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The fantastic voyage

Breathless historical novel ahoy! Here’s a face-off between the sacred and the profane, writes Kalpish Ratna.

india Updated: Dec 03, 2007 15:36 IST

The City of Love
Rimi B. Chatterjee
Rs 295, pp 318

The 16th century is a labyrinth. Enter its maze at your peril! Inside it, everything seems to happen all at once: oceans shrink, new lands appear, treasure spills like blood — there’s a lot of blood. Through the uproar, a stillness claims the air. Death is everywhere. And then it’s all over, and the world has changed.

It is a grand place for a novelist, and Rimi B. Chatterjee has clearly enjoyed the maze. Her novel, The City of Love, is a breathless account of that turbulent time. The epicentre of turbulence is that floating metropolis, the Indian Ocean. Her book opens from this interesting vantage.<b1>

Fernando Almenara, prisoner, wakes up aboard the Shaan-e-Dariya, which is actually a Portuguese caravel “rejigged in the Moorish fashion for brute speed and precise handling”. (Wasn’t the caravel — corredoras extremadas, buenas para descubrir tierras — a light vessel built for speed?) The gentlemen crew are, naturally, pirates. But, if you’re expecting Captain Blood grafted on to Pirates of the Caribbean, take a pause. This here’s exalted company.

These pirates talk, and every time they speak it’s a crash course in history. When it’s not history they’re rattling off at great speed, it’s a bibliography of medieval wisdom.

Daud Suleiman al-Basri, the most elegant of the lot, is a seeker of wisdom, a scholar who has out-read the Europeans and is now translating the Vajrachintamani, which is “fiendishly difficult”. All this, and we’re still at sea.

Waiting on land to ambush the reader are the arcana of the tantric, the ecstasy of Krishna Chaitanya and the soul music of the wandering Sufi. All great stuff, if only we could come up for air occasionally.

Shaiva priest Bhairavdas and his long-suffering family are refugees in Gajangal on the fringe of Chittagong. They have fled Gaur to escape Sultan Hussain Shah’s claim on the temple treasury. Now Bhairavdas must reconsecrate the sacred lingam in his new temple, and he needs an acolyte, a son.

Enter the anarchic Tara, “witch chief of the forest tribe”, who provides the necessary magic for sex pre-selection. A son is born, and the story gets going. Tara’s stand-in at the accouchement is Bajja, then only eight.

There’s also Daud’s guru, Dhumavati, who gifts her power to Bajja. All of them, Bhairavdas, his son Chandu, Bajja, Fernando, Daud and the Murshid Pir Baba, are in search of enlightenment. The story is a face-off between the sacred and the profane, surely an enthralling plot line.

Alas, too many things get in the way of the story. The writer’s research, above all else. Having courageously taken the inside view of Bengal, the book fights shy of refuting the European narrative of history. Props that have lured credulous Europeans since Herodotus clutter the dense text. It’s the rare page that can be navigated without stumbling on a wilting lingam or a bloody yoni, a chakra or a mandala.

Everything, from yards of messy sex to the mythos of creation, is earnestly explained in prose that seesaws between the incantatory and the inept. Sentences like this one yell for attention: “Fernando scratched at the lice in his hair with the end of his pen.”

Buried in the prolix heart of the novel is an idea that deserves more respect. Its interesting thesis, ‘the freedom of the margin’, is shouted down by the white noise of information.

Saying so much about so very little is to rob the reader of serendipity. This is a novel that relies so much on chance winds, it forgets to put its own muscle to the oar.

Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan write together as Kalpish Ratna