Lots to Digest

Gabriele Annan

  • Red Earth and Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra
    Faber, 520 pp, £15.99, June 1995, ISBN 0 571 17455 8

‘All stories have in them the seed of all other stories: any story, if continued long enough, becomes other stories,’ declares a female hermit who is the Ur-storyteller in this Indian multi-storey story. The man listening to her imagines ‘stories multiplying spontaneously, springing joyously out of a mother story, already whole but never complete, then giving birth themselves, becoming as numerous as the leaves on the trees, as the galaxies in the sky’. So the man becomes a storyteller himself; besides, his own story is already a story within a story. Many of the stories (but not all) begin with the injunction: ‘Listen.’ Implicit in it is another injunction: let go, accept confusion. For, among other things, this 520-page novel is an Eastern challenge to Aristotelian aesthetics. This is made quite explicit about halfway through, when a well-meaning Englishman presses the Poetics on a clever Indian boy. The boy doesn’t go for it: ‘there seemed to be a peculiar notion of emotion as something to be expelled, to be emptied out, to be, in fact, evacuated, as if the end purpose of art was a sort of bowel movement of the soul.’ Clarity, order, logic and simplicity are Western demands. Forget them if you want to enjoy this riotous, sly and sophisticated saga, which isn’t, in fact, as aimless as it pretends, since it is an argument – sometimes quite a sharp challenge – deliberately aimed at Western canons, ethical as well as aesthetic.

The book – though not, of course, the story – begins with a Scheherazade figure who must tell stories in order to stay alive. Only this Scheherazade is not a woman but a monkey with a rifle wound. The young man who shoots him is called Abhay and has just returned from an American Ivy League university to his parents’ house. He is suffering from jet lag and the breakup of his affair with a Texan classmate called Amanda. So he is irritable, and when the monkey steals his jeans off the washing-line, he takes a pot shot at him with an old toy rifle. Amanda had flown with Abhay to Bombay, but couldn’t take India and went straight home again. Her rejection of the country can be seen as a starting-point for the whole train of events; except that there are any number of other starting points to choose from. In any case it’s not a train of events so much as a tangle – like the Gordian knot that Alexander of Macedon had to cut in order to conquer India. Alexander’s desire for conquest is put down to his insistence on holding back his bowel motion. This idea is floated in a comical dialogue from an unpublished play by an unsuccessful Indian poet. The accusation against Alexander appears to be the reverse of the one against Aristotle. Westerners never seem to get their digestion right.

The monkey incident worries Abhay’s parents. They fear it may cause a riot at the nearby temple of Hanuman, the monkey god who is also the god of poetry. Besides, they are fond of the monkey. So they bring him in and nurse him while he lies unconscious, with occasional confused memories of his former incarnation as a man flashing across his brain. That life, he explains when he gets better, ended in 1889, and sometime later he was reborn as a monkey. Of course he can’t voice these facts, but with the help of the father’s old portable he turns himself into a monkey with a typewriter, and communicates in print. A practical nine-year-old neighbour called Saira shows him how to feed in the paper and use the shift key. But he is not out of danger yet: Yama, the Lord of Death, comes to take him away. Hanuman turns up to defend his protégé; and the elephant god Ganesha also moves in – a benign, almost cuddly presence, though rather large to have in the house.

The three gods agree that the monkey shall live if he can hold an audience for two hours every day by telling them stories. Saira drums up a bunch of schoolchildren who stand outside the house, and Abhay reads the monkey’s text to them from the balcony. The audience grows day by day, until he needs a megaphone. People shove for places, quarrels start, and the police arrive. ‘The affair now had religious, ethnic, caste, class and socio-economic overtones.’ ‘Here you go again,’ says Yama, ‘exercising your national talent for fissiparousness.’

Indians are certainly not safe from Chandra’s irony, but it’s more affectionate than his contempt for the British and his dismay at America. He intercuts the monkey’s saga with Abhay’s journey across the States, which provides a rest from magic realism and Indian mythopoeia: there’s no way, in this novel, of telling where one ends and the other begins, and both can be exhausting reading. Nothing supernatural or even extraordinary happens in America (unless you count the unlikely career of a porn film star, the only story within a story in this section). But even so the American episodes are not nearly as real and convincing as the Indian ones, and the writing seems less fastidious, too.

The monkey explains that in his previous incarnation he was called Sanjay. Sanjay is the boy who doesn’t think much of Aristotle, and he grows up to be a poet. His birth occurs early in the 19th century when the British are still fighting to subjugate India. His conception is unusual. His father is a laddoo – a sort of Indian lollipop, in this instance soaked in the blood of a heroic Anglo-Irish condottiere fighting on the Indian side; the condottiere is the same man, as it happens, to whom the hermit expounded her views on stories. The lollipop is intended for a beautiful Rajput princess who loved the condottiere but was captured and forcibly married by a British officer called Skinner – not the Skinner of Skinner’s Horse and Skinner’s chutney, but possibly his stepfather. There are three lollipops altogether, and the princess gives one to a barren friend. The two ladies swallow their lollipops and give birth to three boys: the princess calls her sons Sikander (the Indian for Alexander) and Chotta; they both become soldiers. The other lady calls hers Sanjay, and he becomes a poet – and the monkey with the typewriter in his next incarnation.

This crude synopsis of a tiny part of the story gives an idea of its complication and improbability, but none of its fascination, charm, and sheer factual input – especially facts about life in 19th-century India and the Anglo-Indian conflict, including the Mutiny and the siege of Lucknow. Chandra seems particularly interested in Europeans who fought with the Indians, like the long-distance father of the three boys; and even more interested in Indians who fought with the British. Sikander does that, and his quarrel with Sanjay, who prints samizdat material for the mutineers, is one of the book’s main themes.

There are too many battles in the novel, and only just enough sex, which Chandra describes deliciously, in a manner both poetic and explicit. As with digestion, its pleasures and techniques are better understood in India than in England. Sanjay goes to England after being hanged by the British at Lucknow (one of several ghoulishly detailed but inconclusive deaths he suffers; in one of them he hacks himself to pieces, finishing off by pulling out his tongue). England predictably turns out to be all fog and darkness and crime and misery and buggery, Brecht piled on Dickens. Jack the Ripper is around, and turns out to be Dr Sarthey, who came in earlier as a respected English doctor in India, the son of a missionary. Wherever they are, Sartheys cast grim, slatey, kinky shadows. Indians, on the other hand, are playful, witty, relaxed, affectionate and funny, or else glamorous in silks or chain mail and the yellow Rajput colours, brave and reckless and ‘full of the grand theatricality that is the best trait of our countrymen’.

Chandra’s own best trait is his way with characters. He barely needs to describe them; they materialise delightfully from the way he makes them speak. The men display an endearing, affectionate camaraderie, the women are more engaging still. The schoolgirl Saira, for instance, doesn’t come into the story much, but one longs for her appearances, because she has so much charm and liveliness: brisk, sensible and warm-hearted, she will turn into a formidable Indian lady like the Begum-witch who instructs Sanjay’s surrogate father in sex and makes him tell her a story every night.