Books

The edge of reason

Chuvanna Badge   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Have you ever tried zooming out from a single point on a Google satellite map? In no time you would hover over the Blue Marble (as the image of the Earth made by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972 is known as) among zillions of cosmic globules. You would be underwhelmed by the sheer insignificance of your existence. What are we but inconsequential organisms, like fungi or bacteria, put here by extremely random, pathetically mundane serendipity? To quote Shakespeare, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Now, zoom in. Again, in no time, you will be back to being your proverbial chest-thumping self. “I am large, I contain multitudes” (Walt Whitman) wouldn’t begin to describe you. You are here for a reason. Your mere breath has the inimitable power to alter the universe.

Ethereal thoughts

The last few pages of Rajesh R. Varma’s Chuvanna Badge make you think such ethereal thoughts, awed in part by his technique, but mostly in an attempt to find answers to upsetting questions within and outside. You would almost pardon the writer for making you painstakingly read 300-odd pages till then because this novel achieves what it has set out to do. Most disturbingly so.

In the Thiruvalla of the seventies, a schoolboy is telling us about his new English medium school and his burning desire for the ‘Red Badge’ awarded to the topper. Thrown into a hostile turf from his cozy Malayalam medium local school where he had hogged the limelight, the boy is disheartened, almost choked to emotional death. Eventually, he feels reassured that his unfailing devotion to the town deity and special classes from none other than the mother of his prime contender – Veeramani, the Red Badge holder – would help him win in the end.

Although he makes astounding progress within a short period and attains the third rank, the Red Badge remains elusive. What ensues in the life of this 12-year-old makes for an excruciating read.

One grows impatient and would be tempted to skip chunks of paragraphs, pages, or even chapters. Because these pages detail a phenomenon we have been witnessing, experiencing, debating, and trying to make sense of in the here and the now. Because these pages bring back a not-so-distant past, and a future that could see the end of reason. The phenomenon is called fascism.

Black and white

Chuvanna Badge is neither about red, nor about the harmless wish of a schoolboy for a topper’s badge. It’s about black and white, where white means good and black means bad. It’s about the dangerous binaries used to spawn hate and make human beings kill each other. It’s about everything — from demonetisation to beef lynchings to murder of dissent — we brush under the carpet, so we get to live one more ‘normal’ day. It’s so familiar, it’s scary.

The writer portrays how a single, selfish thought can eventually crush humanity. How it can shrink the universe into a colourless dot. And it’s unsettling, to say the least. Even in the realm of fiction. Rajesh, the boy in the story, does get the Red Badge in the end. His greatest wish turning out to be the scariest nightmare makes for a stunning, exhilarating twist in the plot. Yet, with this book, one just cannot revel in the elevating effects of literature, put it away, and return to the daily grind.

Because we did have a Hitler alive and breathing amidst us. We did have concentration camps and gas chambers. The Diary of a Young Girl still sells in millions.

And it is no fiction.

Chuvanna Badge

Rajesh R. Varma

Chintha Publishers

Rs. 320


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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 3:39:14 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/review-of-rajesh-r-varmas-chuvanna-badge/article19726689.ece

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