Sunday, 15 October 2017

God is in the details in Rajiv Mittal’s ‘Brahmahatya’

The Prologue to Rajiv Mittal’s ‘Brahmahatya’, with its absolute finality of ‘what is over is over’, draws you in, immediately. Is it a sigh of relief, this sense of closure right at the start of a book? Or is it a tone of defeat the book whispers in? The curious unhurried juxtaposition of a priest getting dressed and a man trying to be ‘old enough to be his father’ just a page later only adds to what seems like a very unusual start to a book.

The story of ‘Brahmahatya’ is at once tragic and triumphant, banal and sacred, real and unreal, of this world and another. The book is ripe with episodes from Hindu mythology and excerpts from ancient scriptures which are appropriated by the characters to understand their circumstances, or by the author, in order to move the story forward.   

Govindarajan Memorial Residency (GMR) is an old age home in a Southern state of India. Most sponsors of the aged residents, like Ravi the protagonist, live overseas. The fee for care-giving and for funerals is duly sent, keeping oiled the wheels of this plush retirement home, comfortable but speckled with greed and politics. The residents ‘were historical but they definitely were not works of art in a museum; these were crumbling.’ The atmosphere is one of a ritualistic sameness of routine and a smell of medicines, decay and death.

Bhavna, an employee at GMR and a single mother to a child with cerebral palsy, is struggling to keep her home and work in order when Ravi enters GMR with a sick father. He’s looking to admit him there so he can go back to his life of work, insomnia and loneliness in Dubai. Dr Chari, a temperamental man with little love lost for his patients or his profession, whimsically refuses Ravi’s father admittance. Mr. Narasimhan, who turns out to be Bhavna’s maths tutor from school, is left in a ramshackle old-age home instead, where he dies a silent death. With nothing but an intense sadness and a roaring rage against Dr Chari, Ravi comes back to GMR. The story follows this ‘confused and confusing man’, with his 'tamasik’ tendencies threatening to crack him, and the world of GMR. There is a sense of the macabre, a derangement, something sinister always in the air. Something being plotted, something else being subverted. The mad old lady from unit number three adds to the plot her own stories, going from ominous to comforting, seemingly without method.

God is in the details when it comes to the characterization in ‘Brahmahatya’. We compliment an author’s characters when we see them in flesh-and-blood. Rajiv Mittal’s characters go beyond that. Of course, each of them has his trademarks. There’s Sridhar, the Secretary, with ‘the habit of nodding his head whenever he had no idea what was happening’. Dr Chari has never been seen in public ‘without his srichurnam, the single thin vertical red line drawn in the middle of his forehead’ and Dr Kasturi who used ‘the word ‘strange’ in the same way I would use the word ‘wonderful’. Each character plays a role. But what is most noteworthy is how their internal conflicts are portrayed such that they become the characters. In this post-modernist world where a meaninglessness envelops lives, the character portrayals often lead to a spectacular, and touching, revelation of their souls! Ravi’s father is mortality shirking its own reality, with a child-like defiance to be independent yet a secret acceptance of fading times. Ravi, an epitome of loneliness and guilt, ‘yearned to feel wanted’. Revenge gives his life a purpose, and him a motive. Bhavna dithers between being good and sinning, remaining torn and tested. The old lady from number three, symbolic of disregard, ‘was not a woman who had gone mad; this was a woman who had chosen madness’. Her stories help others in GMR understand their predicaments. To find answers. To hold on to … something! Anything!

God is not just in the details, but also omnipresent in ‘Brahmahatya’. The book is an exploration of many kinds of relationships, including that of the very real characters with the Divine.

First, between humans. Many bonds are presented beautifully, like Bhavna’s with her daughter, Laxmi, and Ravi’s with Kasturi. However, it is the complexities of Ravi’s relationship with his father which stirred this reader the most. Guilt, awkwardness, hesitance, faux indifference and secret love mark it. From the day Ravi ‘slowly’ goes to meet his hospitalized father to the day of his cremation, an unhurried unravelling of their relationship grips you … till you choke on the realism of it all. The sudden mood change from the assurance that ‘Dad would know … his outbursts in front of the old man were always triggered by concern and fear’ to the old man starting ‘the next cycle of making him feel small again’, the battle is constant. Both, the intricacies of growing old and growing up are heard as silent sobs in their throats. One becomes the other, ‘the indentations on the right slipper were deeper, same as dad; the same spinal curvature’, as Ravi seeks a desperate reconciliation with his father’s death, and his memories of him.

Brahmahatya’, through its many references to ancient scriptures and the use of Sanskrit words, is also a narrative on man’s conflict-ridden relationship with the Divine. It is this that gives the book a timelessness, even as it raises ever-pertinent questions about rituals, faith, free will and karmic destiny.

Faith is almost a character in itself, arriving as a strengthening presence when Bhavna is looking for it, or when Ravi has given up on it. The idea of sinning is not far behind, then, and neither are superstitions. There is some humour, like Shridhar, while watching a porn film ‘was feeling Bībhatsam; disgust whose aura is blue. Is that why they called them Blue Films?’ But mostly, there’s gravitas, and lovely philosophical questions. ‘Is one of the messages of the Samudra Manthan that to get nectar, it is first necessary to consume poison; if you survive the poison, it becomes nectar?’ becomes the spine that the plot turns around. The appropriation of ancient scriptures to this contemporary story is painstakingly done. This is apparent through the voices in the characters’ heads, which the readers are made privy to, and where debates between "right" and "wrong" rage. Where their relationship with god is forever in flux…

Ahalya. As usual, a man’s interpretation of a story written by men for men. She had felt like laughing at his self-indulgent stupidity, and then she felt like a sinner because of that.’ This is Bhavna, shuffling into rebellious domain and then ‘striking her head on the floor several times in penance, although unsure why.’ Lost? Confused? Real! The ropes of faith and superstition for her are stronger than the threads of subversion. Perhaps the significance of rituals and symbols was to impart to life’s circumstances a comforting pattern of hope and wishful thinking?

Every character you meet is surprisingly well-versed in the scriptures, and mostly at ease with the teachings. Except Ravi. His struggle with faith and no faith forms the crux of the book. As a son listening to the ‘inconsequential murmurings of the indifferent priest’ over his father’s pyre, he needs god ‘not for help. For explanations.’ He’s angry. ‘Why don’t you show your presence here? Come on out, I dare you.’ As always, the gods used silence to silence.’ For the most part of the novel, the reader is his closest confidant. The unhurried pace of the story complements the unhurried unravelling of Ravi, and the reader only feels closer to him. Will there be an affirmation of the Divine in the end, as the events of the book spiral towards a climax? And just like the white smoke from his chillum, a fog of questions emerge to surround us.

And one of my favourites is the classic destiny versus free will debate. The causality in ‘Brahmahatya’ would make for a worthy study!

While getting his father admitted ‘Ravi hoped his dad’s karma was good’. When karma fails them, he swears to fulfill himself the few wishes that he had. While Ravi contemplates one crime to the next, he never stops othering the causes - 'What were the forces that were forcing him to actions that would have such terrible consequences? Was this just another act in a play that started with the death of his father? Maybe the play had started as soon as he was born, perhaps it started earlier...’ Human agency versus the divinely ordained. This is where the philosophical weight of the novel rests.

Bhavna, for the most part, negates human will, which also leads to the scientific and the supernatural warring within her. She’s a woman of science, but believes it was god’s hand that her daughter was born thus. She believes Ravi ‘has no right’ to punish evil. Only by the end of the book does her final resolve to ‘liberate my daughter from the curse… I will do it myself’ becomes the point where free will and destiny meet. At a point of duty and love. Hadn’t Kasturi remarked, ‘Fight you will, your nature will make you fight. Your karma will make you fight. You will fight in spite of yourself’. They are not mutually exclusive, after all.

There do appear a few things about the book which bother me.

Is the book suggesting that a loss of faith in the Divine can only lead to violence and self-annihilation? You also find references to the superiority of Brahmins and Brahminical qualities in the characters, almost to the point of wondering if Ravi’s problem with Dr Chari was not so much that he failed him but that he failed Brahminism and its aspirations. Is this the author’s belief or is this his critique? Answer for yourself as you read!

Then, was Dr Chari really responsible for Ravi’s father’s death? Could the son not take him to Dubai? And what if his death was simply pre-ordained?  Ravi managing to live unnoticed in GMR, with no test revealing his age, is implausible, but not as difficult to digest as the supernatural turn of events in the last part of the book. My biggest problem remains with this last aspect. I wish the book ended not with a twist of a fantastical magnitude but with the same quiet, unhindered and steady chant that runs through the book. Unnecessary details about GMR’s functioning and some odd sentences like – ‘Thursday whole night, she could not sleep,’ or, ‘The forgiving voice of Mr Kasturi again.’ could have been edited away.

Brahmahatya’ is a stirring book, at once heavy with sadness and light with a beauty which one may call … divine. How the universe and all its beings conspire to make a son understand his father in his death, and understand his death itself seems personal … and felt. It ends on a note of calm reconciliation, even though it remains upon the reader to weigh the cost at which this peace has been reached. Some discomfort will ensue. Some suspension of disbelief will be needed. Some bits of faith will be tested, and some reaffirmed. But that’s what you’re looking for in a book when you’re looking for a book to last you your time. Isn't it?

'Brahmahatya' by Rajiv Mittal is a self-publication, 2017

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

The Curious Case of Hanging Laundry

I am extremely perturbed today. I have learnt from various sources that it’s against gentle manners to dry your laundry out on balconies, your balconies of your houses, out here in Brussels. I also learn that this is true for many countries around the world, but about those mennu kee. I’m not looking for comfort in numbers here. I am, right now, looking at the sun shining on my balcony, and with a gentle wind calling out to the washed laundry piled in the bucket near my feet, waiting to be freed.

Yes, freed. I’m sure wet clothes have feelings too. That they like to hang freely after what they go through in the washing machines. To wave their arms and legs and hems and holes as they dry in the wind and sunshine. And what about their daily dose of Vitamin D? No, this isn’t my angry state of mind muttering untruths to me. This is the absolute truth. It pinches as hard as the hardest clothes-clip the very moment you have to push your clothes rack into your drawing room, and start hanging your soaking laundry there, hoping this summer of 09 will last forever.    

For a city which barely manages to get enough sun in a year to make rai ka achaar, I find this tradition absolutely unbelievable. Or maybe, they just don't know what they're missing! We who have been line-drying our clothes in India since the planet of the apes know what it’s like. The wafer-crispiness of clothes dried in the warm embrace of sunshine is orgasmic to hold. The towels become prickly happy, the separated socks feel loved, the bermudas reach their sandy beach of dreams and even the underwear, for once, feels wanted in public gaze, with nothing to hide!

Why, our clothes proudly unfurling their insides outside is as much a part of our core identity as a flag is made out to be. That is why I say to whomsoever it may concern, that this foreign rule of drying clothes inside the houses is nothing but an affront to my patriotic spirit, my nationalism, my national song, dance, drama and costumes.

Costume makes me wonder. Consider the salwar of the salwar-suit fame. It has many, some even secret, parts which need proper wind and sun to dry. The amount of cloth which goes into making just one of those could cover a whole war bunker against attack. Something so valorous about it, in keeping with the sex which wears it. See how ‘nada’, the string, or ‘bookrum’, said in the right tone, can veritably be war cries. Rebel! Nada! Charge! Bookrum! How is it then expected to humbly hang on a clothes rack, in a forgotten corner of the house, waiting to dry without bellowing with invasive might in foreign winds? It’s just mean.

A man’s most prized all-purpose possession, again nothing less than a steel armour, the baniyan, is also to be met with the same fate. No matter that the vest has been with the man since his mother darned the fifth hole that it got with age, as it went from white to less white to yellow in its first three washes. It is forced to swallow its ‘VIP’ tag, forget that it was once a ‘Boss’ and hang alongside other wet bits of a man’s inner world. Sadly, the new-born sixth hole teeming with curiosity to have a peek at the world around is to suppress its desire and get denied its basic education. Heart-breaking! Here they call the vest ‘gilet’, and assuming the ‘t’ is silent, because just anything in French can be silent anytime, it’s sad they don’t see the message the vests are screaming through their names. ‘Geeley’, we are wet! Dry us outside! Learning Hindi needs to be made compulsory here, for equality and fraternity sake!

Talking about equality... nothing acts as a bigger leveler than one, long, sturdy clothes-line. Like a traffic red light in New Delhi, where Maruti 800 meets a Jaguar without reservation, the clothes-line quietly works on a similar principle of erasing class boundaries. On your line, be it a rusty wire or a plastic rope, the Zaras and the Rupas hang shoulder to shoulder, sans prejudices and biases, with a message of gender-equality subtly thrown in. So here will be your precious Benetton pair of socks bought for the price of your kidney and next to it you’ll see your Lee jeans, custom-made in two hours at Mohan-Singh Place, CP, choice of tag included! And you know as well as I do how now, more than ever, we need to stand visibly together against any kind of oppressive regime.

Like this anti clothes-line rule, for instance!

For now, I have hung my washed laundry on a rack and placed it in the warmest part of the house, inches away from the balcony. Like a ‘nearest to heaven but farthest from god’ approach. But the nationalist in me is itching to twist and tease some gentle-manners, and hang one, just one, piece of my clothing on the railing outside. Like my banner of protest; of rejection of some things foreign. That will be my war-cry against this mind-boggling rule.

That will be my Nada!!

From 'Aliens Love Underpants'

Friday, 7 July 2017

Hairy Legs, Brussels and ‘I think she likes me’

The hair on my arms is the length of my toes. The hair on my legs has reached my toes. I wouldn’t say it is a completely new experience, but it is certainly most novel to experience it when a country is celebrating, yes celebrating, all 13 degrees of its summers with skin and sunshine. On the cobbled streets of Brussels I am probably the only one wearing stretch denims while the world is sprinting ahead of me in airy, breezy and frivolously delicious summer clothes. The moment I spot a pair of smooth legs enjoying the sunshine, it is as if the jeans grow four sizes smaller to kill me with asphyxiation, or whatever the hell tight jeans can do to your health when the heart burns green. 

But my hands are tied. 

I am thousands of kilometres away from a long-trusted tin of Shabnam Cold Wax (Rs 70) and a packet of disposable white waxing strips (Rs 25). Are there no salons in Brussels, you ask? There’s one in every Rue, but with my level of fluency in French I believe I might as well discuss foreign policy with a plant, and succeed in having a path-breaking dialogue, than explain to la fille successfully that I need a wax. Um, there is another reason why I have been Google translating salon menus but not garnering the courage to enter and ask for a pure and simple wax. 

It seems to me to be a secret kind of … something. It caught me by surprise. And I have been trying to unravel it as much as I have been my overgrown eyebrows from my lashes. 

When you shift to a foreign country for the first time, complete with lock, stock and barrels of homemade ghee, you are ready and raring for the new life ahead. You are confident that it’ll be a great experience. So happy you are that it’s not wind under the wings of the airplane but actually your excited panting which floats your craft ahead, right till you land. 

Then a few days later you land again, with a minor splash into the pool of reality that surrounds you. It is different!

There is newness at every step of the way. This is not that kind of newness which tourists make happy selfies or informative photographs out of. Their tryst with newness is temporary. It happens with a bang and begins to fizzle once the trip is done, all #nofilters dusted and suitcases of fridge magnets unpacked. I talk of a more permanent interface between you and The Foreign – a kind where from bread and beer to office and school, everything has to integrate harmoniously and seamlessly into the language of your everyday life. Much has to be done, made possible, understood and learnt. And this includes ideas about your sense of self. Very basic and visible ideas too, I do sheepishly confess.

Like my hairy legs. 

‘Gosh! No one has body hair here, unless it’s golden and invisible! Were they dipped in bleach before being sent to Earth?’ and  ‘Can I really walk my legs into the salon without having the ladies there run out scared of King Kong?’ … just two of the many thoughts which rattle my mind as my caddy rattles behind the French and Dutch ones at supermarkets. During one such musing, with a twang that a thread on an in-growth feels like, I heard a loud ‘What will they think?’ inside my head.

The loudness echoed inside me. I caught it lingering longer than the smell of tadka in an 8-storied building. What will they think? What will they say? It stalked me all over the park, walked behind me right to my building, went up the same elevator and even entered my flat. It is only later that the stress shifted itself, and thank Gouda that it did! What will they think? Hold on! When before have I been so conscious of what people think? Have I not managed to live and let live most of the 34 years of my life confidently and sans self-consciousness? So why am I now eager to theorize ‘A comparative study of hair growth between French and Indian legs’? 

More importantly, who is this ‘they’ that I talk about? Who is this … Oh Crêpe!

I realized how, rather easily, I created an entity. I attributed to a whole population homogenous characteristics and in doing so created an absolute ‘other’. In my head! Simultaneously, I ‘othered’ myself in the process. A kind of alienation, where I was alienating not just the others from me but my own self from them too. Hello wall, I built you for free. And now I’m wondering why…

It felt odd. It felt wrong and unfair. Especially so when I looked back on my few weeks here only to realize the locals never made me into a ‘they’. If anything, they had been kinder to me than many of “my own”. Be it book shops or tram stops, Carrefour queues or bars, nowhere and not once did I get a feeling that I am being seen as different. Forget a second look, even a first look doesn’t come your way. You’re just going about your day, like everyone else. At first it feels unflattering, as if everyone else is invisible to everyone else and it’s a very self-centered life out here. But gradually, you realize how it also means you’re being taken as a part and parcel of everyday life here. You’re being integrated as a ‘resident’, a person among others, and not an ‘exotic import’ who ended up guilty of training a magnifying glass on her own Indian identity when no one else cared. 

And yet, there continues an acknowledgement that we are new and may need assistance. Where language was a barrier, the toy shop owner drew a map on a napkin to show us the mobile recharge kiosk. Where language wasn’t a problem, people made sure to tell us with pride that they’ve seen the Taj Mahal! If Shakespearean Mercy droppeth from heaven above, then this is Merci heaven itself. It’s what you hear for the smallest of gestures. It is also what you feel right back. 

To even linger on the border of a limited world which propagates difference and divisiveness, of any kind, is but missing out on the vast expanse of a very warm and welcoming world, around the world. But then it is easier to commit this crime, than to not commit it at all. I confess guilty to that.  

A few moments before I wrote this my son and I bumped into our concierge in the elevator. She only understands French, while I am yet to not pronounce oui as oye! Lots of animated gestures and smiles and words (without comprehension) were shared. She kept pointing at my son, kept circling her face with her hand. Her eyes wide and happy. I have no idea what we spoke but felt good anyway after our “introductions”. There was something more than looks, language and identity at play. And as if to confirm it all my son beamingly chimed soon as we entered our home - ‘I think she likes me’. 

Recently, we were given a very old copy of ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. We have been reading it aloud, together. This precious copy has lived more than half a century, with a handwritten note that is older than me. This personal note to an ‘Auro’ quotes from the book and says:

It’s only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

It is with this thought that we begin our short stint in Brussels. It is this that I hope my child learns. And as we go about acquainting ourselves with a new world which is our home now, something tells me he already understands that. [Apart from believing what the little boy in this book staunchly does - ‘Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is so tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.’ Oh well!] 

As for my legs, I’m sure this social media addict will update you with a picture soon. But in case I don’t, you know where they’re headed, don’t you?  

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