Buy One Get One Free
Buy One Get One Free
Red Earth and Pouring Rain, ISBN 9780140246124
Vikram Chandra, pages 520
Penguin Books India (P) Ltd. 1997 : Price INDIA Rs 200
Finally I could finish reading all the stories packed into the novel "Red Earth and Pouring Rain" by Vikram Chandra. It entailed great effort on my part; for I had to literally prepare myself to pass through thickets of rich narratives and intricately interwoven strands of storyline.
Its complexity stands out as I try to recall what all I read: It's a story of a dying monkey type scripting stories about heroes and patriots, mercenaries and monks, courtesans and orientalists, poets and printers, students and nudists, inscrutable mendicants and precocious boys, a dumb ghost and a monstrous magicians, gods and cricketers and so on. It's an account of a living meeting the lord of death to decide about the nature of rebirth to be. It's an enormous effort at fictionalization of medieval Indian History, a period turbulent enough to provide high drama of royal conspiracy, heroic struggles, violent reprisals, burning ambitions, and strange unfolding of love and passion.
Abhay, a US-returned student of Anthropology shoots Parashar, the white monkey of the neighbourhood because it stole his jean pants in its bid to blackmail his parents, Ashok and Mrinalini, to give it food in exchange of the jean in its deceitful possession. The killing is the result of a provocation, for it is monkey, once again, that had frightened Abhay's ladylove Amanda to desert him and leave India only a few days back. The white monkey going to die now happens to be a creature with huge spiritual power which it had gained in its previous birth. Back then he was one Sanjay, a human that underwent years of penance inside a cave in the mountains, pleasing Yama, the lord of Death, to grant him freedom from death. It was his desire in his previous birth to be born as an animal in his next, and now, as a result of such desire, he lives and dies as a monkey in this birth. As death draws nearer, Lord Yama comes to take Parashar but, lo, he is drawn into an unusual agreement: Parasher would tell stories--or rather type out stories--and its life would be prolonged till such stories are successful in holding the interests of the lord of Death. In its task of telling the stories others help along--Lord Hanuman, the monkey God; Lord Ganesh, the giver of wisdom; and Abhay, the US-returned Anthropology graduate agog with his stories of love and dope, cricket and cab. They tell and tell, pause to take rest and then to tell, stories of everybody and everything, layer upon layer; people come at first to listen and then to disturb and sabotage; but at the end of the day, all stories are finite and they come to an end.
Late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the dissolution of Mughal authority, the rise of local powers, their internecine contests for gaining supremacy, the rise of Marathas, the advent of the European colonialists, their manipulation of the warring kingdoms and eventual success in building empire. It was the time both the colonial powers--the French and the English--fought and decided, once for all, as to who would rule India and how. "Red Earth and Pouring Rain" sets its theme in this period of historical churning. It takes the characters of mercenary soldiers like La Borgne, George Thomas, and the martial legends from Rajputs like Uday, who raise disciplined regiments for the local rulers and for the Marathas and fight wars for victory and defeat alike, before leaving the country with cantering caravans of gold and wealth. They leave legends for the soldiers to cherish and feed their mood of belligerence.
The characters that weave a thread of connection among the story fragments are those of George Thomas alias Jahaj Jung, Sikander alias James, and Sanjay. Thomas is not only an illustrious soldier of far-famed military prowess but also a passionate lover of extraordinary standing. He cannot marry Begum Sumroo for he is without a kingdom of his own and the lady is lost to another high-ranking soldier, Reinhardt the Sombre; and he cannot marry Janvi, the Rajput princess of Rathor, for she is taken away by the victorious English officer, J. H. Skinner as the spoil from the battlefield. In time James alias Sikander is born to Janvi, now the wife of Skinner, and Sanjay to Shanti Devi, the wife of Skinner's neighbour Ram Mohan. These two characters owe their origin to the mysterious ladoos that are obtained from a powerful monk and mingled with the blood of Thomas, and they are shared by both the mothers--Janvi and Shanti Devi--to conceive three children: Sikander alias James, his younger brother Chhota, and Sanjay.
The development of the plot takes speed with the growth and coming of age of these three children. Sikander and Sanjay go to Calcutta to join as apprentice workers in a printing establishment that belongs to an Englishman, Markline. There Sanjay learns English, cures his visual defect. But soon Sikander and Sanjay get disillusioned with their printing jobs and the patronizing attitude of Markline and his orientalist friend Sarthey, the senior and they move to Lucknow which is then famous for courtesan and soldiers, poets and patrons. While Sikander becomes a soldier and works under Marathas, moving from one battle field to the other with the trails of blood and injury following him, Sanjay remains stuck at Lucknow to learn how to write poetry and apply himself to gain love of the famous courtesan Gul Jahaan. Sanjay succeeds in his pursuits, reaches the pinnacle of his fame and marries Gul Jahaan, but in time his muse leaves him dry and uninteresting. As he advances in age with no issue to parent, one day he takes his wife to a doctor. The latter happens to be the junior Sarthey in his philanthropic and research mission to India. Sanjay also discovers the startling fact that Sarthey is a practitioner of black magic and in order to prolong his life and gain the power of moving in the sky invisibly, he goes to the extent of feeding on the body fluid out of women that come to him for their antenatal consultations and deliveries. As soon as Gul Jahaan gives birth to a child, she falls victim to Sarthey, but Sanjay is quick to rescue his child and runs away from him. After entrusting the child to his old mother, Sanjay sets out to settle scores with Sarthey. He comes to Delhi in search of that strange character, succeeds in locating him and it was the discovery of his books that makes him happy as he merrily sets them on fire.
Sikandar is now working for the English as he is driven out of the Maratha army for the simple reason that he is an Anglo-Indian and that he cannot be trusted. He is now in charge of the security of Delhi and outskirts. While Sanjay sets the books and diaries of Sarthey on fire, he is caught red-handed by the soldiers of Sikander. Sarthey excuses Sanjay in a show of a rare concession to him, for he had once been fond of Sanjay, the erudite Indian with proficiency in English. Frustrated in his effort to destroy Sarthey, Sanjay goes to Begum Sumroo, acquires the mantra for the painful penance to follow. He along with his followers goes inside a cave in the mountains, dismembers his body part by part in his bid to propitiate lord of Death and finally achieves the success: Now he will not die till he desires a death--this is the boon Sanjay gets from the Lord of Death and as the final offering he gives his tongue to the lord.
Sikander says 'no' to the patriotic appeal of Sanjay to desert the English. There is a fight between them and Sanjay emerges as the winner while Sikander loses his life. Now Sanjay raises a standard of revolt, besieges the English fort of Lucknow in a sanguinary contest and his army soon loses the initial advantage of an attacker against the flawless strategies of a disciplined garrison. Then follows the reprisal, brutal and dishonourable. Sanjay is caught and hanged to death along with others but death does not come to him like that. He has his unfinished task to accomplish and this takes him to London where Junior Sarthey is there with his highborn reputation and stately honours. But Sanjay knows what that black magician in the garb of a scientific stalwart is up to, and as he meets him in the extra-terrestrial domain, he acquaints himself with the current plan of Sarthey. Sanjay, now without a tongue but with guttural voice of English, takes the help of the police of London and busts the evil deed of Sarthey when he kills a pregnant woman for prolonging his existence.
Here is a second batch of stories, set in the US, that runs parallel to the main rendering. It is the story of Abhay and his friends, their pleasure-drive across the cities, their sessions of booze and sex, and their travel talks revealing their growth from problematic childhood to complex adulthood and so on. From the narratives and fragments the themes emerge slowly: a fainthearted lover gets over his complex after a series of rejections, children groomed in atmosphere of sexual repression and high parental expectations go stripped and weird, childhood sexual fantasies get unfolded with their sickening realities…and many more.
Abhay meets Amanda in a party and cultivates fun friendship with her, enjoying moments of conviviality, whether it is by way of snorting drugs or making love. His girlfriend Kate who used to be so generous and complying partner in bed kills herself even before she is able to write her suicide note. Abhay is not a very serious student and study is only a pretext he uses to reach the US. His bosom friend Tom is always with him taking him to places for enjoyment and now with the rich girlfriend Amanda coming with a bunch of never-ending credit cards, the recourse to easy outings becomes really frequent. They set out on a pleasure trip and Tom is first to initiate his travel talk--how he chases his classmate Mercy Cunningham, the object of his heart's desire and the extent he goes to draw her attention till the realization dawns on him that he is too arrogant to be successful in his mission, and so on. While at the motel, Tom meets a girl called Kyrie who is on her run to escape from the hounding paparazzi and the anti-sex activists, for she has already enraged them by taking part in sex fairs like 'Joyland' and fornication emporium like 'Wonderland' and by boldly advocating such activities in a programme aired by NBC.
They drive further, listening to Kyrie how she used to love her bodies in the secrecy of her bathroom, how she first took to undressing herself casually, how her business of shooting pornography led her to respectable movies, how her mother got thoroughly disillusioned and irreversibly sick on getting to know about her daughter Kyrie's activities, and so on. At Houston Amanda takes Abhay to her home, introduces him to her parents, and shows him her house which is elegant and expensive. There Abhay remembers that Amanda's mother Candy is the same lady he saw in the centerfold of the magazine Playboy when he was just in his school at Ajmer and that he used to adore her in the realm of his romantic fantasy. He obviously makes love with his girlfriend Amanda but remains completely smitten by the heavily doctored beauty of Candy. Finally, Abhay plays a match of one-day cricket with Amanda's father and wins it against the snide colonial remarks of the haughty old man.
Having finished reading (and re-reading the book!), I'm still not sure if it is one book that I read or two. The Sanjay-Sikander-Parasher story is sufficiently developed, cleverly structured and charmingly narrated, and it is alone a full-length fiction, undoubtedly. Then comes Abhay-Amanda-Tom-Kyrie story, contemporary and occidental, and the depth of narratives does not fail to touch the readers, giving them the full value of their money. It's not understood why these two have been amalgamated and it's something that cannot be explained only in terms of literary experimentation. Maybe there is something mundane about it that I could not discern. Maybe it is a clever packaging: Buy one and get one free.
A. N. Nanda
Labels: Book Review