Anything but epic


CHAMPIONING THE IDENTITY Bhalchandra Nemade   | Photo Credit: PTI


Since an epic has to have a vast expanse, does a fat novel automatically qualify to be called an ‘epic’?

What is an ‘epic novel’? How do we define the literary quality that would qualify a novel to be elevated to the status of an ‘epic’? If one goes by the traditional definition, novel, as it evolved in Europe, was itself described as the ‘burgher epic’. It was the epic of the bourgeoisie, which was gaining in social eminence as the emerging middle class, and was considered a literary manifestation of its worldview. Even as early as the 18th Century, Laurence Sterne had flouted the emergent conventions of this literary genre in “Tristram Shandy” (published in nine volumes during 1760-67) as the novel mocked beginnings, middles, and ends.

Since an epic has to have a vast expanse, does a fat novel automatically qualify to be called an ‘epic’? Admirers of Marathi writer Bhalchandra Nemade as well as the jury for the prestigious Jnanpith Award seem to think so. Bharatiya Jnanpith honoured him with its award for his novel “Hindu” as well as for his lifetime achievement as a writer. Flanked by jury chairman and ‘Marxist’ Hindi critic Namwar Singh and Nemade, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave away the award at a glittering function. Rajkamal Prakashan has brought out the 548-page novel in Hindi as “Hindu: Jeene Ka Samriddh Kabad” (Hindu: Rich Junk of Living).

Rich or not, there is a lot of junk in the novel as it pretends to offer a panoramic social and cultural critique of the way Indian (for Nemade, Indian and Hindu are exchangeable synonyms) society has evolved from the Harappan times to the present. Nemade is a proponent of “Desivad” (Nativism) and the novel has been hailed as the “epic of the native identity” that “carries out a multi-layered, multi-dimensional and multi-coloured excavation of India’s self”. This so-called nativism effortlessly gels with the Hindutva worldview although puritans among the ideology’s supporters may find the free use of expletives in the novel unpalatable. When Rahi Masoom Raza’s “Aadha Gaon” (Half Village) was included in the Hindi syllabus of Jodhpur University by Namwar Singh, who was Head of the Hindi Department, he had to face a storm of protests from members of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and Jan Sangh. However, if one were to compare the use of abuses in the two novels, one finds that while the situations and characters justify it in “Aadha Gaon”, it looks quite contrived in “Hindu”.

Soon after the Jnanpith award was announced, Nemade stirred a needless controversy by fulminating against Indian English writers and the English language although he himself earned his living as a teacher of English. He has explained his ‘nativism’ in a long interview published in “Panchjanya”, the weekly organ of the RSS, where he proclaims that all Indians are Hindus irrespective of their different religions. “Only our Hindu culture can keep us united because only this culture is all-inclusive and does not discriminate against anyone. Whatever culture is here, I consider it Hindu. All the people in our country are Hindu. Muslims too consider themselves Hindu. Akbar and Aurangzeb too considered themselves Hindu. It is the British who created a chasm between Hindus and Muslims,” Nemade has declared in the interview. His views would obviously warm the cockles of Hindutva ideologues’ hearts.

Nemade is implacably opposed to secularism. “I am very much opposed to the word ‘secular’, its idea and its interpretation. I don’t even understand its meaning. I should remain in my own culture, just as I have always been. I would request the intellectuals to not clothe us in foreign words and propagate their divisive meanings,” he says. No wonder that he finds history, as it is taught from the primary to the post-graduate level in our educational institutions, “completely false”.

It may be argued that Nemade’s views should not colour our evaluation of his literary work. After all, Ezra Pound was a self-proclaimed fascist who went to Italy to broadcast over Mussolini’s radio, but that does not detract from his literary merit. It’s a valid argument. However, as one reads the novel, one becomes all the more convinced that extra-literary reasons seem to have played a role in getting it the prestigious Jnanpith award. It’s a 548-page long rambling and ramblings don’t make an epic. Nor do they turn a writer into James Joyce.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2020 9:24:26 AM |

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