Vilas Sarang reminds me of O.V. Vijayan of Malayalam, although, unlike Vijayan, he is a poet, apart from being a fiction writer and critic who writes in Marathi and in English. Vijayan’s stories of the modernist period were mostly allegories, parables, stories with a sort of cast-iron frame into which human situations or predicaments were set, as if following some kind of predestined design. The modernists are well-known for their philosophical predilections, notably confined to certain schools of the West. The influence of the French Existentialists and Latin American writers like Borges was manifest in the works of the modernists of several major Indian languages during the 1960s and 70s. Looking back, one remembers that the modernists rejected everyday realities of life and tried to grasp the symbolic and emotional essence of things. They attempted to give expression to this essence by employing images, archetypes and myths. These constituted the internal structure of the story. Organic development of the story is conspicuously absent in such works. Even in the scatological excesses of certain stories, Vilas Sarang uncannily resembles Vijayan.
Whereas Vijayan grew out of this stage into writing his famous stories like ‘After the Hanging’, ‘The Story the Wind Told’ and others with a human touch, most of Vilas Sarang’s stories in the present collection remain in such frames. These stories are seemingly devoid of empathy. It looks like a deliberate ploy employed by the writer to make the stories starker, to turn them into scalpels to perform surgery on the moribund body of society. However, it is to be noted here that the short story, generally, has moved from such cages of stiff form and staid content to vibrant, lyrical, narrative entities, after the grip of modernism loosened gradually, from the early 1980s, in most of the major regional literatures of India. The observation made by Dom Moraes that Vilas Sarang is ‘one of the finest Indian writers of his time’ acquires special significance in this context.
The stories in the present volume are those from his debut collection Fair Tree of the Void that came out in 1990 plus six hitherto uncollected stories, making up a total of twenty-six. They have been reworked and regrouped into five sections—‘The City by the Sea’, ‘Libido Zones’, ‘Small Creatures’, ‘The Shadow of the Gulag’ and ‘Visions of Nirvana’. The author states that while a few of these stories were written in English, many of them were translated from Marathi, and worked upon by Breon Mitchell. He mentions this in detail in the ‘The Making of the Text’, which forms part of the ‘Notes of a Working Writer’ on page 277 of the book. If this is so, then the mention in the blurb that “The Women in Cages brings together all his short stories written in English …” is inaccurate. Be that as it may, the fact that most of the stories carry no dates of first writing is a silent statement to the effect that they straddle at least three decades or more, as one of the stories, ‘Rabbit’ is found to have been included in the Penguin anthology, New Writing in India (1974). This could be the reason for the preponderance of stories written in the typically modernist mode.
Beginning with the very first two stories, which actually have the same characters and a common first-heading: ‘Love in Mumbai-I’ and ‘Love in Mumbai II’, and are separately titled ‘An Evening at the Beach’ and ‘An Afternoon among the Rocks’, Vilang Sarang demonstrates that his stories would be noted specially for their bizarre twists and turns. Bajrang, who has come to the beach with his girl-friend Shalini, on a cold winter evening, is chatting with her cuddling close, sitting at the bottom of the sea-facing side of the wall of a cemetery. He likes to sit against the cemetery wall because it reminds him of a passage from Albert Camus in which he speaks of ‘Algerian boys and girls having assignations under the cemetery walls’. (Sure enough, there follows a Camusian description of an old man who has eased his bowels on the beach waiting for the waves to rise up to wash his bottom without his lowering it, failing in attempt after attempt, and getting drenched by a giant wave that finally came—quite disconnected from the main narrative.) Beyond the inland side of the wall, his friend Kanchan’s mother is being cremated, unbeknown to him. Kanchan, who walks up from his mother’s pyre towards the wall to urinate, sees Bajrang and Shalini on the other side, and invites Bajrang over to the cremation site as he desperately needs his company; Kanchan is feeling exceedingly alienated, with his father exultant at the death of his mother and the relatives hovering around like vultures. Bajrang, who has abandoned the warmth of his girl-friend’s body, is now bent on making up for the loss by basking in the heat from the burning pyre. Kanchan’s father acts scandalized at this, and Kanchan’s relatives chase Bajrang to manhandle him. In the melee that ensues, the pyre tumbles down and Kanchan gets covered by the heaps of burning faggots from the pyre, and his mother’s half-burned body rests on him. Bajrang jumps the wall opposite and runs, thinking about the etymological root of the word ‘the great Indian Bustard’ as deriving from the Latin avid tarda or ‘slow-moving bird’, and gloating over the fact that he is just the opposite of that. A rare survivor of a vanishing species, indeed! He was duty-bound to protect his own life.
In the other story, Bajrang manages to take Shalini on to the rocks on the beach, another day. He is trying to be intimate with her. Initially she rebuffs him. But he quite innocently gets her on her back, pins her and suddenly proceeds further. She has to co-operate. In between, Bajrang can see a man in a blue shirt standing at a distance, eyeing them. Bajrang is erotically excited, as someone else is watching them; but to Shalini, he mouths some nonsense like a past-life connection with the man, who could be the detached alter ego of himself! Suddenly the blue shirt walks up and abducts Shalini at knife point. The reader jumps to the conclusion that the blue shirt is going to rape Shalini right in front of her lover. But no. A blue police vehicle had pulled up, quite a distance away. The blue shirt wanted Shalini merely to be a shield to ensure his safe passage. She will have to act as if she is his lover and make a show of walking away hand in hand, while Bajrang waited in the rocks. After he gets away, she is free to return, unharmed. The blue shirt and Shalini walk past the police, who don’t even stop them. Instead, they swoop down to the rocks. They have information that a smuggler is lurking among the rocks. And Bajrang awaits the handcuffs….
I have taken some space to relate these two stories briefly, just to tell the reader that these are but the mildest in their bleakness, hopeless blind-alley situations and with seemingly whimsical and absurdist turns. They are even imbued with a strange sense of humour. Most of the other twenty-four are complex to the point of being labyrinthine, sinewy like a gangster’s gleaming dark, muscular torso and are, all of them, heavily set.
The other stories in this first section are ‘Musk Deer’ (an existentialist story in which the protagonist, ‘Musk Deer’ fancies he has discovered his long-lost elder brother in the person of a street-side beggar; he carries around a deprived childhood in the form of a chronic pain in his navel; hence his nick-name) ‘An Excursion’ (in which a young girl plays death games, pretending to be a corpse, and then, assigning the duty of being a corpse to her doll, as witnessed by a person who got off the bus with an old woman at random and followed her into her house for no purpose at all but as a part of an aimless ‘excursion’ to kill his boredom), ‘On the Stone Steps’ (about a teacher who joins young boys in play running about in mud, slips and falls and breaks his arm; this dash of boyhood comes to him upon remembering an incident from his own boyhood, of pocketing a four-anna coin that fell off a beggar’s bowl, how he picked it up and wanted to keep it for himself, then thought the better of it, and gave it to the beggar as if he was giving it from his bounty, and now the same incident repeating itself with a twenty-paise coin that fell off a beggar’s bowl; on his way to return the coin, he played with the boys!) and ‘The Revolt of the Gods’, a surrealist story, with all the gods of a person’s puja room walking away!
In Section II, we have stories like ‘The Missing Link’ (a deeply disturbing story in which the parents of girl children are compelled to sell them off for prostitution as soon as they come of age, at the command of the village chief; this is in fact one of the best stories), ‘Women in Cages’ (about the life of women in the red light district, about twelve women in two groups of six who are exhibited in two shop-window-like cages facing the street), ‘The Odour of Immortality’ ( again, a brothel-story, in which Champa, the Nepali sex-worker, develops vaginas all over her body, like what happened to Lord Indra, once), ‘Om Phallus’, (a Kafkaesque story in which a person’s phallus grows to be his personality, like Shiva linga is Shiva himself; only that the erect, giant penis gets deflated and the cult around it suddenly comes to an end!) ‘An Interview with Mr. Chakko’ ( a macabre story in which Chakko, the protagonist, has cut his wife into two, ostensibly because he is not used to a woman with a whole personality!) and ‘Barrel and Mumbil: A Love Story’, the last in the section.
Section III has five stories: ‘Flies’ (a story in 15 short, numbered sections, that describes a lonely person’s observation and related activities centred around flies and spiders) ‘Spider in the Clock’ (about a man’s obsession with a tiny spider inside a clock, how he takes down the clock, opens it, moves its hands etc.; again a curiously existentialist story) ‘Rabbit’ (an experiment in form, with a letter to the editor and news reports forming the body of the story) ‘The End of History’ (about a lonely man and his horrid games—the parrot who kept him company for many years dies as Sadananad, who came from far away to meet him and buck him up, accidentally causes its death, through the repetition of a phrase; enraged, the old man forces Sadanand to repeat a weird passage, looking at himself in the mirror, and Sadanand too dies, and the old man is filled with remorse) and ‘Testimony of an Indian Vulture’ (about a vulture approaching a doctor for treatment and the doctor spurning it, accusing it of eating rotten flesh; the cultured vulture out-argues the doctor and developing an inferiority complex, the doctor throws the vulture out!).
Vilas Sarang states in the first paragraph of the preface that “The section headings loosely point to the subject of the stories, and are not taken as ‘defining’ something. Needless to say, the stories—materializing several years apart in some cases—were not written to a plan. The grouping is only an afterthought.” However, the very next paragraph is a virtual rebuttal of this very same assertion. It reads: “Perhaps a brief explanatory note regarding Section IV (The Shadow of the Gulag) is in order. The three stories at the head of this section were written as the result (along with my novel, In the Land of Enki) of my five-year stay in Iraq…. During the time I was in Iraq, the Emergency of 1975 ran its course in India. On my annual vacation to India, I took in these developments. All stories in this section refract my Iraqi experience as well as that of the Emergency, and also my growing awareness of the realities of what has been called the Third World.” A general observation made about the modernists, equipped with their Quixotean armour, shield and mount, is that they were not able to fully express their responses to the Emergency—an unheard of crisis that the ‘free’ citizens of the young Indian socialist-democratic nation-state faced. The philosophical questions raised mechanically became irrelevant as reactions to this momentous epoch. The stories written about this calamity in the form of fantasy or allegory, avoiding an encounter with real emotions, ended up in most cases as weak, fatalistic and futile as responses to grim contemporary realities. Instead of stories carrying the intensity of life-and-death situations, the ones that came out were compromises—mere fruits of middle-class mediocrity. The stories in Section IV have to be viewed partly against this background as well.
‘The Return’ is a hallucinatory experience of a student returning to India, where a junta is ruling after a successful military coup. Is he being interrogated and facing elimination, or is it all a dream he is experiencing on the flight to London? In ‘Kalluri’s Escapade’, Kalluri, who has brought with him a machine with two cylinders that talks like the Sphinx, fascinates Jattu, the village innocent, no end; but soldiers descend on the scene, confiscate the machine which is supposed to be a radio-set ‘made in China’, and take Kalluri away, for allegedly treasonable activities, one presumes. ‘The Terrorist’ was written partly in the background of the Iraq of those days; ‘A Tale of Two Generals’ is reminiscent of O.V. Vijayan’s Saga of Dharma-puri; ‘The Tree of Death’ is about a godman, a butcher in his poorvashrama, who got enlightenment as a result of a deep gash he received on his forehead which constantly ached. The Baba wishes to be immortalized and gets from the city a writer to do his biography and a painter who is painting his portraits. Getting bored, Martand, the writer, feeds bread crumbs soaked in whisky to the crows that are flitting about. A drunk crow nosedives and snatches away on its claws Bhadra, the painter’s precious Parisian wig!
The last section has four stories, ‘The Phonemate’, ‘Letters from Nikhil’, ‘The Life and Death of Manu’ and ‘The Departure’.
In ‘The Making of the Text’, Vilas Sarang elaborates on the process of his writing the stories. “Most of the stories in this volume were written in Marathi. Subsequently, they were redone in English. I say ‘redone’ because what I did cannot exactly be called translation. The final draft of each story was done without consulting the original, for, at that stage, my main concern was to see that the story worked in English. This was rendered easier because, when I write in Marathi, I often mentally translate sentences that were formed in my mind originally in English.” One has to really appreciate the candour of the author in revealing this. Because, many of our well-known writers think in English and write in regional languages and it is the drab duty of the critic to point it out for better or for worse.
Conversely, the secret of the strength and stamina of major Indian fiction writers, the majority of whom would be simultaneously dealing with at least three languages, i.e. the particular regional language, English and Hindi, while writing in any of these, is revealed too. What can a British, American, French, German, Italian or Spanish writer, for example, accomplish in comparison? They would be mostly confined to their own single languages, whereas, for the average educated Indian—let alone writers—particularly in the cities and large towns, instantaneous translation among at least three languages is a matter of daily existence. Hence the originality and extraordinary range of bilingual writers like Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre and others. O.V. Vijayan can also be considered a bilingual writer as he used English mainly for his accomplished writing of non-fiction prose; moreover, he himself translated most of his own fiction. Paul Zacharia is another case in point. Apart from being a competent translator of his own fiction, he is also writing fiction in English. The solid foundation of the mother-tongue is the strength of all these writers. Herein lies Vilas Sarang’s relevance, too.
A.J. Thomas is the assistant ejditor of Indian Literature, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi.