Anjali Bhatia’s book ‘Twice Upon a Time’ drew me with its title. That most things, since the days of Aesop at least, happened once upon a time mattered not to this author. With her own twist to a phrase which begins most stories you and I hear, Anjali got me interested in her book instantly. I remember quickly checking to see if the book began thus too, but it did not. It did begin with an equally enigmatic scene-setting though.
Arpit, Anjali’s young protagonist, is full of ‘reckless self-abhorrence’. Bitter about circumstances which he finds himself in as well as the ‘shallow pool of humanity’, he is ‘trying to make amends … to get back what he lost’. The first few scenes are wrought with his restlessness to come to terms with his past decisions, particularly to make his love, Mannat, more than ‘a beautiful phantom meant to be resurrected only in dreams’. This is when he meets Nishimaya, a modern-day mystic, who helps him travel back into his past psychically, re-visit through his dreams the seven key mistakes that he made then and through the process come out a man who first willingly embraces his demons and then puts them to rest.
The striking idea of ‘Roots’, and author-speak
When I finished reading ‘Twice Upon a Time’, one particular word took root in my mind. Anjali Bhatia’s book circles like a vine around a central theme - of ‘Roots’. Within the folds of this novel you will find myriad ways in which this theme finds utterance.
We know human aggression does not always manifest itself as violence, for the other side of a phenomenon like Partition is displacement of people from their native lands; severed not in head or limbs but in their roots. Dispossessed from places where they belonged – in body and in spirit. This idea of migration gains in significance in this novel, for it forms the background to the debate of country versus city, the movement of people away from their holy villages and green hills, the consequences of this relocation and the death of small towns. Reminded me of Gray’s poetry, one of the famous Graveyard Poets, who bemoans the emptiness which villages were fighting as young and old moved towards the outwardly glittering cities.
Then, when such movement happens, one moves not just physically from a place but emotionally away from what we call ‘extended family’ and friends who once stayed as one. Arpit’s relocation to New Delhi and beyond from Meharsar cleaves his ties with people he loved as a boy, and dictates his decision-making such that later he wants to turn back time itself. It is only when he visits his village after years that he muses to himself – ‘How did I stay away that long?’ When people make up a place, the dispossession is of the hearts too.
The book, as does its author, carries a strong ecological streak set in an India which has ‘been brought up on legacy of broken promises’. Through varied ideas, predominantly the fight of locals versus corporates over the holy lake in Meharsar, the chilling apathy of corporates and the government machinery towards it, Anjali’s “heart-from-the-hills” is not just making a bold point about sensitivity towards the environment and the ill effects of uncontrolled development but of the larger idea of co-existence as an organic whole; of man and nature in a symbiotic spiritual embrace of care and concern, not use and abuse. For instance, the lake in Meharsar, ‘where it all started, and it is where it will all end’, is perceived as a symbol to spiritually connect human misery with that of nature.
I enjoyed the topicality she brought to the narrative sans preaching, and the mysticism she attaches to it all to make it quite interesting. Some of the lush green descriptions are stuff that dreams are made of. Literally, in this book, as you will find out.
As for the rest …
While I admire Anjali for weaving her idealism within her tale and for impressing it upon her readers thus, the tale itself failed to impress me. The ways in which she incorporated ecology and its mysticism into Amrit’s story charmed the environmentalist, but certain aspects about the book as a novel did not the reader/reviewer in me.
The Story moves forward in two ways – either through Amrit’s dreams mentored by Nishi or through a series of coincidences. The dream sequences are well done. They are written beautifully, imagined even better and surpass real life events in significance of dropping hints or furthering the story line. I found the to and fro between the two worlds unique in usage. Something like what Nishi says – ‘Memories are dreams of what once was, and dreams are but memories of what is to be’ - prophetic dreams, used cathartically for Amrit and prettily for the novel. The dreams are so rich in images and sensory perceptions that they stand out as bright spots in an otherwise simple story. They show more than tell, with recurrent images from nature, creating in the reader everything from the dread of drowning to the amazement of sylvan surroundings. It is only the series of coincidences, and only coincidences which form and forward the rest of the story, that seemed a little problematic to me.
Excess of not everything is bad. But an excess of coincidences defeats the idea behind using them in the first place. If every turn in the story hinges around one, neither do they manage to create a surprise element nor help in keeping the story believable. That is exactly what happens in this book. Event after event and either you end up saying ‘It’s a small world’ or you wonder if this is some other-worldly pattern that is beyond man’s, and thus the reader’s, comprehension. Can a string of unfailing coincidences be called a pattern? I don't know! Thus, deeper thoughts about Fate, karma and Time fail to rise. I do wonder. What if the only coincidence was the “travelling painting”, or the Baba’s face and not the scores of others which not just help the story but form the whole story? But that’s a thought for you after you read the book!
Then, many strands of the plot seemed bordering on cliché (I exclude the environmental ones, which are only too real!). Unshaven aimless lovers, fast unto deaths, black sheep in the family, family feuds, teenage love in hill stations, and I could go on. I wish Anjali had done justice to the psychic and mystical sequences by laying them in a story better than what ‘Twice Upon a Time’ enjoys. What a spectacular book the right union would have made!
Most characters could not grow beyond atypical for me. Starting from Amrit to Mannat, to even the well-meaning Veerji, the characters seemed to stand for ideas rather than human beings who I could not see from head-to-toe in my mind’s eye. Even their motives and aims, like Baldev’s (Amrit’s father) resolve to destroy his ancestral village over a family feud seems straight out of a movie. The uni-dimensional characters lack in depth, and I wish we were introduced to their minds through streams of consciousness as much as we are to some of their dreaming. Would have been great to see Amrit’s existential turmoil described better, for instance. Nishi is interesting for the powers that she possesses but not enough to make me admire the author’s skills at characterization.
- Why is Arpit ‘wrong’ in picking a glorious academic seat in a college over Mannat when he is not even out of his teens?
- And then, why is he all so suddenly conflicted by those very decisions which even the readers see as ‘practical’ and sane?
- All the re-dreaming and hard work and is this the best closure that Mannat and Arpit could have been given in the book? The last image is vague and unsatisfying to my mind.
As a novel, ‘Twice Upon a Time’ did not excite me in aspects I mention above. It is not the most spectacular piece of fiction on the shelf. Neither is it a precedent setting work of Literature which I love to look for, and which safely go beyond mere touchstones of story, characterisations and language into larger realms of trailblazing trend-setters knocking on codified doors. However, if you enjoy mysticism and its related ideas or, like me, sadly watch the face of your hill town changing expressions in the face of development, you may want to pick this up for a light Sunday afternoon read.
Title: Twice Upon a Time
Author: Anjali Bhatia