In sharp contrast is Jitendra Bhatia’s Justjoo-e-nihaan Urf Rooniyabaas Ki Antarkatha. This novel is about an ordinary journalist, Chandraprakash Chaubey, who fails in his investigative assignment but seeks to find a fresh meaning for his otherwise irrelevant ignominious life—investigating into the truth of an Ojhal Baba (Invisible Godman) living in some ruins near Rooniyabaas village and reputed to possess divine powers. This is the story of a man passing through the thorny path of life in search of a place to put his feet up. Two streams crisscross each other: one, the materialistic owner/manager of the newspaper, Navhind Samachar, and the other the insignificant journalist, bloodied by the barbed-wired hiding that he received at the hands of fate for thirty-five years and now trying to rediscover his faith and conviction in life, albeit along a hazy trail. The protagonist lurking around in the ruins by night, detecting flickers, is the objective correlative of this search. Juxtaposing the antithesis of this search is Parikh on the one hand and Shrimali, the Basnoda village chieftain, on the other.
This is a brilliant depiction of a postcolonial oriental rummaging of a man with a postmodern orientation, a very disturbed childhood, what with a gay and depraved yoga master and a morbid fiendish math teacher, and an equally unenviable youth with the likes of Parikh Sahib (‘humanity’s worst enemy’) for company. This weird quest for the elusive Baba is in fact a quest for an anchor and rudder for Chandraprakash Chaubey’s pointless life.
While shouldering the existential angst like Nirmal Verma in Ek Chithraa Sukh, Jitendra Bhatia assaults the sensitive reader with the merciless use of vitriolic invectives without paraphrasing (with the gun on Parikh Sahib’s shoulders and christened ‘powerful language’, to boot!), as though deliberately adopting the Krishna Baldev Vaidesque anti-novel style. By combining Nirmal Verma and Vaid, Bhatia appears to have created a bizarre schizophrenic situation. One gives one’s head a sad shake. There is also a compulsive obsession with the perverse—like comparing the shrivelled penis of the dead Baba with that of his dead father’s, and describing female characters by the shapes and sizes of their body parts. Is this an intellectual hide-and-seek with the reader—a red herring—or a mere gimmick to attract mammon by pandering to the needs of the rank and file?
During the anti movement in Hindi literature following the Beats, the angry young generation, the hungry generation, et al, such artifices were used to death. Today they do not excite the reader. Even the description ‘angry old man’, four decades after the “angry young generation”, reads as hackneyed. While one is all for the protagonist’s search, one tends to harbour an apprehension that this novel of the postmodern era could perpetuate mysticism bordering on blind faith. Never mind Vinod Kumar Shukla’s much-discussed novel Deewar Mein Ek Khirki Rahati Thi. That was rooted in fantasy, this is based on myth, and this distinction should be maintained.
A notable feature is the twin planes of the profound and the mundane on which this novel operates. For instance, the novel opens with a Ghalib: Where the body has charred, charred too would have the heart What seek you now that you poke into these ashes…
Contrast this and other sober pieces with the frivolous film songs strewn about. Beats one! What makes this novel a pleasant read is the intimacy the author develops with his reader: Could it be that weary and fatigued of an empty life like mine and unable to pull together enough courage to commit suicide, he (the Baba) had come here in search of a scarce yet honourable alternative like dying when one desires (Bhatia uses a beautiful expression ichchha mrtyu), and in the process had lapsed year upon long year of his life? Could it be that these forty years of his life will, in fact, prove to be synonymous with forty long years of an unsung nameless death…
The theme is revealed in the author’s musings and ruminations. It weaves beautifully through small blocks of incidents and descriptions gripping the reader till the end. The poetic dimensions of his imagery are truly remarkable: Hanging on a peg over a map of India is the grubby soiled shirt (presumably the teacher’s) and on another was a dirty picture of Gandhi Baba with a cap covering half of it.
A telling comment on the status of our nation and the person we revere as its founding father. Bhatia has a wholesome theme that in itself is interesting, by way of a suspense-filled plot, flashbacks, and graceful wefts and warps. Justjoo… has all the ingredients of a Conan Doyle or Poe, with the bonus of high-thinking. It is a magnificent blend of description, incidents, and analysis of the past and the present. Note the earthy and easy swing of words: Like the illiterate villagers, I, too, was burdening the Baba with my idealistic expectations, transforming him into something that he probably was not and never could be.
Exactly what Sartre means when he says: “The other’s look fashions my body…” (Being and Nothingness). If literature fashions society, the first book promotes the carcinogen from which every sane man seeks deliverance, while the second gives him the transcendental thinking cap.
Sushma Bhatnagar is a writer and Manu Vikraman writes in Hindi and English.