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Dr. H. P. Shukla Professor of English Kumaun University Nainital I The novels and short stories of Manoj Das carry such a rare blend of seriousness and humour, are so deceptively cloaked in bright scintillating colours as to belie their quiet depths that more often than not critics have foregrounded the minor embellishment of Das’s craft to the neglect of his major and more serious concerns. Humour is not the burden of his tales, but only a manner by which he lightens their subtle weight. Das is one of those serious artists whose right placement in the tradition requires a radical revaluation of reputations and accepted or acceptable values in literature, more specifically those of Indian English literature. It is only by relating the author to his right tradition can his works be appreciated in their true light. In the sifting of reputations, the first step is to separate the chaff. According to a popular ‘bestselling’ author, Stephen King, “The ‘serious’ novelist is looking for answers and keys to the self; the ‘popular’ novelist is looking for an audience” (xii). Many of the most loved icons of Indian English Writing will make their exit here. Among those who seek the self, not all are seeking the same thing. There is the lower and the higher – self and Self, and in-between an infinity of gradations. The smaller, it seems, is always grounded in the larger and has no separate independent existence. The individual finds its meaning in a larger Self, and the Self (the Existent) its source in the Essence. It is everywhere and nowhere, we are told, and everywhere is where one is. One sees it therefore in Nature and no less in living relations, ideas, superstitions and fears embedded in one’s culture.
Published in The Visva-Bharati Quarterly vol. 12 nos. 3&4 and vol. 13 nos. 1&2 (joint issue), December 2005, pp 27-33
A Reading of Manoj Das’s The Escapist If it be so, then only in the understanding of culture can the self be known and thus transcended. But since culture goes beyond a geographical area into history and beyond the essence of a nation too must be sought beyond its geo-physical and temporal bounds. Raja
Rao once told Kathleen Raine, “India is not a nation, like France or Italy or Germany: India is a state of being” (Raine 1). It necessarily follows that only in finding such a state of being can the honour of being called an Indian be bestowed upon one. The necessity of seeking this state becomes more of a sacred responsibility in the case of a writer, for speaking on behalf of a people he must speak from the depths of a larger, universal Self. His private, personal self is obviously irrelevant to literature. In a state of culture where, if we are to believe Paranjape, “every Indian is a sadhak or sadhika” (94), the writer who aspires for a place in the great Indian literary tradition must be no less than a Siddha, or a sage. Raja Rao’s assertion that “Indian civilization is the making of the Rishis (the sages) and the Western, of heroes and prophets […]” (114) is a clear pointer as to what the Indian writer’s essential dharma must be. But how central and relevant is this search in the context of modern India? A hundred years ago, we saw Tagore’s Gourmohan going into wilderness on a similar quest, and over the years we have watched Raja Rao from abroad straining his magic wand eastward seeking the same effulgent Indian light. ‘Philosophy as fiction’ is how the renegades have shouted at Rao’s labour. Gora in his orations and inner whirlpools went through analogous labour pains. Why do Indians talk so much philosophy? Even a villager in some nondescript corner here is more puzzled about maya and moksha than about earning his meagre livelihood. Philosophy – known to us as darshanam, a seeing vision – is as central to the Indian thought as is the sex and man-woman relationship to the West. If it be hard to find a western novel, either pulp or classic, without a man-woman drama, why shouldn’t the best of Indian fiction be a serious and passionate engagement with its culture’s deep philosophical concerns? If the Indian mind could call its
A Reading of Manoj Das’s The Escapist religion sanatan dharma, shouldn’t it demand a sanatan sahitya, a literature of eternity?
Poets are hearers of Truth, proclaim the Vedas. Those who do not have an ear for truth are the ones who trade in lies and lead us to the realm of sorrow and death. The ancient prayer, asato ma sadgamaya… remains yet the most potent formulation of Indian aspiration. And in whatsoever measure, an authentic Indian writing must lead us towards that. These are hints and suggestions for unravelling the ineffable core of Indianness. For a more authentic discovery we must turn to our creative talents, and Manoj Das is certainly one of these. II Manoj Das is not a ‘modern’ novelist, for there is nothing modish about him. His is the ancient Indian art of storytelling that speaks of eternal issues in a timeless voice. He comes from the land of Panchatantra and Jataka with a bagful of tales about “all the monkeys around me masquerading as men” (The Escapist 4).2 His fiction creates a vision of reality which demands of its readers that they reconstruct their notions of realism. Perhaps the author himself best defined his art when he called one of his collections Fables and Fantasies for Adults (1978). All his works are fantasies of a heightened imagination and read like fables for thoughtful adults. Those that still suck on country pleasures will not find here anything to titillate their brainwaves or senses. The Escapist (2001), the author’s English rendering of his Oriya original, Akashara Isara (1997), is the third of his novels in English. In its style and treatment of subject it is clearly in the same vein as his earlier works, Cyclones (1987) and The Tiger at Twilight (1991) which originally appeared in English. All the three are about India and all have a deceptively contemporary canvas. While Cyclones unleashes the upheavals of the Partition and The Tiger at Twilight laments the passing away of an age, The Escapist showcases the chiaroscuro of a very contemporary postcolonial India. But behind the changing appearances can be seen the slow but sure emergence of a nation’s Soul wearing as ever an enigmatic
Further references to The Escapist are shown by only page numbers.
A Reading of Manoj Das’s The Escapist smile that enchants as much as it invites us to share its treasure of unfathomable mysteries. The Escapist, more of a fantastic fable than its brethren and thus also a greater ‘escapist’, is perhaps the most powerful of Manoj Das’s creations, because it alone succeeds fully in capturing that essential Indian secret for which the author has laboured all along.
As many of the questions and concerns of the earlier works come to maturity in The Escapist, the author’s narrative technique too achieves its perfection in a rising crescendo of fulfilled laughter and irony. The plot is such a bizarre configuration of happenings that no sane person even in their wildest imagination would find it ‘believable’. And yet, it is all so true, so credible, almost a play of forces, obvious or hidden, seen operational in everyday life, just like those strange figurines in an Indian temple. There is surely a trickster who joys in creating in our lives a comedy that reads almost like the Upanishads. But who is he? In response to the question, ‘Is it Chance?’ the author quotes Anatole France: “Chance was the pseudonym of God which He used when He did not wish to put down His signature” (5). And thus begins the incredible adventure, both in body and soul, of Swami Padmananda’s rendezvous with God. After showing in medias res how by a quirk of fate “Padmalochan Pramanik, an ordinary boy from an ordinary village named Govardhanpur, metamorphosed into Swami Padmananda” (11), the narrative moves back to trace the protagonist’s journey from a simple, innocent village life to his more sophisticated and warped habitation in the city. There is nothing heroic about his birth, upbringing or talents: a non-brahmin orphan, he has been brought up by a poor old woman, a foster grandmother. It is the story of a commonplace Indian villager, of an everyman, where no self-designed meticulous planning, but Life itself provides him with a mentor, whenever he needs one, and nurtures him along the pathways of destiny.
A Reading of Manoj Das’s The Escapist Natbar Sir, the English teacher in the village school, is the first of Padmalochan’s gurus who introduces him to the wide world of books and English and also to the one of ambition, politics and supernatural. The world is changing and Natbar Sir resigns his teaching position to become a fulltime politician. The fellow must be possessed either by “a spook of wifelessness” or “the spook of politics”! Whatever it be, in the events that follow the guru succeeds in planting a living seed of ambition in the disciple. But the village boy also inherits something more: an air of deep religiosity and faith, of “transparent trust”, and from Nature the gifts of widespread silences and open skies. No wonder, the longing for a Himalayan retreat is elder to the newly planted “seed of ambition.” Trapped in the cul-de-sac of meaningless issues and petty politics, Padmalochan is glad to escape at the first opportunity to the vaster horizons of the city life. The game is
bigger here, and the field more fertile for his learning and growth. Sharmaji, his new mentor, has been a minister for years and is playing now for the position of the Chief Minister. Strangely enough, even a politician is not untouched by that great Indian spirit of sadhana, as can be seen in Sharmaji’s “customary detached and ascetic way” (5). Padmalochan makes good use of his mentor’s library; and if the village had taught him English grammar, the city helps him acquire the spoken skills. That little seed of ambition has also begun to sprout: not just a chela, he now wants “to be called [Sharmaji’s] personal secretary” (33). In a farcical twist of events, Sharmaji dies at the end of a usual politician’s fast and poor Padmalochan once again finds himself an orphan. Looking for employment and driven by one bizarre event after another – symbolising perhaps the unimaginable in life – Padmalochan lands up at the house of the business tycoon, Jayant Thakore. When asked to sit in a non-existent chair Padmalochan ridiculously assumes the posture of utkatasana, Ranjita Devi, Thakore’s wife, seeing him thus seated, takes no time to divine that he must be a great yogi with immense supernatural powers. That she could be
A Reading of Manoj Das’s The Escapist
the hostess to such a great Mahatman was indeed the fructification of her religious merit and aspiration! She would brook no argument, and Padmalochan without any desire or design of his own is irrevocably transformed into Swami Padmananda. It is the questioning of this metamorphosis that becomes the centre of the narrative henceforth. Is it merely a play of Chance, a fortuitous fate that makes us what we are? Or is there a deeper design by which the soul, unknown to us, struggles to regain its primal motive and status and thus gives a lie to the intellect by wearing the dark robe of destiny? What then is appearance and what is Reality? And how inadequate or misleading are our perceptions that perforce can be nothing but subjective? Who is right in this play of a trickster: the rational, successful man of the world, Jayant Thakore, who sees in Padmalochan an impostor or at best “a philosopher”, or Ranjita Devi who discovers in Swami Padmananda – “the holy man of her imagination” (9) – her guru and door to deliverance? The outer is a field that forces us to look for the inner creator of that field. When life makes Padmananda don the holy robes, it also pushes him to discover the holy within. He tries to escape into a false pretence of askesis, and what follows is a harrowing agony of inner conflict and tensions, a real askesis. Life is ironical and appearances misleading. The guru discovers in the disciple his own mentor: It was the face of the dedicated – serene with faith and tender with gratitude. For a moment she was a vision for me […] who stood there to impart benedictions, to teach […] that one’s faith, when total, never failed one. (55) In educating Ranjita Devi, Padmananda undertakes his own spiritual education. In playing the guru, he discovers a deep well of compassion in him coming to the fore. He grows to love his disciple-“daughter” who with her faith can keep even death at bay till she desires otherwise. He realizes the true nature of prayer and finds a rudimentary communion with the Divine Mother. Reflecting for hours in his self-chosen confinement he achieves a transcendence of
A Reading of Manoj Das’s The Escapist
guilt and comes to see “that the way of living I had come to embrace could not have been my doing. I could not have managed this with lies and manipulations. Things had happened in spite of me” (64). At the same time, he has become acutely aware of his limitations and his inability to achieve any measure of inner silence and peace. Padmananda must exhaust many of his karmas, must fast confined in purgatorial fires in Jayant Thakore’s mansion before being allowed the final ‘escape’. He needs to live through the experience of attachment for a woman and witness the farce that is man’s world. Sushobhana, or Sushie for short, is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen in real life. “She looked to me like a mode of music, a ragini, personified” (43), and herein lay the seed of his attachment – raag. But, unknown to him, the nymph comes to give him his deliverance, not bondage. She sings a Mira-bhajan, and Padmananda at once is transported to “the sublime plane at which the song and the singer had become inextricably one” (45). Obviously, she is not of this world: hers is the charm and beauty that spring from soul and even if she sends to turmoil Padmananda’s grosser being there is nothing of the gross in her. Tied to a mentally and emotionally invalid husband, she has borne her life with a radiant calm. She has touched that plane where pain is just another face of Bliss. She is so much greater than him that Padmananda simply fears her. Even his attraction for her encompasses other dimensions: “Her dignified gait, her dutifulness accompanied by a serene detachment, last but not the least, her dazzling beauty bereft of jewellery and cosmetics, were simply irresistible” (65). Mastered by her superior being and wisdom, he realises that “the real Sushie was a phenomenon quite distant from the Sushie of my imagination” (142). She is the last of his mentors from this world who finally unties the most intricate knot of his bondage: How far can one escape – and with whom? Maybe for a few months or a few years. What after that? When the enabling moment arrives each person has to follow his own escape-route. […] The fire-flies of our ego and anger, passions
A Reading of Manoj Das’s The Escapist and attractions are likely to make the darkness at the crossing even more dense. (141) Padmananda’s ambition for fame and limelight, for being ‘somebody’ – his ‘original sin’ – is made to exhaust itself through another route. He is granted the status of a celebrity-
guru and paraded through the loud theatre of human ego. The visitors that gather around him seeking his blessings and guidance represent a humanity trapped in petty nets of desire and tossing up in the vast sea of half imaginary, half real misery. Padmananda provides them with a mirror of spiritual calm wherein they can see with clarity their individual maladies in pronounced contours. Ranjita Devi’s comment, “Outwardly I have everything, but I feel like a beggar” (53), is a neat summation of this hollow man’s world. Not only the characters – the list includes politicians, businessmen, academicians, an actor and a music director, a poet, a lover, and a psychiatrist – but even their pursuits and vocations stand condemned to a vaporous meaningless nothing. The professor, for example, is seen as “surrounded by several rackfuls of books, to none of which he had keys. And he licked with great relish the glasspanes on the racks” (126). The psychiatrist, equally blind, is getting mad because she cannot handle her own emotional tangle. As Padmananda walks through this purgatorial land he meets the reflection of his own hidden traps of desire. The mirror of consciousness shines both ways. In prescribing the antidote of death to the lover, he faces a tremendous revelation: Should I come face to face with death right now and should death ask me to follow it – how willing would I be to do so? I wondered. Probably I would cry out: “Pardon me, but I cannot leave Sushie in the condition she is and escape!” And I woke to the absurdity of my state of mind. […] I realised that very moment that all our attachments were nothing but a poor, desperate and vain effort to resist death. (124)
A Reading of Manoj Das’s The Escapist Padmananda’s experiences therefore, however wide, are not enough to bring him liberation. Man must face and, in the process, transcend the primal fear of Death before he can be granted the final ‘escape’. Padmananda escapes from the mansion only to meet Thakore’s
hired thugs – yamadoots, perhaps – who in a methodically prolonged agony hammer out his consciousness to a near-death point. As he receives the torrent of blows, his tormentor appears to him “like a benevolent physician, vaidyaraj” (146), and as if in a vision he watches all his attachments dying, one after another. Yama, also called Dharmaraja, is the great Teacher of the Kathopanishad. By yet another act of Chance, Padmananda is saved from death by two strangers. Thus he meets his real Guru and his lifelong desire of a hermitage in the Himalayas is fulfilled at last. He returns after 20 years to revisit his bodhi tree, the Thakore’s Mansion, and to conclude the chain of his narrative. The ‘Epilogue’, in the true Indian tradition of storytelling, gathers all actors in their desired or just end. But the crown of fulfilment must go to Jayant Thakore, the selfishly immoral sceptic and successful giant now reduced to a dilapidated house and an invalid body: Thakore tried to sit up, but failed. On the wall before him hung a solitary picture – of Ranjita Devi. Invisible worms were eating into it. He rambled out something, trying to draw my attention to the picture. “He says – your daughter,” Vimal interpreted. (154) For some who still suffer the thraldom of their beloved spooks, like Natbar Sir who dreams of getting a ministerial berth in the state cabinet this time, the circus of Maya goes on. III At a time when there is no dearth of India-baiters, Manoj Das shows an extraordinary courage in making a fake godman his hero. Using a rare insight into the nature of Reality, he then goes on to tear the veil of appearances and shows how behind the so-called spiritual
A Reading of Manoj Das’s The Escapist fakery of which India is accused are seen the sure footsteps of a divine guidance. In a land
where people from every vocation and of all persuasions flock around a devotee of God, true or false, and honour him with the title of Maharaj, a lord greater than any terrestrial ruler, the passion of spiritual flight must indeed be deemed the most central of its aspirations. The rest – politics and business – is no more than a monkey’s circus. On the plane of social realism the author gives us the whole of this circus and raises quite a few issues that shall be fodder for any ‘postcolonial’ critic. But all this, as they say, lies beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice to reiterate that here is a full-blooded, all-encompassing exploration of our national Self. To determine whether all this is mere fantasy or has its grounding in some solid reality, the reader must refer to Das’s Chasing the Rainbow (2004) which is part memoir, part social history of a vanishing ethos. Everything about The Escapist has an irony of a magician who hides his true face behind a mask and drowns everything in a peal of laughter. Even the title, in its exact English sense, is quite misleading. Does it address itself, then, to the accusation of Indians being called escapists and fatalists? Here is an escape from a lesser to a greater Reality, or more pointedly, from the darkness of a prison house to the open skies of infinity and freedom. Indian fatalism, on the other hand, is a total, unquestioning surrender of a leaf to the breeze of guidance from those open skies – Akashara Isara. And as for the enigma of Chance and God’s pseudo-signatures, here is a key from Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri: But who shall pierce into the cryptic gulf And learn what deep necessity of the soul Determined casual deed and consequence? (52). **********
A Reading of Manoj Das’s The Escapist Works Cited Aurobindo, Sri. Savitri. 4th rev. ed. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1993. Das, Manoj. The Escapist. Chennai: Macmillan India Limited, 2001. - - -. Chasing the Rainbow: Growing up in an Indian village. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004. King, Stephen. The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger. London: New English Library – Hodder and Stoughton, 2003.
Paranjape, Makarand. “Is India Civilized?: A Commentary.” Sri Aurobindo and the New Age. Ed. K D Sethna and Nirodbaran. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, 1997. 90-105. Raine, Kathleen. “Raja Rao: A Personal Tribute.” Word as Mantra: The Art of Raja Rao. Ed. Robert L Hardgrave, Jr. New Delhi: Katha (in association with the Centre for Asian Studies, the University of Texas at Austin), 1998. 1-5. Rao, Raja. “The Writer and the Word.” The Best of Raja Rao. Ed. Makarand Paranjape. New Delhi: Katha, 1998. 113-115.