I used to think that Sacred Games, which I had read almost a decade ago, was Vikram Chandra’s magnum opus. But, while that tale was a gripping thrill ride with wonderfully etched characters, at the end of the day it was a relatively easy to pin down cops and robbers saga in the gritty underbelly of Mumbai.
But this. This, his first novel published in the mid-nineties, has to be his epic. Starting with a wonderful nostalgia inducing title (for a non-resident Malayalee, the phrase evokes a certain place and a certain time with longing) that is taken from an ancient Tamil poem, this book is an ode to storytelling in its finest form. It gets convoluted, it gets messy and it gets utterly complex at times with the profusion of characters and myth intermingling to form a heady concoction of daze in the reader’s head. But it enthralls and entertains with its mix of history and magic realism, a proud nod to Rushdie and Marquez while wholly creating its own unique space with its drawing from Hindu traditions and tales to weave its story.
The storytelling also takes its basic form from Scheherazade, she of the thousand and one nights and all. We have Abhay, a US educated youth returned from his American sojourn to his family home. He decides to put an end once and for all to the menace of a monkey who has been tormenting his family by stealing their food and clothes from the terrace for a while. His parents accept the monkey as a regular visitor, but Abhay decides to gun it down. While recovering, the monkey gains its senses and knowledge of its past life as Parasher, or Sanjay, a poet in nineteenth century India. Yama, the God of death, lies in wait for him, but with the help of Hanuman and Ganesha (who make appearances in the household too), they strike a bargain. If Sanjay can keep his audience entertained with a story for a certain period every day, Yama may just decide to relent. After the contract has been signed and the audience summoned, the monkey starts. Oh, and since he can’t really speak yet, he types it all out on the typewriter.
The tale he tells delves into multiple layers and goes back into a history of colonialism and old world values, but centers mainly on Sanjay and his friend Sikander, named after the all-conquering (until he mysteriously retreated from India) Alexander of Macedonia. Their genesis itself is an act of wonder, a result of mysteriously assembled ladoos and a yearning erstwhile Rajput princess, now the wife/concubine of the conquering British officer. Prior to this we are introduced to an Irish sailor who adopts India as his homeland and fights wars which ultimately lead to his connection with the boys. There is also a Frenchman who becomes a leader of armies in India. There are characters and more characters. These sections of the story are interspersed with a contemporary account of Abhay’s travels and college life in the United States. There are stories which come alive within the main stories, like the sudden diversion into the life story of a prostitute Abhay and his friends come across, all delivered in a monologue. Towards the end it takes on further elements of the supernatural and also delves into thriller territory with a reference to the Jack the Ripper murders which gripped London at one time.
It’s not a perfect book for sure. Some of the threads get too muddled on reading and it gets tough to remember all the myriad characters and incidents. Abhay’s narrative, while a nice detour from the heavy handedness of the historical tale, does not convey its message effectively enough, if there was one. It feels more like some random musings thrown together into the story. And it’s a long and exhausting read, only to be attempted if your attention span is capable of the heft this book needs and deserves.
But, eventually, it’s a story about storytellers and as a character says, once the story has left your pen, it ceases to be yours and becomes the reader’s. And so it does, for us to listen and draw our own meanings from the inexhaustible well of wonder that words can provide.