The Man Who Tried To Remember
Rs 399 pp 237
Makarand Sathes new novel is such a good read that despite Shanta Gokhales obvious felicity in transcreation, one wishes one could read it in the Marathi original. It traces the journey of an ageing public intellectual, Achyut Athavale, from a state of power and stardom through societal imposition of madness on him to a kind of nirvana that allows him to serenely take each day as it comes in an upscale mental hospital from which he may never get out.
Starting out with the protagonists reaction to his new room in the hospital, the novel loops back and forth to reveal the sequence of events leading from his obsession with remembering and communicating, through his unintended murder of a fellow inmate to his acquittal on grounds of a perceived mental breakdown.
The pivotal situation in the novel is a Kafkaesque one, of a man frantically trying to prove himself guilty of murder in the face of vociferous public assertions of his unstable mental condition and therefore of his innocence. The acquittal thus dramatises the defeat of the individual before the collective.
Indeed, much of the novel is concerned with showing how reality is constructed by collective beliefs and ritualistic praxes that everything from social institutions to peoples lives to the language through which all experience is ordered and expressed have no ontological purity but is part of the semiotics of social existence. Sathe reminds one of Vijay Tendulkar in his focus on the power of the social over the personal and in his subtle critique of social norms and group behaviour.
Technically, the novel blends in elements of the modernist stream-of-consciousness with a postmodern absurdist play on language to create a fictional idiom that embodies the authors social constructionist view of life. Identity becomes a major theme as the protagonist struggles to hold on to his reputation and self-perception as an intelligent, articulate individual even as well-meaning admirers from across the world join forces to prove the opposite in order to save him from being convicted of pre-planned murder. That salvation for someone could mean saving a long-held self-image rather than saving his life is one of the cardinal points made by the novel, as is the implied assertion of the publicly constructed nature of normalcy and sanity.
The power of the majority, however, is subverted by the quiet resignation with which Athavale accepts his asylum-life. He creates his own world in a room fitted with a networked computer and looks forward only to monthly visits by Vaijayanthi, his long-time friend and lover.
The readers growing awareness of the madness in what is collectively perceived as reason is balanced by an equivalent perception of the reason in Athavales apparent madness. The upshot is that the reader gains an uneasy but morally salutary sense of the fallibility of human constructions, including that of reason itself.
The book, despite its philosophical richness, is almost never dull but enlivened with a lively wit that brings out the absurdity the inconclusive, unending interplay of competing meanings inherent to language and social praxes. A little more conventional action and humour would have further enhanced its readabilty.
Suparna Banerjee is an assistant professor based in Konnagar, West Bengal