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Friday, Sep 20, 2019

Review: This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale: Two Anti-Novels by Subimal Misra

This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale: Two Anti-Novels presents a collection of visions, diary entries, newspaper clippings, cinematic key frames and vignettes written by the anti-establishment activist Subimal Misra

books Updated: Jul 19, 2019 19:29 IST
Percy Bharucha
Percy Bharucha
Hindustan Times
Depiction of underworld's creatures devouring the damned in a miniature from Apocalypse of Cambrai, illuminated by the French School of the 13th century.
Depiction of underworld's creatures devouring the damned in a miniature from Apocalypse of Cambrai, illuminated by the French School of the 13th century.(Corbis via Getty Images)
         
296pp, Rs399; HarperCollins
296pp, Rs399; HarperCollins

How does one ascertain what it was that died, by simply looking at its dismembered parts? But it is this fractured presentation that forces us to examine each appendage carefully, thoroughly — to take a level of care to comprehend even the tiniest of details. Such care would be impossible to elicit from any reader — even the most committed one — if Subimal Misra were to have simply plonked a cadaver before us and yelled, ‘BEHOLD!’ Instead, through a part-by-part study of the whole, Misra forces us to track and witness in gruesome, haunting detail how each part has been ravaged by illness and disease. Rather than be content with the mere knowledge of the disease that caused death, we are forced to relive the misery of its spread and the blinding pain it must have caused as it traversed from arteries to muscles to limbs. And Misra does this knowing full well that there is no escape for these visions from the vaults of memory.

Two Anti-Novels presents a collection of such visions, diary entries, newspaper clippings, cinematic key frames, vignettes and writer comments written by the anti-establishment activist and writer, Subimal Misra. Bred from years of convenience, one feels an instinctual reluctance to engage with these two anti-novels and their non-linear, unstructured collage. But the reader must overcome this emotional and intellectual sluggishness to enjoy the fruits of Misra’s labour.

This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale, the first of these two anti-novels, is a novella about a writer trying to complete the story of a tea-estate-worker-turned-Naxalite, Ramayan Chamar, who gets arrested during a worker’s strike and is beaten and killed in custody. What prevents the writer from finishing Ramayan’s tale are repetitive, brutal episodes that betray the violent nature of both his and Ramayan’s reality. In When Colour Is A Warning Sign, Misra abandons any notion of there being a singular subject or story. In both of these, primacy is given to the act of writing itself, which Misra calls the true subject, ‘not merely creation but the universe’.

Misra chooses the absence of form to expand and stretch the ‘carrying capacity of the text’. It is a format that is representative of class struggle and revolution and springs from his desire to present the ‘raw material’ the way it is and the way it is used. What we see as a result of this are vignettes of protest and rebellion that cover vast territories unfettered from the burden of character arcs and plotlines. It is fascinating to observe how even the characters in Misra’s work are not spared the struggle of protest — a protest against the author and the reader. Even the author himself must deal with protest from his characters, his critics, his neighbours, his editors and the reader.

To trace any semblance of progression in these two works is akin to tracing the path of a firefly. Misra leaps and alights from branch to bough in a cosmic garden of characters — Malati, a little child who is forgotten in prison because a scrap of paper keeps getting lost in the writers’ building; people that are made into invisible spectres by a mere ten-rupee bribe; the beggar that has been collecting money for his parents funerary costs for over a year and is unabashed about expressing his tastes and desires; the BA pass who hides his degree to get a peon’s job and is devastated when he’s found and subsequently fired for being overqualified; train robbers who get into a fight leading up to a train crash; the young daughter who eats handfuls of the same dirt that has swallowed up her mother and more. It is through these characters that Misra demonstrates the reality of violence, the apathy of a society desensitised to it, the devaluation of human lives that belong to other classes, and the absurdity of the reasons used to quell protest — ‘No! Stop shouting! The neighbouring country will hear it.’ These two anti-novels are an invitation to engage with discomfort, through purposeful silence, jump cuts and ferocious prose.

Read more: Found in translation

Misra’s book is a harrowing portrait of how the structures of power and politics have completely failed those that they were established to protect. It uses the poignant description of a funny monkey attempting to scale a slippery bamboo — he climbs four feet only to slide down five.

Like a glitchy TV set that offers a rare peek at the unscripted truth, Subimal Misra’s anti-novels are a much-needed break from regular programming and should be read. The complexity of his writing might be a deterrent, but like the proverbial bitter pill, this too must be consumed for our own good.

Percy Bharucha is a freelance writer and illustrator with two biweekly comics, The Adult Manual and Cats Over Coffee. Instagram: @percybharucha

First Published: Jul 19, 2019 19:29 IST