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Born in Lucknow, 1940. Studied at Harcourt Butler, Simla (1946-55) and SDB College, Simla (1955-60). Did MA in English from Hindu College, Delhi University (1961-63) and MA in Philosophy from The Institute of Post-graduate Studies, DU (1965-67). Taught English at PGDAV College, Delhi (1963-2005). Also taught at Sherubtse College , Bhutan (1992-95). The Fourth Monkey is his first novel. The only other book, My Mirror, is a collection of essays (1971). Reviews and articles on films published in sundry journals.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Milton and Me
Cresting the wave of Puritanism, Milton, in mid-seventeenth century, proceeded to produce the first epic in English language. He invoked the Heavenly Muse to aid him in his adventurous song so that he ‘may assert Eternal Providence, and justify the ways of God to men.'
Writing at the outset of the twenty-first century, my own ambition was somewhat modest: to suggest that God is man's favourite superstition. I chose to do it through fiction – the most acceptable genre of literature in our times – rather than an epic, which was the most revered genre in Milton 's time. Obviously I couldn't count on any kind of Muse, heavenly or otherwise.
Milton 's entire life was a preparation for it. After spending seven years at Cambridge , collecting his BA and MA, at the age of twenty-five, when he ought to have taken up a job for a living, he went into seclusion at Horton for seven more years, devoting himself to studying classics and leading the pure life of an ascetic. Not for him any ‘sporting with Amaryllis in the shade or with the tangles of Neaera's hair.' He shunned these vain delights. He was always keen that by labour and study he might perhaps leave something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let die.
In contrast, the circumstances that led to my writing of The Fourth Monkey were fortuitous. Till I turned sixty I had been content to teach literature in classrooms and read fiction as a pastime. For variation I turned to films. Though not a sought after lover beau of fair sex, I had my share of Amaryllises and Neaeras. Two unrelated events, spread over a decade, pushed me into the vocation of writing: my visit to Bhutan and my reading of Kiran Nagarkar's novel Cuckold.
In 1992, under Colombo Plan, I was asked to report at Sherubtse College , Kanglung , Bhutan . In my early fifties, I spent three years over there teaching the young Bhutanese eager to acquire knowledge to make their mark in the world. While they learnt the ropes of English grammar and gained insights into literary works from me, I imbibed the Buddhist ethos and a carefree attitude to life that the vibrant youth exuded on the campus. With my Hindu upbringing, coupled with a sceptical outlook developed through exposure to Western literature and cinema, dwelling alone in an alien land in the midst of a different culture, I felt a frisson that sought its expression in writing.
In 1998, I lay my hands on Kiran Nagarkar's work of historical fiction Cuckold. Set in the early sixteenth century, with the feuding principalities of Rajputana as the background, the story highlights the predicament of Mewar's prince Maharaj Kumar, who finds his radical views at variance with his contemporaries. What interested me the most were his ambivalent feelings towards his god-besotted wife Meera. He loved his wife who refused to have sex with him. He thought he was being cuckolded. When he learnt the identity of his wife's lover, he was bewildered and cogitated upon the role of divinity in human affairs.
I said to myself, if I were to write a novel it would be something like this, minus the trappings of medieval factions and their outdated mannerisms and modes of thought. My immediate provocation, however, was a quote from Toni Morrison: If you very badly want to read a book, and it has not been written so far, the best you can do is to write it yourself.
And I did just that.
Maharaj Kumar was transformed into Madan Swaroop, a professor of English literature who happens to be an avowed atheist. He gets married to Shelly, who Meera-like considers Krishna her husband. The intimate interaction between a sceptic and a mystic offers Madan, the narrator-protagonist, ample opportunity to articulate his views on the subject.
The legendary Meera Bai had refused to consummate her marriage with Maharaj Kumar. I thought that would simply not sound plausible in modern milieu, so I made Shelly restrict her conjugal relations to weekends only. To my utter delight this factor alone gave rise to a plethora of comic and erotic situations. Since I was writing a twenty-first century novel I gave free rein to my imagination describing the emergent amatory episodes with relish and gusto.
All through my adult life I had been an avid film buff. At international film festivals and at the film society circuit I happened to see a lot of uncensored cinema. In literature too I was impressed with the uninhibited approach of the Western authors. I had decided that if ever I took to writing I would follow their lead. In The Fourth Monkey I redeemed that IOU to myself. That my novel has salacious scenes (I don't mind the adjective at all) is both a warning and an invitation. Warning to prudes, who like their fare bland lest their virtuous world-view is tarnished, and an invitation to those who welcome a dash of titillation in what they read.
Milton in his epic had to devise a worthy opponent to the God almighty. This led him to create Satan, the archetypal evil, one of the most fascinating characters in all literature. He provides a well-matched foil to God's goodness. In order to negate God's existence, I needed a character with a singular obsession with God. Thus emerged Shelly, a modern mystic, who converses with her god whenever she is in a crisis. She is to my novel what Satan is to Milton 's epic. Both are good sounding boards to carry out their authors' respective agenda.
Sex is anathema to religion. It is generally believed that one can't be an ideal devotee and indulge in sex at the same time. At the most one may be allowed to copulate for the sake of perpetuating the species. Monks and nuns in all religions all over the world, sequestered in bleak monasteries, preoccupying themselves with inane rituals, take the vow of abstinence. And not only to give up on sex, but also to forgo all those ‘luxuries' that impart pleasure to living. They are exhorted to sublimate their baser desires. Celibacy and not celebration is their mantra. Little wonder, God and religion are anti-life. Browning in his Dramatic Monologue Fra Lippo Lippi admirably amplifies this theme.
Keeping with the outlook of his times, it suited Milton 's purpose and his puritanical bent of mind to keep sex out of his writings. (The most conspicuous instance occurs in Paradise Regained , when Satan, in his conference with the powers of darkness, dismisses with contempt the idea of sexual temptation to deviate Jesus from his mission. With this single priggish stroke Milton lost a grand literary opportunity to interest a host of readers for all times to come. It remains an eternal conundrum how Jesus would have spurned the temptation of sex. The turn of the millennium is trying to restore this human aspect of Jesus by asserting the presence of Mary Magdalene in his life.) For the same reason, because my purpose was just the opposite, it suited my inclination and the comparative liberal moral code of our times to be candid about sex in my writing.
Milton 's story alternates between Hell and Heaven and Paradise . There is no equivalent of Hell in my narrative. With a bit of imagination, the idyllic campus in Kanglung could be compared to the prelapsarian Paradise in which the protagonist-professor was instrumental in persuading the Eves to taste the fruit of that forbidden tree. Loss of innocence is a prerequisite for the growth of wisdom. There is an opportune moment in life when innocence must be shed and knowledge opted for.
The oxymoronic appellation ‘thou still unravished bride of quietness' may be an apt poetic epithet for a Grecian Urn, but for a human being it is nothing short of a curse. A perpetual virgin is an aberration; she must lose her virginity to partake in the joys of bride-hood. The campus of Sherubtse – the Peak of Learning in vernacular – as campuses elsewhere, enacts this ritual of the loss of innocence year after year. I narrate the events of a climacteric year of my life spent there. Jamie Zeppa, a young Canadian United Nations Volunteer, in Beyond the Sky and the Earth , a memoir of her journey into Bhutan, records her role as a facilitator of this transition from innocence to experience in case of at least one student on the campus of Sherubtse.
There is an ironic role reversal of Eve-Satan encounter of Paradise Lost in the pages of The Fourth Monkey . Tashi, the modern Eve, offers her virginity to Madan, her guru, but the modern day Archangel demurs. He has his own compulsions. It is his son, who later undertakes to fill in the blanks of her knowledge. It never ceases to amaze me to watch the replay of innumerable permutations available on the ancient myths.
Milton was writing an epic – a didactic one at that. The theme was exalted; the setting was cosmos; the action took place in nebulous past; the characters belonged to the never never domain of mythology; the style had to be elevated; and the tone kept sombre. It sought to arouse the response of admiration and astonishment.
I was writing a novel. The subject matter was celebration of life without a God playing spoilsport. The medium of narration was prose. I kept it as close to daily affairs as I could, at the same time avoiding the pitfall of lapsing into banality. The protagonist being an academic, the vocabulary was above average and the imagery laced with allusions to myths, paintings, films and other literary texts.
The response sought to arouse was entertainment – the goal of all fiction. Without overtly ridiculing belief in God, I wished the reader to see through the hollowness of the rites of worship. Debates on the issue invariably tilted towards joi de vivre against abstinence and denial of the gratification of the senses. Avoiding the gravitas of Paradise Lost , an undercurrent of humour kept flowing below the surface of events. I agree with Osho that sex and laughter are the best antidotes to God. That's why comic and erotic are the two major ingredients in pursuit of wisdom – 'sophy, in my novel.
An epiphany is the apogee of a mystic's lifelong pursuit of God. After his proxy dalliance with God is over with the departure of his wife, my protagonist gets an atheist's epiphany towards the end of the story. He stands before the empty sanctorum, going through the motions of worship, paying an involuntary obeisance to the Absence of God, when he gets a glimpse of the Truth he had suspected all along: There's no God! Be happy; enjoy yourself.
Nietzche, Camus, Sartre and the Absurdists, all concur that God is missing from the scheme of things. But in the same breath they lament the rise of existential angst caused by the moral and metaphysical vacuum left by His overarching presence. You-are-on-your-own message is scary, they maintain.
I believe it is a great relief to be liberated from the ubiquitous eye-in-the-sky that monitored every single move, nay, even the most private thoughts of an individual. This omniscient Being kept a detailed dossier on everyone and meted out punishment not only here but hereafter too, in some cases eternal damnation for transgressing the divine edict. The Hindus were threatened with the dire consequence of their precious souls being put into the loathsome bodies of creepies and crawlies for numerous births in times to come, should they antagonise their upright creator. The posthumous scenario in either case was forbidding. But that precisely was the intention – to clamp the fetters of fear in the intrepid souls.
Liberating oneself from the insidious ‘mind-forg'd manacles' of God is an occasion for joy, a cause for celebration rather than for despair. The end of The Fourth Monkey manifests this joyous mindset.
(In-between: Essays & Studies in Literary Criticism, New Delhi, 15.1, pp. 53-57)
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