[Restless Books; 2020]

The modern novel feeds almost entirely on free will — a compelling demonstration of the full and rebellious exercise of which, if we are to agree with (among others) Camus, is what separates the literary novel from myth, legend, parable, and genre writing. This obviously imposes a handicap on a novelist working in a restricted religious society — like traditional Hindu society. Because where Camus says that “only two possible worlds exist for the human mind, the sacrosanct (or, to speak in Christian terms, the world of Grace) or the rebel world,” one can safely substitute the fairly universal Hindu concept of punya (correct, good, and every other laudable description that we Hindus have invented in our dozens of languages) in place of “Grace.” A devout Hindu’s raison d’être is the accumulation of punya. Consequently, her existence is typically hemmed in by myriad inhibitions, astrological admonishments, the dictates of various, major and minor religious figures, and more taboos than one can shake a stick at. This world — leached of much of its free will — is the world of sociology, anthropology, or neurosis, rather than the world of the novel. This reality is well understood by English novelists who invariably skirt this dense undergrowth and often magic it all away under suggestive shorthand. For instance, in the 2008 Booker prize-winning novel The White Tiger, the sprawling poverty-stricken, tradition-bound, caste-ridden, stiflingly Hindu regions of rural north India are simply called “The Darkness.”

But while the novel must be considered an ill-suited, if not alien, medium for the exploration of devoutly Hindu lives, there are exceptions. Samskara, by U.R. Ananthamurthy, the 1960s Kannada novel which gained an international readership by A. K. Ramanujan’s English translation, is one. A quick examination of Samskara yields an interesting insight into successfully setting a novel in “The Darkness.”

Samskara charts the existential collapse of a scholarly Brahmin priest — a “crest jewel of Vedic learning” — in the face of a challenge to his religious authority and a breakdown of his steely self-control. The novel’s setting is a cloistered Brahmin community in which the noble priest is portrayed as the lone defender of that ancient learning, that ancient way of life. He is surrounded by hypocrisy, greed, and pettiness, all of which coax a reader, even an irreligious one, to a deep admiration of the priest; he is a gem in this dung heap.

The self-mortifying holy sage is of course a revered character in both Hindu mythology and in the modern world. In mythology, he is the solver of cosmic problems, a figure who is most often portrayed as incredibly powerful, allied with the Gods, and often their equal. Every child knows the sages from the epics: Drona, Bhishma, Agastya etc. And in modern times, this iconic figure has if anything expanded his range: from the chatty, suited Deepak Chopra, to the loin-clothed Ramana Maharishi, who believed silence was the path to self-realization, they are all avatars of Samskara’s hero whose fate is powerfully resonant within this ancient tradition. The novel and its context are parts of the same organic whole. Mythology is turned on its head. The incredible power of this small novel — arguably the finest conceived in the vernacular from post-independence India — is derived from this deep awareness and subversion of Hindu mythology. “Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is,” Camus said in an observation that could be the kernel of truth upon which the success of any novel depends. Because the noble priest finally refused to be what he was, a rare feat was accomplished, a superb novel was created in “The Darkness.”

I delineate this particular quality of Samskara — though there are many others that contribute to its success — because it’s very relevant to a discussion about The City of Good Death — a debut novel by Priyanka Champaneri, set in the holy East-Indian city of Benares.

Even though it shares little in its plot with Samskara, the principal characters in The City of Good Death breathe the same pious, incense-laced air in similarly cloistered settings. In both novels, arcane Hindu rituals, mythology, faith, and superstition play crucial roles. And both novels achieve their auras of timelessness partly by meticulously keeping themselves free of markers of modern life. Samskara attaches itself tenuously to modernity only by a single mention of the Congress Party. The only markers of modern life in Good Death are single mentions of radio and train travel.

The central narrative of The City of Good Death concerns two young men, Pramesh and Sagar: cousins, sons of drunken peasants, raised under the same village roof, who part ways at adulthood. Pramesh, heads to the city of Benares, the millennia-old city on the banks of the Ganges, which is amongst the holiest sites of Hinduism. There he weds the daughter of the operator of a bhavan, a “death hostel”: a facility that hosts the families of devout, terminally sick Hindus who — in a final attempt at boosting their punya scores — are taken to die in holy Benares. Pramesh takes over the management of the bhavan. A decade passes. He and his wife, Shobha, have a daughter. He never looks back. He never returns to the village. The narrative begins when, one day, Sagar’s body, tied to an anchor, is pulled up from the Ganges.

Though his body is unmarked, and there is little sign of foul play, the unraveling of the circumstances of Sagar’s death is the novel’s propellant. It falls to the lot of Pramesh and the bhavan’s employees to take care of the funeral and to conduct the special prayers and rituals needed to send Sagar’s soul on its way — a delicate operation given that Sagar’s death was unnatural, not a “good death.” The cast of characters in the bhavan are well-schooled. A manager of a “death hostel” must clearly articulate what he is peddling: Pramesh defines a “good death” as one “that came peacefully at the culmination of a long life, [one] that gently drew the soul from the body and led it to join the great God.” The text is without a snigger, smirk or any sign of mockery, delivered in a serious literary style. The Ganges is not just a river, she (like most Indian rivers) is also a deity, and Champaneri’s homage casts an artist’s eye to her riverside scenes. The special rituals to send Sagar’s soul on its way do not work. Sagar’s spirit — in the shape of a presence that takes up residence in the bhavan’s washroom — sends the affairs of the “death hostel” into disarray. This is the closest Good Death comes to considering the metaphysics of death.

The notion of the dead having power is implicit to the principally Hindu notion of reincarnation and to all its paraphernalia of which punya is an integral part. It’s easy for the living — occupied with the quotidian — to detach from the dead. But what if the dead refused to detach? But this point — which is essentially the idea that those who we have wronged gain some power over us, an idea which exists in the morals and ethics of many religions — is not examined to any measurable depth which leaves a “good death” seeming like a business transaction between the dead and the living.

The narrative of Good Death moves at a syrupy pace as it portions out the past lives of Pramesh and Sagar. One weakness, a minor one, which makes the pace listless is a frequent rejection of that Zinsserian rule of deleting “every sentence that tells a reader something they had already been enabled to know or were bright enough to deduce.” But a deeper disconnect is at work here. The novel does not convince us of the religiosity of Pramesh and Shobha. We are told that as a boy Pramesh had been drawn to the Hindu epics, but we are not shown any adult preoccupation, spiritual or intellectual, with religion or scripture. At stipulated times of the day, Pramesh’s mind “locked in prayer from habit.” He and Shobha seem just like any young Hindu couple, not especially pious. With the priests of the bhavan tasked with conducting the Hindu ceremonies, Pramesh feels much like the manager of a hotel. When the reader’s suspicions about this disconnect take root, the complex edifice of Benares — “the city where time did not exist” — the holiest of the holies, no matter how much attention is lavished on its street life, its riverside ghats, and its cremations, seems unnecessary, even false. The novel is set in ancient Benares, but it does not attach itself to this substrate, and hence to the religion which it clearly intends to explicate. This could be a family saga set anywhere in India. This absence of glue between the principal characters and their hyper-religious milieu, this failure to effect an organic connection, dulls the characters. It makes them seem complacent, uninteresting.

Even that which could make these characters shine, is dulled and shortchanged. Shobha, for instance, pricks interest for having chosen her husband (in this traditional setting, this could qualify as a wildly brazen expression of free will). But this choice happens backstage and appears watered down on account of his being her father’s employee. And she is presented as a perfectly dutiful Hindu housewife — free of vices, alert to her husband and daughter’s every mood and need, and always in situations of dull domesticity like rolling dough, shopping for food or cooking for the workers around the bhavan. The rare friction with her husband — for instance when their daughter’s minor injury elicits from him the suggestion that Shobha was neglectful — is unconvincing. Champaneri aspires to break out of this cliché in the other main female character — Kamna, Sagar’s wife, who we are told, might have had a colorful past. But so gauntly is she fleshed out that we never get anything but one-liners of hearsay about her. And that can be said about a lot of this book: most of what is revealed about the characters is not demonstrated to the reader but explained.

Though Good Death is poorly served by its tepid primary characters, its supporting cast of characters and their side stories are often more interesting and I sometimes regretted their underrepresentation in the page count. I might have enjoyed a novel written from the point of view of Mohan — the loyal bhavan helper — who is forced to modulate his nocturnal gluttony on account of the ghost having chosen to occupy the washroom. And there is Bhut, aka The Ghost, the local inspector who has been carrying a grudge about his sister’s death for decades. And there is the fried mung dal-munching exorcist Govind. And there are a couple brilliant pages of Pramesh’s final conversation with his unnamed father whose cold drunken fury at a son who had found a bride on his own and denied his father a dowry is given to us in such exquisite rawness that one cannot believe it is part of a novel in which so much of the narrative seems like it was being recited. Eventually the novel fails to live up to its whodunit expectations of opening with a body being dredged out of the Ganges, as it fails to convince us that it needed to be set in The City of Good Death.

Mukund Belliappa is working on a novel set in early 19th century South India.

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