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Sunday, August 04, 2013

Ghosts of wrath

Shreekumar Varma, Aug 4, 2013, DHNS:
Lead review

A tale where the haunting past coexists with the violent present, Aruni Kashyap’s debut novel, set in Assam, sees the author at the height of his powers with a sensitive yet strong narrative, writes Shreekumar Varma

The background is the violent insurgency that has seeped into the ordinary life of Assam. The four corners of the reddening rectangle are the ULFA, the SULFA (surrendered elements who swagger around, fattened and emboldened by Govt largesse), the army and the scared, scarred common man. The first is more or less accepted by the last, they’re radicals with a common cause. The second is well-fed, landed and armed, their violence mostly vindictive. The most feared is the army, who can stomp into any house, kill, rape and leave permanent psychological scars.

Aruni Kashyap does well to see that all this stays in the background, an eerie backdrop of terrible possibility. It reaches us in the form of residue, memory, consequence, and more than anything, fear. For the foreground is chaotic enough. As protagonist Pablo’s cousin and best friend Mridul puts it: “If you go out, it is the army’s fear. If you stay in, it is Oholya-jethai’s terror.” There’s enough and more happening in this house with “seventeen windows but no ventilators.”

The only time the blood-tide approaches Pablo is when a surrendered militant Hiren’s family is gunned down by masked men. Hiren is doing well in his silk business; it proves no one can take anything for granted. They run across the village, but Mridul doesn’t allow Pablo to go in. “It’s too bloody. There’s blood on the walls, on the chairs, on the courtyard, on the bed….” There’s no one to cry for them. “Did they think if they cried someone would come and gun them down too?” The paralysed grandfather is the sole survivor. “Why did the killers leave him to witness all this? What sins the old man must have committed in the last birth!” It’s the survivor who gets the raw deal. Which is precisely the thought that finally turns celebration into tragedy.

Oholya is the curmudgeon with a back-story. Back-stories, like the unnerving background, always rattle the present. It’s Pablo’s second time in his father’s village Mayong in rural Assam. The first was for a funeral, this time it’s a wedding. The trouble is their shadows intermingle, joy looks back in fear and finds death. The ghosts from Pablo’s earlier visit are always hovering, ghosts of wrath and deprivation. Oholya with her sharp tongue conducts the show until her own past catches up. Everyone has a seed of vulnerability. 

It’s those who keep the most distance from the village (like Pablo’s family) that can survive. Every generation has a rebel that tries to flee the stifling cocoon of tradition. In the milieu of ritual and acceptance, there’s always this secret lump in the throat, too sweet to spit, too dangerous to swallow. Even young Pablo has his secret pleasure, fulfilment that will lead to its own gut-wrenching tragedy.

The “thousand” stories are perhaps less important than the way they’re told, the way they stain everything and everyone. Response to good fiction takes many forms.

Amazing talent from one so young! Or, if it’s a ripe old writer we’re discussing: Here he is at the height of his powers!

I’d argue that “one so young” is generally at the height of his powers. The fresh observation, the impassioned reading, unselfconscious inspiration and unfettered imagination all bring about heightened awareness and expression. This may be honed in later years depending on talent and experience, but youth is a time of passionate freedom of expression.

Aruni Kashyap is below thirty. One could say (not being able to see the future) that he’s at the height of his powers.

The quick associations, sensual physical descriptions and the pervading earth-scent enrich his writing. His editor has done well not to use a fine-tooth comb. Aruni’s images and episodes often get into a loop, recurring and reminding, his words are like the dust or leaves he keeps describing, rising breathlessly to redraw the same scene afresh. His metaphors and phrasings, especially the evocative allusions to nature, are loose and unwieldy at times, perhaps transplanted in the raw from Assamese usage. It’s sorely tempting for the average editor to swoop down. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen here. We are left with a curious blend of technical savvy and creative brilliance bordering on wildness with an almost childlike wonder at the possibilities of language and construction, a viewable experiment in progress.

His inspirations haunt story and telling, the most prominent ghost rising from The God of Small Things, whether it’s the lovemaking reiterated in the end, the tragedy of love, the forbidden relationship or the wordplay and the dangling strands of reminders, mirror-images, premonitions and clever mischief.

His linkages, like veins, run beneath the story’s skin between home and outside, past and present. Rumour destroys happiness in weddings, he says. But given the situation in the state, “rumours became verdicts, alternate realities, faceless voices turned real.” It’s just such a rumour that begins the book and ends the happiness.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

swimming lazily through my website, i came upon this article from a February 25, 2006, issue of the indian express when my column WORDPLAY was alive and kicking.

Warriors of wit

In these days of enforced transparency when our ruling class can be closely monitored but rarely pinned down, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where powerful kings and emperors used to appoint critics who were licensed to laugh at them. Famous examples are Birbal and Tenali Raman.

Critics, whether independent or rebellious, hold up a mirror to their society. Their most effective cleansing mechanism is laughter.

In Kerala, the chakyar koothu was a dance form that told mythological stories embellished with music and dance, but it also made fun of aberrations and pomposity in the existing social system. The chakyars belonged to a higher caste generally associated with service to the temples. The performer was dressed and made-up in a unique manner. His only accompaniment was a drum known as the mizhavu. He told mythological stories and, during the explanatory narrative, added caustic comments on society and various individuals. The audience was never too sure when the chakyar’s attention would turn to them. The chakyar was licensed to mock. If anyone protested, he would remove his headgear and the performance was over. Even rulers and VIPs were not spared, and had to listen, silent and red-faced.

The audience was almost always on tenterhooks. Even their physical characteristics and modes of dress were made fun of, often bitingly. The chakyar would look around, and woe unto the members of the audience who had peculiar physical characteristics or mannerisms! He even picked on their known peccadilloes.

There is one such instance when a chakyar was singing of Hanuman’s flying visit to Ravana’s court in Lanka. Hanuman leapt over the ocean, completed his mission of meeting Sita, was tied up and brought before Ravana where he gave as good as he got and then, for good measure, set fire to the island as well! At this point, an old gentleman seated in the audience felt a sudden need to visit the toilet. The ideal time to slink away was while the verse was being sung. Which he did. God knows what compulsions delayed him, but as he returned the verse got over and the chakyar started on his commentary. He looked directly at the unfortunate old man and said: “Ah, what a smart creature we have here! He goes away on one mission, accomplishes two, and now he returns without even having touched water!”

Even royalty wasn’t spared. There is a story about how the Maharaja of Travancore, Ayilyam Tirunal, once became the butt of a chakyar’s wit. Despite the artistic immunity enjoyed by the performers, he was ordered to be arrested. The chakyar fled, fearing for his life. To trim a long tale, he was traced and brought in disgrace to the king’s court. From his position of superiority, the king looked down at the wretched man and thundered, “So how do you feel now?” The chakyar, looking appropriately chastened, replied: “Your majesty, I feel like a mouse in front of a cat!” There was stunned silence in the court. Everyone knew that the Maharaja had cat’s eyes! The answer had been so swift, accurate and unexpected that the Maharaja let out a guffaw and pardoned him right there.

More than 200 years ago, a chakyar koothu was in progress. Everything was going well when the man who played the mizhavu dozed off, producing a rather quirky, trailing-off percussion sound. The chakyar turned to him and made severe, mocking fun of him. The drummer felt terribly humiliated, but he held his peace. However, he closeted himself in his room and didn’t surface for an entire night and day.

The next day, when the chakyar commenced his act, he was disconcerted to find a second performance happening nearby. The performer was dressed differently and the language was the native Malayalam rather than the traditional Sanskrit. One by one, the chakyar’s audience stood up and started defecting towards the newcomer. Only then did he realise that he was being challenged by his former drummer.

And thus began the saga of one of Kerala’s proudest sons, Kunjan Nambiar, the poet with an acid tongue and giant wit. His contribution to the arts was the thullal performance, using an old poetic form in a new manner. His satire was unmatchable and his contribution includes over forty thullal compositions. Of these, Kalyana Saugandhikam is probably the most popular. Here, the proud Bhima sets out to fetch a rare flower for his wife Draupadi. On the way, he finds a large aged monkey blocking his path. Not realising that this is none other than his own half-brother, the mighty Hanuman, Bhima orders him to move. The resultant banter and Bhima’s final chastisement are depicted with typical artistry, humorous and poignant at the same time.

Nambiar, with a sharp tongue lodged firmly in his cheek, feared no one. When a local ruler built a giant temple lamp-post and invited poets to praise it for a prize, Nambiar, amused by the king’s pride, responded characteristically: Deepasthambham mahascharyam, namukkum kittanam panam!” (“What a wonder of a lamp, and I too want the money!”) Of course, he got it.

Today, cartoonists and columnists have appropriated the role of the court wit. They do reach the people, who laugh quietly, but it would take much more artistry to touch the conscience of our new ruling class.

Shreekumar Varma

The New Indian Express, Sunday February 25, 2006