The Transplanted Man of the title is the Union Health Minister of India who has so many transplanted organs in his body he can proudly say he truly represents India. Once he was very corrupt but having often been close to death he has begun to actually feel the pain of the mother of a dying child and is determined to do some good for his country before he dies, except that he is not sure he will survive his latest illness. He has come secretly to New York for medical attention since the coalition government he belongs to may fall if it gets about that he is once more on the verge of death. One of his doctors is the young Resident Dr.Sunit “Sonny” Seth whose unorthodox methods are accepted by almost everyone in the hospital since he has the gift of healing, although he seems immune to his own powers. An unidentified trouble makes him sleepwalk and he smokes cannabis to unwind. Around these two are the Trinidadian Indian ward boy Manny who wheels patients through corridors at breakneck speed, yelling “Mad doctor!” at personnel he crashes into,
Gwen the English nurse, the wily film star politician Ronny Chanchal, Tiger’s Indian Restaurant, a doctor working on insomnia who has found the sleep-inhibitor in a rat he calls Johny [sic] Walker after the comedian, a hypokinetic man, Dr.Giri the reluctant guru who is a trained psychotherapist but cannot find a job, and many other eccentrics. The centre of the novel is after all a fifty-five year old hospital that attracts eccentrics.
I missed reading Sanjay Nigam’s The Snake Charmer, not for want of interest but simply because there is so much new writing from the subcontinent that it’s difficult to keep up. Much of this is from writers less and less occasionally referred to as the Under-Forties, which I assumed meant those born less than forty years ago, but now I wonder whether it could not also mean those born well after 1947 for whom Partition is “history” in the American (and) comic book dismissive use of the word. Histories of literature are another matter. I don’t think in India we have an annual round up of Indian English writing as the one of Pakistani English writing by Muneeza Shamsie published in Dawn. Shamsie assumes that Pakistani English writers are those who are or have been Pakistani, regardless of where they live or how long they have been away. In her experience, expatriate writers are delighted to be included in the canon of Pakistani writers.
Broadening the base in this way may have its uses. Sanjay Nigam is not strictly from the Indian subcontinent in that he grew up in the US, but recently developed categories for writers are rapidly coming undone in the current multiplicity of writing. The least readable of it is criticism that looks at lively, fresh work through the dusty windows of postcolonialism and postmodernism. “Subcontinental” on the other hand brings into focus common characteristics of Under-Forties writing. Many of these writers live in more than one place, the subcontinent as well as the developed West. Adjusting to the West is not a huge issue for them but insidious racism is, as comes through strongly in Uzma Aslam Khan’s Trespassing, and is especially true of the US after the two Bush wars on Iraq. The narrowness of religious fundamentalism and the fearsome marriage of fundamentalism with politics are confronted, especially by Pakistani writers. Subcontinental Under-Forties writers consider the consequences upon private lives of the peak moments of post-Partition history, primarily wars and riots. Dismemberment of communities—in the case of Pakistan the 1971 dismemberment of the country—cleaves through families and relationships. The atmosphere is of political and bureaucratic corruption that makes some people extremely rich through trading in drugs and arms while the rest welter in poverty, non-working civic systems, and crimes that go unpunished and occur in the first place because citizens are unprotected. Journeys are the backbone of many of these novels, the chief journey being going away to the US or England, then returning home not necessarily out of choice, only to find that it is difficult to adjust to the reality at home, yet it is impossible to write of anything else. Writings that come out of oppressive regimes seem more energetic and less personality focussed than some Indian works.1
Some writers, like Sanjay Nigam in Transplanted Man, do not return to the subcontinent in their novels,2 but their countries of origin are present in myriad ways, especially as memories of food and films. Religious rites and functions recede, or are rituals without feeling. Perhaps this is an offshoot of confronting religious fundamentalism, perhaps it is a genuine disinterest, or maybe it is wishful thinking, given that subcontinental fundamentalism is fuelled by subcontinentals living in the developed West. Transplanted Man’s action takes place in the Little India pocket of New York where, Nigam tells us, there are no muggings and everyone lives in harmony. Well not everyone. The hospital where Sonny works has doctors and nurses from all over India but none from other parts of south Asia, and even among the Indians there is something missing. Where is the multiplicity of Indian communities? All those nurses from Kerala, for instance?
What we have here is a sort of melting pot within the melting pot that is the US. Malaysians, West Indians and Ugandans of Indian origin have drifted to Little India. They have either never wanted to visit India or have been insulted by visiting Indians for whom people who left India so long ago are not “real” Indians. Either way, the expatriates have rid themselves of sentimental attachment to the idea of India, Nigam’s nice corrective to the Pardesi brand of I-love-my-India. There are also non-brown India addicts, one of whom longs to return to the happy hippy India of his youth, the other simply likes Sonny. Two not-really-Indians believe that you cannot be a real Indian until you have seen Sholay seven times, to which end they watch back-to-back shows at the local cinema hall.
Does Nigam idealize India at all? From his somewhat cleaned up version of Indian plurality, it may seem he does, but he has no easy answers. He said in an interview, “I’m not ‘constantly reminded’ of my ancestry, but as a writer, I’m certainly conscious of it. At least on the outside, I’m what people might call ‘assimilated,’ though I’m not sure a visible minority can ever feel completely invisible. But that’s beside the point. In my case, the question isn’t one of taking India out of the man, but of making room for both America and India in the man and seeing what emerges.”3
The Under-Forties write elegant English. Whether this is authentic language or not is by-passed, to use my mother-in-law’s term for “ignore entirely and get on with life.” There is a new respect for the reader and the language. Tortuous irony has been done away with and as if spring had entered it, subcontinental writing is bursting with life. Readability has high priority. Nigam says “Rather plain language” is his speciality.4 Lyrical descriptions of the structure of the kidney in Transplanted Man hold one’s attention as much as Tiger’s analysis of the leftover food in his non-Indian clients’ plates as he strives to develop less spicy-spicy menus: A trace of hot pepper makes most white people turn red. The other reason is that I am trying to develop an Indo-American style—something tasty yet convenient (p. 220).
There are other, more literal suggestions of the melting pot, like the dog named Tandoori. Is it possible not to translate that into hot dog?
Transplanted Man uses a lot of that old-fashioned device called recurring motifs to subtly bind the story into patterned coherence. One group of motifs is sleep, insomnia, sleep walking, sleep related diseases, hypokineticism (a new word for me), doctors and quacks dealing in them, and a narrative style that, in the best realist traditions without the unrealistic coincidence—and closure-laden conclusions of well-made realistic novels, makes one believe everything in this novel is history, it really happened. Yet it slips easily from being conventionally realistic into bizarre happenings and back again, exactly like that time when we lie in bed believing we are still watching TV but the events are so unlike any TV programme one knows, and then one’s eyes briefly snap open to the real TV show. Nigam says that the events are not all that odd; doctors witness things that seem weird to others.
Another group of motifs gathers about nineteenth century English novels. Gwen and the Transplanted Man love them passionately. Gwen has inherited a library of them from her grandmother; she returns to them on especially exhausting days; they make her feel secure. She and the Transplanted Man love the fact that they tell stories, the contingency of them. Nigam implies that these are indeed novels. Their rich detail is made out of the multiplicity of life, as to a large extent is Nigam’s own book in which a hospital, an eating joint, film songs, and curative mumbo-jumbo coexist with all sorts of people; and it has definite middle and backgrounds that form its vivid context of pasts and present. Gwen believes so much in the power of the novels to do good that when the Transplanted Man is dying, she uses them in a way that would have astonished her nursing teachers: Out of desperation, Gwen had been slipping different books between the Transplanted Man’s mattresses, hoping that one of them would somehow heal the man who believed in the healing power of literature. The Transplanted Man liked nineteenth-century English writers, and he got the very best: Austen, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope, every Brontë. When all those books produced no improvement, Gwen switched to Eastern literature, including Shakuntala, the haiku of Basho, the devotional poems of Kabir, and The Tale of the Genji—which, owing to its bulk, had to be opened to the middle pages before being inserted, facedown. After even that failed she tried pairing a nineteenth-century English classic with the work of a living Asian writer, hoping that some combination of West and East, colonial and postcolonial, dead and alive, might do the trick. At home the yellow bulb of her bedside lamp burned deep into the night as she desperately searched for just the right passage—the perfect sequence of words that would forestall the death of the Transplanted Man (p. 215).
Narrator and author are easily conflated in one’s mind, but Nigam gives us a diversity of viewpoints. Is the nineteenth-century novel a good thing or not? We are not certain but we are led to suppose that they are. As in the novels of the later nineteenth century, one moment we are offered a subject for thought, the next moment Nigam has collapsed the objective distance and given us his complimentary imitation of the nineteenth-century novel.
The third set of motifs settles around Hindi films. The basic Hindi film’s ingredients are all present and correct, especially a long-lost father (Sonny does not know who his father is) and a dying man who revives after Manny the ward boy sings Yeh dosti from Sholay in the lift at the urgent command of Dr. Sonny Seth when all else fails. “Somehow it all turned into an orchestra, accompanying Manny perfectly” (p. 323). There’s the peculiar connectedness Sonny feels towards the hypokinetic man and the Transplanted Man. Are they related? The Hindi filmi master script tempts one to anticipate a satisfying end, but Nigam is not inclined towards simplistic narratives. As Tiger tells Ronny Chanchal: “This isn’t fake! Your films are fake. They are successful because they simplify everything. You satisfy the uncultivated tastes of the man in the street, just as I have lately begun to satisfy the tastes of tourists who come to see that fellow outside.” Tiger pointed to the hypokinetic man. “But this place—this neighbourhood where I live—satisfies me in a much deeper way. Unlike your films, it is original. It exists on its own. On a lesser scale than India, but exists no less” (p. 256).
Nigam offers the temptation of form, to interpret his story, to convert it into something else, to indulge in the “stand for” game, to distance it and assume that it means something other than itself. Is sleep a metaphor? Does Sonny actually go through life unaware, of his mystical healing power for instance? With a mind bent by the need to read between the lines, one asks, what is Transplanted Man about? Answers come and go like dimly remembered dreams but the story moves along its entertaining and witty way, preventing halts.
Sanjay Nigam, a physician by training, is on a mission to cure writing of clichés and stereotypes. “This novel has to be one of the hardest things I ever did,” he says. “I knew the themes I wanted to explore—and these remained consistent over the 13 years of writing—but it seemed to take forever to integrate the characters and plot into what I hope is, finally, a cohesive whole. I would often set all the chapters (at one point, around 100) on the floor and rearrange them. I would make plot diagrams, delete whole scenes and characters, then add them back six months later. It was both thrilling and sometimes painful. In the middle, I stopped and quickly wrote The Snake Charmer, which succeeded both critically as well as at the local bookstore and gave me the strength to keep working on Transplanted Man for another four years.”5
Reference: 1 The easiest way to make the point is to compare the (not strictly subcontinental) Iranian novel, Sorraya in a Coma with Shashi Deshpande’s Small Remedies, but the issue requires discussion and exploration. I do believe, however, that we need to broaden the context within which we make our histories of contemporary literature to include more Asian writing, in translation as well as in English, for it is fascinating to see how recent history is transforming novels and stories all over Asia. 2 Though this edition of The Transplanted Man is published by Penguin India. Nigam has commented upon India and his writings in interviews. 3 http://www.idiotsguides.com/static/rguides/us/snake_charmer.html 4 http://www.littworld.com/english/2002/interview/july/ijan21.html. The interviewer had implied that “rather plain” language was somehow a flaw. 5 http://www.littworld.com/english/2002/interview/july/ijan21.html.
Shobhana Bhattacharji is Reader at Jesus and Mary College, New Delhi.