There are moments in literature, in the Bible and in mythology when our system goes into shock and we have to ease ourselves into a chair or lie down and still our hearts. We are staggered by the audacity and deptsh of the imagination at work. All we can do is marvel at the laying bare of the human condition, and sometimes of the divine one too. What strikes us is the power of an insight that exposes the raw nerve at the centre of our being. We are silenced by the sheer force of the truth. A truth that we cannot quibble about because it will not permit us the luxury of pleading that truth is a volatile substance and each of us can interpret it the way we want to. What we are confronted with is a truth that issues from the act of imagination. There is no arguing or gainsaying such truth.
Each of us will have his own inventory of such moments. Here are a few of mine:
My first moment is from the Mahabharata on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. On one side are the hundred Kaurava Princes backed by the vast armies of their allies. Ranged opposite them are the five sons of Pandu, Dharmaraj, Bheem, Arjun, Nakul and Sahadev and thousands upon thousands of their armed feudatories. The drums should roll now and the bugles blow but it’s time for an operatic moment, the kind where the villain has run his sword clean through the heart of the heroine but instead of dying sensibly and quietly, she has time to sing a fifteen minute aria and then drop to the floor in a heap.
Instead of joining battle, Lord Shri Krishna who as you know, is Arjun’s charioteer, will keep the troops and their masters gathered for the mother of all battles, waiting till he has recited the whole of the Gita. But we were talking about the moment, the moment prior to Krishna’s discourse that will bring our pulse, blood and world to a standstill The Kauravas have brought great hardship, deprivation and dishonour to the Pandavas by cheating Dharmaraj at a game of dice, then dispossessing them of their throne, kingdom and all their belongings. As if that was not bad enough, they have dared to disrobe Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandavas, before sending them into exile. Now fourteen years later, the Pandavas are back but the Kauravas refuse to return their kingdom, Indraprastha. Hence the great war. How long have the Pandavas waited for this moment, this moment when they can redress all the wrongs they have suffered over the years at the hands of the Kauravas? And yet it is this very moment that Arjun chooses to tell Krishna, that he will not fight this battle; that he will not spill the blood of his cousins. Nothing, he feels, neither some mistaken notion of dishonour nor being without a kingdom is worth a single drop of blood.
It is a heroic moment, a monumental moment for peace that could have changed the history of mankind, for Arjun is that rarest of human beings whose honour lies not in vengeance but in eschewing bloodshed. To no avail, of course. The Machiavellian Krishna will dissuade Arjun from his noble purpose. The battle of battles will leave nothing but perdition and annihilation in its wake. Ultimately every single person in this Armageddon, the Kauravas, the Pandavas and even Krishna himself will come to grief.
My next moment is from the Bible. The son of God has come down to earth for a specific purpose. We know it and he himself has foretold it often enough. Now he has been reviled, scourged and nailed to the cross. He is about to fulfill his destiny but chooses that very moment to doubt his father and ask perhaps the most shattering question in literature, or rather in the literature of faith. ‘Father, Father, why hast thou forsaken me?’
I will go back to what I had said at the beginning of this essay. It’s not the sheer daring of the writing, it is the artistic and irrefutable truth of it that leaves us speechless. It cannot be, we know for certain that the Son of God will not doubt his father. And yet we also know in our heart of hearts that it cannot be any other way. How utterly lonely and abandoned the Son of God must have felt as he was hoisted on that cross on Golgotha. It is truly one of the most human moments ever known to man or God.
The last moment I will touch upon is the one which forms the crux of this paper. We are at the beginning of time when gods and demons inhabited the earth. But more importantly, neither of the parties has yet gained the gift of immortality. Let’s pause for a moment here. Who are these marvellous storytellers who had the gall to imagine the whole pantheon of gods, Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Agni, Varun and all the others to be mere mortals, hankering like us after eternal youth. How can we not doff our caps to these ancients and rejoice in the power of their imagination which could grasp the innermost aspirations of mankind.
But let us return to the gods and demons who are gathered on the shores of Ksheersagar, the ocean of milk. Finally, finally, they have located ambrosia, the elixir of eternal life. There is, however, a slight hitch. It is at the bottom of the ocean.
No engineering feat, no technological marvel and no submersible can withstand the pressure of miles of milk and raise the pot of ambrosia. So near and yet so out of reach. It is unfortunate that in the excitement of the moment, the chroniclers of the gods and demons forgot to mention who ultimately resolved the problem with a stroke of genius. The gods and the demons would churn the milk with a mountain called Mandar. But what should they use as a rope? No cord, however fat and strong, could take the friction and it was then that the python Vasuki offered to be the rope.
And so began the Samudra Manthan, the great churning, the gods to the right and the demons to the left. First the gods pulled their end of Vasuki as they leaned all the way back and the demons bent forward and then it was the other way round. Soon there was a perfect rhythm to the swaying. Back and forth they went and the waters began to rotate and revolve and the ripples spread wider and wider and at the very centre, a whirlpool was forming. And now the vortex was whirring madly till it became just a blur and it was a good thing that the python was mostly submerged in the milk for the heat generated was so great that he would surely have gone up in smoke. And then slowly one by one the ocean began to throw up its fourteen ratnas, not jewels really, but the most unique objects in its deepest belly. The first to come forth was Laxmi who fell in love with Vishnu, the creator, and became his consort. Kaustubh Mani which Vishnu wears in his necklace was next. Then the flower Parijat which Krishna brought down from heaven and planted for his wife Satyabhama; the wine Sura; Dhanvantari, the physician; Chandra, the moon which Shiva placed atop his braided hair; Kamadhenu, the cow who could fulfill any, but any wish; the elephant Airawat which Vishnu appropriated as his vehicle; the beauteous apsaras who became celestial singers; Uchhai Shrava, the white horse with seven heads; the bow Sharang; the Shankh or sea-shell which Vishnu blows.
And yet there was no sign of the ambrosia. And the gods and the demons began to wonder if there was some foul play for the milk had begun to boil and foam and they knew that it was a matter of minutes before the python Vasuki collapsed.
Ah finally, there it was. At first merely the rim of the pot was visible. But, it was shooting up now like an impatient sun emerging from below the horizon. And the gods and demons let out a triumphant cry and they stopped churning and rushed towards the pot. And then they saw it. Along with the ambrosia, the ocean of milk had thrown up Halahal, the deadliest poison known either to men or gods. It flew up and fanned out, the livid yellow-green globules, and the rays of the sun got trapped in them and there they stood poised above the pot of ambrosia. Think about it. The elixir of life was finally within the reach of the gods and the demons and it was about to turn to poison. Can you think of a more dramatic existential moment than this one?
While the droplets hang interrupted midair, the gods and the demons go into an urgent huddle. For the first time they share a common objective. What should they do? The ambrosia needs to be rescued this instant or all will be lost. Who will come forward and do the unthinkable? What a stupid question, no one but no one; neither the gods nor the demons. And all the while the toxic liquid beads that will wipe out immortality itself are making their way downwards. That is when Shiva steps forward and without a word swallows the poison.
The story is not done yet. Both the demons and the gods will indulge shamelessly in chicanery and deceit. As usual the gods will get away with murder. But we are not interested in that. It is Shiva who is the focus here. We’ll never know what unbearable agonies Shiva suffered because he won’t talk. What we know for certain is that the poison burnt his throat till it turned blue. The fire in his throat will never die. That explains why Shiva always wears a snake around his neck. Snakes, as we know, are cold-blooded creatures and their under-belly is perpetually cold and soothing.
I see Shiva as the role-model for the artist. He has witnessed the gods and the demons in action. Both of them want just one thing: immortality. They want it so badly, they will cheat, seduce, kill and use any and every underhand trick to achieve the one thing they aspire to, immortality. Immortality, as we learn from the story about ambrosia, does not come free of cost. There is a terrible price attached to it. No one, except Shiva, is willing to pay it. And having paid it, you would think that he would keep the pot of ambrosia all to himself. After all he’s earned it. But that is not in Shiva’s nature. He will share it with all the thirty-three million gods in the Hindu pantheon and with the legions of demons. And what does he do with the lethal poison? He swallows it.
‘Everything has a place and a purpose, you told us.
A viper must be true to his creed.
The fang needs sharpening, the lethal venom a victim,
Come my beloved, lie with me today and always.
No telling if poison and ambrosia are the same,
Unless you savour them both’
‘Unless you savour them both.’ Is there a better creed for an artist than to embrace in his work, both the good and the bad, the light and the darkness, the possibility of happiness as much as of pain and suffering, accept meaning and meaninglessness, the holocaust as much as the non-violence of Gandhi? And not lose his humanity or compassion? In short, embrace the human condition in its entirety. But it is the shot peacock blue of Shiva’s throat that has become more and more central to my concept of the artist and his work. What Shiva did was not to vomit or disgorge the poison as quickly as possible. Unbearably painful as the experience may be, whatever its consequences and the nightmares that will follow in its wake, Shiva will not deny them. He will take the responsibility for his own actions and not permit any bastard acts to wander the earth. Instead what he does is to assimilate and internalize the experience.
What precisely is the meaning of ‘assimilation’ in the context of the artist? Whatever you may be writing about, however alien it may be, it must be deeply felt and lived through. Now you may well point out that it is absurd to expect an artist to have lived the lives of his many characters, good, bad and wishy-washy. In the case of Shakespeare, Goethe, Dostoevsky, Dickens and others, these may well run into dozens, if not hundreds. But that is the crux of the matter. The quality and truth of an artist depend not merely on the precise observation and nuanced mimesis of the lives of his creatures, but on how far he can, through his artistry, undergo every single emotional crisis, betrayal, thought-process, dilemma, joy and terror that his characters experience. That is the test of Shiva. The life of the character the writer is depicting must be absorbed so fully that it must burn his throat blue, a blue unlike any other and result in a voice which is distinctive and unmistakeable. In short, the artist must become Shiva.
The reason Shiva is endlessly fascinating is because it is impossible to pin him down. He encompasses the full spectrum of life as no other Hindu god does. He is the great ascetic, the Mahayogi who incinerates Kama, the god of love, with the fire of his third eye for daring to interrupt his meditation. And yet it is perhaps a measure of his engagement with the human condition that he is also the great lover. Unlike Rama, the erotic is not suppressed in him. Shiva’s sexually active; hyperactive might be a more precise description. He has a 24 by 7, round the year erection. There is thus constant tension between the two modes in his being.
Much of Indian writing in English as well as in the regional languages is thin, watery stuff. Our writers seem to shrink from the robust and the bawdy. They forget that the elliptical and the tender too can be superbly muscular. In the land of the Kamasutra, a screen kiss can create a hypocritical storm even today. When Indian novelists write about sex, it is almost always self-conscious, uneasy and contrived. They fail to grasp a simple truth: that sex is but a normal part of life. Like Shiva the artist must cultivate a tensile, sinewy language while weaving through the polarities of engagement and aloofness and all that falls in between.
In the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh a.k.a. Shiva, Shiva is the destroyer. He is the one who in his fearsome ‘Rudravatar’ dances the ‘tandav’ and annihilates the world. There is a ruthlessness in Shiva that an artist can afford to ignore only if he wishes to jeopardise his integrity and the quality of his work. Authors like most human beings get attached to certain pet ideas, themes and styles and are loath to part with them. Shiva can be a severe role-model here. What is remarkable about Shiva is that he can kill his own. A writer, not to mention every variety of artist, must have the gumption to scotch bad ideas even though they may translate into popular successes but at heart remain mediocre or worse. There are, however, times when it’s necessary to abandon even good ideas when you can’t pull them off despite years and years of work. If I recall right, Isaac Bashevis Singer trashed his first two novels when they were scheduled for publication and was silent for the next seven or eight years.
The paradox of Shiva is that while he is the destroyer, he is also the creator and personifies the regenerative cycle of life. The same cosmic dance that destroys the world is also the one that ensures the clockwork precision with which every satellite, planet, star and galaxy functions. In the darkness of the primal void, Shiva, the creator begins to play the damroo, his hourglass-shaped hand-drum. And the notes and sounds that emanate from the damroo, according to Panini, are the source of every language in the world.
Is there an artist who does not know the terror of the blank page, the stark nothingness of the empty canvas? But that is also the moment when he is closest to Shiva, the only time he can be god, the creator. And like Shiva, and strangely also like the Christian God from the gospel of John, he must discover that ‘In the beginning was the Word. And the word was with God. And the word was God.’ Perhaps the artist may realize with a terrible sense of urgency that mankind has lost sight of the power, precision and weight of the Word, especially since the last century. How we have abused and debased this greatest gift of God, this instrument with which we explore, unravel and understand the universe, ourselves and the mystery of the human relationships.
It took the good Lord a mere six days to create the world. Being but an over-reaching mortal, a writer will usually take longer, much longer. But the test of his godhood will lie in how self-contained and self-sustaining is the universe he creates. And how good and effective he is in creating an imperfect world.
Unlike Krishna, Shiva is not an easy god to unravel. There are aspects of him that repel and are unsettling in the extreme. He demands blood sacrifices, both animal and human. He frequents the burning ghats and cemeteries accompanied by ghouls and vetala or vampires which feed on human blood. He conducts bizarre rituals. In a very real sense then, Shiva will always remain a mystery. And that is the paradox of art.
The first prerequisite of art is that it must entertain. But at a deeper level all art stems from the exhortation of the oracle of Apollo at Delphi: ‘Know thyself’. Great literature cuts to the bone and offers insights into what makes human beings tick and why we behave the way we do: why we are cussed, hateful, happy, intransigent, bitter, brittle, enlightened, violent compassionate, vicious and caring. And yet the life of Shiva is the ultimate cautionary tale. It underscores the inadequacy of explanations and brings home the fact that whole chunks of life fall outside the pale of human understanding. One of the yardsticks of memorable art, we learn from Shiva, is that it deepens the enigma at the heart of human motivation and human relationships.
As any author will tell you, sometimes the artist chooses the subject of his work and there are times when the subject chooses him. At least that was the way things used to be since the time Aeschylus and the authors of the Mahabharata wrote their great works. But times have changed somewhat. For some authors and their commercial managers, a novel, play or short story is nothing more or less than a product; a product that must be marketable and hence must be tailored to the demands of the consumer. But in recent years matters have progressed way beyond that. You now have packaging companies for literature just as you have for perfumes. The only difference is that the former not only come up with the formula for a novel, they even help you put the product together, starting at times with the writing itself. And for services rendered they will take as much as fifty percent of the author’s advance and royalties. Kavya Vishwanathan, the Harvard student, was perhaps really guilty of plagiarism but surely her packers’ heads should have rolled much before hers.
Each author must make his own choices when he sits down at his table and there’s no moral judgement attached to it. But the notion of literature as a product does not sit well with Shiva. Playing to the gallery or making compromises is not an option for those who would follow him...
Shiva'S Blue Throat and the Practice of Fiction
Shiva and Research
Far too often writers today are in a hurry to get their books out. Often the research is incomplete but worse still the research is undigested. And if current trends are any indication, then the research becomes an end in itself. The danger is that the fiction becomes secondary and often receives slapdash treatment. Here the cart is definitely ahead of the horse.
How did research assume such paramount importance in literature? In rather simplistic terms, what happened was this: The impregnable fortress of God was seriously besieged for the first time by the Enlightenment rationalists. But the actual fall of God took place a good two hundred years later in the twentieth century during the second world war years and in no time at all technology was declared the new god. God might be making one of the bloodiest comebacks in history in recent years but the worship of technology has not abated.
In literature too technology has been playing a more and more central role. The result was a new genre where technology was the main protagonist. But to understand the complexities of technology and to convey them to the reader, the author himself had to do a fair amount of research. Frederick Forsythe was one of the early practitioners of this genre. The Day of the Jackal was almost a hand book of guns, ammunition and the forging of passports. By the time you were done with the novel, you knew exactly how much of the barrel of a gun had to be sawed off to get maximum lethal impact at various distances from the target. Tom Clancy boned up so well on submarines and other war material, he’s compulsory reading at West Point and in the U.S. navy.
Soon not only thriller-and-pulp writers but heavyweights in serious fiction were falling prey to the seductions of research. The starting point for Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy was Jane Austen’s oeuvre, but en route he went down a different track. What you got in the course of the fourteen hundred page text was a monograph on the curing of leather, one on traditional Chinese computing techniques and another one on the parliamentary debates in Nehruvian times. Amitav Ghosh is one of India’s most thoughtful novelists. He has an uncanny talent for unearthing the intriguing but long-forgotten historical event and has an unerring eye in his research for the arresting fact or story. And yet in The Hungry Tide which is both a love story and an account of the terrible tragedy of displaced Bangladeshis in India, there are times when the reader begins to wonder whether he has drifted into a Ph.D. thesis on the Irrawaddy dolphin.
Shiva would demand more, much more. The first pre-requisite for an artist is clarity: do you want to write a novel or a research paper? If you opt for fiction, then you owe it to your characters to get inside their heads and not merely use them as a vehicle to showcase your research.
Shiva and the Thesis-novel
Ideology has always been the cradle of polemics. But since the twentieth century it has often been the engine driving fiction, poetry and painting. When art and ideology meet, the colour of the fiction can indeed become a little curious.
However desperate the fight against the Axis powers may have been, while the Second World War was on, there was not much time for despair. But once victory was achieved, Europe plunged into terrible angst. The survivors of the war could not make sense of life. The response of many writers to this anguish and overwhelming perception of meaninglessness was to embrace existentialism. It was a strange time when renowned philosophers wrote novels and plays and novelists forayed into metaphysics. Sartre, for instance, wished to negotiate his existential Marxist stance through novels, while Camus who was primarily a fine novelist often crossed over into metaphysical writing.
Later in the 60s and 70s, those who were deeply concerned with the disparities and inequities of the capitalist system in India and its disregard for the dispossessed and the wretched of the earth, were also drawn to Marxism, many of them to the extreme Maoist variety. Mao, like most radical thinkers who wish to change the world, had strong, prescriptive notions of what art should deal with and how, and the kind of message it must disseminate. Mao had written extensively on the subject and his followers in India were keen to promote his views amongst creative people so that their work would propagate the revolution.
Now Shiva has no quarrel with anybody pushing and advancing any agenda, whether it be an ‘ism’, a religion, or what-have-you. The provenance of all art, after all, is the whole human endeavour, the human project itself. And the policy of art is laisser-faire, anything goes. There’s just one proviso: everything’s okay so long as your characters have free-will instead of being programmed in advance to suit your purposes and not theirs. Which means that a protagonist must be at liberty to rebel against his creator’s wishes and chart his own fate. Rarely, very rarely will a thesis-novel give you the feeling that its characters are as unpredictable as real-life people. They are almost always mouthpieces. The shape, contour and content of such novels are dictated from high above, from the creator. The direction and the end-result of the narrative are not a direct consequence of the protagonists’ actions and thoughts or the existing dynamics of the novel but are predetermined. Quite simply the characters and the novel have not earned their shot blue as Shiva had.
Shiva and Closures
Another related phenomenon in the context of third-world countries and left-wing ideologies is the problem of closures or endings. Whatever the story, comic, ‘feel good’ or tragic, in most third-world countries with Marxist or socialist influences, the artist is expected to end on an upbeat note or at the very least the victim must make a telling or heroic gesture. Whatever the compulsions of the interplay between characters and the forces let loose within the text, the short story or novel must be willing to take an improbable ‘u’ turn and give an optimistic pointer to the future.
Oddly enough the happy or feel-good endings are the one thing that both commercial and committed Marxist cinema in India share. Never mind if the closure feels slapped on and extraneous and contrary to the dark fabric of the work and all that has gone before. Shyam Benegal’s first film Ankur is about a feudal landlord exploiting a mute labourer and his wife with whom he has an affair. In the end after a crisis, the labourer is brutally beaten up and the couple is thrown out. That was the logical end to the movie but the director won’t leave it be. He feels called upon to suggest a symbolic act of defiance and perhaps a revolution: a village kid throws a stone at the landlord’s house and breaks a glass pane.
Shiva’s blue throat is about cause and consequence. A god drinks poison and his throat goes blue. He doesn’t die only because he has simultaneously drunk the ambrosia. Whatever happens is dictated by the internal logic of the story.
The books written for children in India and the films made for them generally range between the bad and the execrable. They are singularly lacking in fun, hi-jinks, humour and wit. But even on the rare occasions when they have a light touch, a rambunctious air of laughter, and a magical sense of the joy of life, they make sure that they still end up being preachy and moralistic. All this is doubtless well-meaning but God save our children from our hypocrisy, double-standards and didacticism.
Shiva and Metaphor
When I was twenty-two, a Marathi poet wrote a play called Dusra Bajirao. It was much talked about and I thought I must go see it. For some reason, all I remember of the play is the 30-or-40-year old protagonist playing with his walking stick and talking to it. Many critics went on and on in reverential tones about the significance of the stick and how it was a powerful phallic symbol. Over the years I have heard critics wax eloquent in the most banal terms, of symbols and metaphors. They are so pat and mechanical, you would think they were dealing in some elementary grade-one mathematical equation.
Most of the stuff churned out in the name of criticism, is doubtless from the sweatshops of the modern American varsity system of ‘Publish or Perish’. But let there be no mistake, I’m not debunking the role of critics. I would be hard put to express my gratitude to the really good and insightful critics who have brought their deep understanding to fiction and illuminated both difficult and superficially simple but layered texts. The best of them infect us with their wonderful enthusiasms, open doors, interpret and unpeel seam after seam of meaning and mystery and leave us wondering how a simple set of words, sometimes even a sentence can have so many resonances. They reveal to us that we can never get to the bottom of the great books; that every time we read them, we’ll discover new things about the blue of Shiva’s throat and that is what makes them timeless classics.
The concept of the metaphor was never understood as simplistically as by the ‘Absurd’ playwrights. The path-breaking Waiting for Godot is a prime example of this. The title itself gives the game away. Godot, God, waiting, how unsubtle can you get. Along with Beckett, Ionesco, Albee and Pinter, God alone knows how many others got onto the bandwagon of the Absurd. Life must indeed have seemed meaningless to that generation but to portray it through one and a half hours of meaningless small talk or to convey the impossibility of communication through gibberish and endless repetition must surely demand an extraordinary paucity of the artistic imagination. On the other hand think of Satyajit Ray’s eponymous heroine Charulata in the movie of the same name. She has a fine upright freedom-fighter for a husband. She respects him, even loves him, but is bored out of her skull. Ray doesn’t take a lifetime or even one and a half hours to portray her boredom. He merely shows Charulata with opera glasses at her eyes following a man with a performing monkey from window to window of her large drawing room. The entire sequence takes maybe fifty seconds but the audience has got the message loud and clear.
One of the most moving novels of the post-WW II era was Camus’ The Plague. The critics never tire of telling us that the plague of the title is the war itself and the blight it brought in its wake. This might be true but the reason we read the novel and accept the central metaphor is because Camus has erased all traces of self-conscious cues. The book is gripping because it tells the story of the plague from the very start. After taking care of the preliminaries in the first chapter, Camus plunges straight into the plague on page 9.
‘When leaving his surgery on the morning of 16 April, Dr. Bernard Rieux felt something soft under his foot. It was a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing. On the spur of the moment he kicked it to one side and, without giving it further thought, continued on his way downstairs. Only when he was stepping forth into the street did it occur to him that a dead rat had no business to be on his landing ….’ There, Camus has cornered you. The fear is already constricting your throat because you have felt the soft fur of the rat under the sole of your foot. From this moment on you too are in the grip of the plague. Camus does not lose sight of his subject for a moment but the book is not a horror story even though it is one of the most remarkably realized tales of a town in the grip of a pestilence that will run its scythe through the greater part of the populace. There is only one reason why Camus is able to pull off the metaphor. He completely forgets it by immersing himself and us in the ambience, the dark corners, the opacity of people and their unwillingness to acknowledge a terrible crisis and most important, by never losing sight of Dr. Rieux’s selfless labour and compassion. There is not a grain of self-consciousness in Camus’s writing. If it’s possible, it’s even more straightforward and sly than Daniel Defoe’s The Journal of the Great Plague.
The wonderful thing about symbols, the ones that are not deliberately and self-consciously planted but are discovered in the flow of a novel or poem, is that they are protean and hydra-headed. They don’t have a tight fit and a single equivalent. They are flexible, ambiguous and the best of them can also be mysterious. They are this and that and many, many other things. They are open to interpretation and multiple ambiguities. Only a fool would want to pin them down. Who can enlighten us about the exact and complete meaning of the albatross in "The Ancient Marine"r? Or Shiva’s blue throat for that matter?
What Shiva teaches us is that the power of art is in individual experience and not in some abstract, preconceived metaphor. The symbolism or metaphor will work if it is incidental and arises as an offshoot; perhaps by-product is a more precise word, of the story of one woman or man or a set of individuals. Start with a metaphor and you’ll have a still-born story; a story without heart, pulse or soul.
Shiva and style
The debate about form and content, about which comes first and is paramount, will only end when there is no more art. But it’s almost impossible to talk about form without exploring the subject of style. For Shiva both form and style are a function of content. No other god is as protean as he is. He’s a ‘bahurupaiyya’, a quick-change artist like none other and each avatar is different from the other. He has a thousand names. He’s Adinath, Bhairav, Bhuteshwara, Gangadhar, Mahadev, Mahakala, Yogeshwara and many, many others.
How then can Shiva have a single form or style? His style, bearing, demeanour change according to the task he sets himself: whether he’ll be a destroyer that day or a lover or one who will conduct tantric rites.
A study of two remarkable authors, Marquez and Rushdie will illuminate the dilemma of style. Both authors are supposed to be practitioners of magical realism and yet on close examination one would be hard put to find two more dissimilar authors. Rushdie’s joie de vivre, exuberance and delirious punning are irrepressible. His language is brilliant, flamboyant and endlessly playful. He hybridizes English with all kinds of unexpected and delightful appropriations from Hindi, Urdu and demotic Hindi film language. He is a virtuoso trapeze artist whose words are always flying and caught in midair doing the most incredible turns and twists. How can anyone fail to be carried away by his masterful performance. But neither can we forget that it is a performance. Rushdie then exemplifies the French dictum, ‘Le style est l’homme.’ In his case the style is indeed the man.
Marquez’s language, on the contrary doesn’t draw attention to itself. What strikes you from the very start is the richness and fecundity of his imagery, the almost infinite variety of the stories within stories he has to tell. And yet what you remember most are his characters and their fate: the lonely, aging tyrant in The Autumn of the Patriarch incarcerated along with his memories in his palace. All his life he has played one courtier and sycophant against the other, destroyed anybody who he imagined was a threat and must now live in fear of a violent death. The Patriarch will not stop to take a breath or break. Marquez makes sure that the dictator’s idiom and style are as dense as his memories. In Chronicle of a Death Foretold the reader waits incredulously as Marquez leads him to the ‘foretold death’ of the title which could have been avoided at every stage, with the inexorability of fate itself. The prose here is hypnotically sparse and the style diametrically opposite to the magic realism the reader automatically and mistakenly associates with Marquez from his One Hundred Years of Solitude days. Love in the Time of Cholera is old-fashioned story-telling at its best.
stakes a totally different route. Marquez almost dispenses with the notion of style here. He’s speaking of real events and does it so artfully, you begin to believe you are a journalist witnessing a kidnapping and its aftermath in action. Stylistically no two novels of his are similar.
However innovative and ingenious Rushdie’s style might be, one sometimes wonders whether there is a danger of it becoming a dead end, a trap and a strait jacket. Marquez on the other hand, has transformed the constraints imposed by content and function into an in instrument of liberation. Shiva’s own choice, I suspect, would veer towards the Marquez way of dealing with each work of fiction on its own terms instead of sticking to one particular style.
I’m going to do a quick recap by concluding with a medical image: anaphylactic shock. Whatever you eat, drink or absorb through the pores of your skin, the body transforms it into ‘you’. But once in a while you will ingest something that your body rejects, sometimes violently. Medical science will tell you that what your body denies and disallows when it has a strong allergenic reaction or goes into anaphylactic shock is called non-you. An artist can never have the luxury of rejecting. There is nothing non-you in the universe for him. Even when he’s portraying characters he dislikes intensely, he cannot turn his back on them. On the contrary he must experience them so that he must be able to project them better than their apologists could ever manage to do.
So what does it all add up to? To be an artist you must first become Shiva. Every time you set out on a new venture, a new novel, you must drink from the glass of poison; assimilate and internalize a whole new world and the characters till your throat has gone blue. That is the only way you can take a shot at immortality. There will be times when you will have to do research. However interesting the facts and stories it throws up, it’s worth remembering that the research is not an end in itself. It can never replace fiction. As with the poison it is a good idea to digest and absorb the research and then use it sparingly. And what of commitment and imparting lofty messages? Why don’t you leave that to the gurus and messiahs? But here’s the good news: if you stick to the fiction, if your characters have the breath of life, if you tell your story clear and tight, and remember philosophical reflections can also be told with verve, then like it or not, your pre-occupations, your idealism and your vision will percolate through. Not didactically but so subtly, that your readers and sometimes you yourself will not be aware of them. But rest assured that like Uranium 235, they’ll be radiating and affecting your reader long after he has put the book down. To be a novelist is a tough but unavoidable balancing act. You have to be true to two parties, yourself and your characters. You take care of the fiction and the metaphors and the symbols will take care of themselves.