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Bhagwandas Morwal’s ‘Ret’ [Sand]: reading the novel and its aura!

 

 

by Ratnakar Tripathy

Bhagwandas Morwal

Bhagwandas Morwal

I really love it when I discover a good writer – a poet, a short story writer or a novelist. Recently, when a friend introduced to me the great Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, lending me three of his books in Pune at a go, my shame at discovering this author so late in life was easily outweighed by the glow of joy that stayed with me for several days. I found myself looking for excuses to mention or if possible, discuss Kadare at length in the unlikeliest company and circumstances. I also felt a deep gratitude towards my friend that only the sharing of a book can bring. The same applies to music, theatre and cinema. There is a friend of mine with whom my relationship got embittered forever long ago, but I still think of him warmly, all ill-feeling overruled, as way back he was the one who dragged me to a Gangubai Hangal concert, one of her last, in Pune. But today I choose to talk of writing and the written word!

Once in an exceedingly rare while, I run into something written in Hindi that moves me similarly. I am not particularly unexcitable when it comes to great literature nor do I believe that humanity owes it to me to present a great piece of work every time I go looking for one. But when I do find a great work in Hindi, I feel an intimate kind of joy mixed with a sweetly chauvinistic pride and astonishment, a bit like the unearthing of a hitherto unknown civilization in my good old slovenly backyard. Something of the sort happened to me years ago when I read Prabha Khaitan’s books, in particular her ‘Peelee Andhi’ [Yellow Storm], a slim volume with an epic canvas, narrating the story of three generations of Marwaris, as they move out of Rajasthan and settle down in Calcutta after traversing through Bihar and Jharkhand. To this day I believe it is one of the most underrated novels in Hindi. I hate official rankings in literature and art but I do believe that as readers, we go around holding our personal highlighters, marking the preferred names and works, unavoidably.

To illustrate the point, you will find me a very petulant bloke if you tell me you didn’t like a Khaitan work. I will listen to you with the supreme disdain of one who is wondering whether to and how to argue the obvious, if at all. But yes, I will go home and rehearse your disturbing whine, and rethink, well, perhaps, but perhaps not, resisting every argument that may modify my views on the matter! Such is the power of a great book that it can recruit you as a denizen of its own universe, instilling in you the kind of loyalty one rarely feels for one’s country or clan.  Strangely, even though I believe that my fondness for an author or a book is a largely subjective and personal matter, you will find me working hard on you to convince you of its utter goodness.

To illustrate the point further, I continue to ask the question even now what kind of readers we are, the Hindi speakers, taking ‘Peelee Andhi’, according to me a cultural milestone, as just one more decent book that got written by one of the most unusual type of Hindi authors, a PhD on Sartre, a woman entrepreneur, and also a generous patron of literary journals in Hindi. By now many friends are tired of my outpourings over late Khaitan though I haven’t stopped trying to be her self-appointed publicist. She deserves my over-eager pushing since Khaitan never headed a Hindi department in a university, nor was she part of the award-reward literary bazaars and durbars that have mushroomed in Delhi and other cauldrons of refined creativity and culture. In fact I worry about a culture that places no special value on a writer like Prabha Khaitan.  What may save me from being an obsessive Khaitan-nut however is that I felt the same way about Shreelal Shukla’s ‘Rag Durbari’ and I still do, in the belief that his work is not simply a national treasure but an enduring part of the cultural wealth of world literature. I have no complaints here as the small book is duly seen for what it is – a huge fat pillar of Hindi literature, despite being one of the funniest books written in Hindi. Both the books mind you have nothing esoteric about them – they are as accessible as a Premchand or well, Krishan Chandar, Pandey Bechan Sharma ‘Ugra’ or Rangeya Raghav to mention a few other pillars.

But the ‘Aha-Khaitan’ moment was long ago. Of late I had begun to wonder if we are all much too securely hitched to an age of shortcut language like Chetan Bhagat’s – the tinselly bugles of progress, of straw men of self-confidence, of motivational talks among graduating MBAs, waiting to be ignited in their upstairs by all the marketing voodoo chants. It is the kind of literature where you don’t see the difference between Hindi and English, between one kind of Hindi and another, between a classic and a blockbuster, and culture is assessed through brand value. Mind you, I am not talking of commercialization, the favourite flogging horse, but of ‘grossification’ of culture through the rituals of self-indulgence, words of flattery for the authority of the day, and blanket neglect of unceasing nuances that define every moment of our time on this earth. I am all for commercialization – I wish Nirala or Muktibodh our Hindi poets, received a gold mohur  for every poem they wrote even if they decided to toss the gold into a beggar’s bowl on their way out, which seems quite likely.

No, I am not even talking of cultural policy like the mavens who wish to steer supposedly the lame duck of ‘national’ or ‘regional’ culture over the globalized turfs of soft power, prodding, pushing and when possible dragging us to the heights of high culture, where the oxygen levels drop and we begin to gasp for life! And then bring us back with a thud to the art of the masses on official occasions when hirelings are made to perform folk dances in the manner of mechanized toys to the accompaniment of suitably rustic sounds.

So, what am I talking about?

In plain words, I am talking about a good novel as a liberating experience. Great books and works of art often leave one with an experience of ‘conversion’, with a feeling that life is not the same anymore and that a new and liberating departure, however modest, has been made.   Liberation from what? You don’t have to go very far to answer this. Liberation or more modestly, an escape from one’s own petty self is what I mean. Our daily lives seem like an endless chronicle of the mean and the petty, perpetually aiming at a hopelessly low horizon with nary a sense of vision or wide awake purposefulness. The miracle of great art is it takes all our mean-minded preoccupations and transforms them into a heroic struggle for survival and fulfilment. Even in its most tragic or burdensome moments, life seems like something that makes sense, even a painful cross to carry maybe in all its symbolic richness, rather than an absurd sack of rotten potatoes to be carried uphill for no apparent purpose other than the perpetuation of one’s selfish genes.

Part of the pettiness comes from the simple fact that we are much too bound within our own eras and life time, within our own skins and biases with little time for anything but passing moments of empathy. Good literature prolongs such moments and develops in us the art of prolonging these moments of compassion endlessly, giving us a near supernatural ability to live our lives through proxies and alibis, through the lives of others, real or fictional.  At its best, good literature transforms us from lonely individuals reduced to our pathetic solitudes to a plurality of voices and worlds within our heads and hearts. Of course we cannot escape our ontological loneliness, but we could learn to take our solitude as a roomy space we keep coming back to after numerous and exciting detours, rather than being nailed to the wall like a dead portrait with a fixed stare.

Which now brings me to the main fare, I intend to serve today – Bhagwandas Morwal’s novel ‘Ret’ [Sand]. Having wasted much money on a number of bad novels over the years, I have turned into a close-fisted customer of literature who waits for a strong recommendation from friends before pulling out the wallet. I remember one particular occasion when I bought an expensive volume, an award winner and was so disappointed I wanted a refund from the author or so I broadcast to all my friends by way of vindictive propaganda. I took matters that personally, the fact being I was a fool to have fallen for the ‘unputdownable’ hype. But I was a very angry fool for several weeks, I remember. To this day I see red when faced with the author’s further products.

I bought ‘Ret’ without anyone recommending it and the gamble for once turned out more than worthwhile.  Let me begin by admitting I was attracted by the blurb which said the novel provides an insider’s view of the intricate social lives of the ‘Kanjar’ community. Even before I opened the book, I thought I will get to learn something about a community I had vaguely heard of and knew the word ‘Kanjar’ only as a common term of abuse in Bhojpuri. I was also happily and with a sense of condescension surprised to see that a Hindi author has found time to write on Kanjars. Interestingly, Francis Buchanan’s gazetteer of Shahabad [1812-13] makes no mention of the presence of this community in my region, even though he produces a long list of the supposedly ‘criminal’ castes and tribes over a far wider region. In brief, I thought I may have ended up buying a watered down anthropological treatise written by a non-Kanjar voyeur-cum-anthropologist, which still seemed alright to me.  Often when you expect less, you end up getting more, was the mantra on my mind.

The book disappointed me in all my fears and apprehensions – Morwal belongs to a class of storytellers found in varied situations, cultures and eras – under the banyan tree in a village gathering, at a feudal mehfil or a court, a middle class living room or even a college adda!  And yes, even a clump of women intimately huddled around a gossipmonger in a veranda.

Morwal does not pretend to be an insider and the narrator of ‘Ret’, Baidji [a quack] is just a frequent visitor on his medical rounds, willy nilly entangled in the daily lives of the Kanjars, a community with a great deal of regional variation. In the ‘Ret’ version, Kanjars are shown to be a settlement headed and run by their women known for their brewing, music and dancing skills. In such cases, dancing may be taken as a euphemism for prostitution of course, for all practical purposes! The novel weaves its tale around the daily lives and travails of the Kanjars who belong, if that is possible, to the very bottom of the bottomless pit called caste. In the process you develop a deep sympathy for a community that remains at the receiving end of practically all castes and social groups and has learned how to survive and even flourish in a state of utter ignominy.

The book brings to light an invisible world never seen before and you feel the same sense of revelation as in the many Dalit autobiographies written in Marathi and Hindi by the likes of Kishore Shanatabai Kale, Daya Pawar or Omprakash Valmik. But significantly, this is not an autobiography despite the systematic uncovering of a life and world unseen.  Baidji, the narrator is not a Kanjar himself. This gives the book an edge over the unbounded sympathy, self-indulgence, even self-pity that go with autobiographical outpourings. For all its familiarity, even intimacy with the Kanjar culture, ‘Ret’ is also a near clinically lucid look at a society in a process of rapid transformation from unrelieved victimhood to a stature of triumphal overcoming. But stop before you jump and say ‘Hurrah’ in the manner of a socialist realism wallah.

Yes, ‘Ret’ is a political novel, the best one I have read thus far in Hindi that shows Rukmini, a Kanjar woman grow into a local political heavyweight through electoral politics. You may, if you wish call it a tale of empowerment not simply of Kanjars but of women in general through the emancipating process of democratic politics and stop. This would however be a very limiting reading of both the novel and of politics in our time. The political highway has too many ironic offshoots and by lanes that you shouldn’t miss. What makes ‘Ret’ a great novel is its tragic vision – the rise of Kanjars may be a positive yes, but the whole process of ‘empowerment’ takes the local politics to ethical levels so abysmal that even the entrenched politicians from the upper castes prove incapable of handling it anymore. The subtle message here is moral corruption is part of the same process that also leads to political empowerment and emancipation. Raw power alone when unaccompanied by a moral vision may often turn electoral democracy into a cold-blooded game of numbers, rid of the most basic norms of human decency. Which is why, the novel has an ending that combines the loud joys of victory with a deeper and quieter sadness for the common human plight shared by all.

The message may be subtle and nuanced but I feel it contains a highly perceptive reading of the politics of empowerment in our times. In our enthusiasm for the rising lower castes, it is easy to give in to the lure of political correctness and to not admit that the journey from the innocence of victimhood to the cunning of modern electoral politics is often interwoven with a gross moral fibre, a constant strain of corruption within the soul. Playing dirty is not enough. Playing dirtier than those in power is really the only political highway that can get you to the top! The dirtier, the better, seems to be the motto here! How many times have you sided with the victim only to find him even more morally rotten than the oppressor?

Look closely at the career of all those parties and formations that start with emancipatory slogans and end up in the morass of self-seeking corruption? The irony is the faithful democrat and liberal within us blinds us to the moral regression and the triumphal part is all we are able to see and acknowledge. Let us call it the ‘progressive lie’ that we all learn to live with. The lie here is our unwillingness to acknowledge that even when a Kanjar wins the election, what has changed is the power equation but not the hearts of the people. There is a moral beauty in the victim rising to fight for her rights but there is another kind of moral beauty in the oppressor conceding ground and admitting guilt. Together they may make humanity seem considerably fuller than the political process allows.

To underline the moral dimensions of democracy, let me put words in the mouth of the triumphant Rukmini – ‘sure enough, it is democracy that enabled me to become an MLA but now that I have become an MLA, is democracy of use to me anymore’? Chew on this, please!

Baidji, the narrator in the novel is no sophisticate, no social or literary analyst like us however and fully registers the moral horror of Rukmini’s transformation into a political demoness, a monster able to rout the oppressive upper caste caucus with complete aplomb. Her moment of real victory of course comes when she arrives in Lucknow to take her oath as a member of the state assembly. She is empowered indeed but she is now also a lesser human being. Baidji applauds her victory but is also aghast at a victim of her own triumph.

Bhagwandas Morwal’s ‘Ret’

Bhagwandas Morwal’s ‘Ret’

There are other aspects of the novel I could write about such as the fabric of a society run by women, the division of labour between the prostitutes and the non-prostitute housewife like women, the missing men, nexus between crime, police and local bureaucracy. But this is not the usual kind of book review. This piece is more about unashamedly promoting a great book and the purpose is to tantalize a likely reader instead of summarizing the novel or analyzing it to the point of mutual exhaustion.

Having disowned the reviewer’s role, let me explicitly disown the role of the literary critic as well. I have a rather poor view of the critic in Hindi as I find them heavy-handed in their legislative task. They judge too promptly and produce more arguments than readings. Worst of all, they prescribe and predict the prerequisites of a great piece of writing with an overstated anxiety, instead of waiting for a good work to turn up or savouring it when it does.

‘Ret’ is a great political novel as it shows you the limits of what politics can achieve but also how much it can destroy in the manner of well, my other two favourites, ‘The Possessed’ by Dostoyevsky to make you think in a somewhat saddened way and saddeningly and the more recent ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ [print versions]  by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn to cheer you up. And if still uncheered and a bilingual, try Rahi Masoom Raza’s ‘Topi Shukla’ or any random piece by Harishankar Parsai.

The sum of it is – this is just a reader asking you to please go ahead and read ‘Ret’.

 

‘Ret’

By Bhagwandas Morwal

Rajkamal Paperbacks, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

3 Responses

  1. Akshaya says:

    Thank you for this rather well-written piece, Ratnakar.
    And thank you for these wonderful recommendations – Prabha Khaitan’s ‘Peelee Andhi’ and Ret.

    I have perhaps been far less disappointed with Hindi novels. Perhaps that is because I’ve never picked them very casually. But let me point out one factor you may not be taking into account – in our search of a good book, let us not seek a perfect one. Often, average books offer much more than perfectly well-written stories are able to. A Chetan Bhagat, insufferable though he may be, is interesting because he informs us of an attitude. Though of course, that attitude then became all too visible so I never bother reading him after his first book. But then there are Iowa-workshop produced perfect English novels, all lining up for Bookers. Or Amitav Ghosh’s utterly talentless, but perfect in word-streaming, books. I think these are rather dangerous. Because they take away from people their ability to apply themselves. They train the readers to expect a photo-shopped perfection. An elbow sticking out of the frame does not work for them.

    So, am I the only one thinking about Mayawati while reading your synopsis of Ret?
    Also, have you bothered with Mannu Bhandari’s ‘Apka Bunty’ or Aman Sethi’s ‘A Free Man’? Samanth’s ‘Following Fish’ on coastal food cultures, their histories and their politics – may be, alongside Sethi’s – the finest non-fiction turned out in a long time.

    I hope to pick Khaitan and Morwal soon to return to the pleasure of reading Hindi again.

    • Ratnakar says:

      Thanks for the comment, Akshay. And also the list of recommended books.
      As for Chetan Bhagat, yes, he is indeed some kind of barometer. But also just material for analysis and more of a symptom than anything else.
      And as for Mayawati, she was somewhere in the peripheral vision. ‘Ret’ is not just about Dalits but prostitutes who use their sexual power to the utmost in the service of well, even electoral politics, using politics in turn for personal empowerment. So there is a very ironic sense of redemption involved here, just the sort of ambiguity difficult to talk about in a purely analytical language.
      I agree with you on Ghosh – as against Bhagat’s bad English, there is much ‘good English’ that passes off as literature. After all, readers like you and me are not content with ‘competent’ literature and dil mange more!

  2. प्रिय रत्नाकर् जी ,
    आपके द्वारा रेत उपन्यास पर एक वृहद टिपण्णी देखी . इस हौसलाअफजाई के लिए आपका

    शुक्रगुज़ार हूँ. इस तरह की टिप्पणियों से, वह भी किसी बिना परिचय के , मुझ जैसे लेखक के लिए कैसी संजीवनी

    का कम करती है आप सोच नहीं सकते. बहरहाल, आगामी विश्व पुस्तक मेले (दिल्ली) में मेरा नया उपन्यास

    ‘नरक मसीहा’ प्रकाशित हो कर आ जायेगा . यह उपन्यास एनजीओ कल्तुएर पर है. बड़ा डर लग रहा है, पता

    नहीं कैसा बन पाया है . प्रकाशक वही राजकमल प्रकाशन है .

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