The last Bastions of Obscurity

The vibrant, pulsating, scorching sunshine landscape of Van Gogh is also a story of suffering, in kaleidoscopic village colours, where a dark silhouette is slowly turning anti-clockwise in slow motion, celebrating perhaps the insanity of invisibility and the insanity of obscurity. This is also Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Poetics of Reverie’. It’s the dialectic of a dream sequence, of bitter realism
and metaphysical freedom, in stunning synthesis. It’s like entering a corridor, a ‘stranger’ corridor, or an ancient wooden bridge over a gurgling stream, or the back lane of George Orwell’s proletarian quarters in 1984, or Joseph Kafka’s alienated, unrequited Prague by-lanes. You have never been to these landmarks of subliminal history before, and you have never, never been to these places, not even in your dreams or adolescent fantasies, and yet you instantly know you have been there, here, in that specific moment of familiar stranger-ness.

You can smell the familiar smell, like the ‘Scent of a Woman’, like the wind inside your light eyes. You can tangibly touch the faint wind which blows from the original North Wind, you can hold it inside your palms and inside your rough, worn out shirt, you can sense the old cold of the old bench where you can read a book and smoke in silence, and where you once held her hand. Even the book is a stranger, like the hand, but familiar like the bridge and the corridor and the back lane.

Inside Van Gogh’s landscape is an expanse of suffering, but the suffering too is ephemeral, it must pass. All that is ephemeral will pass, but does it? Like Kafka’s Letters to Felice, the obsessive longing for love and the absence of love returns like a no-return shooting star from here to the cross-roads, asking no questions of arrival or departure, always in transit, forever ephemeral. You walk through the corridor and you reject insanity, and all you have is a cold orange, half-peeled, inside Bengal’s mythical half-wintry mosquito net under the nocturnal expanse of Jibonanda Das’ nakshatra with the galaxy of evening stars, when she comes in the middle of the night, holding that half-eaten orange, and offers you the porous freedom of a mosquito net. Next day you might die under a train or a tram, with a jhola and few books, penniless, obscure, but the night stays in eternity like a forbidden memory. Don’t ask him if he ate the orange, or if that man crossed the landscape and entered a green, Ruskin Bond field mountain meadow with wild pink flowers which swayed and moved in rhythm, bringing a message to a stranger from a stranger, as in exiled Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. And when you look at the mirror, all you can see is the swaying grass with a message from the unknown, perhaps of love, of the absence and presence of love, perhaps of awakening, deeper longings, perhaps nothing but a silent unwritten yet to be written script.

Who will write that script which has not been written, not even by the man or the woman who is eternally anonymous, willfully chosen to be anonymous? Even in fame, or infamy, or poverty, or celebrity, or even in the stark ordinariness of the Man and Woman without or with Qualities? There is no fetish here, no deification, no artificially manufactured greatness, no bestseller faces or literary agents with huge advances for shallow, super dud Indo-Anglian super dud books; there is only a bidi-smoking Muktibodh outsider (like Ritwick Ghatak’s documentaries or Ram Kinker’s statues), the Brahmrakshas on the peepletree in the twilight zone, outside the vicinity of the absolute village of absolute inequality and brutality of eternal, metaphysical India. It’s like the ‘outsider’ who knows everything like a cracked mirror’s Jaataka tale, how to subvert the oral tradition, or an inevitable obstacle, with humour, tact and intelligence, and obstinate sadness, yet remain subsumed in anonymity. Like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times,anticipating Orwell’s 1984.

Or, perhaps, the last Zen story, unwritten with a blue pencil, about a half-naked woman (always half-naked!) in distress, who can’t cross the river. So the Zen monk arrives in an unfinished journey to nowhere, and carries her on his shoulder and drops her to safety on the next nowhere shore. Hence, after he reaches his imagined ‘home’, his Zen comrade asks, sarcastically, salaciously, “So, how was it?” Also: “How can you, a monk, touch a naked (half-naked!) woman?” He smiles and says: “I dropped her on the other shore. You are still carrying her?”

If you want to know about the last outpost of obscurity, read W Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Six Pence. I discovered it last week in a little library of great, obscure human beings, in a quant, friendly town up in the Himachal hills. Don’t enter the fictionalized account of Paul Gauguin’s deliberate epistemological rupture from a dull, stockbroker’s unspoken happy married for 17 years with a healthy, robust wife with literary pretensions, with two healthy young kids with clean eyes; to a tortured, volcanic soliloquy of brilliant, starving, silent individualism, suddenly and forever rejecting the success and banality of petty bourgeois modernity of his times. Don’t enter his staircase hole, his empty room in the ghettos of Paris with one chair and a glass of water for food where he lies dying, or on the streets of Marseilles next to the port of whores and slave traders, where he survives on a loaf of bread and thin soup, once in many days. He spoils our post-modern party with his controlled stoicism. He rejects us with a brutality that you can hate him. He is like that silhouette of Van Gogh’s landscape, the Brahamraksas on the exiled tree, Kafka’s K. Like that hut in the deep, inaccessible mountains of Tahiti where he drew the final, magical, anti-Biblical landscape of amazing primordial ecology, on the walls of his primordial hut, blind, afflicted with leprosy, his body dying, his soul alive and landscaped with the abundant colours of absurdity, loved by a ‘primitive’ woman till the end. He tells her to destroy the hut after he dies. She burns it down.

Hence, if you enter this book, don’t think about Michelangelo. Think about Paul Gauguin, the man who chose obscurity and starvation and primordial emancipations, possessed by nothing but this volcanic magic realism in his art and his heart, all his paintings unsold in his lifetime because he refused to sell them; all sold after his death like mindless fortunes made of mindless wealth. “Who cares,” he would say.

Don’t ask Fyodor Dostoevsky why he didn’t die when was facing the firing squad. Did that change his life? Did he change his gambling ways, his abject alienations, his pre-Freudian psychological dissections of the troubled, innocent, restless (Werner) Herzogian human mind, like that of Myshkin or Raskolnikov? Like invisible Jean Genet’s Prisoners of Love, he remained a prisoner of his own Russian genius, perhaps momentarily liberated every time he wrote a classic. Like Natasha, the magical woman. Like Sonia. Oh, did you ever find women like them? Did he?

“As Albert Camus would write, “A smile of a woman on the street. It makes my day.”

Like Nirala, who died of multiple untold diseases in an unknown tenement in the intellectual apostle of the Hindi heartland, great scholar Nehru’s own discovery territory, in abject poverty and perpetual denial of fame and wealth and success, aware that this world does not deserve his greatness. They all said, Tagore was the greatest. Gandhi said it. Nirala probably once asked Gandhi, “What about Nirala?”

So why was Paul Nizan literally killed by Stalinism’s censorship; it was not because he said that failure is the only mark of success. It is because he first followed and then denied Stalinism. Don’t read Jean Paul Sartre’s beautiful foreword in that obscure work of greatness by Nizan: Aden Arabia. Don’t read Sartre’s foreword to Franz Fannon’sWretched of the Earth, the epic narrative of ‘primitive’ blacks sitting around a fire, the origin of the black, revolutionary epic: “After a few steps in the darkness you will see strangers gathered around a fire; come close, and listen, for they are talking of the destiny they will mete out to your trading-centres and to the hired soldiers who defend them. They will see you, perhaps, but they will go on talking among themselves, without even lowering their voices. This indifference strikes home: their fathers, shadowy creatures, your creatures, were but dead souls; you it was who allowed them glimpses of light, to you only did they dare speak, and you did not bother to reply to such zombies. Their sons ignore you; a fire warms them and sheds light around them, and you have not lit it. Now, at a respectful distance, it is you who will feel furtive, nightbound and perished with cold. Turn and turn about; in these shadows from whence a new dawn will break, it is you who are the zombies.”

Post Script: Between the daily media and twitter blitz of porn stars in sex-starved reality shows in sex starved India, Rakhi Sawant and Veena Mallick’s swayamwar, super dud R.One, and the guttery, shittery, fluttery, lottery Revolution 2020 of Chetan Bhagat, how many obits did you see of the two greatest writers of our times? Shrilal Shukla and Howard Zinn?

Dead: they are dead. They died between our eyes. I never met Zinn, but I met Shukla in Lucknow some years ago; he presided over a panel discussion in which I also spoke. His sardonic, authentic smile, his invisibility, and his infinite humility, always, compulsively concealed that he wrote that epic: Raag Darbari. He was as normal and earthy like a mud kuhllar in a roadside tea shop. It only said that here was a great writer who traveled his life in the manner of a simple, anonymous man; who knew how to tell a great story without strings, which touches not only grassroots hearts, sensibilities and latent humour, in the most desensitized thresholds, but also amazing, untouched outposts of nuanced, non-conformist literature. He changed the landscape of our minds and the political unconscious of Hindi and world literature for all times to come. Like Phanishwarnath Renu’s Maila Anchal, as relevant as ever in terms of the politics, aesthetics and sociology in the cowbelt. Every word Renu wrote, prophetically predicts the post-Mandal and tribal uprisings story in India, and beyond. Shukla died as anonymously and simply in Lucknow recently, as his humble life has been. Perhaps, with a spoofy smile. Not even a picture of his lovely smile was published in the papers.

As Albert Camus would write, “A smile of a woman on the street. It makes my day.”

Amit Sengupta started journalism when he was 19, even while he was working in the relief camps as a student of JNU after the State sponsored genocide of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984. Since then, he has been an independent president of the JNU Students' Union, writer, activist and editor, closely involved with multiple people's movements and conflict zones in contemporary India. He was Executive Editor, Hardnews magazine, South Asian partner of Le Monde Diplomatique, Paris. He has earlier worked as a senior editor and journalist with Tehelka, Outlook, The Hindustan Times, Asian Age, The Pioneer, The Economic Times and Financial Chronicle. Till recently he has been a professor at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi.

Be first to comment