An Offbeat Ghost Story: On Priyanka Champaneri’s “The City of Good Death”

November 14, 2021   •   By Suparno Banerjee

The City of Good Death

Priyanka Champaneri

A FEW YEARS AGO, in a Science Fiction Studies article on Ian McDonald’s River of Gods (2004), I argued that even though historically India has been the exotic “Other” for authors in the West, such writing need not necessarily be demeaning, if the author’s sincerity and efforts at understanding this “Other” becomes evident. McDonald, an author from the United Kingdom, set his story primarily in a future Varanasi or Kashi, holiest of the Hindu holy places, where artificial intelligences take on the guise of Hindu gods and, at the finale, display power that approximates the divine in some sense. River of Gods, I argued, caters to the Western audience’s craving for the exotic but at the same time displays the author’s honest attempts to grasp the contradictions of Indian society and the intermingling of the technological, the divine, the mundane, the natural, and the supernatural in the living reality of India. McDonald achieved that by diving into the chaotic details of the city’s life, acutely observing the places and the people, and painting them with an empathetic brush.

This review, though, is not about River of Gods. This review is about Priyanka Champaneri’s The City of Good Death (2021), a novel (although not science fiction like McDonald’s book) also set in Kashi, playing with the natural and the supernatural, the chaotic and the exotic, and written by an author hailing from the West (from the United States to be precise). There, however, is a key difference — Champaneri is a first-generation American with parents from India. This places her in the position of a “cultural insider” and gives her novel a sense of “authenticity” often not credited to authors like McDonald. Despite this difference, I see much similarity between the two. The City of Good Death, winner of the 2018 Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, on the one hand engages in staple exoticisms related to India — gods, ghosts, religion, and death — but on the other hand displays an earnest attempt at vividly capturing the life of the characters and of Kashi through the author’s lush and evocative prose.

In a recent interview with Nazli Koca of Chicago Review of Books, Champaneri mentioned that for a long time she wrestled with the idea whether the story of death hostels of Banaras (Varanasi), a city the author has never visited, is for her to tell. Her dilemma is understandable. Being a US-born person of Indian origin who occasionally visits India, Champaneri straddles two worlds and possibly struggles to reconcile her existence in both. However, such struggles slowly recede into the background when one starts reading The City of Good Death, diving into its wonderful descriptive passages that bring to life the ancient city of Kashi and its age-old customs and rituals, the conglomeration of devotees, the constantly bustling streets, and the holy river Ganga. Within this landscape, Champaneri weaves the threads of her story about the living and the dead, love and mourning.

The story’s primary focus is on a death hostel of Banaras — where pious Hindus come to die. To die in the holiest of the holy cities guarantees “moksha” or freedom from the cycle of rebirth and death. Shankarbhavan, which serves as the gateway to the afterlife for these pilgrims, however, becomes a different sort of portal between the worlds of the living and that of the dead. Instead of serving as a gateway to “moksha,” the hostel suddenly becomes haunted by the ghost of Sagar, the hostel manager Pramesh’s cousin, who accidentally drowned in Ganga after failing to meet Pramesh at Shankarbhavan. As all religious rituals fail to appease and release the lingering spirit, Pramesh, the central character of the novel, becomes convinced that only some personal action on his part will release the tormented soul. The narrative, told from a third-person omniscient perspective, takes us through Pramesh’s tortured childhood and his bonding with Sagar through flashes of memory and describes Pramesh’s attempts to retrace Sagar’s footsteps through the streets of Banaras on the fateful night.

The story also meanders through the lives of several other characters. Pramesh’s wife Shobha’s narrative, for instance, provides a complement to Pramesh’s story and helps build the present of the story as well as gives Pramesh’s character more depth. To a lesser degree, Mohan, Pramesh’s assistant, serves a similar purpose. However, both Shobha’s and Mohan’s actions also lead to key events that determine the direction of the main story. This Shankarbhavan/Pramesh-centered narrative is supplemented by two other narrative threads. Bhut (meaning “ghost” and also “past” in various Indian languages), a police officer, restlessly wanders the streets haunted by the memory of his sister’s accidental death, making this a parallel to the main narrative. Besides Bhut’s story line, another set of narratives appearing in italics before every part of the novel recounts stories that are supernatural but often seep into the mundane. Through these interconnected threads, Champaneri’s sprawling novel delicately navigates the relations of life and death, childhood and memory, love, hate, friendship, human bonding, and relationships that are beyond human understanding.

The most interesting aspect of the novel is the interaction between the natural and the supernatural. While the general tone of the novel approaches social realism, the heart of the work is fantastical. The main thread of the story explores Pramesh and Shobha’s existence from a matter-of-fact angle — daily running of the establishment, arrivals and departures of guests, visits to the market or to neighbors, worries about their young daughter who cannot speak, and so on. When delving into Pramesh’s flashback, a similar tone dominates. His memories show us Pramesh’s life before coming to Kashi — the abusive and drunkard father and uncle, the loving mother and aunt, and his inseparable cousin Sagar. The death of the mothers that leads to more abuse for the boys, the growing bond between them, and Pramesh’s flight from his village to Kashi all happen in our contemporary world, in our known reality, in our own space and time. However, this sense of familiarity is constantly undercut by a mythical and unchanging supernatural order represented through the religious rituals and beliefs of the pilgrims, tales of spirits and gods, even visions of gods, and most of all by the haunting of Shankarbhavan by Sagar’s ghost. Most supernatural occurrences are presented in the same matter-of-fact tone and sensibilities as used in the more mundane story of the family tragedy, except for the sections appearing before the main parts of the novel in which the tone is that of a “tale” or traditional oral narrative.

This juxtaposition of the natural and the supernatural gives the novel a unique status within the tradition of “Indian Writing in English” (IWE), which includes both Indians and the Indian diaspora. While IWE is a debatable concept, the author’s own evocation of her Indian heritage in speaking about this book makes it safe to use in this context. This is a ghost story set within a Hindu religio-mythical order. But this is also a social novel set within a contemporary North Indian Hindu milieu. Both these aspects are important to the novel. Thus the flavor that The City of Good Death offers is different from contemporary Indian myth-fiction (perhaps best represented by Amish Tripathi’s Shiva trilogy [2010–’13] and Ashok Banker’s Ramayana series [2003–’12]), from contemporary Indian fantasy and speculative fiction (such as Indra Das’s The Devourers [2015] and Shweta Taneja’s Anantya Tantrist Mysteries [2014–’18]), and from more traditional ghost stories (such as Ruskin Bond’s, collected in A Face in the Dark and Other Hauntings: Collected Stories of the Supernatural [2003]), and at the same time this novel is obviously different from social realist works set in India such as Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008) or Madhuri Vijay’s The Far Field (2019). Champaneri’s novel partially resembles Salman Rushdie’s use of magical realism in such works as Midnight’s Children (1981; referenced in the epigraph) and The Satanic Verses (1988), in which the mundane and the magical mingle without any rupture. However, The City of Good Death does not exhibit the postmodern playfulness and bold irony of Rushdie’s works. While an acceptance of the religio-mythical structure within which the characters exist is palpable from the beginning of The City of Good Death, such qualities never overwhelm the strongly drawn characters grounded in known reality. Yet, when Sagar’s ghost starts haunting the hostel every night and pilgrims stop dying at the house of death, such a mythical worldview is foregrounded and validated without any indication of a departure from our known world. In Tzvetan Todorov’s theory of the fantastic, works such as this occupy the category of the marvelous — a category that unapologetically espouses the supernatural. This smooth transition between the natural and supernatural exhibits a sincerity of style that, while suggesting symbolisms of love, loss, and human bonding (as hinted at by the book’s other epigraph by Rabindranath Tagore), also endorses a mythical worldview.

While there is nothing wrong in telling a ghost story in a straightforward manner (after all, readers enter a ghost story suspending their disbeliefs), the overt social realism and psychological realism employed to relate such a supernatural tale sometimes create an Orientalist effect resembling the “timeless and spiritual” India often perpetuated by Western literature and media such as E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1921) or the Hollywood movie Eat Pray Love (dir. Ryan Murphy, 2010) starring Julia Roberts. While the everyday interactions between the characters in the novel evoke a social dynamism, the supernatural and religious aspects of the book seem to put such dynamism into a loop that has been circulating for an eternity. However, one can argue that such is also a reality of India, where a vast number of people live their lives according to customs developed over millennia and interact with the world from an epistemic base different from the understanding provided by mainstream science. Thus, in this novel about sickness, death, and dying, doctors are barely mentioned and priests take center stage — something not divorced from India’s reality (one only needs to look at the bustling religious festivals during the current pandemic).

This is also the aspect that reminds me of McDonald’s work set in a future Kashi: a book showing a dynamic relationship between technology, social complexity, and religious fervor — a work at once honest in intention yet also dealing in stereotypes. The earnestness of Champaneri’s portrayal of Kashi is further evidenced in her documented research and explanations in the author’s note, and no one can question the care and empathy with which she creates her characters. Yet, as mentioned earlier, the best quality of the work is its descriptive passages narrated in lush and evocative prose. Wonderful images — languid mornings over Ganga, bustling bazaars, the awkward seriousness of the death hostel, the green fields of Pramesh’s village, crowded railway carriages — pervade this voluminous work:

As the sun broke free of the horizon like a balloon slipping from a child’s grasp, the light lifted the veil of fog from Kashi and beyond. The white sands of Magadha winked with allure of crushed pearls. Birds skated along the air above, traveling in perfect circles over land, dipping towards a pair of dogs that snarled and fought, spiraling above a tented barge that trundled along the river on an aimless journey.

Passages such as this bring the book to life, while the intrigue of the supernatural tale sets it in motion.

¤

Suparno Banerjee is the author of Indian Science Fiction: Patterns, History and Hybridity (2020).