May 10, 2007

Paul Gomra : The Deranged Poet of Highway by Amitava Kumar

The real task for Indian writers-at home or abroad-is to contemplate these thorny questions of illusion and substance, guns and books, bombs and education. Neither the writer nor the scientist can save the world by herself. Or escape it entirely. That is the plain truth of the nuclear bomb, which makes visible the limits of our fantasies of withdrawal. When it explodes, it will finish you, wherever you reside, however mobile your republic.
Of course, Arundhati Roy is hardly the only Indian who finds solace in fantasy. In Video Night in Kathmandu (1988), Pico Iyer argued that the whole country "suffers from a kind of elephantiasis of the imagination." Like Theroux, Iyer is quick to raise loquacity to a national trait, and he approvingly quotes John Russell's claim that "Indians are prodigious, irrepressible, never-tiring talkers." In Iyer's opinion, India's yakkers are reflected in the loud, vulgar, masala films of Bollywood-the eight hundred or more "epic concoctions" made in India each year. Iyer writes: "When it came to the production of dreams-or gods-India had the biggest, busiest, noisiest industry in the world."
In short stories collected in Love and Longing in Bombay (1997),Vikram Chandra takes Iyer's insight to heart, inflecting his stories with the garish grandeur of Hindi films. Chandra, who teaches creative writing at George Washington University, makes no pretense of producing radical fiction. And in shedding the middle-class writer's impulse to speak in the voice of the underclass, he produces stories that offer a stark portrait of India's urban elite. The only drawback of this approach is that, swayed by the delusions of the ruling class, Chandra reaches laughably simplistic conclusions about history. He ends one story with the dramatic announcement that it was a marriage between two leading families that determined the flow of transnational capital and the longevity of governments in India.
Perhaps because Chandra narrates these stories from the security of the Indian bourgeoisie, they convey a confidence that is lacking in the fiction that addresses the lives of Indians living outside the national borders. In some of the better stories, like "Kama" and "Artha," one detects a refreshing quality that can only be described as contemporary. In these stories, the reader encounters a female software engineer at work, wellknown Bombay bars, a homosexual relationship, and untranslated snippets of Mehdi Hassan's popularghazals. There is a bold ordinariness to this presentation. The India of these stories is one in which neither tradition nor modernity holds unchallenged sway: its urban centers have been altered decisively by migrations and industry, slums and high finance, crime and films. The eruptions of urban speech in these tales reveal a new India that is at once more crude and more complex than anything the fabulists have been able to conjure.
Like the Hindi films that give his book its dramatic backdrop, Chandra's stories paint a world of urban glitz, heartbreaking romance, and petty intrigue. And, as in some Hindi films, this high-gloss surface is rent by explosions of fundamentalist violence. The stories attest to the citizens of today's India, who find their lives unavoidably mixed: Hindus and Muslims live as lovers, Christians and Hindus help each other as workers. Yet Chandra does not seem interested in pushing these complex relationships any further. Artists like the documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan have started to dissect the conspiratorial relationship between Indian masculinity and religious fundamentalism, but Chandra barely hints at a connection. Is it because he feels that ordinary folks-as opposed to card-carrying communists-are incapable of understanding the reality that surrounds them? Amid all the talk of fundamentalist violence, why is Chandra silent about the mohala committees, the civic groups? In any case, wouldn't Chandra know from watching Hindi films that even ordinary people can become heroic?
This last notion, I'm pleased to report, has not gone entirely unnoticed in contemporary Indian literature. His teacher may have been Hollywood rather than Bollywood, but Dinesh D'Souza has nevertheless produced Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader (I997)-a tome that proves garishness and grandiosity are not the sole province of Indian film. It is a thick book. There are a lot of non-Indians yakking at length on the dust jacket about the book's worth. Tom Wolfe writes, "This marvelous book will drive the intellectual establishment-the conservative cadre as well as the liberal legionsstraight up the wall. It convincingly demonstrates Ronald Reagan's moral, political and-yes! I'm afraid so!-intellectual superiority to the entire lot of them."
I bought the book, but I have not been able to finish it. I stopped reading many times, but after page forty, I found I could not go on. On that page, where my adventure with the book ended forever, D'Souza cites a poem written by Reagan-every bit as fantastical as contemporary Indian literature, but perilously underspiced-as an illustration of Reagan's "gift for hope."
I wonder what it's all about, and why We suffer so, when little things go wrong? We make our life a struggle When life should be a song.
But what of those writers who, unlike D'Souza and Naipaul and Divakaruni, do not write in English? Would the reviewer from the New Republic, heralding the new Indian "masterpieces," know any more about this other Indian literature than Macaulay knew about the whole Indian literary tradition? What is Salman Rushdie missing out on?
One example of the literature that has escaped the current boom is "Paul Gomra Ka Scooter" [Paul Gomra's scooter], by the Hindi writer Uday Prakash. The eponymous protagonist of Prakash's short story is a Hindi poet who works at a newspaper in New Delhi. Paul Gomra was born Ram Gopal Saksenaa typical Hindu name. But, the narrator informs us, as a result of "technological and social changes, globalization, information and communication revolutions, the end of socialism, and the spread of markets across the entire planet," names like Ram Gopal Saksena had begun to seem "backward, narrow-minded and lower-class." Consequently, our hero took the "pal" out of "Ram Gopal" and made it "Paul"; then, he took up the remaining "Ram Go" and turned it around to read "Gomra."With this nominal change, he joined figures-real and imagined-of cultural and political importance on the current Indian scene. "No doubt this name became one on par with the names of Apache Indian, Louis Banks, Remu Fernandez, Sam Pitroda or T. K. Banji. In fact, T. K. Banji became 'Banji' from Tushar Kanti Banerjee."
After changing his name to Paul Gomra, the former Ram Gopal Saksena does something equally momentous: he buys a scooter. This latter decision is precipitated by the fact that, all around him, people have begun to travel in new cars "with names like Maruti, Cielo, Zen, Sierra, Sumo, Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and whatnot." While these people "reached new, impossible destinations," Paul Gomra felt he "was dragging behind time like a worm, a centipede, a turtle, a snail."
As it happens, the new scooter doesn't help matters any: Paul Gomra does not know how to drive it. Its gleaming skeleton begins to rot outside his apartment. Finally, Paul finds a man who is able to drive the scooter to work; he accompanies the man as a rider. In the hours that he must wait each night for this man's work to end so he can catch a ride home, Paul Gomra rediscovers his passion for poetry. One night, he goes to a glamorous literary event in New Delhi. The reader gets only a muddled, secondhand account of the evening's events: we hear that Gomra drunkenly berated the assembled guests for their worship of officialdom; he gave them a lecture on the scooter as a revolutionary tool; he fulminated against Delhi; he said the countryside had not vanished. "Dinosaurs become extinct," Paul seems to have shouted. "The ant survives, you thieves! Delhi will become history, but Gurgaon will remain alive." On the ride back home, Paul Gomra and his friend met with a mysterious accident. Hours later, they are found and admitted to a hospital, but Paul Gomra disappears three days later. We hear of a deranged highway poet who has taken up a pre-Independence slogan: "Quit India!" But already, his memory has begun to vanish; all that's left are twisted remains of Paul Gomra's scooter and the yellowing diary pages locked inside the scooter's trunk. On the last page, dated August I5, I995-the date when India celebrates its independence each yearare the words of Paul Gomra's last poem:
Paul Gomra, the deranged poet of the highway, the specter that now haunts the roots and the routes of the Indian nation, is a kind of travel writer, an elegiac wanderer who mourns lives that have been lost. Paul Gomra's angry voice arises from his impossible identity: he belongs neither to the old world he has left with his new name, nor to the new world that he cannot quite reach on his scooter. You might say Ram Gopal Saksena is the archetypal postcolonial: with wit and some sadness, but with his eyes fully open, he changes his name. He has the courage to step into a new world that has no place for him. Ram Gopal Saksena knows he cannot last, even as Paul Gomra. Prakash's story is a fable about survival amid the forces that have legislated extinction for all. Paul Gomra-like his creator, Uday Prakash, or like Sir Vidia himselfknows very well that he will not be liked any better if he stops yakking.

No comments: