A way from the hypnotic overreach, exaggerated deeds and the over-ritualized texture in the earlier works on the Bhakti poet Kabir, Kiran Nagarkar’s The Arsonist foregrounds the persona of Sant Kabir through a recital of the mundane, ordinary and the normal run of things in his life. Instead of reinforcing Kabir’s piety and grace through anecdotes and hagiographies, the text focuses more on his candidness, ordinariness, and iconoclastic attitude and the commonplace.
Without projecting the childhood of Kabir interspersed with superhuman or miraculous episodes, the text presents him as a ‘pretty smart kid…perhaps mean and nasty.’ The work even abstains from showing his mother as a divine incarnation or a visionary (p. 20). What intrigues the reader further is the portrayal of the weaver as a ‘real ladies’ man’ and a philanderer. Right from an unsettled relationship with his wife, his extramarital affairs, to his expulsion from the house, the narrative creatively unfolds different shades of his life. His moments of self-doubt, the inner contradictions regarding the existence of God find enough space in the narrative to present the ordinariness of his being. By focusing on his frailties, the narrative subdues the overarching as well as larger than life representations of the weaver and makes him more accessible to the masses.
The identity crisis of the weaver is used as a trope to deliberate upon the rhetorical question pertaining to the religion of God itself. Without aligning to any specific religion, the text presents Kabir as ‘half and half, something like a chhakka or a eunuch of religion’ (p. 12). Therefore, it is the fluidity of his identity that gives him enough bandwidth to understand the religious doctrines based on rationality, logic and reason. Without using any hyperbole or lofty terminology for the conception of God, the weaver identifies fissures, gaping crevices, sycophancy and hollow rituals as part and parcel of every religion. Talking about the inherent complexities of the different religious doctrines, the weaver asks:
‘…what is God’s religion? Is he Muslim? Christian? Hindu? Jewish? Jain?… he spends sleepless nights wondering whether he is Roman, Catholic, a Protestant, a Hindu Brahmin or a Shudra, a Jew, a Parsi, or a Muslim; debating whether he is a Shia or a Sunni; a Buddhist or a Moonie’ (p. 12).
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Presenting the phenomenon of God as a free-floating signifier, the text presents the iconoclastic approach of Kabir who raises pertinent questions against the existing parameters of faith and religion. Notwithstanding the idea of godmen, the weaver prefers to remain without a label and speak against the process of deification. Similarly, the position of the guru is seen as binding but the weaver deems it necessary to transcend the guru and advocates ‘irreverence towards your guru, irreverence towards all and sundry, but most of all irreverence towards yourself and your solemnities’ (p. 15). Identifying the role of guru not as an end but as a means to attain salvation, the text floats the idea of seeking the truth on its own without negating or cancelling the earlier paths of attaining Brahman. Therefore, it is the iconoclastic approach of the weaver that forces the reader to think beyond the already established parameters to comprehend the phenomenon of God.
Questioning the idea of conventional asceticism, wherein one is supposed to forgo all his material pursuits and meditate in a secluded place, the weaver narrates his own experience as a seeker. After disengaging himself from social and material responsibilities, he performs certain austerities as part of his devotion to God. While conversing with the son of a blacksmith, the weaver emphasizes on desire as an obstacle in the realization of God and proclaims that ‘Everything I desired, I parted with’ (p. 7). After listening to the philosophical deliberations of the weaver, the man further enquires ‘surely then you must part with the Almighty? …because you desire God more than anything else in the world’ (p. 7). The man forces the weaver to rethink about his beliefs and received wisdom. Later he approaches the same man and requests him to become his guru. Therefore, the realization of his fallibility is not the outcome of an epiphanic revelation, rather, it is the ordinary and mundane conversation with the son of a blacksmith that makes him realize his fallibility. Without ironing out the wrinkles from his persona, the text shows his tussles and ambiguities and makes him more of a human than a divine being.
Aligning the narrative with the present times, the text presents the weaver as a social reformer who seems aghast and benumbed at the slaughtering of people in the name of righteousness, faith and religion. Therefore, the nexus between the state and religious communities is shown through the butchering of three of the weaver’s apprentices on the pretext of their religious identity in the marketplace of Dharmabhoomi. After the incident, the weaver approaches the Governor to file an official complaint against the culprits. The complacency and the involvement of the state become visible as the Governor emphasizes that ‘…as a committed believer in the democratic principles I could not possibly have gone against the wishes of almost eighty-five percent of the population of Dharmabhoomi’ (p. 79). Here, a religious encounter from the past is sublimated to the growing religious intolerance in the present to showcase the state-sponsored religious cleansing of a particular community. Taking its cue from the past, the text identifies and highlights the recurring cycle of violence and carnage in the present.
Extending the portfolio of the text to ecological and environmental concerns, Nagarkar also touches upon the deep-rooted relationship of the weaver with nature and natural habitat. Addressing trees as the manifestation of God, especially the bonding of the weaver with Dildar (a sapling that was planted by Kabir’s mother on his birth), the text not only manifests the inner self of the weaver but also presents nature as a giver and a supreme being. From his deepest secrets, sorrows and struggles to his innermost desire and aspirations, the weaver confides everything to it. Nature provides him with the much-needed solace from the humdrum of the day-to-day life. The felling of a tree is shown as the uprooting of natural resources from their original moorings causing irreparable damage to the ecosystem.
Vouching for the admittance of all in heaven, irrespective of their previous actions during their life-span, the text ends with the banishment of the weaver from heaven. Therefore, without establishing Kabir as a consistent and cohesive entity, the text brings out his inconsistencies and imperfections which make him a human being of our times. The trajectory of text situates him as a person whose life is more or less attuned to the conflicts in ultra-modern society. Throughout the text, one sees the emergence of everyday and ordinary aspects which operate as the dual-axis to humanize the divine.
Gaurav Kalra is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Government Home Science College, Chandigarh.