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Saturday, October 16, 2010

(Published in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated 27 September, 2010)

Title: Manasarovar

Author: Ashokamitran
Translator: N Kalyan Raman
Publisher: Penguin
Price: Rs. 225
Pages: 176

Many of us have felt that sense of uneasiness, the emptiness inside that begs for an epiphany. We blame it on our cushy lives, our draconian colleagues, our demanding partners, inflation, media, the pace of life, petty obsessions and everything else our social narrative has taught us. And then we set off on our spiritual quests.

But long before terms like ‘self-discovery’, ‘sabbatical’ and ‘unlearning’ came into common parlance, one man wrote of the deeply personal journeys of two men, spurred by very different circumstances. Ashokamitran, one of the best novelists Tamil writing has produced, has crafted Manasarovar from the inexplicable ache to find the answers one seeks, and drawn the reader into the characters’ struggle to express their dilemmas.

Mansarovar is set at a time when the pilgrimage to the legendary lake was largely banned, as religion had to bow down to politics.

It is the story of the evocative, poignant quest of a ‘middling studio writer’ Gopal, whose life of ordinariness and routine is shattered by a psychotic episode his wife goes through. Gopal’s predicament is interwoven with a leading film star’s fervent despair to find meaning in his existence.

In a note, the translator, N Kalyan Raman says:

The exhortation of ‘move on!’ is often seen as the answer to periods of crisis in the lives of individuals. To move on, away from the cycle of memory and guilt, trust and betrayal, can only be an act of faith.

Within the framework of this narrative – of a studio writer whose experiences and encounters seem to be drawn from Ashokamitran’s own long stint at Gemini Studios, and of an actor who may be loosely based on Dilip Kumar – each line is reflexive, and one doesn’t have to wait for a revelation at the climax. It is remarkable that such complex themes and layered ideas can be conveyed in such simple language.

Perhaps thanks to Ashokamitran’s own lyricism, the translator has been able to retain the dreamy quality of the narrative, choosing words that give root to the diaphanous ideas he plays with.

Certain passages stay with the reader long after he or she has turned the pages. For instance, there is a little vignette where one of the characters, caught searching for something, hastily makes up a story about a ring he has lost. Another character, who offers to help, does find a ring.

An incident which might not be of much import in itself, gains significance in the context of a larger theme – loss and recovery, resignation and hope. In exploring this dialectic, Ashokamitran leaves his most potent ideas floating in the reader’s mind, without being spelt out. When a Muslim heroine is allowed to retain her name, why does a Muslim hero have to assume a Hindu pseudonym? What component of one’s identity is locked in a name?

How much does family matter? Where does duty begin and end? How must one come to terms with the guilt of not supporting his parents because he cannot trace them? How can one find solace, knowing that he did not do right by his children?

The concept of freedom is explored at several levels. Real-life figures such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Meher Baba are featured in cameo roles. While the first Prime Minister of India ponders over the political correctness of his thoughts, the silent mystic’s promises of a ‘word’ are cast in sharp contrast. As one man made powerful speeches and posed for pictures with a sorrowful smile, another’s features bubbled over with joy as his hand gestures and writing board told the world all he had to say.

Meher Baba, who was once a poet and singer, who claimed to be an avatar of God, finds a parallel in the scriptwriter Gopal, who has lost the plot of his own role in this world. Meher Baba’s ‘The New Life’ quest, resting on the mantra of ‘hopelessness, helplessness and aimlessness’, is echoed in Gopal’s journey.

Nehru, who carried the burden of power and privilege, finds a kindred spirit in Satyan Kumar, screen icon, role model and tortured human being.

The relationship between Satyan Kumar and Gopal is not really an equal friendship. Even as both of them seek out guides, the actor looks up to the scriptwriter, and appoints himself the latter’s guardian.

One is left wondering whether Ashokamitran was subverting the concept of a guru, when all three mentors in the story – a mysterious swami, Meher Baba and Gopal – can only respond to the film star’s devotion by inflicting disappointment on him.

The black-and-white portrayal of women is not unexpected from a book of its time. The demure housewife who lusts after a visitor is a foil to the cinema industry denizen who is a good mother and homemaker; while the one dishes out domestic abuse, the latter suffers it.

The only other drawback is that the writer, in rare cases, takes liberties with facts. For instance, Dr. Zhivago is said to have won a Nobel Prize, which is not awarded for particular novels.

But these minor errors can be easily forgiven in the face of the dexterity with which the author deals with the concept of redemption in less than a hundred and fifty pages. The subtlety of expression and the intricacy of description are captivating.

This book will get you nostalgic for a time when people could drive their cars along the railway platform, right up to their coaches. It will make you wonder whether Manasarovar is a source or a destination. More than anything else, it will convince you that a solitary journey is not a lonely one.


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