Mixing up time and space
Vilas Sarang's stories are a delectable mix of Orwell and Dali.
The Women in Cages, Vilas Sarang, Penguin Books, 2006, p.283, Rs. 275.
THE WOMEN IN CAGES is a collection of short stories by Vilas Sarang that have appeared before in publications across the world Encounter, London Magazine, The Malahat Review, Debonair but the way they are put together in this anthology provides an interesting cultural narrative.
Like every writer, Sarang draws from life, and his life as an academic and teacher has filled three distinct spaces. One is Mumbai, at the University where he studied and taught literature; this is the most intimate of places in his mind. Then America, where he did a doctorate at Indiana University; a cultural dislocation rather than a coherent experience. Finally, Iraq, where he taught English at Basra.
Sarang spent five years in Iraq in the mid 1970s. Saddam Hussein was in his prime then and when Vilas came back to India for a break, Indira Gandhi's Emergency had been unleashed. Quite naturally, there is an Orwellian quality to a number of the short stories.
In "A tale of two Generals", General Kurma wants to overthrow President Pulav, who was General before the coup that made him President. The President has statues of himself erected all over the country and at some eerie point in the story, the statues come to life and start walking about the countryside. But General Kurma is plotting and planning his own coup and should he become President, his first major decision would be to ban the summer: "He who comes to power in the summer, goes in the summer...... There would be no more summer; no one would ever talk about summer. That would be his first decree."
No city, no nation is mentioned and we can only deduce that it is Iraq. Yet, in the story, there is one area over which President Pulav has no control. It is the largest slum in Asia, on the outskirts of the city, and the mud and filth is so porous in this place that no statue of President Pulav can be erected here. Every time a statue is built, it just sinks below the ground. Clearly the reference is to Dharavi and the politics of the Emergency.
So time and space, in the creation of a fascist State, get all mixed up; it is the sensibility of memory and experience that holds you. In "The Return", Sudhir is coming back after eight years of prolonging his Ph.D in the U.S., but he returns to an India under military dictatorship. He is detained under some pretext at Santa Cruz airport and the only thing he can think of is Bombay Duck; whether the season for that unique fish is upon us.
Weapons of satire
Indeed it is the stories set in Bombay, or Mumbai as he calls it with some distaste, that switch from George Orwell to Salvador Dali. In "A Revolt of the Gods" the narrator is accompanying the Ganesh idol of his building society, perched on a handcart, as it is being taken for immersion to the sea. Suddenly the figure of Ganesh jumps off the handcart and sprints away, as do all the other Ganeshs in the serpentine queue. Any resistance from the public is met with a blow from the trunk of the God. People are convinced that it is a manifestation of divine wrath.
The Surrealist continues. In "Tree of Death", Bhadra is a painter who hangs around bumming tea at the restaurant of the Genghis Kubla Art Gallery (surely not the Jehangir Art Gallery?), looking for work . He says, "You can forget about exhibitions, man. I'll have to start painting billboards soon."
One day his luck changes and he is commissioned to do a portrait of "Baba". Mysteriously, the portrait starts to emanate holy ash. The word spreads and he is asked to paint portraits by many of the Baba's devotees. Holy ash is everywhere and it begins to rise into the air and then descend over the city, covering everything cars, railway tracks, cricket pitches with a grey coat. Snowploughs have to be brought in from America to clear the streets. Visibility is almost zero.
Many of Vilas Sarang's stories in this collection were written in Marathi. He has "re-done" them in English. "Re-done", as he explains, is different from translation because the stories are written a second time, without consulting the original, in order that they might work in the syntax of the English language.
The result is simply wonderful. The images and thoughts are local and the expression is in English. It is like watching a Federico Fellini film; documentation and fantasy in the pictures, Italian on the soundtrack, English sub-titles at the bottom of the frame.
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