As the introduction to the Writers’ Workshop translation of Nagarjun’s novel Jamaniya ka Daba puts it, the author is one of the stalwarts of the Progressive movement in Indian literature, a movement committed to Marxism and to the depiction of social realism, Nagarjun usually handles social situations familiar in India, and in this novel it is the ‘god-men’s exploitation of the average Indian’s blind belief which is exposed. It is admitted by the translators that the subtlety of language which is the hallmark of Nagarjun’s writing does not lend itself to easy translation. It goes to the credit of the translators, however, that they have managed to show that in Nagarjun’s writing prose is not just poetry’s plain sister but a rich, precise form of human expression, presupposing delicate self-consciousness and control.
The core of The Holy-man from Jamanaya is not a developing emotional situation involving the intense experience of certain number of characters, though the novel unfolds through the points of view of the various central characters. Perhaps the opening chapter of the book which presents the theme through the ‘Holy’ Baba himself is the most powerful.
The Baba, who has after twelve years of careful fraud, established a flourishing racket in drugs, sex and politics, at the local temple, with the right connections in the political, feudal and business world, is arrested. Along with him is Mastaram, his assistant who flogged a sadhu mercilessly in an attempt to force the latter to do obeisance to the Baba. The jail poses no problems at all to the holy duo for it is run by those ‘in whose heart there is devotion to the saints and sadhus’. The Baba is cleverly able to bring them to his feet and enjoy, as usual, hashish, kheer, silks and blind faith. To expose the Baba through his own expression proves an extremely effective technique. The expression shifts in turn to his assistant Mastaram, a woman ascetic Imrati, and the manager of the temple finances, Bhagavati. Through this shifting of perspectives a range of local, political and social corruption in studied from the Rani of Shivnagar and local businessmen who establish the temple in order to keep their lands, to the blind poor who love being beaten by Mastaram.
Nagarjun distances the reader from the character—we see things from his point of view and yet are not totally involved in him—we see him as part of the panorama. Instead of letting the voice of the didactive ‘creator’ intrude, the author allows the character to develop only as far as it suits his purpose of exposing a situation, beyond which the character has no life. For example he avoids simple details like physical appearances which are irrelevant to the exposure of ‘types’.
This is a technique that is very useful in maintaining a critical perspective. But it could easily be a drawback if that criticism weakens, as it does, unfortunately in this book. Critical realism strains the existing social framework, the existing bourgeois morality. Social realism goes beyond that. This novel promises to be social realism but remains hovering uncertainly between the two. There is a meaningful but hazy juxtaposition of striking workers of the sugar factory and the sadhus in the jail. This however remains a device, very occasionally used and never emerges as part of the convictions of the novel. Those who are educated are always referred to as more conscious people who ‘test the knowledge that lies behind (a sadhu’s) dress and colour.’
Some of the themes in the book are far removed from the realities of Indian society today. Newspapers are depicted as being totally emancipated and free and speak as mouth-pieces of the workers, totally against the holy frauds. Mastaram, the brahmin assistant has shed all caste inhibitions. He mixes freely with untouchables and does not mind the rumour that the Baba may be a Muslim. His review of Hindu society in chapter six is a complete contradiction of the earlier character-portrayal, of that of a selfish slow-thinking, pleasure-loving slave to the Baba. Even the Baba has the objectivity to realize the power of the red flag and the might of organized workers. Courts of law not only arrest such a powerful sadhu but continue to prosecute him. His connections do not help him. It makes one wonder whether the author has a naive faith in the fundamental structure of this society while criticizing ‘holy fraud’ as an aberration. Since the novel does not follow this attitude throughout, the criticism is inconsistent and incomplete which make the novel as powerful as the beginning promises. Of course, it is important to remember that it is the book itself we are judging, not the ‘social significance’ to be got out of it. And yet it is because of its social objectives that it discards emotional development, and hence when criticism fails, there is little to fall back on, no brilliant and complex characters, no developing strands of events. Therefore despite its lively, at times brilliant depiction of the complex relations between different people in society who are interested in perpetuating the fraud of the holy man, the novel leaves the reader with a lingering dissatisfaction.
Ania Loomba is Lecturer in English, Hindu College, University of Delhi, Delhi.