Midnight's Children: The Novel II

Other Practitioners of Magic Realism

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Other Practitioners of Magic Realism

Apart from Rushdie, there are quite a few contemporary novelists who have employed the technique of Magic Realism, with varying degrees of success. The experiment succeeds best when the novelist uses the technique to present a meaningful vision of life. But in the absence of this, it merely becomes a currently fashionable literary device which amuses, but does not enlighten.

This dichotomy is illustrated in two well-known novels of this period: The Circle of Reason (1986), the first novel by Amitav Ghosh (b.1956), and Shashi Tharoor's (b.1956) The Great Indian Novel (1989), also a first novel. Ghosh's protagonist is a Bengali orphan called "Alu" (potato) because his head is shaped like one. His real name is "Nachiketa", which reminds us of the enterprising young boy in Katha Upanishad, who pursues the god of Death, importuning him to reveal to him the secret of existence. Alu is forced to run away from his village, because he is falsely accused of being a terrorist. His peregrinations take him to the Middle East, moving as he does from al­Ghazira, a small Persian Gulf town to Cairo, the Sahara and finally Algeria.

The narrative teems with many interesting, and in some cases eccentric, characters. Alu's uncle, Balaram, a school teacher, is an enthusiastic student of phrenology and is always busy, measuring

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heads with a huge pair of callipers, and making solemn predictions thereby. He is also a passionate believer in the virtues of carbolic acid, which he thinks is a panacea for almost everything. Then there is Jyoti Das, the police officer, who is investigating Alu's case. He is an avid bird-watcher, and when he fails to find any evidence against Alu, he resigns from the police force and gives himself up to ornithology. The middle eastern characters, very rare in Indian English fiction, are sharply etched. They include Zindi, the large-hearted "madam", who takes Alu under her wing; Nuri, the one-eyed egg-seller, and Kulfi, one of Zindi's girls who dies while acting in a Tagore play.

Several incidents are in the vein of Magic Realism. Alu, fascinated by the loom, wants to be a weaver. But his thumbs shrivel and atrophy, making it impossible for him to weave. Perhaps there is an implied reference here to the story of Eklavya, the tribal in the Mahabharata who learnt the art of archery by worshipping a statue of Dronacharya, the great martial arts teacher of the Pandava and Kaurava princes. The Guru demanded Eklavya's thumb as payment, because he wanted Ai juna to have no rival, that too one of the wrong caste. Alu too is of the wrong caste - society disapproves of a higher caste boy learning to weave. Then his thumbs grow back miraculously. And when he is trapped in the basement of a multi-storied building, which collapses, he is saved by the sewing machines there, which he has gone to salvage.

In spite of its wealth of character and incident, The Circle of Reason fails to generate adequate thematic substance. The tripartite division of the narrative into Satwa, Rajas and Tarnas, which refer to the three universal qualities in Hindu thought, and the allusion to Nachiketas raise visions of a strong under-pinning of serious ideational significance, which the actual narrative finally belies. Ghosh's subsequent novels: In an Antique Land (1992), The Calcutta Chromosome (1996) and The Glass Palace (2000) show him attempting different strategies; in fact, no two novels by him are alike in tone and spirit. These novels will be considered in their proper places later.

One of the finest examples of post-modern fiction in recent Indian English literature is Shashi Tharoor's first novel, The Great Indian Novel (1989). The title itself is a take-off on the ancient Indian epic, The Mahabharatu ("The great narrative of India"). By a daring stroke of imagination, Tharoor finds uncanny correspondences between the chief characters and events in the three thousand year old epic and the leading political figures and developments in modern
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Indian history. These correspondences are not mechanically worked out; they are suitably modified, sometimes hinted at rather than fully spelt out; and on occasion they are given an ironic twist in a spirit of self-mockery, which is so characteristic of post-modernism. Thus, the venerable Bhishma, the son of Ganga in the epic becomes Gangadptta, a Mahatma Gandhi-like figure; but Gandhi's great Salt-march, which shook the foundations of the British empire in India, becomes the rather comic "Mango-march." Duryodhana, the wicked son of King Dhritarashtra in the epic is "unsexed" to become a woman: Priya Duryodhani, who stands for Indira Gandhi; the evil she did being the breaking up of the Congress party and the gagging of democracy during the infamous Emergency.

The narrative is rich in comic invention of various kinds. Comic verses are interpolated from time to time, to remind us of the original epic, and word-play is continuous and usually of a high order. The witty titles of the books themselves set the proper tone for the diverting narrative: "The Rigged Veda"; "The Bungle Book", "Midnight's Parents" etc. The Great Indian Novel which effectively demonstrates how the technique of running a continuous parallel between antiquity and modernity can illuminate both, is easily one of the most outstanding novels of the period.

Another novel which demonstrates the use of going back to the past is The Memory of Elephants (1988) by Boman Desai (b. 1950). This is the story of Homi Seervai, a young Parsi scientist in the USA, who invents a machine which can activate the part of the brain in which memories are stored. After frustration in a love affair, he tries to use the machine to re-live his memories of love, but something goes wrong with the machine, and he begins to re-live the past, not only of his family but also that of his entire race, from the time of the collapse of the great Persian empire to the flight of the Parsis from their land to seek shelter in India. The fantasy here is perfectly credible, given the first premise, and is put to significant use - viz. an encapsulation of Parsi history, life, culture and character.

In his second novel, Asylum, USA (2000), Desai tries' his hand at comic extravaganza. The protagonist, Noshir Daruvala, is a young Parsi student in Chicago who must get a green card or be deported to Bombay. He gives Barbara a thousand dollars to marry him, so that he becomes an American citizen, but discovers that she is a lesbian with a live-in woman-lover. Later, he meets Blythe, but she too has a boy­friend .... and so he lurches on from one woman to another. As he himself tells us in one of his (rare) serious moments, "TTie women ...

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in this story ... were less a tribute to my powers of attraction as I liked to think than to my troubledness ... they too were troubled.... we were linked by our troubles". But this serious aspect of the story is not realized adequately, because it is engulfed by flippant gestures like frequently gratuitous dove-tailing of words, a la Rushdie ("hewasthefirsttoaskher"), and the non-use of quotation marks in dialogue throughout with an entire page full of these marks at the end, to supply the deficiency. Devices like these yield more facetiousness than genuine comedy.

A fellow Parsi, Farrukh Dhondy (b. 1944), tries to make fantasy subserve the needs of comic extravaganza in his Bombay Duck (1990). The most credible part of this rather footloose fantasy is the "Book of Xerxes Xavaxa Hoax Xtraordinaire" dealing with the exploits of the resourceful Parsi, Xavaxa, one of whose more or less crazy schemes is a baby-smuggling racket in London.

The extravaganza is even more boisterous in The Revised Kamasutra (1993) by Richard Crasta. The sub-title reads: "A Novel of Colonialism and Desire with Arbitrary Footnotes and a Whimsical Glossary." This is the sexual odyssey of Vijay, a small-town, middle class boy from South India, whose sexual propensity begins at the age of seven and finds its full flowering when he goes to the USA as a young man. Crasta's word-play is often resourceful and reminds us of Desani and Rushdie. (e.g., "I am in the well, thank you"; "offences against pubic peace"; two girls named "Erecta and Ejecta" etc). The Revised Kamasutra is a rollicking recital of a comedy of rampant sexuality.

Fantasy may use reality as a spring-board, but an uneasy mixture of the two is sure to create problems for both the writer and the reader. This is what seems to have happened in A Clean Breast (1993) by G.J.V. Prasad (b. 1955). The narrator one day suddenly finds in a glossy magazine the photograph of a huge female breast, with one hair growing near the nipple, and recognizes it, with horror, as that of his wife. But having had its fling with fantasy, the novel reverts to social realism, and seems to fall between two stools. The successful sustaining of fantasy is far more difficult than its creation.

Paradoxically enough, fantasy cannot thrive, if it severs its connection with reality altogether; for if realism reflects reality, Magic Realism only refracts reality; it is simply Realism reflected in the turbulent waves of a river in spate. Indrajit Hazra's The Burnt Forehead of Max Saul (2000) illustrates this. Max, a middle-aged man, is found lying semi-naked on a garbage dump; removed to a
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hospital, he lies in a coma for several months. His "burnt forehead" (which is reminiscent of the head-injury of Desani's hero in All About H. Hatterr) probably accounts for the hallucinations he is subject to ("what happened around Max didn't happen"). His escapades include shop-lifting; trying to organise the escape of a friend from jail by the bizarre device of hiding him in a large piano and even committing a murder. He tells us at the beginning of his narrative that his father has asked him to locate the mysterious Serai but at the end it is revealed that his father has been dead for years and that Serai never existed. The only specific touch of reality comes at the end: "I raise my arms to smell the horse odour of my armpits." Hatterr's story raises larger questions such as colonial consciousness, appearance and reality, and at the end he arrives at a philosophy of life. Max's hallucinations remain mere fantasies, without any ulterior significance, though some of his adventures do generate black humour.

The Magic Realism technique may give the novelist the widest possible scope for the exercise of imagination, but in that process, he always stands in danger of losing his hold on the structural values of fiction. This is what happens in Beethoven Among the Cows (1994) by Rukun Advani (b. 1955). The eight chapters of the book are actually so many separate short stories linked together loosely by the two protagonists who are twins, and all the events are seen through their consciousness. The action covers a period of three decades, from 1962, the inglorious year of the war with China, when the twins are born, to 1992, which witnessed the infamous demolition of the Babri Masjid. The fantasy produces strange results: Elizabeth Taylor comes down from the cinema screen to meet the twins, and later, she suddenly merges into the historical Eliza Taylor, who was in the besieged residency in Delhi during the Mutiny of 1857. The comedy operates at various levels, the most notable of which is the stylistic one. Advani makes deft use of parody, caricature, witty allusion and word-play. The character of Professor Lavatri All-theori, "the Moby Dick of the American Academy" is of topical interest, as a caricature of a well­known modern Indian critic long settled in the U.S.A. We are. told that in her Women's Movement, "Lit.crit" becomes "Lit.Clit". In the absence of a hard, central core, however, Beethoven Among the Cows remains a charismatic chaos of a book.

Looking Through Glass (1995) by Mukul Kesavan (b. 1957) is slightly better organized. The narrator, a young photographer, accidentally falls off a railway bridge and loses consciousness; when he comes to, he discovers to his surprise that he is now back in the
Midnight's Children's Children: The Novel -- II 51
nineteen-forties. Ile acquires a Muslim foster family in Lucknow and goes again through the political vicissitudes of the entire decade, including the last phase of the Freedom Struggle and the Partition holocaust. Fantasy now seems to run riot: Muslim Congressmen, who oppose the Quit India "resolution" of August 1942 suddenly disappear, and the degree of their disappearance is in inverse proportion to their commitment to the Congress. Some just become lighter-skinned, others translucent like Inayat Khan, who finds himself totally naked. The famous film-star, Yusuf-bin-Ansoo (_ "child of tears" - an obvious caricature of Dilip Kumar, Yusuf Khan in real life, a well­known Indian Muslim film-actor, called the "Tragedy King") looks into the mirror (probably to assume the right expression), and then somehow, the actor vanishes but his mirror-image remains. All this is, no doubt, highly imaginative and extremely entertaining, but its final impact remains limited. localized and sporadic. Incidents such as these form a loose chain of events: they do not ultimately come to constitute a thematic whole, as in Midnight Children.

The larger the canvas, the more difficult it is to control it and harness it to a solid central concern. Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1995) by Vikram Chandra (b. 1961) illustrates this. In this long and ambitions novel, the action moves from India to the U.S.A. and back, and covers two centuries (the nineteenth and twentieth), and the characters include historical personages like de Boigne, head of Scindia's artillery; George Thomas and Begum Samru - both well­known adventurers; Hindu gods - Yama, Ganesha and Hanuman; and even a monkey, who, we are told, was actually a bright Brahmin boy in a previous birth. The narrative moves jerkily, with flash-backs and "dash-forwards" and there are numerous surrealistic effects, as when the gods Ganesha and Hanuman, and the protagonist, Abhay together watch the popular Hindi film, Amar Akba,; Anthony. We are carried along swiftly in the headlong current of this fantastic narrative, but by the time we reach the end, we find ourselves saying, "but there seems to be no `figure in the carpet' after all."

Embarking on a fantasy is like riding a tiger, you can't dismount without being doomed; The Narrator (1995) by Makarand Paranjape (b. 1960) demonstrates this truth. The narrative opens promisingly, with the protagonist, a University lecturer in English undergoing a most curious experience: there is a sudden emanation from his mouth, which soon assumes a transparent human shape. It is probably his own uninhibited self. He calls it "Baddy" (suggesting both "buddy" and "Biddy" - a short form of "Libido"). lt'is soon transmogrified into
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Badri(nath), a self-made businessman, who proposes that the narrator and he should author a film-script together. After this, the story of the film, the doings of the narrator and the goings on of Baddy get mixed up until one is left wondering which is the text and which are the sub­texts. The numerous authorial asides, such as those on the art of fiction, and the one on "those stupid and carping reviewers ... who suck up to any author who has been published in England or America, but piss on those published in India. Poor, misguided sods" only compound the general amorphousness. It is all very clever and witty; it is a pity it could not be more.

Magic Realism is a jealous mistress. Once you set up house with her, social realism becomes an unwelcome guest there. An Angel in Pyjamas (1996) by Tabish Khair (b.1966) provides an example. The author describes the book as "anything-but-a-novel" written by a plurality of authors: "there might even be more of me - one who tries to write a novel, one who writes this book, one who is in this book, one who is in and out, and so on and so forth." This arouses great expectations of experimental fiction, which however are sadly belied soon. The first part of the narrative, which is in the realistic vein, tells the story of the marriage of Yunus Shaikh, a young journalist, to Farida. In the second half fantasy enters, and renders the first part virtually redundant. Yunus now meets the nineteenth century poet, Ghalib, in twentieth century Delhi. The narrative gets side-tracked into the story of Sukha, an innocent Sikh peasant, unjustly accused of being a terrorist. Here again, what begins with a realist whimper, ends with a fantasist bang. In jail, Sukha suddenly develops a halo around his head, levitates and just flies away.

Another novel that fails for a similar reason is Ravan and Eddie (1995) by Kiran Nagarkar (b. 1942). Thirteen-month-old Rama falls from the fifth floor of a Bombay chawl straight on the head of Victor, a young mechanic; the poor man falls down and dies, though the child survives miraculously. Its mother starts calling it "Ravan" now, to ward off the evil eye in future. Ravan and Eddie, Victor's son who is almost of the same age, grow up together, but each in his own world. A narrative which made such a spectacular beginning now settles into the grooves of social realism. There is a half-hearted attempt to enliven it by digressions, like the one on the Hindi film-world and the Portuguese colonisation of parts of India, but these appear to be merely excrescences. The author informs us that the novel was originally written as a screen-play. That, indeed, explains a lot.

One of the earliest forms of fantasy which is as old as Aesop's
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tales is the Animal Fable. The Crow Chronicles (1996) by Ranjit Lar (b. 1955) belongs to this genre. The protagonist is a white crow from Bombay, who migrates to a bird sanctuary, seizes power from the ruling eagle there, and becomes a dreaded dictator called, "Khatarnak Kala Kaloota Kawa Kaw Kaw." His henchmen have equally meaningful names: "Depraven Craven Raven," the Prime Minister; "Dr Thappad Maro Sala," -the Chief Interrogator; and "Buddhhoo Bandicoot," Chief of Intelligence_ A Resistance movement launched by the smaller birds ultimately destroys the tyrant's power, and he flies off to the Himalayas. While the correspondences with the human types are maintained consistently enough, the fable lacks the grounding in a specific political milieu which makes the satire in Orwell's Animal Farm so devastating. Nor does it possess the existential dimension that gives Swift's picture of the Yahoos in the last part of Gulliver's Travels its formidable power.

Another animal fable, which seems to he more ambitious, though far less achieved, is The Last Jungle on Earth (2000) by Randhir Khare (b.1951). This is both a dystopia and an animal fable. It is a vision of the world, after the last Great War has been fought, leaving the earth in ruins. The few human beings that survive are now called "Animen", and are despised by the animals, who are dying for lack of water on the devastated planet. Kenyoba, an African elephant, Hindona, an Indian pachyderm, and Columbus, a tortoise from the Galapagos island, form a team which goes out in search of water. After several adventures in which they encounter different animals, they at last find "The Last Jungle," which is also the "first", as it promises renewal of life.

As a dystopia, the narrative would appear to be deficient in the kind of rich specificity which accounts for the power of major modern anti-utopias like Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World. As an animal fable too, The Last Jungle lacks the symbolic dimension of Animal Farm, though there are occasional touches suggesting that the novelist is aware of the possibilities in this direction, as for instance, his depiction of the great Rat King, Thrile, who is greeted as 'Hile, Thrile' by his minions which recalls Hitler and his Nazi hordes ("Hile, Thrile" is an anagram for "Heil, Hitler").

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