Writing inside the river
Both narrations in the book are attempts to makesense, beyond the evident formalism, in the mind of a reader. Forget about linear stories or chronological narratives
You could say one story jumps on to a tram, or maybe on to a boat in the middle of the Hooghly. Even more, the story, the writer and everything else is carried away, flowing in the stream. It happens to Ramayan Chamar and other characters, it happens to things and landscapes lost over time. As mentioned, the author is there, mixing his life and his thoughts with those of his creations.
Yet, though a narration built this way might be confusing, something coherent appears in front of the reader’s eyes: a multitude of scenes and feelings portraying a moment in the history of Kolkata (of India, somehow) where death and tension marked the everyday life of the city. The years after the Emergency, when the cries from Naxalbari were still heard (so many young still disappearing) and the old capital of the British felt most probably like a boiling pot. Stirring the cooking is Subimal Misra—or floating away on the river: Your choice.
Considered a reclusive author, who mostly self-publishes, Misra offers his singular way to literature in This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale: Two Anti-Novels. Both narrations in the book are attempts to make sense, beyond the evident formalism, in the mind of a reader. Forget about linear stories or chronological narratives. Coherence is not comfort, no, it springs out from reading Misra’s short passages — comments, news snippets, poems, dialogues: Using cinematic techniques, he’s portraying reality as if applying to it a broken mirror (into a myriad small pieces) from the top of the sky, reflecting.
Now, grab you copy of the book and jump directly into the first antinovel. You can skip the arid introduction that opens the tome to give notice about Subimal Misra, as well as the not so appealing manifesto the author offers about what antinovels are. These can be read after the narrations, and even left unread. Then start asking yourself: Who is Ramayan Chamar. A name, a political activist in the middle of the stream, in a city ruled by a faction of the communists... Nobody perhaps. Anyone capable of telling the truth, using irony and sarcasm. A unionist. Around him, struggles, crime, lies and hard truths. Is that it?
The river of words Misra has created sprang from his fingers, smelling of beedi and damp paper. He’s been writing, cutting and pasting paragraphs from many different sources. A dialogue between a few illustrated leftists is followed by a scene with Phantom, the comic strips superhero, and the charming newspaper ads put by old men seeking young gracious companions. Honest and provocative, our writer puts himself once and again in there, working on a poetics of reality. Living inside it — the poetics, the reality — he witnesses its flaws, its agitated contradictions, and comes to report about them.
That’s how Ramayan Chamar takes the page, occasionally, to declare one thing or the other. This, for example, is surprisingly present: Our democracy is like a brassiere’s elastic – One can expand or contract it at will (p. 33).
So this anti-novel will demand all your attention. Focus, or you will drown in it. That’s why Subimal Misra put a call for the reader to wake up, to keep asking the writer questions (page 42) and mark sentences, passages or words.
Whatever this narration is about deals with people and their relations. It is about a society and a possible man, untamed after years of discrimination. In that sense, too, Ramayan Chamar can be any of us, indomitable (proud) and firm, if we choose to be. This feeling will come to the reader time after time, even after Ramayan is dead; his corpse is my corpse. His fate has become mine and that’s probably why I should care about him, about how things are.
While the reading advances and you pass the pages (the red gilt of the text block), themes get mixed, terms and expressions too. So for a reader born far away from India, Misra’s book is at the same time an open gate and a limitation. One can understand the narration and its literary merit but it will be a harder task to comprehend the tense murky context it reflects upon. Or as the writer claims: “Ramayan Chamar’s tale is an even longer, even more complicated tale...”.
We know about Ramayan mostly from what others say. He looks like a stereotype sometimes (a rebellious clever activist) and also like an archetype (somehow a synthesis, the first of his class). Ramayan Chamar is a conscience.
Then these comic strip heroes show up (another one will have a cameo here). A bunch of mouth breathers (widely cultivated art of just talking, unceasingly) walk around. And real poor disgraced ones everywhere in the country whose stories are woven in the book, brief news pieces, though, as their multitude of stories don’t add to much; their names will be forgotten.
But this montage (this piecing together of a lot of elements) is also a product of the time. Seven years before Subimal Misra, a Spanish writer did the same with a story revolving around the Spanish Civil War in 1936-38. In The Truth About Savolta Case, Eduardo Mendoza built a narration of his city, Barcelona, in times of strikes and crime, in times of solidarity. Portions of letters, dialogues and news pieces assembled to portray a crisis that would eventually be swallowed by the Second World War. One way to call this new technique, coming not just from French cinema but also the Nouveau Roman, can be: The unrealistic way to realism.
Nevertheless consider this idea as a very present one: In the very country in which the ideal of non-violence is propagated noisily — the violence and terror hidden at every level of society erupts powerfully... (p. 82).
So, while trying to present a specific moment of Indian history, Misra is indeed rooting for things that come from far away in time (like inequality,) moving the dial of an old radio slowly covering the whole spectre of life, somehow.
No one killed Pehlu Khan. The six men accused of lynching the man in Alwar, Rajasthan, were acquitted by a judge two years after his murder. Lack of evidence, the court stated. The attack, registered in video on a few mobile phones, is one more unpunished crime.
Ramayan Chamar: Of course no one killed the guy, he did it himself while improving his lynching technique.
The second part of a book, the other anti-novel, is a patchwork too. When colour is a warning sign traces again reality around in the same time as the Ramayan Chamar story. Chains of news put in the middle of concise reflections on politics and ethics, on art and literature. Pieces of Subimal Misra’s diary, anecdotes and memories put in different type settings. Addressing the reader directly, confronting him with questions about symbols or personal stories.
I knew him, you know, an old man addressed this reviewer on a bus (46B to Maidan). Ramayan-da was funny, he used to smoke a lot and talk like nothing was really serious. My father and he worked together for a while in Howrah, he came once or twice to our home in Manicktala. Once, he came very late at night after a heated discussion with some Communist students, he was badly beaten.
The old man pointed at the book enquiring if this was a biography. We didn’t talk much, he got off at Sealdah to take a train to Krishnanagar city. I lost my book then and I didn’t notice it missing until that night. I couldn’t tell now when a colour is a warning sign (like a traffic light set at a crossing or a metro platform).
What was Subimal Misra thinking? Why can his stories catch your attention despite them not having a linear plot, a simple thing to tell? Who knows? They’re worth reading and, if your imagination works, you could hear his laughter at the very end.