In this column, Saikat Majumdar discusses books from India that haven’t received due attention.
Would modernity change the artistic relation between time and space? This was a defining question in “Laocoon: An Essay upon the Limits of Poetry and Painting” by the 18th-century German philosopher G. E. Lessing. A painting captures a moment in time and turns it into space, whereas poetry catches a series of movements and reveals it through time. Soon enough, the representation of time would become the central concern in a new literary medium, the novel, and nowhere more so than in the coming-of-age novel, the Bildungsroman. The very notion of coming-of-age implies the development of the protagonist into the normative subject of society — a citizen, a professional, a family man. But could the depiction of an exceptional, imaginative individual take a different form? Can we take the “portrait” in the title of James Joyce’s iconic modernist Kuntslerroman — the novel of an artist’s development — as a deviation from temporality into the painterly realm of space? Yet Stephen Dedalus does grow, from the babbling baby of the opening to the rewriter of Aristotle in the end.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Rohit Manchanda’s 1996 novel In the Light of the Black Sun is that feels like a Bildungsroman with none of the genre’s progressive temporality. That might also be a reason why this striking novel, which won a Betty Trask Award as an unpublished manuscript in the United Kingdom and was eventually published by Penguin India, has not received the attention it deserves, even in the euphoria that surrounded Indian-English fiction in the 1990s. The book’s focus on the provincial intriguingly anticipates the English popular novels from India of the following decade, even though it has nothing else in common with that 21st-century genre of feverish aspiration for mobility and development.
Manchanda’s novel captures history without teleology of time — an approach perfectly metaphorized in its poetry about the inevitable lateness of Indian trains in the 1960s and 1970s: “naturally inexplicable, as anxiogenic, as a delayed childbirth,” because “time itself waits with folded hands for trains to arrive.” Such is the sensory filigree of time in the novel, etched on the sensibility of the child-protagonist, Vipul, through his life in a small mining town in Bihar, permanently sheened with a thin, grating film of coal dust, sliding into the affectionate bedlam of the large, extended family in Delhi in the end. The emotions governing these kinships seem both strange and inevitable, as in the case of Vipul’s feelings for his cousin, Neha: “He loved her in a way that only a child can love a cousin of his: intimately, in the absence of the denial of physical closeness; with an intense brotherly feeling, and again with an undefined, confounding, unbrotherly passion.”
Incipient consciousness of class nudges Vipul’s skin like a shapeless, growing pimple. Enjoying dinner in the home of their servant, Thapa, he is nonetheless troubled by its signs of poverty, which always returned after the meal was over: “the bare paintless walls breathing arrack, the low-power electric bulb, sapped further by the weak voltage, its ochre filament clearly, unhurtingly visible […] the neatness born of lack […] above all, amidst all this, Thapa’s in-spite-of-all-this high humour, Champa’s continued suffering silence, and Thapa’s and Champa’s rich, make-believe clothes for today.”
The familiar poverty of servants is radically broken in the novel by the appearance of Dukhiya, the Morose One, a local tribal boy their age, who is quickly recruited into the games of Vipul and his friends. Dukhiya’s sense of geography and nationalism is particularly disruptive: he insists on calling Vipul’s ilk “foreigners” even as they repeatedly insist that they are Indians; when shown a map of the Indian subcontinent, all he looks for is a pond by his village. The boys try to explain the absurdity of this quest in a map where even Delhi is but a tiny dot, but none of that makes sense to Dukhiya.
Vipul’s parents make up a forgotten nucleus in this web of relationships with people and places. Such is the rare pleasure the 11-year-old Vipul takes in sleeping with his mother, something he requests one or two nights a month: “one of the greatest pleasures that he knew, ranking along with eating a ripe litchi or watching and listening to the rain fall.” But this deeply personal novel is also profoundly historical, achieving the verisimilitude of historical thought that can only belong to a child:
Vipul knew that they were not people, but imagined the maps of the USSR and the USA rising from the atlas and having a terrific tussle, in which the map of the USSR won easily, pinning down the American map with a deft, powerful pick-up and throw, leaving the American map bruised and distorted, looking like Argentina.
The USSR loomed large in a pre-1989 India, made larger by its alliance with the nation’s socialist Nehruvian past. Vipul’s imagination reminds us that one of the most profound ways in which history can be imagined belongs to the mind of a child.