had spent every day of my adult life with growing boys, but the truth was that I had no idea what to do with the two who lived in my own house" (85).
Vasu discovers that Modernity makes roles static and relations functional. Weve seen a bit of his nostalgia for the traditional relationship of gurukula in which guru and shishya are bound in a very personal relation. His nostalgia shifts from wanting the respect and status of that idyllic guru to wanting the kind of intimacy and holicity of the relationship. "I had to learn," Vasu realizes, "how to hold back, restrain myself from explaining everything to everybody without an invitation to do so. And as a next step, I had to ask myself: What are Manis resources? (For this, we had to have that relationship and our knowledge of each other)" (187). "Explaining everything" is a function, one that ties to a particular ego structure, a particular politics, a particular dispensation of a nexus between truth and power.
Shifting to something else requires that Vasu discover what Tradition means, and that it live through him to transform each of those media of Modernity. To ask what Manis resources might be, to imagine what he dreams, to know what to do with him rather than to or for himand to abjure the functionalist identity assigned him as Father, Master, Teacher, Brahminall of this is to live through Tradition in a way even many of those called "traditionalists" might find unfamiliar. Its more than a pedagogy, though it does mean shifting from printed anthologies to autobiographical fables, from words to pictures, from explanation to embodiment. Vasu must, finally, take hold of a transmission from his father and make it valid, perhaps more valid than the state within which his fathers complex personality generated it.
Hariharan pulls out the stops to make sure we recognize the importance of the scene. Vasu recalls a story his father told one summer "when I was about as old as Mani" (193). We are witnessing, in other words, the recovery of a displaced transmissionhis father tells this story to a patient, not to Vasu; like the ayurvedic bible Vasu does not inherit, this story of Tradition is one Vasu must claim himself and then pass it on (to pupils like Mani and, well, to us). In the story, a father divides his land among his three sons, New, Old, and Timeless, each of which embodies a different understanding of Tradition. New "split himself in two" pursuing the novelties of Modernity, Old "pretend[ed] that someone else had already lived his life for him before, so that all he had to do was copy." Old, in other words, practiced a static conception of Tradition that is organized by Modernity as its other, that "traditionalists" take up on Modernitys terms, and that costs those "traditionalists" their own Tradition, their own complexity, their own history. Such "tradition" is as static as Vasus cherished snapshots of the guru in the forest, and in the story it will obviously deplete the soil in short order.
Timeless, of course, is different:
He followed the old ways and planted one crop for four years in a row. When he saw that the soil was tiring, he consulted several men of his choice. He found that the ground rules had already been laid: the planting season, the period of fallow rest, another crop and so on. All he had to do was apply the patternwhich was essentially immune to changeto his own field; and his needs. (194-5)
Note that the immunity to change does not mean that it is a pattern you copy, but one you adapt. Its like a language, with patterns one applies to ones own field of needs. Its ground rules are context-sensitive, it is negotiated case by case collectively and in response to the "tiring" of traditions effectiveness.
And so Vasu is able to recognize the "point [at which Mani] fell in love with failure" (107) as the message that he "is dumb because he has been told that that is what makes him" who he is (145). He is failure, dumbness, within the boundaries of both Old and Newby any standard, that is, by which he is expected to perform as a role or function. For such a one, "the world is senseless. It also plays mean, unfair tricks. So the world is the enemy" (187). Both Old and New live in a world where you cannot win, so great are the contradictions by which each position attempts to claim its exclusive part as the Whole. In the Timeless world Vasu and Mani begin to create together, not only do we find moments of healing, but we find a different kind of site in which soil and pattern replenish each other, in which Modernitys split is healed. Metaphorically, it involves Manis "two faces," one scarred, one lit by the "possibility of love" (212). Vasu learns "to recognize both faces, distinguish their individual features, respect their indissoluble marriage" (212): he must hold together Modernitys victim and the recessive self in "his depths."
Vasu names this sense of tradition as an outcome of thinking through Manis faces. "The wordwhich I surely must have heard from my father, though I did not remember itis niti" (212). Isnt it interesting that he knows this name of Tradition must have come from his father, but that he must recover it through the secondary sources of books where living tradition is held as knowledge rather than being? "Niti is the wise conduct of life," he explains, with an important qualifier. "It can, said the ancients who coined the word, only be put into practice by those who live in the hubbub of the community." It is, in other words, a practice that lives in relations as the nature of the poetic whole. It involves doing what you need (in terms of security and money) to fend off hurt and need, developing what nurtures you (friendship, learning, "holding the past within its natural limits"), and then "the final touch, the nails and glue that hold the house together: resolute action" (213). Tradition is active, flexible, fully engaged with the changing realities of daily life. You dont "copy" it like Old, you dont alienate yourself from it like New.
And, above all, you dont find it in the Imperial West. The word has, were told, "no precise equivalent in English, French, Latin, or Greek" (212). You might call it an anti-hegemonic wisdom, the kind of Tradition Ashis Nandys heroes make use of as they undergo the "loss and recovery of self under colonialism" or neocolonialism. Education is what happened to the transmission of Tradition under Modernity. Vasus transformation is the work of a "truly pragmatic healer" whose social focus began with healing the split between News education and Olds Sanskrit lessons.
Equality and Commodity: Indian Politics. My way of taking shorthand on the subtext of Indian politics has been to call it a social war fought between the ideal of equality (of opportunity, of resources, of rewards, among communities, genders, classes, regions) and the stunning onslaught of the contemporary global economy and its accompanying energetic rewriting of social and political forms and relations. Its not so simple as Socialism Vs. Capitalism, though that is surely its most obvious symptom. Communal conflict, the commodity fetish boom among the urban young, V.P. Singhs ill-fated invocation of the Mandel commissions outline for quotas and reservations, the indignation of old Congress members at "economic liberalization" (and the range of motives and uses for opposing that liberalization): all these are also symptoms of the interaction of venerable ideals, economic privilege, and imported radicalism as each is overlaid with the constantly unfolding story of capitalisms evolution in this particular social and historical space.
Vasus family history, even though we get it in little spots of time rather than in fully detailed and contextualized chronicles, samples Indias historical crises quite tellingly. His grandmother gave her last widows jewelry to Gandhis cause, part of the "peripheral ripple" on the "outermost circle" of history (176though by the next page hes a bit unsure of this story). But his grandfather was a "good clerk," which means that "his entire being was finely tuned to the essential unpredictability of the next five minutes of life" in the bureaucracy, "that his destiny was dictated by the whims of a monstrous ruling machine," and that he was "extremely devout" (175). His grandmother "had felt the need for a new prophet; a leader" who would bring a sense of fulfillment to her "chaste and claustrophobic enclosure" (177, 176), while he "needed the reflected glory of a comprehensive pantheon of gods as compensation for his subordinate status" (175).
Vasu describes these needs as pathological, but they might also be thought of as responses to the social pathology of life under colonialism or, more generally, abjection. His grandfather fashions a blend of compliance and resistance in which imperial machinery is served for the glory of indigenous religion: Tradition is a language he speaks as the space where a subject position offsets his politically abject status. One thinks of Partha Chatterjees suggestion in The Nation and Its Fragments that
anticolonial nationalism creates its own domain of sovereignty within colonial society well before it begins its political battle with the imperial power. It does this by dividing the world of social institutions and practices into two domainsthe material and the spiritual The greater ones success in imitating Western skills in the material domain, therefore, the greater the need to preserve the distinctness of ones spiritual culture. (6)
His grandmother has neither economic power ("four worn bangles") nor political power (a "widowed life in Nageswaram" is called a "circumscribed existence" in the most extreme of understatements). But she faces a historical and political reality different from that which "dictated" to her dead husband. Her widows mite is part of a collective whole: she invests herself in a communal subjectivity, a form of agency which depends upon masses to be in evidence at meetings and through donations, and by placing Gandhi a position almost akin to Ganesh or Vishnu (one still finds his sandalwood carving next to those of Laxmi and Hanuman), she manages her transition from Chatterjees religious interiority to an activist exteriority.
Her action would not have signified much to a western analyst or to so thoroughly westernized a politician as Gopu, Manis brother, whose function in the novel is in part to represent the half-cynical, half True Believer in engagement. Gopus bête noire is Veera Naidu, the schools Owner, Father, Law. When away visiting his son in America, "his presence followed us about from class to class, an assertive, ever-watchful shadow" (151). Naidu concentrates in his person the economic, political, pedagogical, moral, and purely personal dimensions of patriarchy; he is on all the allegorical levels of the novel the personification of modern Indian power structures. To which Gopu, of course, is utterly opposed, in a way. Gopu rails against Vasu: "what kind of society are you letting them out into? Do you realize, he asked me, that your pupils are being bought and sold?" (102), going on to detail corruption in the schools and colleges, his own cynicism ("people only do their jobs if there is profit in it"), and his fable about the forest and tribals in league to overthrow the developers and owners. In Vasus fable about him, Gopu is "complete, full of his own story" (215). In our fable, he embodies a westernized radicalism that cohabits Modernity with Naidu, a different position within the same logic system.
Hence Gopu leads the strike against Veera Naidu, even getting Vasu to write out a pamphlet to use in his agitations. Vasu doesnt follow his talk very attentively, though he does feel at first a bit overwhelmed by the young mans impatience and energy. Vasus other political bookend is his fathers quite classical social discourses, which assume "the pyramid, India, with the brahmins at the tiphealers, custodians and guardians of the masses below" (21). This paternalistic, brahminical vision is the classic story of the reciprocal responsibilities which make each of the four Vedic castes (brahmin, warrior, merchant, worker) equally necessary and important to the social whole (the lower you are on the ladder, the less unproblematic this "given" seems to you).
His fathers readings of Indian politics are based on this ancient vision, well-illustrated in a rant against a generation treated by western doctors "who never look inward and so wreak destruction":
We need strong, young men who have convictions, beliefs that bind everyone together harmoniously. What do we have instead? Young fools who run about bickering endlessly, using violence at the drop of a turd. So what do you expect of their performance in the lavatory? I tell you, the last time an Indian had a solid bowel movement was when Gandhi drove out the British. The day he was killed, the diarrhea began. (73)
Bound together harmoniously, the Vedic society suggests an ideal about which Vasu can have no illusions. The ayurvaid rants on about impurities in the tradition, the rebelliousness of the young, the curse of the Kaliyuga age of "false gurus preaching too many interpretations of truth" (179) and setting against each other the ancient wisdoms of Hindu and Muslim. Caste politics and the desire for "a bigger, bloodier share" are "the poison that is choking all of us" (239). And diarrhea is the most material of metaphors for history and experience running so quickly through the mind that its social and spiritual nutrients pass unabsorbed. Violence menaces the equipoise of the hierarchy, while "bickering" violates the sanctity of its underlying assumptions.
Bureaucrat, follower, neocolonialist, politician, Brahmin patrician these are the models or political stances that "echoed in my head, their passionately interrogative quality diluted in my memory and rendered more plaintive" (239) as Vasu progresses toward his own "Timeless" vision of polity. To be sure, these words are attached to his fathers monologue, but they apply in their own way to his final positioning of himself outside the exclusivist tendencies of Old or New. The value of this political allegory for us lies in its sober sense of the complexity of taking any position: the clear-cut kind of position envisaged in western logic is simply not available to a culture in which "ancient systems of thought live and grow on the same shady tree" (180) under which, we might add, we are all now sitting and which now includes Modernity in its branches and foliage.
Vasus pained memories of his father expose not only Modernitys deformation of ayurveda but also the human effects of the hierarchical social structuring shared by Modernity and the history of caste dominance. The book specifies the connections between Vasus pain or Manis silence and these large logics of privilege without "solving" them. Vasus struggle to write himself is richly symptomatic of the postcolonial nexus between the subject position one must do something with (the vector of Nandys work) and the larger structuring agency of capital (the vector of Ahmads work). The political subtext of the novel is the structural contradiction within each of these vectors and the almost paralyzing discontinuity between them. One can imagine a marxist tapping on the page where we see a dying Vasu in some sort of institution (hospital? nursing home? cell?), the structure of Modernity and the abuses of Tradition unaffected by his enlightenment. One can also imagine Vasu as a parable, not a proposition, as a recovery at the individual level where stories live, but a recovery that evokes the complementary structural changes without which it must live its exile in fable.
Hence Vasu balances himself as an iconoclastic servant of an institution, neither follower nor leader, a critic of Authority careful about timing and modality, politically aware though choosing not to invest in politics for Gopus purposes of ego-validation, a believer in Brahminical wholeness without the hierarchical privilege. In each of these cases Vasu attempts to recover a "wise conduct of life" that speaks to each specific context from as strong a subject position as larger forces leave him; what he says, each time, is how art might work.
He is, in other words, someone trying to use Ashis Nandys observation that
the true antonyms are always the exclusive part versus the inclusive wholenot masculinity versus femininity but either of them versus androgyny, not the past versus the present but either of them versus the timelessness in which the past is the present and the present is the past, not the oppressor versus the oppressed but both of them versus the rationality which turns them into co-victims. (99)
We have seen the fable of Timelessness in which Tradition and Modernity are Old and New, united in a fluency which speaks the Present in a nonmodern way. And we have been watching Vasu balancing himself in relation to a series of figures with too oppressive a form of rationality, whether Modern or Traditional. What we must also attend to is Nandys first clause, in which this traditionally gendered male must attempt to struggle with the confinements of masculinity
Women on Women. Vasus gendered life seems to hold little promise of escaping the tight binaries Nandy disparages. "The one thing that kept me from fidgeting," he tells us, as he sits in enforced silence watching his father work, "was the calendar on the wall" (16). Though only a one-year calendar, its image still transfixes himI will spare us all the full description of the starlet posed as an apsara or temptress in favor of this representative line: "Her hypnotic, piercing look, and the breasts which swelled out of the calendar to smother me, were the only sights in the world which moved me to the point of constipation" (17). The details include the full list of sexual markers, his afterword is about "digressing" and "not [being] sure what the calendar or my preoccupation with it that one year have to do with my fathers healing art, or my memories of it" (17). One can easily enough place psychoanalytically the mix of desire and fear, the pleasurable Gaze and the anxiety of being pierced by her usurpation of the look, the breasts that are both tumescent and smothering, the child being terrorized by patriarchy (as father) and titillated by its forms of pleasure. Perhaps it is the tension between her aggressive sexuality and the religious narrative that frames her on the wall, within time, within his fathers office, within his memory of the whole ensemble, that balances his bowels an afternoon at a time.
This "something a little foreign" whom he calls "Rita-Mona" maintains more presence in him than his mother or his wife, both of whom die early but never really much "lived" in his awareness. The links are as subliminal as the connection between his ambiguous calendar girl and his ambivalent memoirs of his father. His mother, for example, is more emblem than characterthe sixth (unwanted) daughter in a family that needed a son, unnamed for a year until the sweeper does it, "a timid, worrying little thing" who "fought a losing battle on all fronts" and who "melted away into the shadows of this loud, tyrannical household. She lived just about long enough to give my father his heir, and obviously even that was a shoddy job" (32). The most significant fact about her is not really about her at all: "what I remembered of her was irretrievably mixed with what I had heard" (31). The lesson for us is that Woman is already embedded in a text she had no part in writing. She is intelligible to Vasu only in terms provided by the "loud, tyrannical" voices that narratize her for him.
Mangala, his wife, is, well, about the same, "a figure perennially on the retreat," "a woman who had remained as obscure as my forgotten mother" (41). When he looks at a family photo, all he can say is that "all of us (or should I say all of them, because they seemed strangers to me), were stiff, unfriendly, dream-like figures" (39). Vasu is cut off from women and children through this strange absence of female potency. Hence his fascination with two experiences involving his wife. One is Jameela, her childhood friend who moves to their village, and with whom Mangala resumes a close relation just outside male inspection ("I could no longer explain how it came to be that I was always in school when Jameela came home" 43). He uses words like "full," "earthy," and "voluptuous" to describe her, and tells us that "it was their completion of each other that held me, the coexistence of earthy and ethereal, cocoon and butterfly. A perfect pair, team or couple" (43). Accustomed to the archetypes of retiring Sita and voluptuous Apsara, Vasu is "held by" their mutual completion, a whole quite anomalous in his experience, one emblemized by their "double-scaled laughter" and the landscapes they sit together and sew.
This image of completion, a healing of the partition of Woman, is a large part of the ideal that lies dormant within him. Given that he doesnt actualize this ideal until circumstances drive him to turn discursively from lecture to story, I think the catalyst for Vasus great change was the pair of stories Mangala and Jameela told. Rare moments of womens discourse (in Vasus life, in this novel), each story has its way of offering Vasu a chance to understand what he missed knowing with a "forgotten mother" and a wife "perennially on the retreat." Once, once only, at the beach on a unique holiday trip, Mangala tells a story, one we are cued to see as about herself (two pages after Mangala is staring "at some remote point in the distance" it is her character Eliamma with eyes "always intent as if straining to see something at great distance"124, 126). What Eliamma (the name compounds the words earth-mother) tries to see is "something as yet unknown, hidden perhaps in the depths of the waters mid-sea" (126), namely the unresolvable contradiction of her gender. Eliamma makes a bargain with a stranger: by trading bodies with him for a month, she can be invisible so that, finally, she can go out to sea on boats otherwise barred to her by the men. The stranger never returns to trade back their original bodies, and so she is stuck in a ghostly state of invisibility in which "everything she touched sickened; froze; died; or became invisible to everybody but her" (130).
She can, in other words, be fixed in a recognizable place with established though restrictive relations to everything around her, or, be invisible to her culture and toxic to those dependent upon her being faithful to her gender scripting. No wonder that, in thinking about this story, their landscape on canvas struck Vasu as one "in which all was ambiguous movement, suggestive of mysterious possibility" (131), perhaps their way of restoring fluidity to a patriarchal landscape. Jameelas story is an equally clear fable of gender, though Vasu is as inarticulate about its resonances as he is about his own sexual attraction to Jameela. Her three caterpillars tell each other stories, accumulating "a common fund of patterns; a rich mingling of dreams, a tapestry that belonged to all three equally" (133). This is Traditions economy, not Modernitys. Three brothers find the cocoons, and the allegory of gender acts itself out in their three fates. One ends as yards of silk, a life as the object of desire, as the robes of phallic power. The second shrouds herself, "spinning those old dreams in her head," living and laying eggs in a paper box, the life of procreation. The third escapes deep into the forest, hiding in a "shapeless camouflaging sack," weaving and designing "a tapestry full of meaning; but whatever she weaves is also ever-dissolving" and always multiple "because all of them weave in, with the finest of silk threads, the ghosts of her lost sisters" (136-7).
Mangala and Jameela find their voices in the marginalized media of sewing and stories, sites where the ghosts of lost sisters may live, visible to those who are as receptive as Eliamma was to her stranger. For Hariharan, it would seem that the subaltern position of a postcolonial woman finds its voice through means comparable to her characters strategies. Hariharan is also Eliamma, the woman writing who must trade her body with the ghostly male, moving invisibly through male narratologies, her touch deadly to their gendered forms, conventions, conceptions, values, and structures. Like Eliamma, "she waits and waits, a patient ghost, for the day she will find someone who sees her briefly. Someone who will willingly accept her freakish gift" (130). Something is "freakish," of course, only in terms of the Normal(ized). The Ghosts of Vasu Master opens beautifully, a gift of the inclusive whole to anyone who will willingly outgrow the exclusive parts of which it is made, anyone who sees ghosts of lost sisters in its narrative threads.
Vasus recovery, at the end of his life, from the pathologies of his culture, is similarly dependent upon the outlaw genre of narrative, and thus also upon his willingness to become invisible to the expectations of all those whom we have seen trying to script his retirement as closely as his professional life had been. In one of Vasus early fables, Mouse asks a wise snake how to become a teacher. "You have to first become a judge, an ideologue, a priest and a doctor" (29), the snake replies. After mastering these patriarchal roles (reflected, as we have seen, in the lives of men around Vasu), the snake tells him the "really difficult part. You must grow a womb that nurtures, then delivers" (30). And so the mouse must go home to his old mother and ask her, "will you teach me to be a mother?" (30). Vasu must, in other words, unite in himself the roles of patriarch and mother, which means altering the momentous list of conceptions we have been considering. He must become a narratologist of the inclusive whole rather than an ideologue of an exclusive part, even if that life looks at times like a hideout in the forest.
Mirror to Mirage. The term "avant-garde" is utterly inappropriate, its metaphor of an armys advance strike team counter-indicative of the strategy in evidence throughout The Ghosts of Vasu Master. Earlier we noticed a passage in which this "unfinished tale" was linked to three sets of labels: "story (allegory, parable, fable). Or unreality (fiction, myth). Or falsehood (lie, invention)" 103. These sets become progressively more marginalized, though within their parentheses we see glimmers of value in a cloak of stigma. Vasu has begun to practice a strategy that still feels deviant to someone accustomed to discourses of truth. But the sheer multiplicity he finds in individuality, society, or meaning rules out a discourse that works by excluding "error," restricting method and focus, fixing on a single idea(l) of rightness. One needs a discourse "unfinished" in character, thus excluding the exclusion that comes with a finished form. One needs the continuousness of interpretation called for by open forms like parables and fables; one needs the freedom of "unreality" to escape the surveillance of deep customary beliefs about "reality"; one needs the excuse of "falsehood" to evade the thought police of the discourses of "Truth."
The proliferation of narrative pulses in this novel allow "truth" and "rightness" to multiply beyond the exclusivity of univocal discourses. His grandmother once told Vasu a cautionary story about a boy who truly believed in "adventure, danger and mystery"that experience has such shape and significanceand asked for stories about the tigers and lions he wanted to see in the forest. At first sated on them, he then has delusions of them until he drowns in a river trying to escape a tiger that "was only in his head" (51). But this tale curves back around on any simple denigration of stories. Its about desiring one kind of story, about believing in that storys literal reality, and about acting in reality as if one were in just such a story. His grandmother is herself something of a bitter pragmatist ("I have to get up soon and make your tiffin"); for her, "the forest was nothing but leaves and fruit and berries you could pick to look after yourself" (50). To her, tigers are a romance that you get in your head and can die from. The boy in the story has thought about these stories as answers, propositions about the true nature of animals in the forest, and attempted to live in the storys "truth" rather than with the storys "unreality" and "falsehood" and then beyond its limits as fable or invention.
The boy Vasu finally, years later, manages to generalize the parable so as to situate all of the rhetoric to which he is exposed within the fabric of story rather than that of truth. His socially more prestigious acquaintances are boys hearing tigers, and dying in their unenlightened lives. But Vasu understands that his stories have oblique rather than simple linkage to reality: reality is neither in nor out of stories, and "it" isnt the point in any case. He learns in time the answer to his early question, "how do you weave a web that links and transfigures each line of experience, each point, into one of learning?" (26). Vasu Master itself is a web rather than a (narrative) line or a point (of spatial form?). For it to work as his compilation or accumulation, he must learn not the mastery or control of western aesthetics, but something a bit more aleatory, something that works like playing a ragaa theme varied according to different rhythmic pacings and rules of elaboration, responsive to the contexts of instruments, place, season, time of day. In his narrating voice he comments upon the experiencing voice that articulated the question about the web:
I found I could not detect an obvious pattern in what I jotted down in my notebook. Not, that is, till I allowed these obstinately visible strands, separate but full of tantalizing possibilities, to co-exist and intertwine when and where they pleased. (27)
Schoolmaster in a neocolonial institution, he begins this narrative adventure expecting the obvious patterns taught his schoolboys and listed in fiction writing textbooks. Not till he allows multiple strands to coexist, to be free of the dominance of a master plot, not till then do "tantalizing possibilities" acquire the power to transform both the teller and the told.
Would one call Vasu Master a fine example of the ancient tradition of Indian story-telling, a blend of the Panchatantra and vrata and brahmins parables? Or a postmodern pastiche of genre, voice, form, and personae, designed to undo the classic security of the western ego and its logistics of linear time, mastered space, and organic form? (Not to mention the philosophical and political practices that resonate with that narratology.) I think of it as a late twentieth-century strategy to conduct Ashis Nandys "recovery of self" under the conditions of hegemony, itself a compound of enduring colonial influences, postcolonial western dominance, and the long, complicated, and continuing South Asian histories of dominances and inequalities. The novel weaves in the "obstinately visible strands" of those histories and the eras of which they are made, and it twines and winds them until Vasu and his readers gain the knack of transfiguring "experience" into "learning."
Shiva Meets Godzilla. These words we use are necessary evils, lies assembled in the effort to generate some "truth effects," as Foucault used to call them. There is no indigenous, not in a place like South Asia in which there is no "before" to invasions, migrations, contact. There is no postcolonial, not just because colonialism turned too quickly into economic hegemony, but because "colonial" was not the sort of thing you could so easily "post," in any of the meanings of that charged term. Colonialism was the extension of capital, not merely a blindspot of western humanism or a mistaken act "fixed" when expatriates went home. Theres no egress from the extended experience of western domination in all its chilling technological and managerial sophistication. And that is especially true in a context like Indias in which colonial domination layered itself on a complex quilt of dominations and resistance, suppression and accommodation, imported systems and traditions which "transfigure" them And is there something called "global"? Or does this word really mean a change in our perceptions, that a great economic engine is organizing everywhere and striking sparks in as many places as there are peoples, so that for the first time, perhaps, the web of local and global is now too "obstinately visible" for us to repress any longer?
The Ghosts of Vasu Master are the ghosts that haunt us all, perhaps, but in the form limned here they haunt Indians with especial parapsychological intensity. Vasu must almost single-handedly transfigure both the traditions available to him and the modernity he cannot escape, both politics and individual existence, both art and the deeper patterns of thought on which it rests, both gendering and fathering, both teaching and learning. Ashis Nandy ends The Intimate Enemy with an apt maxim: "knowledge without ethics is not so much bad ethics as inferior knowledge" (Nandy 113). It is to Vasus enormous credit that he comes to see his former teaching as "inferior knowledge," and the "ethics" he opposed to Veera Naidus "structure of institutionalized oppression" as too inchoate and unlived. Vasu experiences, then makes use of, a process Nandy has summarized from his book as follows:
The argument is that when psychological and cultural survival is at stake, polarities such as the ones discussed here do break down and become partly irrelevant, and the directness of the experience of suffering and spontaneous resistance to it come through at all planes. When this happens, this emerges in the victim of a system as a vague awareness of the larger whole which transcends the systems analytic categories and/or stands them on their head. (113)
It is a larger inclusive whole Vasu Master weaves with his fables, memories, stories, and, finally, his actions. And Mani, mute withdrawn Mani, he is the very "experience of suffering" in utter directness: he overwhelms the "analytic categories" of pedagogy, dogma, ideology, powerthe whole listand absolutely requires Vasu to comb back through all he has missed with his systems to find moments and modes and motivations of previously unrecognized resistances.
He does his best to put them together into the "larger whole" that makes this novel a paradigmatic example of what draws me to "postcolonial fiction." Im sure someone like Aijaz Ahmad could wish for a more biting analysis of class, far from content with the obvious fact that the absence of very much class analysis is the surest indication of the middle class positioning of this book. Vasus kind of restructuring is not the restructuring of base and superstructure Ahmad might prefer: Vasu is coming to terms within his class position rather than imagining a "larger whole" beyond class. Or is he? Perhaps it is my Desire that speaks when I wonder whether Vasus transfiguring doesnt include something akin to a class analysis of Veera Naidu & Co., and whether this transformation at the end of his life isnt a preparation (of Mani? of us?) for a life as active politically as Vasus last days are spiritually and pedagogically. But that question, clearly, is yet another essay about the structural contradictions and discontinuities that constitute the subject at the "postcolonial" nexus.
These three fictionsGuptas, Sarangs, Hariharansthey are our mirage of life in and beyond the terms of postmodernity. Mirages work by teleporting bubbles of the real to stragglers in the desert, barely alive in a hostile environment. Guptas devastating take on contemporary egoism, Sarangs reading of the social egos monumental paranoia and its deeply delusional political unconscious, Hariharans pulse reading of the postmodern patient, her Nandyan therapies, and her richly postmodern response to postmodernityif we take them all together, these narratives embody for us a rich practice of staging very "local"i.e., Indianresponses to the challenge of inflecting versions of tradition as a curative approach to the ills of postmodernity as it reaches its Indian maturity. To define those ills and responses in explicit detail, however, is a chapter in itself, as if from these mirages, especially when we know them to be mirages, we can learn to recognize the nectar that would slake our deeply alienated thirsts. Guptas lace, Sarangs cavorting Ganeshes, Hariharans quilt of fables, all relate to versions we have anticipated in the work of Roy and Mehta and any number of other writers whose work fills the Thar with the shimmering imagery of Shiva and Godzilla, including at least a fantasy of their partnership against the postmodern radiation crackling on our own psychic night radios. The way this postmodern art works reminds us of how rhythm, repetition, and juxtaposition work in the most traditional of Indian arts