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Across Peoples and Cultures
Sushil Gupta's first novel is not an easy book to write about. It straddles across time, countries and, therefore, across cultures. A note on the author tells us that Gupta grew up in Simla and came to Delhi and has studied, taught and lived in Delhi since the sixties with a stint of teaching in a college in Bhutan in the nineties. The Fourth Monkey, set in Delhi, Simla (in the times before it was respelled Shimla) and Kanglung – the college township in Bhutan – has therefore an experiential validity in the sense that Gupta has known the people and places he writes about.
The first part of the novel, A CROWDED MARRIAGE, adopts a cinematic flashback style using a first person narrative, which both impels and enables us to ‘watch' the unfolding of the events through the eyes of the narrator/protagonist, Madan Swaroop, a young man with an English literature master's degree who becomes a college teacher. The word ‘watch' is advisedly used since the narrative is not only shot through with allusions to literature and punctuated with references to paintings and cinema, it also uses a cinematic style called the point-of-view technique to tell the story. We watch Madan Swaroop's world and the people in his life through his eyes.
On a flight en route to a college in Bhutan, Madan Swaroop starts off on a journey to his past which recreates the world of young men – and women – studying literature in Delhi in the 60s, growing up with films (which Indian does not?) that included uncensored films in film society circuits in the inhibited cultural mores of those times, looking for jobs, or preparing for competitive examinations. This monochromatic picture is, however, enlivened by the lives and preoccupations of these young people, some of whom let their ‘fourth monkey' (an almost sacrilegious extension of Gandhi's ‘three monkeys') have full play, since they are unburdened by any moral considerations.
However, our protagonist has the opportunity to indulge his carnal fantasies only after a traditional arranged marriage. And, here enters the second major character in the novel, Shalini/Shelly, a beautiful wife for the rather ordinary looking Madan Swaroop. It is then that after literature, painting and cinema, the fourth recurring motif – cricket for sex – comes to the fore. Shelly is, however, besotted with Krishna and that makes it a triangular affair. The addition of the other two ‘characters', Sunny and Marshy (nicknames for their sexual organs) with their whimsical urges, makes the ‘marriage' a little too crowded. Much of this part of the novel is a comedy between the ‘cricket' play by the fourth monkey of Madan and the Krishna ‘play' of Shelly, with the rationed weekly sex and an occasional bonus thrown in adding to the comedy.
After the comic ‘sexicide' of Madan Swaroop being greeted as Madam Swaroop, he takes to the different cultural mores of another people – the young Bhutanese in the college – as no other Indian at the college campus has done so far. Incidents from the past remind us that Madan Swaroop in his fifties now with his freewheeling attitude is the kind of person, who would be a hit with the young men and women at this college in a different cultural environment. Their attitude to life – and sex – is marked by a casualness that is a welcome change for him, though it may not be so for some of his compatriots in this college. Echoes from the past, that included exposure to uncensored films in the film society circuit, also prepare us for the manner in which this ordinary looking and no longer young college teacher takes to the life on the college campus – both in curricular and extra-curricular situations.
At one level The Fourth Monkey is an entertaining – almost voyeuristic – peep into the social mores of the post-Independence generation of India. Although the protagonist connects various historic moments with different stages of his life, he refers to the independence of India only in passing just to say that he was seven at that time. However, at a deeper level the novel plays itself out between the sexual comedy of Madan Swaroop and the ‘divine comedy' of Shelly that finally leaves him alone: his parents are dead, his son has married the girl who had a crush on him and gone to the States, and his wife abandons him and leaves with her ‘divine' consort.
Almost in line with the recurring references to cinema, the story unfolds like scenes in a film, with the first part of the novel executed as a flashback – a kind of prelude to the story at Sherubtse (literally, ‘the peak of learning' in the local language) in the second part of the novel, AN ANGEL ON CAMPUS. Except for the flashback, the author uses the present tense as if things are happening before our eyes. Despite the care with which the author has recreated the social atmosphere of Delhi and Simla around the characters in the first part of the novel, this is limited only to the world which the characters of the novel inhabit. In this context, Simla comes across more as a tourist getaway from Delhi 's heat than as a city with a life of its own. However, since Kanglung, where the college is located is such a small place, here everybody knows about almost everybody else and there are really no secrets. This is recognized by the characters themselves. It is the college librarian Sulakshana Sinha, otherwise incapable of any profundity, who tells the just arrived Madan Swaroop : “You will soon discover that Sherubtse is such a small place that people come to know what you are thinking, let alone what you are doing.” Like a refrain, this is echoed later by Madan Swaroop and Tashi, the student who takes a fancy to him.
There is hardly any aspect of life in Kanglung in which the college does not feature in one way or the other. The care and the detail with which the college town, with the college campus forming a large part of it, is presented in its changing seasons and hues give it a vividness and the place becomes much more than the backdrop in which the various scenes and the comic – and sexual – dramas play themselves out; it becomes almost a character itself. More than remaining a mute witness, Kanglung influences the manner of life and even the worldview of people who stay there. If the Bhutanese students are influenced by the larger worldview of the Indian teachers even as they are aware of their cultural and moral inhibitions, for the Indian teachers Sherubtse and Kanglung act as agents of change. And it is here that Madan Swaroop, the English teacher with self confessedly ‘mediocre' accomplishments, becomes a hit and his god besotted wife and young and attractive son Rupesh with his camera become even bigger hits. However, the rest of the staff including the senior teacher Mr Gupta (with more than a Hitchcock-like presence, is he the author's alter ego?) are unable to add to their statures.
In his Foreword the author has stated that Madan Swaroop wears his mantle loosely. Thus, is there an alter ego within an alter ego? In one scene Madan Swaroop and Mr Gupta discuss God on the Valley View benches. Do we see here the twin facets of the author's personality confronting each other, like a character talking to his mirror image – a staple shot in many old films? If we extend this line of thinking, Madan Swaroop's friends in Delhi can be seen as penumbral alternatives to his persona. In this context, it is worth noticing that Madan Swaroop does not build any abiding relationships at Sherubtse. However, Sherubtse, the college, makes a more lasting contribution to his life; by marrying his son, Tashi becomes a member of his family. This marriage is, in fact, echoed in a previous scene between Madan Swaroop and Tashi in his flat:
“I don't care what fancy name you give to my fondness for you, but I'd like to be united with you. I feel claustrophobic surrounded by these high-rise mountains. I want to run on the sands of the vast open stretches of sea beaches. I want to see the world. Why don't you take me out of Bhutan ?”
”Who? Me? How?”
The last and the shortest part of the novel, A REAL GODSEND, is a quick and neat rounding off of the story. The deux ex machina of Madan's father's illness forces him to call it a day in Bhutan . What however follows is at first reading unexpected. Rupesh visits Thimphu on a foreign assignment, meets Tashi, the student who wanted to marry his father. They get married after a whirlwind romance. Tashi, a young Bhutanese with no Indian cultural and/or moral inhibitions, has left her intimate moments with Rupesh's father in the past. As she says in an almost matter-of-fact manner:
“Life passed me as a baton from one parent to another. Love too has treated me as a baton, passing me from the father to the son. But let me hasten to add I'm not complaining… You can call me Darasha if you like.”
“What's that? A new Bhutanese name?”
“No. It's very much Indian. Do you remember Raj Kapoor's film Sharada, where the heroine falls in love with the hero, but ends up marrying his father? I'm Sharada in reverse. I fell in love with the father but ended up marrying his son. It's like Desdemona waking up in the forest of Arden, her name changed to Rosalind, wooing not an ageing Moor but a handsome youth called Orlando…”
What is worth noting in this extract from the novel is that this detailed reference to the Hindi film Sharada comes from the Bhutanese girl Tashi. Is she a ventriloquist for Madan Swaroop here or has she imbibed whatever she has been exposed to? Moreover, is it an indication that her marriage with Rupesh should not lead to a culture clash?
Tashi's marriage to Rupesh echoes and fulfils her desire to get out of the claustrophobia she has felt in her own surroundings. As she notes while on a visit to Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India , ‘Such a vast expanse of water! The sight was awesome…' And, finally, Tashi and Rupesh leave for the States. She will see the world.
Madan Swaroop's life takes another turn when Shelly, in an elaborate public ceremony that echoes her trancelike momentary union with Krishna many years back on His birthday, gets united with her divine consort and leaves her earthly consort. In the kind of humorous streak that has run through the novel so far, Madan Swaroop, completely alone now, receives news that Sherry, the student who was obliged to him for letting her use his flat for sexual rendezvous with her lover, is coming to Delhi to join the Bhutanese embassy as a diplomatic staff; there is also news about the virility tablet Viagra. So, is there a remedy for Madan's dysfunctional cricket player and will the young Sherry, a foreign diplomat when she lands in the rather stratified diplomatic landscape of Delhi , play cricket with the elderly Madan?
As said earlier, Kanglung, the small college town in Bhutan is, literally and metaphorically, the centrepiece of this novel. The academic ambience, the quasi-philosophical exchanges, the social and cultural encounters, and even the sexual rendezvous here give the novel its substance and meaning.
Paper read in a seminar in Ram Lal Anand College on 6th Feb 2008
(The Indo-American Review, Vol 16)
‘ Guru-lingam Sharnam Gachchami '
Teacher-Student Relationships in The Fourth Monkey
She falls silent, concentrating on fine-snipping my hair. As she finishes she brings two hand mirrors from the bedroom. She hands me one and holds the other in position to give me a rear view of the splendid job she has done. She pans the mirror leisurely pausing over the sideburns, the arch over the ears and the neat line above the nape. She traces with her fingers, almost caressing the outline of my haircut as if admiring her own workmanship. I catch a glint of sensuous rapture in her eyes. She gives a fond peck at the nape of my neck.
“It's I who should kiss you for having done such a fine job.”
“Go ahead, just do it. That'll be the best return for my pains.”
I draw her down intending to give a brush of my lips on her cheeks, a kind of a reciprocal peck. But she lip-locks me so ardently that I end up exploring her mouth, sucking her tongue and nibbling her lower lip. For this act I don't have to be beholden to Sunny. She tries to guide my hand to her bosom, but I feign not to take the hint. If my hand gets busy she is bound to use hers. The Indian rope-trick will be exposed. Let me not take any chances.
She is exhausted. Breathing heavily, she slumps onto a seat.
“Phew! That was a heartquake! Must be high on Richter. What's it – a Khajuraho sampler?”
“No, it's a French kiss.” (p 217-18)
The sensuous, overtly sexual ecstasy of this excerpt from Gupta's The Fourth Monkey could be straight out of a passionate romance where the conventional tall, dark and handsome thirty-three year old bachelor begins to make love to a nubile twenty something nymph. But the very next line, which I have deliberately held back from the above passage, is this: This cross-cultural concurrence of an Indian professor of English French-kissing a Bhutanese seems to thrill her. And then it dawns. This is happening between a teacher and his student!
The Fourth Monkey is the immensely entertaining tale of Madan Swaroop, an intrepid college lecturer who teaches English literature at Delhi University . On a plane journey to a teaching assignment at Sherubtse College , Bhutan , Swaroop, now 55, reminisces thirty years of his marriage with the beautiful and intelligent Shelly, an ardent devotee of Krishna . Much of the first section of the novel, A CROWDED MARRIAGE, is devoted to this religio-romantic relationship, one where Swaroop has to perforce make room for an alter-husband in the form of Krishna, and be content with strictly rationed portions of once-weekly conjugal sex.
Section two, AN ANGEL ON CAMPUS, the subject of my study here, is a picturesque, tongue-in-cheek description of life on the college campus in Bhutan : a group of teachers living and loving on the edge of existence; a community of students who are simple, straightforward, fun-loving and completely unselfconscious about their intimacies with their fellow students and teachers alike.
So, Madan Swaroop, 55, arrives on the campus and begins his adjustments to new surroundings and people. We already know what kind of a person he is, his attitudes and beliefs. His youth was spent in the company of like-minded friends, a motley crowd that avidly discussed books, art cinema, politics, women and sex. Sex in fact seems to be the prime mover of Swaroop's preoccupations.
In the midst of all the debates, points and counterpoints, no evening ever ended without conversation veering round to sex. Bachelors, in our early twenties, none of us had a girlfriend. We made much of our half encounters with the opposite sex – a pretty neighbour, a friend of a sister, a small-town cousin – sometimes getting sentimental, sometimes wistful, but invariably ending it all with back-thumping laughter and wishing one another better luck the next time. We suffered from terminal virginity. Our condition was as hopeless as that of the North Indian plains before the arrival of rains. The parched soil of our sex-starved bodies awaited the monsoon of love. (p 4)
Swaroop even has an affectionate name for his phallus. He calls it Sunny, after the legendary cricket genius. This imagery of cricket for sex is brilliantly sustained through the novel and leads to its own comic expressions and experiences. Swaroop's marriage has been emotionally fulfilling, but sexually patchy, a parched desert eagerly awaiting occasional rain. He arrives in Bhutan accompanied with this instruction from his wife: “ Look, don't play cricket in Bhutan . If you must, play by yourself, and that too, not often. ” She knows him, and she is aware that her husband is inept at ignoring the lure of sex. But here he is, fresh in Bhutan , and the sheer beauty and physical vitality of the students completely floor him.
His initial apprehension of his students is profoundly physical and sensual. His first major discussion with them is about India being the land of love: the Taj Mahal, Khajuraho, the Kamasutra, the flirtatious exploits of Krishna , the Shivalinga – an icon of exaggerated phallic erection . The students are quite familiar with love a la Bollywood and refer to it as the torchbearer of love in contemporary India . Swaroop realises that they want to impress him with their knowledge of India…they want to convey that they are vocal…and that they are not at all shy of talking about sex and love. (p 136-37)
Swaroop can discuss sex freely with his Bhutanese students the way he can never imagine doing with his students back in Delhi University . The teacher-student relationships in Delhi University are depicted as strictly formal, boring and uninspiring. But here in Bhutan things are different. The students here are two to three years older than their counterparts in Delhi , mostly in their twenties. They are mature, confident and at ease with their relationships both platonic and sexual. They belong to agrarian communities and come from far-flung parts of Bhutan . They live on the campus, away from their families. Their inherent tribal culture, in which moral codes are not so rigid, makes them comfortable with their sexuality.
Swaroop's stint in Bhutan is the perfect recipe for an extra-marital relationship, the kind his wife warned him against on the eve of his departure. In Bhutan he is in the company of teachers – three of them are into extra-marital relationships with their colleagues. The absence of their families, their close proximity on the college campus, and the lack of the restrictive social mechanisms present in India create and foster opportunities for such relationships. Loneliness becomes a just rationale.
When the campus beauty Tshering Pelzom, nicknamed Sherry, begins to take a more than academic interest in Swaroop, he is flattered. His colleagues are amazed at his ability to impress his students. We realise that his students think highly of him because he does not brag about his intellectual accomplishments. He acknowledges his mediocrity without being apologetic about it. This honesty endears him to them.
Sherry corners him at every possible opportunity and Swaroop begins to falter before her sensuous feminine charm. When she sprains her ankle in a basketball match, Swaroop seizes the opportunity of gathering rosebuds while he may by offering to apply ointment on the affected foot.
I pick her foot gently and place it on the centre table. The pink white flesh, placed over a navy blue tablecloth, looks very sexy. She drapes her kira over the exposed shin.
“For a tall woman you have very small feet. It is a mark of beauty. Chinese women used to bind their feet to prevent them from growing big.”
I pass my hand caressingly over her ankle to locate the exact spot of injury. She winces when my fingers touch the inner joint of the ankle. I put a dab of ointment on the spot and smear it gently in circulatory motions, adding a running commentary, “The cream is not to be massaged vigorously. Just apply with a feather touch, enough to let the skin soak it in. Keep the spot covered and warm.”
She becomes quiet and sentimental, overcome by a surge of emotion.
“You are an angel,” she says, misty-eyed. (p 180)
Touche! Swaroop is an angel in more ways than one. For Sherry, he is an angel of kindness and sympathy, but for Swaroop, the word is not a compliment. He mulls over its connotations.
“ An angel is a sexless creature. So is their God. Sex to them is sin. This Christian theology has percolated down the millennia and has sullied man's thought across cultures. Greek gods revel in amorous pursuits. Not only do they make love to Olympian goddesses, they also take fancy to beautiful women on earth. The goddesses too have their favourites among mortal youths. A kind of no-holds-barred ethos prevails among gods, goddesses, men and women. Zeus, the chief of Greek gods, often appears in many forms and pleases himself with many women. Similarly, Hindu god Krishna 's liaisons are legion. Calling someone a god in these cultures is the biggest compliment, while calling someone an angel is ambivalent. It connotes: you are good and morally upright, but you are no good where it counts.”
She expresses her surprise at this interpretation.
“Whenever I like a person I call him or her an angel. This is how I have heard this word used.”
“You are right in what you say. But angels, despite their beauty and radiance, are quite ineffectual, beating in void their luminous wings in vain.” (p 181)
Gradually, Swaroop begins to realise much to his chagrin that he really is ‘no good where it counts'. At 55, male menopause is upon him. His spirit is still willing to indulge in amorous dalliances with willing damsels, but unfortunately, the flesh is weak. Sunny, his robust cricketing genius, is now weary of scoring centuries and will not heed calls from the upper regions for action. As if in retrospective premonition, Swaroop remembers how, upon his arrival in Bhutan , he was met at the airport by a man carrying a placard with his name inscribed on it. ‘MADAM SWAROOP', it read. Swaroop realises how in one stroke, his sex has been axed . From Madan Swaroop, literally meaning the embodiment of Kama, the Hindu god of Love, he has become ‘Madam Swaroop', an ineffectual woman-man. Now he must either come to terms with the prophetic fulfilment of that inadvertent lapse or wait impatiently for the Pfizer chaps in America to hurry up with their research .(p 198) Viagra is yet to brighten up the limp horizon, and he must perforce remain an ineffectual angel until then.
His amorous feelings for Sherry take a further beating when he discovers, just in the nick of time, that Sherry actually wants the loan of his flat for her love trysts with her boyfriend Jigme. On one such occasion the Tom-in-him takes a peek through the half shut bedroom door.
The two are fast asleep: their plaited bodies sprawl naked with the coverlet in disarray.
Helen lying with Paris !
No! I am not King Menelaus, nor was meant to be.
Am an attendant lord, one that facilitates a love-tryst.
No doubt, an easy tool, glad to be of use.
A peck or a peek is all that I can hope for.
Do I dare launch a thousand ships to bring back my Helen?
And what do I do with her after the sack of Troy ? (p 212)
All this while, Tashi Wangmo has been in the wings, awaiting her turn. Swaroop's first impression of Tashi, a third year English Honours student, is that she reminds him of Hardy's Tess. She seems to be a rustic farm girl who has acquired the veneer of urban sophistication through school and college education but retains the basic naiveté of farming folks .(p136) Tashi is an all-rounder, a brilliant student, an excellent basketball player, an agile athlete, a keen participant in all extra-curricular activities and an intense, friendly, outgoing, determined young woman. She is hopelessly besotted with Swaroop and carries her passion on her sleeve. She keeps track of his movements, prompting him to comment that she seems to be stalking him. She feels no sense of guilt or shame for this infatuation. Instead, she pursues Swaroop with single-minded determination, at one point even asking him to marry her. She cannot understand Swaroop's reluctance. Belonging as she does to a polygamous community, his constraints of monogamy are incomprehensible to her.
She thinks it is only a question of being able to afford it. I find her emotive fanciful approach rather naïve. She looks upon me as the father she had missed along her formative years. Desdemona-like she feels attracted to me, a dark-complexioned middle-aged man from the exotic land of Khajuraho . Also, she has the fixation many students feel for their teacher of the opposite sex. She looks upon me as a getaway to escape from the poverty-ridden, land-locked kingdom nestling in the Himalayas . (p 216)
Despite her offer of marriage having been spurned, Tashi continues to pursue Swaroop, her idol and ideal, stealing a kiss from him as remuneration for trimming his hair, and another for saving him from getting drenched in a downpour. A scene of confrontation follows when she returns with him to his flat. Her earthy sensuality draws an unwitting remark from Swaroop. “ Tashi, you're beautiful! ” he exclaims. To which she replies:
“You admire me in a cold aesthetic manner as if I were a piece of sculpture behind the glass panels of a museum. I am live; I am flesh; I am woman. I like being admired, but I like being loved more. I find that you always hold yourself back in crunch situations. Your kisses are so full of promise; yet, the two occasions you have kissed me have been kind of reimbursements for my pains, once for the haircut and the other for a rescue act. While we were in a clinch at the Hanging Rocks, I thought I was in luck today. But you have gone aloof again thanking me with a kiss and a compliment. No sir, that won't do. I'm not walking out of this room till this is sorted out.” (p224)
Swaroop knows what she wants, but is also keenly aware of his own limitations and incapability. I watch her resolute face with utter fascination. This is a unique experience for me. Never has a woman, in all these years of my life, ever shown so much passion to possess me. I communicate with Sunny: “If not now, then when?” He seems more obdurate than Achilles on the battlefield of Troy . I wonder if I can find a Patroclus to don his armour to carry on the masquerade. I desperately look for some Homeric divine intervention to save the day. (p 224) But Homer is long dead, and in the world of men today, divine mediation is a literary myth and a miracle. Until Viagra arrives to bail him out, Swaroop, attracted as he is to this Tess-Bathsheba-Eustacia like heroine, knows only too well that Tashi's raptures will end in disillusionment and embarrassment.
A climactic denouement follows when Tashi comes to return some money she had borrowed from Swaroop. He protests.
“You don't have to offer me anything. Forget about repayment. Your love, your affection, your respect more than compensate for anything that I've done for you.”
“That's an idea. I can compensate with my love. How about taking it in kind rather than in cash? Take my virginity, inscribed with louder sentiment than Rinxin's To-Sir-With-Love. And let me assure you the pleasure will be all mine.”
Little does she know that it would be nobody's pleasure…She is offering her virginity to an angel whose manhood has grown into wings. (p 268)
When she threatens to repay him the money by borrowing it from another professor and repaying him with the currency that was offered to Swaroop initially, he forbids her from entering into any such foolish pact . Her reply is one of jubilant victory.
“So help me, sir. I'm willing to obey you, provided you let me square up the debt the way I want to.” It was a determined woman's ultimatum, with an escape clause .
Swaroop gives in. As he mulls over the new development, he introspects.
Women have always had their way with me. Shelly decided when and how, giving no leeway whatsoever. Sherry coerced me into letting out my bed to her. And now this athletic nymph of the snowy Himalayas .
“Okay. Thy will be done.”
I say with a smile, intensifying the erotic expectation building up in the air. She gives me a tight hug and smothers me with kisses. Her eager tongue darts inside my mouth sparring with mine in an aggressive playful manner. The coffee-vanilla mix laced with her mounting passion is a heady cocktail. The indolent Sunny wakes up with a start. I know he is no longer good at the test level, but I believe he can still give an impressive demo to amateurs.
“I suggest that you do it my way.”
“Now you're talking! Any which way you like. What's your way?”
“It's straight from a Khajuraho panel.”
I know I can get away with anything in the name of Khajuraho. She is brimming over with eager sensuous suspense.
She looks blank, doesn't get me.
“I know ‘inflate', I know ‘deflate', but what's ‘flate'?”
“Not flate, but fellate.”
“Whatever. Don't sidetrack me into phonetics and semantics. Teach me what to do.”
I tell her it is somewhat like the game of cricket, which Indians are very fond of. After the toss one party decides to bat, the other party bowls. The tussle produces runs, which results in fun galore. She nods.
“I'm game.” She is eager to go ahead.
I unzip. Like a semi-dazed genius with blanked out memory, Sunny staggers out. She is wide-eyed as Miranda was when she espied the goodly creatures of mankind from the brave new world. She bows down in a monkish obeisance before a deity and recites:
“Guru-lingam sharnam gachchami!”
(I dedicate myself to the service of my teacher's manhood.) (p 271-72)
Throughout the section, AN ANGEL ON CAMPUS, Swaroop narrates his sex-tinged experiences and gives the reader his observations thereof. We notice that he is completely unselfconscious and free from guilt for having indulged in quasi-sexual liaisons with his students. The idea that he has been unfaithful to his wife does not occur to him. He justifies his passionate bout of oral sex with Tashi with the same specious platitude that Bill Clinton used to justify his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. I did not have sex with that woman. In his mind he is still faithful to Shelly, his respect and love for her as strong as ever. If at all, he sees his amorous liaisons with his female students as quid pro quo for Shelly's infatuation with Krishna .
The exhilarating freedom from social and familial restrictions that comes from living alone on the periphery of existence somewhat enhances Swaroop's faith in himself. This sense of freedom, both in the environment and people who surround him, makes him aware of the myriad hues of human predicament. His life in Bhutan seems to be a replica of the numerous arty films that he and his friends used to vicariously enjoy and avidly dissect. Women have always had their way with me , becomes, in Bhutan , a convenient euphemism for Swaroop.
Madan (Madam!) Swaroop, 55, midst his Prufrockian dilemma ‘I grow old, I grow old', yet manages to rise, phoenix like, from the embers of his fading virility to experience once more a burst of forbidden libidinal desire, before he goes back to his arcane, Shelly-Krishna dominated Indian existence.
In this context, The Fourth Monkey redefines teacher-student relationships, taking them beyond the mundane limits of the classroom to a dangerously thrilling arena where everything is in the realm of the possible.
Paper read in a seminar in Ram Lal Anand College on 6th Feb 2008
(FEMINISM and Recent Indian literature, Ed R.K.Dhawan, New Delhi, Vol 1, pp 185-194)
TRYST WITH TRADITION
“No poet, no artist of any art”, wrote T. S. Eliot, “has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation, is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” Eliot draws our attention to be aware of tradition and the necessity of defining the individual creative talent in terms of it. Sushil Gupta fully lives up to Eliot's tenet on art. His novel The Fourth Monkey liberally draws from ancient myths (Indian, Greek and Christian), contemporary cinema, paintings and literature. Says he, “A literary piece is invested with the essence of a writer's life-time thinking and observations.” His tryst with Puritans, Romantics, Victorians, Modernists, Shakespeare and Homer, has made him one with them.
Gupta's visit to Bhutan , in 1992, to teach at Sherubtse College , Kanglung and his reading of Kiran Nagarkar's Cuckold, a work of historical fiction, provided the germ of the novel. The former gave him an opportunity to know a different culture and imbibe their carefree attitude to life, while the latter impelled him to think about the place of God in human psyche. Other things that played their role are author's Hindu upbringing, sceptical outlook developed through exposure to Western literature and world-class cinema of Ingmar Bergman, Fassbinder, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa and others.
Any literary piece, a novel in this case, has two components: Content and Form. Rather, the content of the novel is mediated through form. A masterpiece balances the two in exquisite equilibrium. Let us consider the first.
It's a simple story of Madan Swaroop, a middle-class lecturer in English literature, in Delhi . It traces his bachelorhood days; camaraderie with his friends; his marriage with beautiful but deeply religious Shelly; his teaching assignment in Bhutan, at the age of 55; his new experiences of a different locale; Buddhist culture; and his involvement with two of his students. It can also be read as a biography of Madan Swaroop, more so of his sexual exploits, his youthful fantasies, search for conjugal highs and dysfunctional dilemmas.
Behind this simple veneer lurks promise. In between the lines Gupta tackles many serious issues. The first issue he raises is about the existence of God and the role of religion in human affairs. A global survey of 2005 maintained that 96% of humanity believes in God and only 4% does not. Madan Swaroop is the voice of this minority, while Shelly, his wife, besotted with a god, represents the majority. This majority, all the time, tests its endurance level by foregoing food, speech, and sex on set days, and is looked upon with awe and approval by all around. Their son Rupesh has the scientific temper, which upholds logic and rationality above all else. He does not commend his mother's quaint rituals of worship and her practice of going without food and speech once a week. He is apologetic in front of his friends and has a supercilious disdain of her routine.
While participating in an elaborate puja ceremony, he would offer water, rice and flowers as directed by his mother, but would give me a wink of complicity suggesting a gesture of indulgence towards an eccentric adult. Like Pirandello's characters we went along with the make-believe situations to humour Shelly.
Gupta throws a poser by juxtaposing two extremes within a marriage: a believer, a follower of customs in Shelly and a sceptic and a nonconformist in Madan Swaroop. He sets the reader thinking - what to make of God and religion in today's times? Is God a man-made figment, that imposes discipline and sets limits to otherwise wild weeds that grow with impunity, or is it just a ploy to gain power and authority? Does Gupta want to say with Christopher Hitchens, God is not Great , that the WORD of God is entirely man-made and that God did not create man in His own image, but it is man who has created God in his image?
On deeper analysis, through Madan Swaroop, Gupta wants the reader to see the hollowness of religion. Madan reflects: Man needs only two things in life: Bread and Circus. The biggest circus of them all is religion. It keeps one entertained with the promise of a spiritual catharsis thrown in as an enticement.
Gupta believes with Osho that sex and laughter are the best antidotes to God. Madan is in doubt till very late in his life of his stand about religion but when his wife takes sanyas , he emphatically asserts that there is no God and like a true existentialist he decides to enjoy his life and be happy. Gupta does not share the angst of Albert Camus that comes from the knowledge that God is missing from the scheme of things. He wants man to liberate himself from the ‘mind-forg'd manacles' of God and celebrate his freedom. The Fourth Monkey ends on this buoyant note.
Though the entire text is littered with musings on God, I can't help reproducing a particularly poignant passage towards the end. Listening to a religious discourse on Gita, Madan reflects meditatively. It eludes me why the modern man is always advised to live by the learning contained in the Gita, the Upanishads, the Tao, the Torah, the Gospels or the Sharia. Granted there are some nuggets of wisdom in them, but there is lot more of dross too. For the lesser mortals it is not easy to sift the two. They simply quote the scriptures and damn one another for falling short of the obsolete code. They ignore the evolution of human thought over the millennia. They stick to the nursery-rhyming folk-wisdom enshrined in the moth-eaten papyrus of the sacred texts. Knowledge cocooned against inquiry in the wrapping of divine truth is the biggest pitfall. Man must constantly engage himself in reassessing the validity of the inherited knowledge. Otherwise, his learning curve would resemble a circle, a cipher.
The second thing that Gupta hints is the double standards of morality, the imposition of bourgeois values of a bygone era onto a culture, which is fresh, open and clean. At Sherubtse College , Madan Swaroop and Devika, another lecturer, go to the green room to compliment the students after their performance. There Devika helps Tashi to unhook the costume she was wearing. Tashi, without any self-consciousness, strips down to the undies before slipping into her ‘kira'. Devika does not approve of the immodest way Tashi changed in their presence. But Swaroop questions Devika's prudery and asks her to let them retain their innocence as long as they can . For, after all, what did Tashi do? For a short while she was in a sort of bikini – the kind of wear that is a common sight on beaches all the year round. What's the big deal?
In a conversation, revolving around a curio of three monkeys, Madan Swaroop tells Sherry, one of the students, about the fourth monkey, which he says means doing no evil and the monkey shows this by covering his genitals with its hands. He continues and says that sex in most cultures is looked upon as evil…More so in India . It is a land that goes out of its way to deny sex. The concept of dating is unknown. Arranged marriages based on caste, status, dowry, horoscopes are still the order of the day. Every semi-literate preacher from his soapbox pulpit urges you to sublimate the base desires to merge with divinity. As great a soul as Gandhi thought that sex was meant to procreate, not to recreate. The Censor board won't let a kiss be shown on films and TV. They believe the birds and the bees do it, not humans. ...Young lovers are hacked to death for sullying the family's honour by falling in love with one from a different caste . Everyone in India takes the fourth monkey very seriously.
Madan Swaroop comes across as a champion of individualism, much like Howard Roark of Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. With Roark, Madan considers happiness as the moral purpose of life, productive achievement as the noblest activity and reason as the only absolute. Madan allows Sherry to make love to her boyfriend in his flat because he is clean at heart and his concern is only their happiness.
The third thing that is hinted at is the corruption and morality in public life. Flavour this. When at Sherubtse money is sanctioned to buy furniture for the library, the new furniture-set finds its way to the Principal's residence and his used one to the library. Likewise the curtains, crockery, carpet, music-system find their way to lecturers' houses. This kind of petty thievery goes on all the time , tells the librarian Sulakshana Sinha to Madan Swaroop.
Gupta hints at the scams, where our ministers are involved, and how they pass the buck to the opposition. He also hints at the deeply entrenched exploitation of the untouchables by the upper-castes Hindus. The practice percolates down to the Buddhists also: The daily wager…employed as an errand boy…in the morning he was taken short and used the principal's personal toilet. He beat him black and blue…it ended only with his passing out.
Then in Madan Swaroop's sister Pinky's marriage, Gupta shows a way out of age-old traditions of dowry, and associated ills of bride-burning, foeticide, extravagant opulence, horoscope-matching et al. Gupta becomes a social, political and cultural historian, a pleasant one at that, through his fiction .
Gupta also lashes out at the male chauvinists. Swaroop says that in a manual I had read that women despise men who seek their permission for sexual favours…they want to be conquered…do all women at the core of their hearts want to be raped? So when he is in an exceptionally happy frame of mind, he takes his wife forcefully and to his utter dismay the experience turns a fiasco. Shelly turns wood and leaves for her maternal home. Madan is non-plussed. He shares his query with his father. The father fails to comprehend the gravity of the situation. All his life he had had it his way, whenever and however he wanted it. His wife had had no choice in the matter…She merely followed the ancient texts that enjoined a wife to cater to the carnal appetites of her husband. He absolves Madan, who is reeling under a great guilt, but he is not at ease. He is restless and desperately wants to seek her forgiveness. So the dictum that “wife is an object owned by her husband” is torn asunder by Gupta.
Thus the seemingly simple story assumes serious undertones, yet there is no moralizing and the reader just races along. The question is where lies the secret of its charm. The secret is in the style and the tongue-in-cheek humour. The language has richness. It is highly metaphorical and has casually thrown in allusions to myths, paintings, films and literature, which amounts to greater pleasure for those who understand them. Sample some:
The friends compare short and plain-looking Madan and his tall and gorgeous wife as Mukri married to Madhubala .
Basu, Madan's friend, rebukes him for asking a favour from God, since he does not believe in Him. Madan answers: Does gra vitational force cease to work on an individual who does not subscribe to Newton 's laws?
Madan compares the various phases of love act to various stages of a musical composition: Tuning, slow build-up, picking up the tempo, staying at the plateau, quickening the pace, and working up in a crescendo.
A colleague is compared to the phantasm seen by the Ancient Mariner in the dice game.
When Madan is feeling guilty he thinks Shelly's silence hung like an albatross round my neck. Gloom descended on the house and lay like a sickly yellow fog…
Tashi's observation of Madan and Sherry under an umbrella: You looked like Othello and Desdemona under the umbrella.
When newly arrived Shelly introduces piety and discipline in the household Madan observes: In her person the id of our family had acquired its superego.
After a love session when Sherry emerges from the room, there is a beautiful sensuous passage: A lighted candle between us…Her hair loosely done, her face aglow with love made barely a few minutes ago, and the candlelight creating a chiaroscuro effect, she looks a Rubens retouched by Rembrandt.
Shelly being a composite of orthodoxy and backwardness and having a sharp intellect with a farsighted outlook is likened to Hubble mounted on Stonehenge .
I could go on. The quotes and half-quotes from a vast array of literary texts abound. To the initiates they are a connoisseur's delight. They are far too many for me to even make an attempt to enumerate.
Gupta comes across as a true humourist, who enjoys life and has wide sympathy and tolerance. Madan Swaroop has always been critical of his father-in-law, Mr Prasad's politics and his murky financial deals, yet when it comes to accepting a two-year teaching tenure in Bhutan , he meekly gives in to his manipulations. Madan can pass a dig at himself, like a true humourist he admits: I am not averse to enjoying the subtle benefits that come my way. Again on the issue of scams there is a Chaucerian remark: Scams of this kind surface with such regularity that they have ceased to scandalize the masses.
The masterstroke of riot in language is seen in the nighttime cricket-playing, where the organs are christened:
After Saturday night's fireworks, Sunny was quiet on Sunday…Sunny was in fine fettle. He thoroughly enjoyed himself and gave as much joy to his snug beloved…Accordingly, little Shelly, down there, was formally christened Marshy.
A stroke of genius is apparent when Gupta dramatizes the hostile reception Swaroop gets when he forces himself on Shelly:
Marshy was nowhere in sight. Instead, a stern-looking creature with a grim exterior blocked his further progress.
What's your business here?
I am looking for Marshy.
She isn't here tonight.
Who are you? I haven't seen you before.
Name is Gorgon. Sandy Gorgon
All the characters come across as rich and vibrant. Gupta goes deep into the subconscious of his characters by analysing their dreams and reveries and thereby reveals their hidden passions and motives. That gives them depth and makes them convincingly humane.
Sometimes it is the content that scores more than the style, sometimes it is the style that takes precedence. But Gupta has balanced both. For its form, I feel it to be a perfect tool of learning for creative-writing apprentices. I can foresee a time when The Fourth Monkey will be fished out of the bin of negligence and acclaimed a masterpiece.
Paper read in a seminar in Ram Lal Anand College on 6th Feb 2008
THE ENIGMA OF SHELLY
In The Fourth Monkey , his first work of fiction, Sushil Gupta explores an interesting and novel theme in a thought provoking and entertaining manner. The epithets given within parentheses “a comic, erotic and 'sophic tale” aptly sums it up. The beautifully designed cover carrying the acclaimed painting The Birth of Venus by Botticelli conveys the main idea admirably. The three monkeys of Gandhi are familiar to all, but the fourth is the author's innovative addition. It signifies the inhibitions and prohibitions relating to sex in the land of Khajuraho and Kamasutra, and their effects on relationships.
Madan Swaroop is the protagonist-cum-narrator of the novel. On his flight to Guwahati he recalls his past life beginning with his carefree bachelor days. He and his friends had just completed their post-graduation. Their lively discussions, activities and adventures, pertaining to among other things, love, marriage and sex, are described. They are all looking for jobs and life partners.
Swaroop finally gets a job as a college lecturer and then the story is mainly about the fortunes of his arranged marriage to the beautiful and highly spiritual Shelly. She smiles and laughs a lot, but is austere, stubborn and even rigid in many ways. She adjusts to her husband's joint family or rather makes it adjust to her. The members of the family succumb to her charm and strength of her character. They are in awe of her religiosity and soon adapt themselves to her ways. Everyone considers Madan Swaroop very lucky in having acquired such an accomplished wife. However, she imposes many rules and restrictions regarding sex on her husband, as to its frequency and manner, which he willy-nilly accepts.
Shelly's devotion to Krishna is emphasized and she is compared to Mira. Krishna 's statue occupies a place of honour in their bedroom and she sings Mira's bhajans most soulfully. The comparison, I feel, is not absolutely justifiable. From all that I have heard and read, Mira's marriage was completely against her wishes. From a very tender age she had looked upon herself as Lord Krishna's bride and took no interest in her marital relationship. I find Shelly's psyche more complex and perplexing. True, she marries Madan Swaroop only after getting a nod from her Lord, but she is not against marriage as such. She agrees, though unwillingly, to the ruse of sending her photograph in the graduation gown to the prospective suitors. When he and his parents arrive in Simla she is quite cordial and pleasant to them. The marriage itself affords her many sexually pleasurable moments as are amply described in the novel, especially the rainy week in Simla. On quite a few occasions she takes the initiative in lovemaking. She also agrees to some of his kinky suggestions though a little reluctantly. Moreover, she is capable of jealousy and warns him not to get involved with the local girls, “don't play cricket in Bhutan ”, when he accepts the assignment abroad.
Madan Swaroop journeys to Bhutan to teach in Sherubtse College . After the heat and the suffocating sexual norms of his own country, he breathes a cooler and fresher air and encounters a sexually liberated outlook. Both Tashi and Sherry, students at Sherubtse, are completely uninhibited as are the Indians there. Some of them are having extra-marital affairs and some are into live-in relationships. It is here that Madan Swaroop tells his class what his name stands for: the Incarnation of Love.
Back home he had seemed quite liberated, but here he pales in comparison to the others. We recall that he had never had a girl friend or an affair and that he had meekly agreed to an arranged marriage. He had been swept off his feet by Shelly's charisma and, except for a few times, he had agreed to all her restrictions in a somewhat docile manner. In Bhutan , we have Gupta (interestingly, a namesake of the author) to compare him to.
Gupta's views on sex and religion are much more unconventional. “I don't want to be a prisoner of a bygone era's code of conduct,” he declares. Swaroop responds, “Isn't that code valid today as well?” Gupta also comments to Devika and Swaroop when they visit the green room to congratulate the participants after a cultural function, and Tashi goes on changing before them unabashedly, “You are imposing bourgeois values of a bygone era onto a culture which is fresh, open and clear. Let them retain their innocence as long as they can.” Swaroop knows all the same that Gupta will go back to his wife once the Bhutan stint is over.
He himself is attracted to the college beauty, Sherry/Tshering, but it is Tashi who makes overtures to him and even proposes marriage. It is after all a polygamous society. His wife and son come to visit him in Bhutan . Shelly is consumed with jealousy when she spots Sherry's hair on their bed, but is placated. She is very critical of the sexual freedom she sees there. Shelly and Rupesh go back, but Tashi, caught in the coils of her passion, still persists in her attentions to Swaroop well into the next semester.
Swaroop is really hard beset to gratify this besotted young woman. He has to juggle with at least three factors: his failing physical prowess; his desire to remain true to his wife; and his qualms at exacting such a high price for the trivial sum he had lent Tashi. He hits upon an ingenious way calling it ‘somewhat like cricket' and ‘vintage Khajuraho'. Tashi is far from satisfied by his indirect approach, though this is just as well in view of the future turn of events in his family.
The theme of the novel is constantly played upon, presented from all angles and elaborated, often with a lot of humour. Swaroop returns to Delhi and resumes his relationship or lack of it with his wife. The denouement of the novel is beautifully worked out and is not without an element of surprise. It is both sad and comic.
Shelly never ceases to intrigue me. What is responsible for her final act of renunciation? Is it complete submission to religion and her divine lover or sheer cussedness, a stubborn carving out of a path all her own? True, her dear parents-in-law are no more, her son has left home after getting a job and marriage, and she and her husband have hardly anything in common. Added to these factors is the fortuitous advent of Anandi Ma and her sadhvis. Gupta's comment on her is worth pondering over, “Your wife has a prominent ascetic streak in her…such people derive immense inner satisfaction by depriving themselves of what most other people consider natural urges. Ordinary mortals hold them in awe. With passage of time they are ordained saints by popular mandate.”
I suppose Shelly's choice is the logical outcome of her way of thinking, the spiritual taking precedence over the physical. I wonder, as does her husband, whether she would find happiness and fulfilment in this new phase of her life and one does not know what that entails. Several instances are given in the novel of Shelly's generosity and helpfulness to family members, friends and neighbours, and the presence in her of some warm feelings for her husband. Would she, in her new way of life, be able to get her way all the time, as she did with a very indulgent husband, or would she have to discipline herself and submit to a tough regimen?
Swaroop is left alone to make the best of the situation. The passage, just before the end, where he is shown as “a man of no-god making involuntary obeisance to the Absence of God,” is most inspired. Sad and serious thoughts are interlaced with humour here as well as elsewhere in the novel. Comic and absurd situations abound in The Fourth Monkey. There is a lot of irreverent humour, especially in Swaroop's remarks on his divine rival that are a delight to read.
The last few paragraphs of the novel dispel the clouds of gloom and usher in cheer in the form of Sherry's note. We recall that Shelly's and Sherry's views were diametrically opposed. When Swaroop wonders at Sherry's eagerness to have her tryst with her lover, “So soon? Just three days?” she responds, “What has time got to do with it?” On another occasion when he raises his eyebrow, “In daytime?” she retorts with a touch of exasperation, “What has time of the day got to do with it?”
Shelly has departed and significantly Sherry is arriving with a lot of promise – another ‘real godsend'.
THE FLUX OF NOVELTY
The Fourth Monkey is a book that captures the reader's attention through its uninhibited and humorous sexual episodes, inter-textual imagery and inventive innuendoes. Come to think of it, these are the voices of our basic fantasies rupturing the multi-layered veneer of the text and poking the reader right at the face. The Indian context of the novel makes it an even more forceful argument at unearthing the inherent hypocrisy in our ethos regarding matters having a sexual tinge to them. This article attempts to unveil the tussle between the basic human faculty to fantasise and the hidden voices of society aiming to counteract the same. The conflict is manifest through varied offshoots that are scattered all over the text.
First and foremost, the careful use of titles in the novel unearths this for the discerning reader. The title of the novel itself is a subtle reminder of the theme of the novel. The fourth monkey occurs as a leitmotif, a symbol of repressed desires and fantasies throughout the book. Right from Mr. Prasad's three monkeys who have Shelly's photograph as their fourth companion, to the sideboard curios in the college lecturer's study during his teaching tenure in Bhutan , the fourth monkey with its invisible presence teases the reader into pondering over the state of affairs within and without.
Similarly, the three sections of the novel seek to subvert established norms and practices, and all along the sexual part of human life gives a major thematic thrust. The first section, A Crowded Marriage , is an amusing account of the claustrophobic marital life of Madan Swaroop, the middle-aged college lecturer. Moving back and forth in time, the narrative delineates the account of 25 years of his marriage with Shalini (nicknamed Shelly), a zealous disciple of the ever-elusive Krishna . So much so that the ever-smiling god has a permanent abode in their bedroom. However, the plight of the protagonist as he copes with his austerely abstinent wife digs at other more serious issues regarding the conventional and at times unreasonable medians about sexuality which have been passed down since ages.
As we move on to the next section, An Angel on Campus , the protagonist has already made a foray into the uninhibited environs of Bhutan . At times it becomes difficult to identify with the ideas of a people who happen to be so close neighbours to us Indians. The hidden voices of society in our own culture start ringing hollow than ever. Some might view this openness as scandalous but the sheer juxtaposition makes one wonder about how the capillaries of culture work in two entirely different contexts. The subtle undertone in the title of the failing libido and the break up between Sunny and his master unfold gradually. But only overtly so. The brief intimate encounter between Madan and his student Tashi humorously points out the shades of grey in life.
The novel ends with A Real Godsend in more ways than one. Shelly, a la Mira Bai's ecstatic encounters with Krishna , reaches her peak when, at the call of her god, she leaves the worldly affairs to become an ascetic. Tashi goes on to marry Rupesh, Madan Swaroop's tech-savvy son, and the poor forlorn Madan Swaroop faces the prospect of playing another innings with the impending entry of Sherry, his pretty Bhutanese student. However, it is difficult to digest the author's silence on the way Madan Swaroop comes to terms with the fact that the girl he fantasised about and got a high from becomes his daughter-in-law!
From a psychoanalytic point of view, the fantasies, dreams and reveries scattered throughout the novel stand for the Freudian Id. In fact, we can even read characters as symbols – Madan as Id and his Krishna besotted wife Shelly as the Super-Ego. Tashi, Sherry and Krishna himself providing occasions for the subtle antagonism coming to the surface. The dialogue between atheism and spirituality is an inevitable adjunct. The “subconscious obsessions” and sexual fantasies in the d reams and reveries of Madan express hidden desires that have been repressed due to the indifference of Shelly. She does indulge at various points but all along she has the reins in her hands.
However the fascination and the drive with sex sober down as the novel progresses. It is with realistic undertone that this has been subtly accomplished. As the protagonist gets older, his concerns as well as fantasies vis-à-vis sex touch newer depths. At the beginning, the protagonist is in sync with his organ, lovingly called Sunny; towards the end, their desires become dissociated. It is hard to miss the sad mellowness that sets in due to the conflict between the “s earch for conjugal highs and dysfunctional dilemmas” during the “sexual odyssey of the protagonist”.
The discourse on love and marriage in the novel lays bare the role of fantasies at yet another level. The premarital “domestic” cricket matches of Sunny – the protagonist's “little master”, the state of men perennially married to their Right Hands, the prominence given to Sunny's nod in determining the perfect match for the protagonist, all amount to opening areas hitherto silenced. The liberal voice given to onanism flouts the traditional Indian attitude towards self-indulgence. The novel breaks away from the Indian conservative ethos but the flip side is that it is this very eroticism that makes this novel a part of popular literature.
Even the existential angst of Madan and his friends has a fantastical tinge to it. Art movies, avant-garde periodicals, even pornographic magazines and Woody Allen antics act as catalysts for the brewing of the modern day existential concerns. So much so that fantasy gradually takes the centre-stage, overshadowing everything else. Even Shelly's love for Krishna is an act of fantasy. And why only Shelly, God is the greatest fantasy of mankind, the author seems to suggest.
The fantasies of different characters find their way towards a logical denouement. Shelly always looked upon physical ecstasy as a corollary of the divine one. Restricting marital sex to once a week to the obvious dismay of Sunny, she takes it as a means to be one with her god through his human proxy. The “overwhelming urge” of Madan, always hankering after a game of cricket, ends with a “real godsend” in the form of the serendipitous arrival of Sherry. Tashi's desire to have a close-knit family, epitomized by her teacher's complete and happy one, realizes itself through her marriage to Rupesh.
The use of language that is catchy with a style that is witty and humorous has played its part in the larger drama of the novel. The self-conscious dialogues, at times verging on to internal monologues, present an evolution in the middle class bourgeois values in which the protagonist has his roots. The erotica is vivid and sensual, yet not vulgar.
Lucid descriptions of some episodes in the narrative have the potential to etch themselves onto one's memory. The protagonist's quasi-divine encounter with Shelly in the light of the five-wicked lamp, the love scenes in harmony with music playing on the gramophone, the romantic element evident in the intimate episodes with the noisy downpours outside, linger long after the tale is over. Moreover, the imaginative nomenclature of their organs by different men in the protagonist's friend circle is yet another vent to fantasy through the clever use of language.
In the overtly conservative Indian social matrix where sex-talk is by and large taboo, the protagonist's candid dwelling on it amounts to a cathartic release. No doubt we Indians fall back to tradition for sweeping such matters under the carpet, the fact remains that the author's open treatment of sexuality in terms of fantasy and desire has subtly unpicked the seams of hypocrisy inherent therein. The novel becomes a strong argument against all pseudo-moral attempts at attacking the openness regarding the portrayal of the three-letter word. Erotic does not mean pornographic. Period.
At one level, the novel itself seems a big fantasy of the author. The circularity in which the beginning and the end have been weaved into is remarkable. Like a rotating Grecian Urn before us we come back to the picture we started from. The end is an end but not an end – that is the epiphanic moment of the novel. Every end carries an embryo of a new beginning.
The author makes a tongue-in-cheek statement in the opening line of the foreword: “Everything in my novel is true, except the story.” The line between fact and fiction, autobiography and first-person narrative, story and reality, reality and fantasy, ancient myths and contemporary life, characters and imaginary icons ( Krishna and Sunny), end and beginning, gets blurred. The text is replete with paradoxes galore.
Rarely does one find a novel that can be light and serious at the same time, and with such felicity. This one has the potential to grab the attention of a wide spectrum of readers, on Indian soil as well as elsewhere. The novel indicates in more ways than one that times are changing for the Indian fiction. Let the readers be ready for the flux of novelty that awaits them.
(In-between: Essays & Studies in Literary Criticism, New Delhi, 15.1, pp. 89-92)
THE Singularity of New Indian Fiction
When I was asked to write a review article on the three suggested novels, I had my misgivings. I wondered what they could possibly have in common. True, all three were published around the same time (2006-7), written in English by authors who were born – but not necessarily live – in India. A first attempt at comparison or even at trying to find a point of including the three books in a single review, indeed shows the hasty reader that these novels are very different from one another. If two of them were written by young, prize-winning women writers, one (Gifted) is a first novel by an author born in India but raised in Wales, whereas the other is a second novel, written by an author who, according to the Indian Penguin edition, ‘continues [. . .] to divide her time between [India, England and the United States], with mixed results’. Additionally, the reader will look for another kind of inheritance in Kiran Desai’s book: that of literary talent. Finally yet importantly, The Fourth Monkey, although another first novel, was written by a retired English literature professor who was born and bred in India, and published in India only.
But the authors’ biographies and backgrounds, although of some interest, should not be the basis of a review. If one turns to context, plot, and style, however, the gap between the three still seems to widen. The Inheritance of Loss is set on the foothills of the Himalayas in the mid-1980’s. One of the central characters is Sai, a teenager who lives with her misanthropic grandfather – Jemubhai – in a decaying house and who falls in love with her Nepali science tutor, Gyan. But the narrative, written in the third person, focuses in turns on a variety of characters from, among others, the old cook, to his son Biju – an illegal migrant in the US – to two elderly anglophile sisters, Lola and Noni. Story and history meet when the Nepali part of the local population rebels and throws the region into a chaos of demonstrations, rampage, and riots.
In a very (post)modern manner, Kiran Desai’s writing takes the reader through a series of seemingly independent snap-shots – separated by a line drawn in the middle of the page – into the lives and most intimate thoughts of the characters, thus sweeping through space and time. (His)story and characters are built through a series of layers in which pathos, dramatic irony, and humour are intertwined. I was particularly enthralled by Kiran Desai’s attention to detail and the democratic will underlying the whole novel to give voice to the voiceless (a low-caste cook and a young illegal struggling to find his place in the US, for instance). It is touching the way descriptive pauses are included in the narrative, rendering the sensory experience of the bored and prone to daydream Sai, thus giving a particular, atemporal omnipresence to the surrounding nature and seasons. The borders between inner consciousness and outer environment are blurred as the extended simile at the very opening of the novel shows:
All day, the colours had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths. Briefly visible above the vapour, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.
Sai, sitting on the veranda, was reading an article about giant squid in an old National Geographic (Desai, 1).
The framework of Kiran Desai’s novel is complex, its structure anything but linear. It succeeds, to me, in creating a polyphonic, poetic, dramatic, and funny whole – a text of genuine literary quality.
In an openly auto-fictional manner, Sushil Gupta’s The Fourth Monkey, written in the first person, tells the story of Madan Swaroop. Through a series of analepses embedded in the main narrative, the reader learns about his hopes as a young bachelor and student, moving on to his disappointing marriage with Shelly – who entertains a celestial love-affair with the god Krishna – and a particular turning point: Madan’s escape to Bhutan on a teaching programme and the ensuing falling apart of the family. But one should not forget one of the – not to say the – main characters of the story: Sunny, namely Madan’s penis. Sex is indeed at the centre of the novel, a theme which, if we follow the narrator’s point of view, has been ousted from Indian arts and life since about the time of the Kamasutra! The tone, purposely ridden with cliché imagery, is set from the beginning:
We used to gather at the billiard parlour in Connaught Place and then proceed to the nearby coffeehouse to unload our views on every issue. [. . .] In the midst of all the debates, points and counterpoints, no evening ever ended without conversation veering round to sex. Bachelors, in our early twenties, none of us had a girlfriend. [. . .] We suffered from terminal virginity. Our condition was as hopeless as that of the North Indian plains before the arrival of rains. The parched soil of our sex-starved bodies awaited the monsoon of love (Gupta, 4).
Madan talks to Sunny, they ‘play cricket’ (the metaphor is Madan’s) – most often together and, less often, with women.
The reader is given hints as to what they will find in the novel. First, the tongue-in-cheek subtitle: ‘a comic, erotic, and ’sophic Tale’. Then, the foreword, which stands as a set of guidelines prior to reading the novel: ‘Everything in my novel is true, except the story’, reads the first line (Gupta, vii). Finally, the back cover asks – and answers – the question: ‘What’s it about?’, mentioning – in order to attract the reluctant reader? – ‘The imagery of cricket for sex creates its own humour’ and ‘[Madan] gets involved with two of his students . . .’. My feeling after reading all this, especially the three-page foreword, was that the accumulation of information and hints spoilt the pleasure of starting a new book and was tediously didactic. The author, in a lecture that, to my mind, would be more fit for addressing a roomful of undergraduates, warns us that the text is full of echoes and ‘micro-mimicries’ (Gupta, vii) – we are even given the keys to the main ones – , and to ‘watch out for the intra-textual reverberations and the sundry motifs interweaving the narrative’ (Gupta, viii). Editorial clumsiness, added to the seemingly lack of confidence of the author in his readers, only succeeded in irritating me. It is in this mood that I finally got to the actual incipit. After having enjoyed the elegant prose of Kiran Desai, my first reaction was one of aversion: what kind of literary value could these ramblings on sex and penises have? I was thus tempted, as many other readers certainly will be at first, to see the book as either merely superficial and a provocation to the Indian society or the product of an overly self-involved man.
However, and this is the main point I would like to make regarding The Fourth Monkey, once I had forgotten about the paratext and my irritation had faded, I was fully captured by Sushil Gupta’s prose which is both rich – in terms of lexicon (after all, it is a university professor talking), turns of phrase, humour and self-mockery à la Woody Allen – and concise: it may remind the reader of Ernest Hemingway’s at times with its clipped, asynthetic style and its manly concerns. Even though the figure of the ‘fourth monkey’ – and therefore sexuality – is central, the novel offers many layers of interpretation and manages to link personal and universal dimensions as well as literature and social comment:
We developed a taste for avant-garde cinema. [. . . ] All our metaphysics, aesthetics, and socio-politics were derived from the images of these master magicians behind the scenes. [. . .] The brooding characters with existential angst in their body language, minimal speech by way of conversation and agonisingly slow movements in performing some trivial act had a hypnotic effect on us. [. . .] We got hold of books on cinema vérité and became avid readers of journals like Sight and Sound, Cineaste, and Cahiers du Cinéma. An additional lure of the art cinema was its uninhibited depiction of sex. (Gupta, 9)
The last novel plunges the reader into yet another context. Like The Inheritance of Loss, it is set in the 1980s – at a time when both authors were growing up into teenagers – but the comparison ends there. Gifted is the story of Rumi Vasi, a child and later a teenager who could be like any other – we learn about her everyday life at home with her parents and brother and at school – except that she is nothing like any other child or teenagers. First of all, Rumi’s parents are Indian and, having grown up in Britain, she soon comes to feel at odds with their values, even though she cherishes a strong taste for India and everything Indian. Then Rumi has a very special gift for maths which her father, a scholar himself, encourages with great determination and discipline, and which sets her further apart from the children her own age. Reading Gifted may remind one, in some regards – especially the parts about growing up in a deeply dysfunctional family (so dysfunctional it becomes painfully funny) and feeling estranged – of Jeannette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) or of a more recent novel, Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995).
Gifted takes us, through the mediation of a third-person narrator, into the characters’ minds – Rumi’s, of course, but also the others’ (her father Mahesh and her mother Shreene), whose point of view is added to the story, thus creating a polyphony akin to the one present in Kiran Desai’s novel. When Nikita Lalwani’s prose follows the contours of Rumi’s thoughts, it creates a distinctive style:
She looked at her watch again. Now she was 10 years, 4 months, 13 days, 2 hours, 48 minutes and 4 seconds old. She sang the numbers song in her head. It was almost a lullaby, one she had known since she was a child [. . .]. 1 and 1 are 2. 2 and 2 are 4. 4 and 4 are 8. 8 and 8 are 16 – and 16 and 16 are 32. [. . .] They were wholesome, even numbers, created through doubling alone. 32 and 32 are 64... 128... 256... 512. Five hundred and twelve was a lovely number. Really friendly. (Lalwani, 17)
The story had four parts, which Rumi referred privately as
1. The Arrival (and the biscuits)
A rapid glance at the three novels thus reveals great differences. However, reading them one after the other ended up making a surprising whole, weaving links I had not imagined before. These novels first share contemporaneity – they are distinct products of their era and of a globalized context. A typical instance of this is illustrated by a blurb printed on the back cover of The Inheritance of Loss: ‘Despite being set in the mid-1980s, it seems the best kind of post-9/11 novel’, says The New York Times.
But the main common feature is undoubtedly the underlying theme of alienation – feeling alien in one’s own family, in one’s own country or in a foreign country. This implies a process of distantiation from the part of the characters which is felt all the way through the style – humour and (dramatic) irony are some of the common traits of the novels – as well as a play on language. The underlying alienation also leads to a series of structures embedded within a rigid system – whether it be family or society. Finally, the three novels are tales of growing-up into adulthood. Far from being eventful bildungsromans verging on the picaresque, they picture the slow, seamless and sometimes boring or seemingly never-ending process through which a teenager – or a child – becomes an adult.
Alienation and Hybridity
Kiran Desai’s novel is built on a distinctive chiasmic structure: it portrays Indians living like Westerners in India (Lola and Noni, who have completely integrated the cultural effects of British colonization) and, on the other hand, ‘Non-Resident Indians’ or other foreigners from developing countries struggling to make a living in the West. None of the characters can be said to be purely Indian, Nepali, or Western. We follow the track of Sai’s grandfather’s memories back to his days as a law student in Cambridge, England, as well as the parallel path across the world of Biju, the servant’s son, who migrates illegally to the United States, lured by the promises of the American dream. In the US, he joins the hierarchy of migrants at the bottom of the social ladder. Working in fancy restaurants or delis, he enters a multicultural microcosm based on exploitation: ‘Above, the restaurant was French, but below in the kitchen it was Mexican and Indian [. . .]. Biju at Le Colonial for authentic colonial experience. On top, rich colonial, and down below, poor native. Colombian, Tunisian, Ecuadorian, Gambian’ (Desai, 21). There, far from home, he meets people from countries he did not even know existed but he also comes side by side with nationals from India’s brother and enemy: Pakistan. ‘Desis against Pakis. Ah, old war, best war – [. . .] Biju felt he was entering a warm amniotic bath. But then it grew cold. This was not, after all, satisfying; it could never go deep enough [. . .] the irritation built on itself and the combatants itched all the more’ (Desai, 23). And, in the basement kitchen, Pakistani and Indian ‘threw cannonball cabbages at each other’ (Desai, 23). As if the bases of all distinction and antagonism were annihilated by globalization – born out of and gone beyond colonization and post-colonization – through which the economy has taken over everything else.
Thus, the age-old struggles for independence (against the British or around the Kashmir issue) and the new ones (between the Nepali rebels and the local Indian population) lead to a standstill and allow no escape. Because, the novel seems to imply, both problem and solution lie elsewhere. From the colonial period to today’s globalized world (the world is often said to have become a village – in Kiran Desai’s novel, it has become a restaurant kitchen in New York City), individuals have been reduced to roles and slots in the society. In the novel, the characters live in a secluded part of India where the Nepali part of the population demands independence or in a foreign country as illegal aliens. Here the term ‘alien’, both noun and adjective, takes all its meaning. Kiran Desai’s characters are trapped at the margin of society – their own or their host.
Likewise, Sushil Gupta’s Madan Swaroop appears, right from the beginning, to be an outsider – an on-looker – in India. His point of view (the only one in the novel) is that of a man who feels alien in his own country. It is blunt, straightforward and is vented through an even more blunt and straightforward topic – sex, the prism through which Madan’s criticism of the Indian society converges. It is clear, however, that this peculiar topic has not been chosen in order to shock but simply to express a reality. Sex is thus a broad-spectrum topic which enables the narrator to broach subjects such as the arts, marriage, history, religion, the relations between East and West. And sex is universal.
Like Kiran Desai’s, although in a more frontal way, Sushil Gupta’s novel revisits and undermines clichés and stereotypes. Even though the novel presents the point of view of an Indian man living in India, his deep knowledge of Western culture (both high and low) enables him to tackle clichés about India that could well emerge from the mind of a – very ill-informed and naive – Westerner. For instance: Indian culture is ancient and self-reliant, and, except for the period of British colonization, it has been impervious to any kind of outside influence. Or: Eastern and Western cultures have nothing in common. Or: the only Western influence India has ever experienced dates back from the British rule – likewise, the influence of Christianity dates from that period. Or again: Indian culture is still deeply conservative, sex and love-marriages could not possibly be mentioned, even in contemporary arts. The cultural background of The Fourth Monkey indeed shows that cultural globalization has been effective for a very long time – it started even before the emergence of the concept of economic globalization – and that it happens naturally (as sex does) in the sense that it falls through the net of colonial influence and liberation discourse.
Madan and his friends, in their youth at the end of the 1960’s, play billiards, sit in cafés and chat about films, magazines, their future, girls and their sex-life. Just like many Western young men at the time. We are very far from the picturesque, a-temporal, mystical, and rural India presented to Westerners through, for instance, the documentaries of Arnaud Desjardins: ‘We developed a taste for avant-garde cinema. Kurosawa, Godard, Bergman, and Tarkovsky became the new coordinates of our conversation.’ (Gupta, 8).
Vivid description of the sex act left little to imagination. Much of my knowledge of sex I owed to no-holds-barred portrayal of human copulation on the screen. Kinsey report, Everything-You-Wanted-to-Know-About-Sex-but-Were-Afraid-to-Ask, Havelock Ellis and some manuals were other sources keenly devoured.
All this was embellished by stray copies of Playboy, which Basu’s cousin used to bring from his occasional visits to the States (Gupta, 9).
In Sushil Gupta’s novel, culture knows no borders. Madan is a vessel and his own culture is cosmopolitan. References to Western artists are never underlined – they seem completely normal and fall out of any discourse over the hegemony and imperialism of Western culture. Thus, the references are either Indian or Western – whatever the most appropriate for the situation. When Madan watches his beautiful student in candlelight, the sight immediately evokes Western paintings: ‘[. . .] and the candlelight creating a chiaroscuro effect, she looks a Rubens retouched by Rembrandt’ (Gupta, 206). I cannot help mentioning here that, to some Western readers, the references to Rembrandt, Godard or Woody Allen may seem universal. There is a definite imbalance however between what Madan and his friends know of Western classics and what the average Western reader knows about Indian ones. Thus, the Western reader may not grasp the full extent of references to Hindu gods, religious texts and art, as well as to Indian classical music. The Fourth Monkey, consciously or not, reveals double-standards on the part of the West: what it expects to be universal is merely what it has spawned.
Madan’s culture (although he is a born-and-bred Indian and does not seem to have lived or studied in any Western country) is therefore hybrid. This accounts for its richness, but also for the feeling of alienation, that pervades the whole novel. But Madan makes compromises and does not relinquish his Indian heritage altogether. His relation to Indian culture is complex, between criticism and enlightened acceptance: ‘I had always ridiculed the institution of arranged marriage and its attendant rituals. After having failed to find a woman on my own, I had to fall back upon this time-honoured mode of getting married’ (Gupta, 18). Yet Madan’s discourse on India is never provocative. Neither does it use the reference to sex for the mere sake of being labelled as progressive or for the enjoyment of the ensuing, possibly shocked, reaction.
In writing openly about sex, Sushil Gupta merely throws light on what may appear to some – Indian or not – as contradictions inherent to the Indian society. He, like many others, underlines the often-mentioned discrepancy between the romance of Bollywood films and the process of real-life match-making and arranged marriages. The latter seem to him totally devoid of romanticism: ‘I was supposed to talk to her over a cup of tea in the presence of others and give my formal consent. I found this asexual prelude to a lifelong bonding utterly unromantic’ (Gupta, 12). One of the questions that may arise is whether Madan’s criticism of the society he was born in comes from the influence of Western thought – through the acquaintance with its art and pornographic magazines. I think the question is pointless inasmuch as Sushil Gupta’s novel is truly post-modern and post-colonial: in introducing the issue of sex as the basis for his novel, the author severs the link between marriage and culture. The main character is driven not by ideology, religion, or tradition, but by a basic physical urge. By re-introducing some nature in the politico-cultural debate, Sushil Gupta avoids the issue of culture and imperialism.
Gifted places otherness at the heart of its diegesis. It is set in Wales – a country itself geographically at the margin – in a family in which the parents feel definitely Indian whereas the children, having been raised in the UK, have a different experience of life and diverging expectations about it. Rumi, the daughter of the family and on whom the story concentrates, further epitomizes the notion of alterity: she is a teenager and, to her classmates, a nerd.
Nikita Lalwani’s novel is the only one of the three in which the main characters live in the West. It raises the question of what being Indian in a foreign country means and offers a variety of answers, depending on whether the characters are first or second generation migrants. For instance, racism is never mentioned on Rumi’s part, but it has left deep marks in her father’s consciousness. The novel opens with a sentence Rumi wrote at school and which upsets Mahesh, her father: ‘When we got to her place we stood outside the gate and Sharon said ‘I just have to check you can come in Rumi because my mum doesn’t like coloured people’ (Lalwani, 3). Later on, when Rumi’s teacher visits the family to announce Rumi’s gift for mathematics and asks the parents: ‘Have you heard of a place called Mensa?’ Mahesh, himself a scholar, thinks:
He knew what Mensa was, for goodness’ sake. What did she take him for? And why was she so surprised that he and his daughter could string numbers together with reasonable panache? They were hardly shopkeepers.
He was ‘peed off’, as they said here: irritated (Lalwani, 7).
The two sides seem to be irreconcilable, forever kept apart by an us versus them dichotomy. Mahesh and his (only) friend, the aptly named Whitefoot, can never come to an understanding at the end of their lengthy arguments (which Whitefoot takes less seriously than Mahesh) about the Hindu-Muslim tensions in India or the importance of Gandhi.
The novel’s polyphonic structure transcends this by allowing the voice of the different characters to be heard in turns, although that of Rumi dominates. The reader thus does not only have access to the teenager’s point of view but to those of her parents. Thanks to that process, the reader comes to grasp the personal difficulties of the parents and gets a view of both sides. Even if we are tempted to take sides with Rumi, who suffers under her parents’ disproportioned pressure, we cannot help but sympathize with them: Mahesh feels misunderstood by his born and bred British acquaintances and colleagues, whereas Shreene has bouts of homesickness and fears the influence of British culture on her children:
The communication gap caused Shreene an almost physical pain when she thought of it. Even after years of working the phone lines, talking to strangers every day, she could not express herself happily to her own daughter. Instead, she came out with platitudes. Awkward generalities.
‘This country has messed everything up,’ she would hear herself saying, when they were alone in the kitchen (Lalwani, 45).
The only character who seems to embody true hybridity is Rumi, the teenager – with all the confusion that this may imply. She does not seem to be ostracized by her schoolmates because of her Indian origin, but more so because she is a bespectacled nerd. Even though her parents are particularly strict – but this has nothing to do with their being Indian – Rumi seems to live the life of a typical British teenager – even if, again, she is ‘gifted’. But this does not mean she rejects the country of her relatives. However, instead of the politically correct discourse on the positive dimension of having two cultures, Gifted shows the almost atavistic, sensory link between Rumi and India. When, for instance, she expresses her malaise through addictive practices like many other teenagers, she does not turn to drugs or alcohol but becomes addicted to . . . cumin seeds, which she chews by the kilo. Likewise, when she falls in love for the first time, it is with her first cousin – a typical Indian theme – and, for the second time, with a Muslim student in Oxford. Like the heroines of the Bollywood films she is so fond of, Rumi seems predestined for forbidden love.
The Inheritance of Loss – but this could be true of the three novels examined here – with its complex characters whose personality and history resists all reduction, offers an escape in the concept of hybridity and the power of creation. Each character has to be seen in individual terms rather than under the light of colonial or post-colonial taxonomy and ideology. The omniscient narrator never judges and is never above the characters but always on the same level with them. Lola, Noni, Jemubhai, Biju, and his father are never seen in terms of class, caste, relation to the former colonists or current exploiter, but as individuals with their idiosyncrasies and complex (therefore possibly full of contradictions) personal history. Nothing is ever simple and everything resists single-minded ideology: Gyan’s blindness to the rebels’ real motivation and internal power struggles, as well as their ridiculous methods (kidnapping Jemubhai’s dog, for instance) and lack of organisation, clearly show the limits of any purely political interpretation of history.
Kiran Desai’s novel shows that the way out of ideology is the power of imagination. Lost in an a-temporal hill station of the Himalayas or in foreign New York, the characters invent their lives in accordance with their personal stories and with History. The thick and complex reality is conveyed through short, intense passages, like flashes of truth in a night of stereotypes, and an innovative language: the use of onomatopoeia, for instance, works to convey a first-hand experience of reality, to show its crude core. At the end of the novel, Sai appears as a converging point where all stories meet:
She thought of her father and the space program. She thought of all the National Geographics and books she had read. Of the judge’s journey, of the cook’s journey, of Biju’s. Of the globe twirling on its axis. And she felt a glimmer of strength. Of resolve. She must leave (Desai, 323).
She embodies past, present, and future. Taking it all in, she becomes a kaleidoscopic character – like the novel itself, a polyphonic whole – and loses her innocence: ‘Never again could she think there was but one narrative and that this narrative belonged only to herself, that she might create her own happiness and live safely within it’ (Desai, 323). She realizes that everything and everyone around her is linked, that all borders are porous, that she has been living at the margin and that time has come to plunge into life and mingle.
The end of The Fourth Monkey, like that of The Inheritance of Loss – where the disillusioned Biju comes back to his village – takes the form of a spiral: its references to the rest of the novel seem to take the reader back to the beginning in a circular fashion, but it is in fact a new beginning, which builds on the past but steers away from it at the same time. It is the same, except that it is totally different. Madan the atheist has had an epiphany during a religious ceremony, although its message is anything but religious. As a whole, the novel portrays, among other things, the impossibility to reconcile worldly and saintly love. To a Western reader, the reference – surprisingly never mentioned in a novel rich in Western references – that comes to mind is Dante. But Madan clearly takes another, less chaste path than the Italian poet’s. Once his Beatrice – Shelly – departs earthly life, he embarks on a new life, more in keeping with his taste – and Sunny’s. Madan’s and Dante’s fates do not coincide, yet the outcome is similar, as if to show that creative powers are not hindered by worldly love. Rejuvenated by the idea of a prolonged sex-life thanks to the advent of Viagra, Madan’s sex drive is accompanied by a burst of inspiration: ‘A tidal wave of creative urge sweeps over me’ (Gupta, 309).
One of the main questions that comes to mind when reading Gifted is: how is Rumi going to escape the pressure of her family and grow into a mentally sound adult? A solution actually emerges from the problem itself: because of his constant training of his daughter to become a maths genius, Mahesh only succeeds in having her leave for Oxford at the age of fifteen. There, far from her parents’ watch, she experiences freedom but, more importantly, the limitations of her ‘gift’. It is in Oxford that Rumi realizes that her true relationship with maths verges more on the literary than it is based on hard sciences. After she has explained to her boyfriend, in the torment of kissing, what amicable numbers are, he answers, spell-bound: ‘Maths poetry, eh? You’re something else, aren’t you? Kind of beautiful crazy’ (Lalwani, 226).
Mature and independent, Rumi finally breaks out of the life her parents had planned for her and escapes. Through that last, radical act, Rumi also enables Shreene to assert her independence over Mahesh. When her daughter runs away, Shreene’s first reaction is to blame Britain and its culture: ‘They thought they knew right from wrong, but how could they?’ (Lalwani, 270) But soon, she goes beyond the them versus us dichotomy and the stubbornness of her husband to finally follow a simpler truth: her love for her child. Doing so, she reaches a state of liberation. The borders she had established to map her own world vanish: ‘Shreene breathed lightly, repeating the oldest mantra in the world, all sounds of the universe together in a single round vowel of calm’ (Lalwani, 273).
All three novels are, to me, best characterized by the figure of the spiral. Within this structure, the characters find their own centre by constantly moving off centre. Constancy and change become the two constituents of the same, oxymoronic paradigm. India itself – and the characters’ relation to it – seems to embody this paradigm. When arriving at Delhi airport on a trip to attend her father’s funeral, Shreene notices: ‘But in the cruel beauty of the moment, just standing there, after so many years of exile, she realized that everything was the same’ (Lalwani, 42). But the novels do not imply that India and its society are static. On the contrary, the lives and personalities of the characters place change – whether it be striven for or put up with – at the heart of the country. Rather, India becomes the focus of the characters’ nostalgia and is crystallized only through their memories, putting the concept of loss at the centre of not only Kiran Desai’s novel but of the three works examined here.
India becomes a dreamed entity, a land in a fairy tale: ‘[. . .] India as a word set in the clouds, far, far away’ (Lalwani, 52). Several common features crop up from this far away land that is yet so close, the first and foremost being the monsoon. It, of all seasons, epitomizes both change and repetition. It is special and can be distinguished from a mere rainy spell; it is both a relief and inconvenience. Its cyclic arrival announces a change in the people’s everyday life and may bring them closer in confinement. In the collective psyche, it also means romance and hidden loves. In The Fourth Monkey, it acts as a catalyst between Madan and his unusually chaste wife:
The loud rap-a-tap-tap of the rain on the sloping tin roof and a waterfall over the cornice all around the house created a strange hypnotic effect on the senses. The mind was lulled. The body clamoured for intimacy. Shelly, unlike her earlier self, clung to me for warmth, both physical and emotional. Night after night, for seven consecutive nights, she abandoned her reserve and gave in to lovemaking (Gupta, 76-77).
Likewise, when he arrives in Bhutan, the monsoon is like a promise for future intimacy. In Kiran Desai’s prose, which verges on the poetic, the monsoon appears to be almost alive, an all-pervading force: ‘The caress of the mist through her hair seemed human, and when she held her fingers out, the vapour took them gently into its mouth’ (Desai, 2). The sensory experience of the monsoon seems to be engraved in the characters’ memories and may emerge again at odd times and places, like the taste of Marcel Proust’s Madeleine:
Even though it was not hot, something about the warmth, the rain, and the moon was tugging at Shrine’s heart, making an echo of yearning, a feeling she couldn’t identify. She tried to locate it. The sense was of warm rain, being outdoors, and children in the street. Then it swamped her. Monsoon. She froze, feeling her body betray her. It was the sudden desolation that often overtook her without warning, come back to ruin her on the way home [. . .] (Lalwani, 43).
All three novels answer indirectly the question of Indianness. It is a large-spectrum, complex, contradictory concept, embodied by characters who, for some, do not even live in India and who, for others, feel at odds with it – but this state of mind, in turns, appears to be typically Indian.
Gandhi is another emblematic figure present in those works. He was Indian but spent a substantial period of his life living abroad. He was non-violent but the movement towards and after independence brought its share of violence. He was a Hindu who opposed the Partition and who was assassinated for religious reasons. He was an advocate of chastity who shared his bed with young women. In Gifted, Whitefoot debunks the Mahatma by pronouncing his name ‘Gandy’ and by calling the film by Richard Attenborough propaganda financed by the Indian government (Lalwani, 63). To Mahesh, ‘Gandhiji’ is a saint and the film a tribute which forbids all criticism. Gandhi and his representation are yet another embodiment of paradox. Theories and teachings contrast with facts and everyday reality. History and retrospective interpretation shed different lights on the father of the nation. Interpretation and gaze are indeed everything. If Madan keeps Gandhi’s three monkeys with him, it is more for the fourth monkey – which is present implicitly at their side. But then again, it is not to remind himself of the importance of being chaste – quite the contrary.
India and Indianness are symbols, in the etymological meaning of the term: they remind one of the Greek sumbolon, the double-sided coin. This complexity is felt all the way through the language. If India is a country of many languages in which two fellow countrymen may not be able to understand each other, the way the authors deal with language is particularly revealing. In Gifted, typically, a Hindi word is replaced by its English nearest equivalent, as Shreene remembers her father drinking ‘his evening rose milkshake on the veranda’ (Lalwani, 46). The mention of a rose lassi would have been perfectly understandable and would have acted as a typical effet de réel, but in a novel centred on the concepts of double culture, the English word shows how assimilation creeps in. When Shreene uses Hindi words, struggling to express in English her – rather traditional, to say the least – point of view on love, Rumi, it seems, fails to understand both the words and what they imply:
‘[. . .] Only here do they expect to ‘fall in love’, as they call it. And where does that get you? Divorce is where it gets you’.
‘But in the Hindi films . . .’
‘Those are films, beti. What are you talking about? [. . .] But [your father] did think something like that. In fact, he went a little paagal himself.’
‘How do you mean?’ (Lalwani, 79).
Hindi words in italics and English translations coexist in Nikita Lalwani’s novel in a way which mirrors her characters’ lives. On the other hand, Hindi words seldom crop up in Sushil Gupta’s prose. When Tashi says a mock-prayer in Sanskrit, it is translated for the benefit of the reader: ‘Guru-lingam sharnam gachchami!’ (I dedicate myself to the service of my teacher’s manhood.)’ (Gupta, 272). The main character being an English literature scholar, his world is unmistakably steeped in the English language. With his students and colleagues in Bhutan – and in Delhi – it is the lingua franca. Last but not the least, Madan, feeling like a foreigner in his own country as he does, prefers the language of Shakespeare.
Finally, Kiran Desai, by including whole sentences in Hindi which are marked by italics and are not translated, introduces something foreign, utterly different and irreducible in her text. Through this defamiliarization process, the reader who does not speak Hindi, is put in Biju’s shoes, in his basement kitchen in New York City. But one also feels that Kiran Desai is using these precise words at this precise moment because the turn of phrase is the most appropriate to describe what the character feels or wants to say and, above all, for their sonority. Kiran Desai is indeed a poet who re-appropriates language – any language: from her mother tongue to the language of the (neo)colonizer, according to the traditional dichotomy – explores it and creates something new out of it. She plays with sound through the use of onomatopoeias and also uses typography as the painter would his brush: italics, capital letters, and blanks give a striking visual dimension to the text.
If the novels give a large part to the sensory – and even the sensual – Kiran Desai’s transcription of Sai’s over-acuteness and sensitivity make, to me, The Inheritance of Loss the most accomplished of the three. The richness of her poetic prose reminds one of Virginia Woolf’s at times and the descriptions of the monsoon mist may be seen as an echo of that of the ‘little airs’ slowly running down the house in the chapter ‘Time Passes’ in To the Lighthouse (Woolf, 172). I was less sensitive to Nikita Lalwani’s prose – for instance, her use of the present tense in some chapters does not seem justified to me and does not add anything in terms of contrast to the use of the past tense elsewhere. Likewise, the rhetorical strings in Sushil Gupta’s novel appear all too visibly – we sometimes feel too strongly we are reading a book written by a literature specialist, especially in the foreword and at the end, when the narrator brings us back to the beginning in a showing twist.
But these comments should not detract from the inherent quality of the three novels. The world they picture resists all reduction and ideological interpretation. They are rich and tackle reality from a new angle. They embody complexity and paradox. They are truly post-modern in the sense that they revisit things that had been taken for granted on India and Indianness. They are funny and ironical. They are subversive, in a way which shows that writing literature is a political act in itself. Last, they play with language and concepts in a singular way, as only literature can.
Subversion and the exploration of language seem to be a trend in novels published recently by writers of the Indian diaspora. One of them, Babyji by Abha Dawesar, tells the story of Anamika, a teenager who follows her feelings and her lust and embarks on a series of homosexual relationships which transcend norms, age differences, and castes. Like the three novels analysed here, Babyji is a tale of growing up, of finding one’s place in one’s country – or abroad – and of the dichotomy between education and personal experience. Babyji furthermore shares something with Gifted: both novels reconcile the worlds of hard science and of poetry – an idea which is very seldom seen in Western novels. The singularity of those works comes to confirm what the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, declared in his first press conference when a journalist asked him what he recommended to do in a time of political and economic turmoil: ‘We must keep reading novels’.
Dawesar, Abha. Babyji. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2005.
Desai, Kiran, The Inheritance of Loss. New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 2006.
Gupta, Sushil, The Fourth Monkey. New Delhi: Indialog, 2006.
Lalwani, Nikita, Gifted. London: Penguin, 2007.
Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. 1927; rpt. Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998.###
 Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss, 2006; Sushil Gupta, The Fourth Monkey, 2006; and Nikita Lalwani, Gifted, 2007.
 The novel’s epigraph, a poem by Jorge Luis Borges, is in this regard particularly telling. One of its lines reads: ‘My humanity is in feeling we are all voices of the same poverty’.
 One may ask how such hybridity is possible in such a seemingly rigid society. It may be due to Madan’s – Sai’s – belonging to the middle-class, a Western concept which falls out of the caste system but whose socio-economic reality has come to superimpose on it.
 This event is just mentioned in passing by Rumi and is part of an essay on a very different topic.
Essays & Studies in Literary Criticism, 15.2, pp:
T C Ghai
I’m sorry I’m a bit late in responding to your book. When we met last I was already midway reading the Punjabi revolutionary poet Lal Singh Dil’s autobiography, in Gurmukhi which I can’t read fast, and also I could not resist wading into Arundhati Roy’ s latest book of essays ‘Broken Republic’, a fascinating analysis of the on-going Maoist-Naxalite movement and the Indian State’s response to it.
Anyway, I have finished reading your novel. I have also quickly read through all the material on the website. Here is what I have to say. It is not a seriously undertaken critique. It is more tentative rather than a deep engagement with your work.
I must admire you for two things, both of which I cannot do. First, to write a 300-page work of fiction needs tremendous stamina and slog. My two works of fiction don’t go beyond 120 pages each. That you can write a sustained piece of very good prose is an achievement in itself. I also can’t help admiring your racy style; and felicity with which you bring in your knowledge of literature, art and films, although this can be risky if overdone because then it threatens to become an understanding of life in terms of art and literature, which is at best a second hand view of life. The raw intensity of lived life may be marginalised.
Second, your explicit descriptions of sexual performance of your protagonist are not my cup of tea, and neither would I have the courage to write them, but at the same time I have never felt the need to do that, but that does not mean that desire is absent in my writings. In any case I find the descriptions unpleasant, may be because of my age or prudery if you like, and as a young man in my twenties and thirties I might have found them interesting. For me there is nothing romantic about them, but ribald they certainly are, though not very entertaining. I don’t know what other purpose they serve in the story. If they are meant to serve as an aphrodisiac, well that can hardly be a serious objective in literature, but I don’t protest because you claim only to entertain. The world is full of writers who dish out this kind of stuff and I dare say there are any number of consumers too. Good luck to both.
You have used the expression ‘erotic’ to describe this aspect of your story, and you are certainly aware of the whole range of ‘the erotic’ in art and literature, from the extreme explicit hardcore porn and to the delicately suggestive and nuanced evocation of sexual desire. I would place your descriptions in the category of the soft porn. But I presume you have no problem with this description.
This is not to deny the fundamental importance of ‘desire’. In fact the conflict between ‘the celebration of desire’ and ‘ablation of desire’ is at the heart of human existence and I may say an ever present theme in all literature in its multifarious manifestations and is one of the greatest dilemmas of human existence, and different writers take up different aspects of this dilemma from an extreme celibacy to an extreme celebration of desire. Great writers don’t need to be so explicit about it. Seeking entertainment out of sex is an inseparable part of human existence but it cannot be the only objective in life.
I am a bit intrigued by your attempt to put God and sex as mutually exclusive. It is an extremely novel and untenable idea that god forbids sex. Sex was forbidden only in Paradise. In spite of the most frightening concept of Original Sin in Christianity, the bane of the puritans, I dare say the Christian believers (as also the Hindus and Muslims and others) have been making love as furiously as your protagonist and I dare say enjoying it enormously and even giving expression to it with abandon. No religion forbids sex, though they do put restrictions on it; and puritans, nuns, monks and saints may opt for celibacy, but the vast majority of people enjoy sex and pray ( sometimes for forgiveness for their sexual transgressions) simultaneously. It is a strange presumption that to enjoy sex with abandon one must reject God and be an atheist. Many gods in all mythologies have been sex maniacs as you yourself say, and Hindu men and women have been reading our Puranic stories both to seek God and erotic satisfaction. Was Vatsyayana an atheist? And what do you make of the great profusion of such explicit and uninhibited depiction of erotic scenes on the temple walls in Khajurao and Konark for everyone to watch. What better illustration of the idea that god and sex coexist so merrily. In Islam, it is said, that god was the first to make love. Perhaps your issue is that people should not only enjoy sex but also talk about it. People do even that, women included. But talking and reading are mostly done among intimate groups, but not on dining tables where parents may teach their sons and daughters how to make love, and in class rooms where teachers may give live demonstrations to their students, or gurus like Osho do the same for thousands of their followers. Prudery and the denial of sexual pleasure has never been universal (the world population won’t have been 6 billion then), but where ever they exist they are the product of socio-economic and cultural forces in the same way as sexual promiscuity . I don’t think God enters very much even there and if he does he is brought in to serve some ulterior purposes. I think the worst victims of this denial have been women, which is the result of the patriarchal nature of most of our societies, where men have all the freedom and women almost none. The world, of course, is changing.
About atheists. First you raise them to such a high pedestal and then you bring them down in disgrace. Your epiphany: Man, there is no god. So be happy, and enjoy yourself. This is a sad denigration of an atheist, for atheists don’t, cannot, bypass the issue of living in a Godless world; and Nietzche, Camus, Sartre and Beckett struggle with idea of making sense of a world that makes no sense. There is no liberation for them. But if atheism for your characters connotes mere enjoyment, sexual enjoyment at that, then that is a singular idea. Incidentally, even your protagonist, Madan, does not move out of the typically lower middle class morality; all his sexual encounters take place with his wife and he refuses to have sex with Tashi out of what - a sense of sinfulness, I suspect? So where is the liberation? And he begins to think of setting up a relationship with Sherry only after he has got rid of his coy wife through a stage managed divorce. He dare not tread the ‘forbidden’ path so long he is married.
As your story is avowedly cast in a comic framework my queries may not be relevant, but here they are. When Madan has forcible sex with Shelly (‘rape’ is the word used in the book) it hurts her so much that it seems to be the end of their relationship, and that seems the logical outcome but the two make up very quickly and the conflict is resolved too easily. This surprises me. Then there is no real explanation for Madan’s loss of libido and his inability to perform with Shelly. Third, when Shelly finds a strand of a woman’s hair on Madan’s bed she begins to suspect his fidelity, and this situation also is fraught with tragic possibilities and yet Shelly accepts Madan and Sherry’s explanation too readily and once again the conflict seems to have vanished into thin air. Remember that a similar situation in Othello leads to a gruesome tragedy. But perhaps since you were writing a comic tale you had to play down these conflicts.
Finally, about wisdom. You say: That’s why comic and erotic are the two major ingredients in pursuit of wisdom – ’sophy, in my novel. This is perhaps acceptable in the context of your story and the objective you are pursuing – entertainment. But also consider this view of wisdom by the same poet with whose great quotation, ‘mind-forg’d manacles’, you end your essay ‘Milton and Me’. This is what Blake, that great votary of free love, says about wisdom:
Wisdom is so rare a commodity that we mortals should leave it alone. It is the domain of gods, and it the gods are unreal then all our attempts to acquire it are futile.
So, dear, to each according to his preference. The world is so vast it accommodates each and every way of living, thinking and believing. That’s what makes life so fascinating, and it is this infinite variety that art and literature try to explore with endless fascination but perhaps with little wisdom. Nothing is excluded; and for nature nothing is forbidden and no world view is so privileged that it can deride the others. Drawing a firm line between atheists and theists does not work. You may have atheists who might be prudes and theists who believe in free love; monks and nuns, mahatmas and Machiavellis, Casanovas and misogynists all are fair game, and one need not frown upon the other. Conflicts arise when someone tries to force one’s own world view on others, and then the only arbiter is not God but power and brute force. But that is another matter.
So my congratulations for your bold endeavour, and I hope you are ready to write another story.
R S Gupta
Having crossed the 70 year milestone one is inclined to revisit some of the old classics rather than read a new novel twice, but I read The Fourth Monkey a second time for two reasons: first, because it is written by an old friend and, second because I had first read it in the MSS and was curious to see what editorial touches had done to the work. As it turned out the editors hadn't done much either to the storyline or the style. The novel reads well not because it has a great story or a new narrative technique or any remarkable characters - its charm lies in its ordinariness. It is engrossing for people like me, lower middle class people who have grown up with suppressed libido, fantasizing about great sexual exploits, making do with whatever sexual gratification an arranged marriage offers, plus a few escapades if one is lucky, and lots of self gratification to keep sunny happy. The protagonist epitomizes all of us and his half-mocking, half ironic and ever so self-deprecatory tone, and his ability to be moral and amoral simultaneously, and his great gift for making compromises -- all these are truly reflective of what we have been and what we have seen and felt. It is not a great novel, it will not be a best-seller but it will certainly strike a chord in those who read it. What is charming about the novel is the unabashed joy the author feels in narrating his ordinary life with its little triumphs, small miseries and even smaller 'presence' in the great scheme of things. The novel is not erotic as the blurb claims, it is simply titillatory in parts. It is not philosophic but platitudinous, true to the lives and minds of the huge middle class. I don’t think the author will write another novel, having achieved nirvana -- peace of mind all passion spent, and his tired old sunny blissfully limp.
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