Bovine beliefs

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Cows, villages, good and godly life. Noted author Radhika Jha shares it all about her new novel with ANJANA RAJAN

T he village is untouched by the glitz and clamour of modern living. Its sense of duty, as also its sense of beauty, is inherited from age-old beliefs. The lure of the bustling city is hushed into cheerful complacence. The circle of life completes itself here among the idyllic huts whose walls are decorated with beautiful paintings that hark back to the days of Krishna and his cowherd friends. Peace is overseen by a benevolent despot of a headman by whose diktat a person who dares to opt for city life, is banished forever from the village fold. No one goes hungry in Nandgaon; life is both good and godly. What could possibly penetrate this carefully protected cocoon of innocence? Not outside interference, for sure, since outsiders immediately feel the rejection emitted by the invisible screens surrounding the village society. No, only artificial means can pierce this fictional village in Radhika Jha's novel “Lanterns On Their Horns”, published recently (Harper Collins).

Artificial insemination — in concept, theory and practice — it is, that sets many lives turning on new courses, in this intriguing story of India and its many contrasting realities. Radhika has in her earlier works too shown a penchant for discovering through fiction, both for herself and her readers, facets of life she has not experienced herself. For this novel, she roamed the rural heartland of India in search of a village untouched by urban influences. Perhaps Radhika, also a practising Odissi dancer, was unconsciously looking for the kind of villages conjured up in classical dance, where Krishna sports with the gopis by the side of clear flowing rivers, and the cows, fed on a diet of fresh grass, shine white and healthy. At any rate, she didn't find one.

Futile research

After over two years of research, she says, “I couldn't find a village like that. The city is already there in the imagination. Even in the remote villages — in fact more in the remote villages.” She points out that even villages not directly serviced by asphalt roads are built near them, and, partly through aspiration and partly media like radio, films and television, are culturally influenced by everything that city folk experience.

“In the end since I didn't find a village that was untouched, that's when a bell went off in my head. I said Radhika, just go home now. You're writing a novel. Now just let the brain work.”

But with all the research, she says, “I think I should write another book about everything I learnt about cows.”

For Radhika, the bovine attraction began at an orthodox family wedding. Chatting with a learned family elder, Dr. Lakshmi Ishwar Jha, says Radhika, “I said, can you tell me why the cow is sacred.” He told her the usual explanation of the giver of milk being venerated as mother was nonsense, and that the Sanskrit word for cow is rooted in the same etymological group as the verb to go. “It's all about the sun, energy, movement, going from the sun to the earth, and finally he said it was the soul. That was the seed of the novel.”

The author, whose earlier works include the novel “Smell” and a collection of short stories, “The Elephant and the Maruti”, feels, “As a writer, part of your job is shoring up cultural memory.”

So she created a village that has purposely cut itself off from modernity — no, not like the folks in Manoj Night Shyamalan's movie, despite the similar premise — and introduced the conflict by artificially inseminating a cow. “That was also partly in my head. What would happen to a village like that where there was a single miracle cow,” notes Radhika.

If economic liberalisation and the information super highway contributed to Radhika's idyllic village being confined to imagination, the rest of India too has changed. But while a TV, phone and refrigerator in every home revolutionised practical life during the 1970s and '80s, Radhika notes, “The aspirations didn't change. That's happened in the last 10 years.”

She finds “a kind of busy-ness in the air” today, and says, in the '70s and '80s, “there was more a sense of what I can do. That defined you.” Now, material position has taken primacy. “Today, what defines who you are is what you are.”

If we need to take off our coloured glasses and see the essence, though, perhaps we can begin with the cows in “Lanterns…”. Says the author, “If people read it and see a cow and look at it differently, I'll be happy.”




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