Critically inclined Society

When reality trumps Kafka’s fiction

Not quite like the beloved amma.

Not quite like the beloved amma.  

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India can make even the most surreal happening look benignly like a part of everyday life

Poor Kafka only wrote fiction. In his universally acclaimed The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa wakes up one day ‘from uneasy dreams’ to find himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. It was an act of imagination that went viral and spawned a century of absurdist and surrealist tendencies in art and literature, lately rechristened ‘magic realism’. Some of the finest writers of our time have, with consummate skill, delved into this borderline space between the ‘comfortable normative’ and the ‘disturbing abnormal’.

It is a critical legacy sustained and advanced by Camus, Orwell, Borges, Ionesco, Canetti, Coetzee, Süskind, Saramago and so on. Such voices of dissent exist in older day epics too. However, trapped within the constant anguish, alienation and aggression of a late capitalism ‘lurching from crisis to crisis,’ these contemporary narratives confront us with the suffocating realisation of our being trapped in the No Exit scenario that Jean-Paul Sartre elaborated.

Of course, the manner in which history has moved this past century, there is little evidence to prove that the homo sapien is a rational animal. Aggregating absurdities called war, nuclear annihilation, ecocide, global warming, mass starvation, panic migrations, religious chest-thumping, and turbo-propelled dystopias of the media are emerging as cheerful eventualities. Kafka, like Mogambo, would have been pleased.

Sharing an ‘absurd’ inverse equation with Kafka — my date of birth coincides with his date of death — I have spent much time with the writer and have frequently wondered, counter-factually, about what might have happened had he been born in this subcontinent? Would Kafka have been as concerned with topsy-turvy ‘reality’ had he encountered the twinned selves of the absurd and the ludicrous on a daily basis as we seem to do here? Let me illustrate with three instances.

Unveiling truths

February 24 was the 70th birth anniversary of former AIADMK supremo, J. Jayalalithaa. Amidst much fanfare, the faction-ridden party unveiled her bronze statue at their headquarters in Chennai. Larger in size than the statue of her mentor MGR in the same premises, the event was earmarked with jumbo garlands, strewing of rose petals, chanting of slogans, and myriad camphor/ incense aaratis.

So far so good. It took some time for the devotees to raise their eyes and look up at the face of their ishta devata, to realise with a start that there was something amiss. While the torso and the sari drape resembled their beloved amma, the face seemed to be a transplant. It was the body of Jayalalithaa and the head, perhaps, of V.K. Sasikala — a classic case of ek jism magar do jaan (two souls in one body). A social media comment, rather uncharitably, suggested the face resembled that of Thevar caste icon Muthuramalinga Thevar. Sasikala being Thevar, the community was mollycoddled by Jayalalithaa during her stints in power. But that comment is best ignored.

Since our all-knowing great leader at the Centre has lauded our ancient skills in plastic surgery, quoting the example of elephant head on human body as in Ganesha, we too can extrapolate and recall horse head on human body as in Hayavadana or lion head on human body as in Narasimha. This new head transfix on a mere statue should then come as no surprise to those conversant with our surgical skills.

The Manasara Shilpa Shastras might frown a bit if the sthapatis, in the course of the lost-wax process, move Skanda’s head on to Soma but, hey, these are modern times and hybridity is our core. Cut-and-paste is standard practice and imaginative patchings, the very soul of our identity. Could Kafka ever have imagined this, where people wake up and find Rodin’s statue of Balzac transformed into that of Victor Hugo? I doubt it.

Totally dismissive

Then there is the case, on February 15, when the National Investigative Agency (NIA) presented documents before the Additional Sessions Judge, Delhi, to prove that the young Kashmiri photojournalist Kamran Yusuf, arrested in Srinagar on September 5 last year, was an anti-national stone-pelter and not a journalist at all.

The NIA’s testimony was clinching. The 23-year-old Yusuf was seditious and was ‘attempting to wage a war with India’ because, as a journalist, ‘he had never covered any developmental activity of any government department, any inauguration of hospital, school building, road, bridge….’ As if that were not enough, he was also ‘not a trained photographer/ videographer’ (meaning he had never been to a media academy) and was a ‘non-professional’.

The script writers at the NIA sure deserve a Sahitya Akademi award for creative writing that would have put Kafka on the back-foot. For the NIA spooks, the sole reason the camera was invented was to photograph a hospital being inaugurated, and not to record it when hundreds of youngsters injured by pellets fired by security forces are brought to the said hospital. The journalist should happily record ‘developmental activity’ like a bank giving out loans, but has no business being around when the said bank goes bankrupt because of its sweetheart loans. And, of course, never having been to a professional training academy — like a good 75% of India — makes them dangerously anti-national. If there was a roar of anger or protest from the mainstream media at this hyper-Kafkaesque definition of photography or journalism, pardon me, I haven’t heard it. Kamran Yusuf continues to languish in prison for being a conscientious journalist.

The cherry on the cake was on February 5, when a father-son duo, hereditary priests in the Mayuranathaswamy (Shiva) temple in Mayiladuthurai, near Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu, were summarily packed off from the temple for having taken the liberty of clothing the idol of Abhayambika (Parvati) with salwar-kameez. The day before, after having performed the traditional ritual anointment of the deity with thick sandalwood paste as per agamic requirements, on a creative impulse, the younger, 45-year-old priest made a salwar-kameez out of glitter paper and stuck it on to the sandal-paste covered idol. He was so pleased with his effort that he went ahead to take a photo of this and post it on social media. It brought upon him the ire, if not of the goddess, certainly of the temple authorities. One might ask, if the devotees are increasingly salwar-kameez clad, why can’t the goddess’s desire for a sartorial change be condoned? Even Kafka dare not pose such questions in this cuckoo-land, to enter which you need no visa.

The writer is a connoisseur of the ‘absurd’ when employed as an artistic device to send up the pomposity of political power.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 10:48:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/when-reality-trumps-kafkas-fiction/article22917760.ece

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