Short stories that critique tradition without irreverence, says Sachidananda Mohanty.
Despite the Arnoldian desire to bring together the creative and the critical temper epochs, criticism and creativity seldom seem to mingle, especially in the contemporary world.
There are notable exceptions of course: S.T. Coleridge, T.S. Eliot, Matthew Arnold and Virginia Woolf, among others. Nearer home, in post-independence India, eminent critics such as P. Lal and K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar have tried their hand at poetry and translation.
Professor M.K. Naik, one of the doyens of Indian Writing in English and author of more than 30 books in various genres, has just published an interesting collection of short stories at the age of 87, he says, with near ‘total loss of eyesight’.
Naik’s earlier work, an Indian campus novel Corridors of Knowledge (2008), a hilarious and caustic study of the Indian academia, perhaps deserved wider critical attention. The current collection of 20 stories attempts essentially three things: first, tales dealing with older and familiar themes where miracles could be viewed with a degree of ambivalence in terms of rational and empirical explanations, as in the case of Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan; second, historical tales that are narrated through the mode of magic realism; and finally, those with a contemporary setting that have lessons for the modern world.
Thus, in Naik’s hands, the death of the Mahabharata warrior Jayadrata at the hands of Arjuna, is explained not as the result of fateful divine intervention, but as caused by a predictable solar eclipse; the miracle in the disrobing of Draupadi is seen to have been caused by the hypnosis triggered by Krishna; the tragic death of Karna is read as an act of wilful suicide, based on a promise the ever-generous Karna made to his mother Kunti; the birth of Lord Ganesha, in turn, is depicted as a fortuitous union in the land of king Surasen and the elephant god, Gajendra.
The title story, ‘A Passage to London’, stages an interesting dialogue between Budhaji Angre and the Englishman John Smith, set against the backdrop of an improbable naval expedition by Shivaji to London. Cross-cultural belief systems such as monotheism and polytheism are explained in terms of geographical and climatic factors. Likewise, ‘Night of the Million Moons’ comes through as a powerful metaphor exploring the meaning of ‘the sense of touch’ when a young couple comes together on a nuptial night. Similarly, ‘The Great Critic H.K. Dipika’ is a delightful spoof on the pretensions of many critics.
Naik’s desire is not to ‘shock his readers into awareness’, in the Lawrentian sense. Even as the author critiques tradition, he is never irreverent. Always sensitive and nuanced, his reworking of the Mahabharata retains the element of the sacred, despite the use of the familiar and conversational tone, clearly the working of a mature and balanced mind.
Perhaps, the three sections in the collection could have been better integrated. But that is a minor blemish in a good production.