House Of Spirits

Nayantara Sahgal's comeback novel dramatises a moment in India's history

By Geeta Doctor

By Nayantara Sahgal
Harper-Collins India
Price: Rs 395
Pages: 370

The urgency is still there. You can hear the insistent tap of the dry bone of history on the glass pane of the imagination as Nayantara Sahgal embarks on yet another journey of Dr Zhivago-esque intentions into the cold night of freedom's march through the Indian subcontinent.

To a new generation of readers she could be described as the Isabel Allende of her time. One can only presume that the current volume-her ninth novel, but equally a thinly veiled account of the freedom movement as she experienced it from the vantage point of the powerful Nehru household in Allahabad-is aimed at an audience so far removed from her original milieu that she has to make it into a fable. She has to conjure her own house of spirits as peopled with characters that rage and stride with an intensity of purpose that barely seems possible today. There is a superficial resemblance too, both women are beautiful, passionate, cerebral-who can forget the clarity of that gaze staring out of the cover of Sahgal's first book or the limpid assurance that somehow the world had been made for her to conquer? Both are entranced by a charismatic father figure who does not merely dominate their early lives but the very landscape of ideas that surrounds them so that they are transformed, empowered even to forge ahead, holding on to the talisman of memory.

LADY LIBERTY: Sahgal turns the freedom movement into a fable

The resemblance ends there. As against Allende's journalistic pizzazz, Sahgal displays the careful, reasoned approach of the scholar and historian. To her, the craft of a novel is precise and important as planning, say, a bomb attack that will derail a train or building a dam that will flood through the parched earth and bring succour to the blade of grass that she has almost casually held up for us to contemplate. Just as in the old days, when she used to run ahead and switch on the lights before Nehru could walk into a darkened room in their family house, Sahgal lights the path along which she expects her reader to tread so that one by one we are led into the labyrinth of the past. It is not a sentimental nostalgie de la boue, the wallowing in the ancestral mush that she evokes. Her intention is to peel off the layers of Eurocentric preoccupation with power masquerading as benevolence, to cut to the economic compulsions that have triggered the myths of adventure and derring-do that have laid waste huge parts of the earth, to expose the entire rubric of western domination for the cold-blooded aggression that it is.

Obviously the switches that she throws are words. For the main character who dominates the first half of the book, Nurullah who teaches English literature to the students who are soon going to be drawn into the struggle for freedom, words are luminous torches. At first they serve to lighten the path that lifts him out of his dismal childhood to the exhilaration of his adopted household where he meets "Bhai" the heroic figure. Bhai's frequent arrests, disappearances, fierce convictions about "non-violence" and the need to abandon the movement when Mahatma Gandhi realises that his followers have not heeded his call for complete surrender form the core of the thinking in the first half. Notice how easy it would be to fall into the language of violence, it would not do to describe Bhai as "dominating the action", for he himself tries to warn his supporters not to fall into the habit of using words that the oppressor might use. Later Nurullah discovers that three of his students have probably rushed to their death, beaten and left to rot like animals because of the poetic fervour of the lines that he has taught them. Words are also a consolation towards the end-when a key figure is hanged in jail by his Angrez warders, his old father finds some measure of acceptance in going through a manual on hanging.

The tongawala's whip landed a vicious lash on the horse's scraggy rump. The startled animal reared violently on its hindlegs, jolting Nurullah downward on his seat as they turned into the compound. He righted himself when the creature dropped its legs disjointedly to the gravel and stumbled into a clumsy canter up the circular drive. The lawn they were skirting was scorched yellow where it had not gone dead brown. A hawk hovered high above, suspended in the brutal blaze.

If this sounds a bit on the grim side, Sahgal lightens the narrative in the second half of the book, "An Island Called America", where Bhai's tempestuous young daughter Shan goes for further education. The two halves of the book are linked by an American journalist Edgar Cox and his sister Leda. Cox is a Louis Fischer-like prototype, a representative of "Liberal" meaning, one supposes, a left-leaning intellectual of that period who came to India to watch the freedom movement on the boil as it were and remained because of Gandhi and his "soul force", the power of Satyagraha. Through the images that she creates-of Leda and her sometimes protege Shan, a New York of rich German emigres who are sitting out the War with soirees devoted to celebrating European culture, marvellous hostesses like the heiress from south Florence, Limoges-"I resembled a flawless little piece of porcelain when I was born"-Lamarr Burns with her black Butler, and the smug isolationist certainties envisaged by the Monroe doctrine, Sahgal suggests something of the American spirit that would dominate the second half of the century.

There is also the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sahgal never lets up on the lessons of history. If Bhai resembles Nehru in some measure, there are stinging reminders of how western historical sources have dealt with the memories of Mossadeq of Iran, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam.

Finally, however, it is the question of "non-violence" in all the baffling contradictions of its aims, its course through a particular moment in history, its claims of being a "power" of change, a weapon even that may or may not have brought down the most repressive empire on the earth that signals Sahgal's triumph. She does not preach. She lets her words tell the story.

a u t h o r s p e a k
Dream Merchant

Why would an ad filmmaker who has tasted the bounty of such multinationals as Coke and Frito Lay give up all that and spend two years writing a book? Anand Kurian, 44, has a ready answer. "Every ad man," he says candidly, "dreams of making a feature film." But the film script he began writing "took on a life of its own", becoming more and more "political". And then the controversy over Deepa Mehta's film Fire erupted. Apprehensive that his dream project might meet the same fate, Kurian moulded his script to a novel about love in the time of communal riots.

The book's protagonist shares the author's profession, an ad filmmaker with enough eccentricity to fit into everyone's stereotype of the big bad ad man whose work is described by the heroine as "peddling [one's] soul for soap". But The Peddler of Soaps (WLI Foundation) is not a book about advertising, despite the cover featuring a delectably dishevelled Milind Soman (Kurian jokes that the secret behind the book's sales is an offer to all women-for every 10 copies bought, they get to take Soman home for free). Instead, it explores the tantalisingly complex issue of why multicultural societies lapse into violence and communal rioting.

Despite the stereotypes (big car, big house, countless women), Arunabh "Tipu" Bhattacharya, the book's hero, is a soap seller with the courage of conviction-he acquires the conviction courtesy his journalist lady love. Tipu's penchant for raising difficult questions lands him in an asylum, but not before the reader is made to ask a few himself. Despite the obvious echoes of Erich Segal in the staccato style and the setting being an imaginary island, Kurian manages to retain a uniquely Indian flavour in the story. And when will the women get another offer they can't refuse on a Kurian book? "Never!" says Kurian. "Writing is too lonely-you become so isolated." So that's where the dream merchant's similarity with his protagonist ends.

-Shuchi Sinha