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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.

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