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September 9, 2012 / Vandita

Ideolect of Metafiction in The Great Indian Novel and Karma Kola (A Paper presented in Daulat Ram College Conference, National Conference on ‘Language, Literature and Culture’, 17th to 19th October 2006)

Pan Indianisation is the vogue today. As a nation we are modestly ecstatic over our brilliantly subtle cultural hegemony. International music divas and political icons rave over their adapting to Indian themes, Indian dresses and Indian ceremonies. To be Indian is fashionable. What interestingly complements this is the struggle Indians and non-Indians experience in coming to terms with the land per se, with its the ugly squalor and rowdiness. Where the globe is riveted by India’s unprecedented worship and glorification of female pantheons, it remains restive over the country’s glibness at the ironical iconisation of women which subsequently victimises her as a prized object. Today, India is apologetic over its near incontestable pool of unemployed people while it brags of being home to the world’s wealthiest. Interestingly, where Indian authors are increasingly talking about such double standards and dualities in India’s social set up, their vanguard is peopled by the ilk of Indian-English writers. As the trendiest well heeled intellectual elite, the latter group’s dada is the evolved Indian religious myth. The post modern Indian-English writer consistently splays his/her work with overt and oblique references to the land’s intellectual-cultural alma mater: its religious and historical heritage. The language and content of novels like The Great Indian Novel and Karma Kola exhume the Indian paradox of gawky national pride and insouciant egg headedness.

Published in nineteen eighties and sixties, these novels seam the borderline that demarcates the post modern from the modern in Indian English literature. This was a time when Indian English writers could feel the glory and guts of nationhood – a time when its prime minister was assassinated and when the country was among the top ten industrialised nations. Shashi Tharoor and Gita Mehta scandalise with their fictional weave that intersperses a tale with Indian mythic sentience. Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel is a fiction in the true sense: it exposes the fiction of Great India. In similar though more obvious pronouncement, Mehta’s Karma Kola cues us to the Karmic soft drink of Kola nuts, where her emphasis is on the nut not the drink. The two novels literally debowel the jingoism that underlies the philanthropic Indian amity, brotherhood and Dharma. Karma Kola is the underbelly of international tourism to India, while the tacit obverse that refracts Gandhian philosophy is The Great Indian Novel’s expose. Both the novels sequin the dialectic play of ideologies in the Indian context to enunciate how a national fictional treatise becomes an international gargantuan. Using slang, contemporary political and social verbiage, and parlance of myths across India’s terrain, Tharoor and Mehta develop an ideolect that gives ideology a happening dialect.

Tharoor’s tour de force, The Great Indian Novel begins with a purported heresy, “They tell me India is an underdeveloped country” only to qualify it as otiose with the observation that India is thick with “overdeveloped… bureaucracy… and… the women.” The speaker here is Ved Vyas, the author of Mahabharata, transposed to the present times and befittingly transformed into a man of dubious but critical acumen. He justifies his narrative with the claim:

History… is full of ifs and buts. I prefer… other conjunctions with destiny.

The novel paints and plummets through the ifs and avers that there can be no final declarations since “the story of life” has “no end” and an ending is “a contemporary conceit”. Gajapati his scribe, caricatures Ganesha, India’s elephant-God, who remains confined to being curious, impatient and long nosed. The narrative plumbs India’s colonial identity with a mock-epic’s theatrical flourish. The novel minuscules mythic Indian heroes as the alter egos of British viceroys and senior British officers, the latter absolute emasculate wimps. The first chapter titled ‘The Twice-Born Tale’ puns Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, a collection of Gothic short stories, stressing Tharoor’s intent to travesty the real and take the lid off the social neurotic bathos. Tharoor refuses to be complacent about Mahabharata’s home truths: ancestral Indian families were polyandrous and polygamous; the novelist makes no bones over the issue, the novel luridly lucid on this count.

The novel’s socio-historic backdrop triggers an inevitable duel with the proverbial crown. Language as a gauge for authenticity and snobbery provides comic relief while it makes transparent identity politics. Very subtly, Tharoor bares the programme of Othering the non-Europeans which colonialists took to be their prerogative and missionary burden. The novel jabs Rudyard Kipling who gave the globe the phrase, “White Man’s Burden” in 1889, on the heels of the 1857 Indian national war of independence, which made it pertinent to colonisation, especially in India. Ironically, this European observation, for all its cultural arrogation, made little difference to the Indian heartland where Rudyard or Kipling remained names, and the White man’s burden the baggage lugged by coolies. The writer says that to the average Indian theories matter little to the same extent as crimes in the name of the imperial, now First World Peace Corps, matter to the West. Tharoor obliquely refers to the British callousness in handling the Jallianwallah Bagh Massacre in mock heroic tones:

perhaps the Great Magistrate had decreed that the sentence of death

fall not on the man who had ordered his soldiers to fire on an unarmed

assembly but he who had so vilely insulted an entire nation.

The novel’s dialectical structure axes politics – politics of presentation, language politics, politics of gendering and politics of nationhood. Ganga Datta, one of the senior most patriarchs on the battlefield in Mahabharata cast in the novel as the most principled of its pantheon of actors, believes that rightness of a political act is “only a matter of opinion”. Indians politicians prove pastmasters in neo colonial tactics in the pre-, post-, and modern India. Ved Vyas, the narrator of, and commentator in, the mock epic, The Great Indian Novel pointedly jeers at Indian democracy with its “pluralist system” that made mandatory “a plurality of leaders”. Ganga Datta gradates into Gandhi’s understudy that enables Tharoor to disinter non-violence as a credo with a tacit agenda to exploit the powers of silence:

by upholding abstract canons of Truth and justice, he was laying nothing

more than his beliefs on the line…

Ganga Datta as Gandhi’s stand in declares “Fasting is my business”, a statement that cheapens in the novel’s socio-political history into “a slogan” marvelled at by the West as “altruistic self-denial”. The novel’s literary parabola unabashedly addresses the West as its final parameter and declares India to be an “agitation-ridden land”, reviles Sanskrit as a language whose sole conceivable merit is its alliteration: “after all it is one thing you can do… ”. Discoveries are a result of erring at the right time. Europe found America and India the decimal, zero. In the novel, India’s quintessential Guru Dronacharya’s modern avatar, Jayprakash Drona talks of the decimal’s value, declares it as the “locus of the universe”, “everything and nothing”, and “very Indian”. The story of India remains “An Indian story, with so many preambles and no conclusion”. The novel’s snide, the “masses” are “assess”, gives Shakespeare’s depiction of mob mentality in his history plays a peculiarly Indian flavour; the Indian crowd disperses “slowly, like ants abandoning a crumb”. “Moral politics… is not always good mathematics” sums up the novel’s ideolect. Subsuming Indian patriotism as a mass whimsy where “the sublime degenerates into the sub-slime”, Tharoor asks his readers to re-assess “our national struggle, make of it what you will”. The novel’s seventh and eighth book The Son Also Rises and Midnight’s Parents showcase the divisive consequences of the neo-colonial politic. The novel insinuates that Indian leader’s self serving expedience and nepotism boomeranged into partition: Pakistan was the outcome of the Indian political zoo, “a collection of has-beens, never-wases and never-will-bees”. Religion evolved into a seething political ferment because of India’s electoral sectoring by the British. “In those days… lines meant lives” underscores the ugly reality of partition. Tharoor is unrelenting in his scalding of Indian sentiments: he rhetorically whiplashes Indian fatalism by excusing Pakistan’s creation on the karma of its creators, the Muslim League.

Tharoor’s post-independent India is neo-colonial bathos “which many outside thought to be atrophied”. Here the act and the spirit rarely shake hands, and if they do, the act is exploited to further the handshake, a meaningless polite act, to benefit the political leaders. Indian nationhood was realised by integrating the princely states. The novel humorously, even farcically, uncorks the wily political scruple that got many an unwilling royalty to fall in line. Ved Vyas’s earlier disclaimer, “in our greed for office we sacrificed the integrity of the nation… willing to wait and to compromise.… That’s absolute cow-dung. Or its male equivalent” becomes an axiomatic political expedient. Indian politics intrigues the foreigner with its mindless centric centrifugal acts; Indian diplomacy comes across as “the love-making of an Indian elephant… the results are not known for three years”. Their social etiquette and power-play is guided by the principle:

A tiger shows power all along… Any weakness must be concealed…

The novel’s fourteenth book, The Rigged Veda subtly satirises Nehru’s “concept of non-alignment” as an “insincere Brahminical ploy”, “a canny camouflage for the capitalist course… beneath India’s veneer of democratic socialism”, “a refusal to take sides in an immoral and destructive competition”, the Cold War. Tharoor pointedly says that “He belonged to the ages, but the instruments of his failure did not”, a failure that led to wars with Pakistan and China. In the novel, Mahabharata’s Draupadi occasions an absolute metaphor for Indian democracy. The idiomatic socio-religious slant of the novel limns her not only as a victim of polyandrous marriage in a patriarchal setup, but one whose exploitation and abuse is barely avoided by divine intervention. It is significant that this divinity, Krishna, is topographically removed from the scene: he remains in Kerala while Draupadi is violated in the North. “Ours is a darker democracy” is Vyas’s unabashed reference to Draupadi and India’s lack of finesse in dealing with what is exotic, dark and mysterious. Passages through India lead eventually to the reign of terror in which Yudhishtir’s ideals absolve him of irresponsibility and recklessness.

India apparently cannot have villains per se because, Dharma, the preternatural and celestial figurehead in the novel declares everything to be an illusion, and Yudhishtir hoists certitudes and urges the need to

“Let each man live by his code of conduct…. Admit there

 is more than one Truth, more than one Right”.

Saying this he reverts to his mongrel appearance in which he had first appeared. In a similar though more cavalier vein, Karma Kola, with its atavistic bent, inveigles Dharma as a “mythological osmosis” – a state where distinctions cease and “You are the Law”. The novel explodes the concepts, Karma and Dharma as ingenious fabrications for and by the Hindu piety to promote their cause, make money and gain a foothold in power politics. It is intriguing to read the novel and see its novelist’s canny understanding of the political, religious and social nexus. Gita Mehta’s novel reads like a spiritual amphitheatre where foreigners, voluntarily become unwitting victims to India’s spiritual chimera and its corrupt gurus, in an enactment of Kipling’s observation “that India is the grim stepmother of the world. Nuclear holocaust finds its justification, like everything can, in India’s spiritual armoury, where “we turn karma into a soft option fee for a post-Armageddon utopia”.

International fascination with Indian spirituality goes back to Beatles, John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley. What India did get out of the transit was the drug scene, which was celebrated in the lyrics,

Take a drag. I’m wiped out.

Hare Krishna Hare Ram.

Gita Mehta has a dig at the foreign fascination with the Indian religious acceptance of sexuality, calling it “the ecstasy of being”. This ecstasy is incomprehensibly profound to the non-Indian for he does not have “the Indian consolation of knowing that everything is a con, and worse, a self-induced con… Maya”, beyond which lies the absolute Nirvana. To the initiate who comes from the West, the step from illusion to disillusion is mystifying; Gita Mehta says it is commonplace to find mentally unhinged, religiously inclined foreigners in India, from those who think they are Buddha’s charioteer to those who are propelled to suicide and child homicide. The novel’s metafictional compass tracks contemporary instances of homosexuality and promiscuity to India; Allen Ginsberg, with his drugs and experimental sexuality is called a self professed “Dharma Bum”. The quintessential “street hustler” from America who has incorporated “our most complicated philosophical concepts” in his everyday slang is pitted against the erudite Sanskrit scholar:

Whose interpretation should be accepted as final authority –

                          the Sanskrit scholar’s or the street hustler’s?

Indian devoutness is construed as a “whimsy” and as much a curio as the Peruvian Inca civilisation that flourished around 5B.C. in the novel’s pages; Wallace Steven’s ‘Disillusionment of Ten O’ Clock’ is suggested as a symbol for the spiritual confusion which disillusions and still rivets the West. Nietzsche’s disenchantment with Europe led him to compare Europe to India’s spiritual desideratum and Gita Mehta to not only quote him ad hoc but to conclude

This is also known as rock and roll.

Both the novels, The Great Indian Novel and Karma Kola “rock and roll” with a political and social cocktail spiced with sexuality. Where the latter strips Hinduism of its spiritual glamour, the former bares the smug complacency in the Indian political scenario. The average, the suave, and the street wise, all are opportunists in differing degree in these novels. Where, a smug Indian response “we” are “still three hundred years behind in our use of the English language” helps an Indian to overcome awkwardness if in a fix over Spenser in The Great Indian Novel, Karma Kola posits the wise counsel “Go from zero to hero”. Undeniably we enter the seamless world of metafiction that leads us to a modern, contemporary idiolect.


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