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Ambiguous journey

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The novel is about becoming, about makeovers of body and soul. SUMANA ROY

The City of Love; Rimi B. Chatterjee, Penguin, Rs. 295

Everyone in Rimi B. Chatterjee’s novel, The City of Love, is, to borrow Ashis Nandy’s psycho-geographical phrase, making “an ambiguous journey to the city”, a journey where one is, like the pilgrim, both alone and in invisible company.

Everyone here is wanderer, moving through labyrinths of visions, carrying scratches of barbed wire on their souls, moving, as if in independent exoduses from their selves, to the City of Love. These “journeys made shorter by poetry and song” make minstrels of men and, like the journeys through water which give the book breathlessness, involve “the pain of transformation”.

The novel, set “500 years ago” and structured, after concessions to the perforations of modernity, like a quest-narrative of the time, is thus about becoming, about makeovers of body and soul. Fernando, a Castilian trader and accumulator of the capital of knowledge, is propelled by the “quest for enlightenment”; Chandu is looking for salvation or at least its skeleton; Bajja, girl and ‘tribal’, twice removed from claims to traditions of learning, says “I want answers” and, in the end, “struggles with what she had become”; Bhairavdas is an escapist, seeking escape from physicality in a body-encoded Tantric system. Even ancillary characters are in waiting: Indrani, for a son, to “produce from her body the sovereign sign of manhood”; Emperor Humayun is searching for love in words… And they are all moving, in life and life’s by-products, dreams and visions, through sand, sea and stories, to the City of Love.

Subversion

The City of Love is an anti postcolonial novel. It is a subversion of Edward Said’s epigraph to Orientalism, “The East is a career”. Here, “the ultimate East”, ‘E’ always in capital, as if in play and ploy, “is a different matter”. To begin with, Chatterjee turns the Western concept of history inside out: Fernando, the European, arrives in the book with a baggage of dates while Chittagong’s citizens dwell in “timelessness”. She shows us the hollowness of this discourse by manicuring the chipped fingernails of history: Marco Polo, Magellan, Martin Luther are living creatures posited against the “ancient” thought-systems of Tantra, for instance. The maps which preface the written text are history and geography, cheekily putting “Bengal” and “Africa” at the ‘centre’ of vision.

This discourse of ‘writing into’, instead of the more fashionable ‘writing back’, is carried on further in the representation of the body: Fernando has “lice in his hair”, lives in “the stifling gloom full of rat-stink” and “throws up a foul green liquid”; “chubby” Chandu, on the other hand, is “fair and round as the moon”, “his cheeks stuffed with sugar puffs”.

This is not just upturning of the prevalent notion of the Rude and the Impure as being associated with the East; the West is represented as emaciated, bony, even “skeletal” while the East is “round” and well-fed (metaphors of food trail Bajja throughout the book).

The narrative voice is ambiguous: in a brilliantly heteroglossic novel as this one, the identity of the narrator, his allegiance to East or West, is left completely unquestioned and unanswered. Even the chapter titles counter the specificity of the ‘postcolonial’ novel with its prefaces and epilogues of times and dates of “arrival” and “return”.

Whether it’s the renaming of a ship called “Santa Maria” as “Pir Prasad”, deconstructing the pain of provinciality with the “freedom of the margin”, showing both the postures (“bazaar interpreter”) and privileges (“interpret for me”) of translation, or simply making us aware of a parallel hermeneutic tradition (“That is one level of truth… . there are levels and levels like the petals of a lotus”), we hear the creaks in the door of the ‘postcolonial’ discourse.

Ironic intent

There are stories and stories and often narrations in the essayistic mode but this is, once again, commentary from within, criticism through role-playing, not James Wood’s “hysterical realism” but an acknowledgement of the tradition of our epics, the easy ability of gods and narrators, often the same person, to digress and begin a new story while in the middle of another, like a taan embellishing the body of a raag.

The book ends with the gift of a mirror (“I’ve brought you a mirror”), an overused postcolonial trope, but Chatterjee’s intent is clearly ironic, as it is in the use of the “perfect handprint”, the imprint of Bajja’s hand upon Fernando’s “chest”, changing from “crimson to brown”, the ultimate inversion — in terms of gender, anatomy, colour, locale, and, of course, text-ure — of Friday’s footprint on Crusoe’s island.


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