While reading Subimal Misra's This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar's Tale: Two Anti-Novels, one may be reminded of the absurdist tradition in Anglo-Saxon literature. But here is one writing which is genre-defying and beyond even the conceptual parameters of absurdism, or surrealism, or even what is known as “nonsense” in canonical literature. That is because Misra's "text” is a challenge to readers and to the times past and present on the whole. One may find a resonance of the dystopic scenario he describes of a modern Bengal riddled with politics, caste-barriers, class-oppressions, vendetta, and complete erasure, in the Shakespearean classic Macbeth: “I'll eat the bones, the flesh too I'll eat/And with the skin I'll make the drum beat”, that Misra himself quotes.
A review, therefore, of this book—its black and white cover design with blotches, strikethroughs and scribbles over the title evoking disbelief as well as wonderment—is a challenge to the linear thinking that conditions readers. Much like the Shakespearean adage “To be or not to be”, Misra's text almost snarls “to read or not to read” at our unease of comprehension. Reading Two Anti-Novels is an unsettling experience anyway, and the author makes no pretense at easing the effort for us.
But it is deep comprehension itself that needs to be sharpened and employed while traversing through this book with two novellas—This Could be Ramayan Chamar's Tale and When Colour is a Warning Sign. The book is a Guernica of sorts in printed letters and words—stark, chaotic, gut-wrenching, and confounding in its immensity of interpretations. Deeply political as well as harshly critical of available political shades on both left and right, Misra even questions his own capacity as a writer of these accounts. And although it's intimidating to read through the literary minefield he presents, readers know that the "story" doesn't happen really. Ramayan Chamar is killed by the police on suspicion of being a Maoist, the main theme of the narrative. But the title already has told us that "actually this could have been" but it isn't Ramayan Chamar's tale. Isn't it clear to market force-fed readers that such a tale cannot be usurped by a writer who realizes he has no agency in telling this tale—the questions “all slippery and inconsistent”—and that he may only try? Thus Misra mocks our stereotypical notion of a novel.
V Ramaswamy, the translator, who has stated elsewhere that translation for him is a “linguistic” exercise, does a commendable job of bringing us the sharp, unapologetic and prickly portents of Misra's language. Instead of Tamil Bengali, I'm tempted to call Ramaswamy a Bengali Tamilian. His engagement with the Bengali language, lexeme by lexeme, goes beyond just the rigor of a mere practitioner. This is evident in his flair for capturing Misra's sarcasm and humor.
Specifically, the diglossia is compelling via even the translation where Misra addresses the disruption and dissonance of language and reality:
Yeh haath nahi, phansi ka phanda hai
You must hear Beethoven's Fifth Symphony here, conducted by Toscanini..." (p 118)
Misra himself has owed allegiance to Jean-Luc Godard, the master filmmaker, in learning the language of a narrative. The searing, staccato pace of the text—headlines, paragraphs, newspaper reports, snapshots of dialogs, journal entries—seem to be both exploding and imploding. It's filmic, and whimsically artistic, a metaphor for our times. Page after page leads one deep into a terrain with more barbwire, more traps, and snares. We as the culpable in the life of "Unseen, Ramayan Chamar", we learn that "Ramayan Chamar's tale is an even longer, even more complicated tale ... (p 86)", and yet beyond our grasp.
And not surprising then, Ramaswamy shows us the ubiquitous "zombie" that becomes a rarified metaphor for all things predictable and mass-managed that Misra slams with force:
"Far away, the sound of the clock striking 2 a.m. can be heard. The zombie stirs" (p 46).
Font plays a big role in Two Anti-Novels. "No sex" grows in size—both a comic and acerbic move—at the start of the novella When Colour is a Warning Sign. It is meant to be a serious affront to our senses. The narrative that follows afterward indicates all this is normal because "Newspapers have been chewed up and eaten alive in the text." The book ends with the fonts occupying all of the narrative space. Perhaps they'd grow further and continue to admonish our conscience as a "thinking reader."
Ramaswamy is adept at conveying a register that jars us, takes hold of our sense of aesthetic, and tosses it around to shatter it. And of course, the political is always the grain that shoots from that debris:
"The people of the country ask in loud voices:
'What's the main problem before us now?'
The country's leader, the Big Boss, shouts:
'Vanaspati mixed with the fat of cow and pig.
Poverty, unemployment, illiteracy—all that's for later.
Save vanaspati first—save caste." (p 169)
Reading Misra is exploring the archaeology of angst and outrage. Little concerned about his irreverent exhortations to the "magnanimous reader", or the question as to "what role does the writer play", he makes sure if one is the reader, one better be ready for semiotic pitfalls—whether it's the signification of "colors" or the violent ambiguity of the pathos of deaths in the story (that never gets told) of Ramayan Chamar.
All the while, this book which doesn't beg to be read or even written about is a whiplash at our jaded worldview:
"Ramayan Chamar's final words to the writer:
'Mister, even the dog on the street bares its fangs when it's kicked,
And you're a human being ..." (p 143)
Janam Mukherjee writes a pithy and eloquent introduction to the book, summing up that Subimal Misra has been writing always ahead of his time. My advice to both the faint-hearted and the deceitful is that they definitely must read this beautiful essay, if at all as a "thinking reader", they may then venture into the world of Subimal Misra.
Nabina Das is a poet and writer from India. She has two poetry books titled Into the Migrant City and Blue Vessel, a short fiction collection The House of Twining Roses: Stories of the Mapped and the Unmapped, and a novel titled Footprints in the Bajra.