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Man reading in Hindu scriptures Vedas and Upanishads - Lake Begnas - Nepal

Playing with the world

Essay | 13 minute read
Anjali Joseph sees realism subverted in the Assamese language, Hokusai's carp and EM Forster's unfortunate Gerald. But how real is reality, anyway?

In 2014, I moved to Guwahati, the capital city of Assam. I’m Indian, but until the previous year, all the time I’d spent in my own country had been in the west – in Bombay, or Pune, where my parents live. The east is different – even more so the ‘northeast’, as the seven states hanging onto the rest of the country by a thin corridor of land popularly known as the chicken neck are dubbed.

People move to Bangalore, to Bombay, to Delhi. People don’t, unless prompted by marriage or a transferable job, move to Assam. I found a flat in Uzan Bazar, the oldest residential area of Guwahati. (‘Are you a terrorist?’ enquired my landlord, only partly facetiously. To explain my eccentricity, I gave him a copy of my first novel, which he said he fell asleep while reading.)

I didn’t speak Assamese, but wanted to learn. Three times a week, I made my way to Zoo Road, where Dimpi Deka, a schoolteacher, gave tuition. The pupil who usually preceded me was a little boy of about seven. He sat mutinously writing out words in Hindi or English, his cheek mashed against his hand. Then it was my turn. Dimpi and I worked our way through a ‘teach yourself Assamese’ book I’d found, and then through various books in Assamese.

Assamese is a beautiful and elliptical language. After a while of studying, I realised that being able to say what you mean in Assamese hardly means you can speak it. That is not how Assamese is used. Most people say something indirectly related to what they mean; the person they are talking to then responds by saying something indirectly related to the first thing. Especially in upper Assam, north and west of Guwahati, the language is full of proverbs, and figures of speech.

In a volume of prize-winning stories that Dimpi and I read together, there was one by Lakshminath Bezbaruah, who was alive at about the same time as James Joyce. Although he’s widely acknowledged as the greatest Assamese writer, he lived most of his life outside Assam. He went to Calcutta to study at Presidency College, then married the poet Rabindranath Tagore’s niece. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Assam was going through great change. It had always been a separate kingdom, not quite considered a part of India. For six hundred years it was ruled by the Ahoms, a dynasty who came to Assam from southwest China. The final Ahom king in the nineteenth century made an alliance with the Burmese, who then invaded Assam; the king had to turn to the East India Company for help. Assam became part of British India. The British brought in Bengali clerks to help them administer. The Bengalis felt that Assamese was merely a dialect of their own language, and so for a few decades the Assamese had to suffer the indignity of having their children educated in the medium of a foreign language.

Maybe it was partly because of his marriage to a Bengali that Lakshminath Bezbaruah lived outside Assam for most of his life. Or maybe, and I suspect this too is true, the way to be most at home in Assam is not to live there.

Moidam or tomb of Ahom king, Charaideo, Sivasagar, Assam – photo by Anjali Joseph

The Lakshminath Bezbaruah story, ‘Patmugi’, begins simply. An English translation of the story by Sunil Kumar Barthakur is available online. The narrator, a middle-aged man, describes his community and his village – they are potters, lower caste people.

‘We used to make earthenwares for the grown ups and clay toys for the young ones. We sold them in the bazaar and from door to door and managed to squeeze out a living from that craft. Of late, our business came to a standstill. All kinds of foreign goods have flooded our land. The imported toys have driven out our clay rattles, legged dishes and small limepots from the market. Utensils of iron and aluminium and China wares have banished our earthenwares to the jungle. Knowing no better, we gave up the profession of our ancestors. We have taken to agriculture with what little land that has come down to us from our fathers and grandfathers.’

The narrator’s neighbour is a widow, and her daughter, Patmugi (which by the way means ‘beautiful’ in Assamese) is a beautiful young woman. A Brahmin boy from another village sees Patmugi, falls in love with her, and after convincing her village elders to allow it, the couple marry and live with her mother happily for a year. Then the husband disappears. Patmugi is distraught, but the narrator finds the husband – he has gone back to his village, undergone purification rituals, and married a girl of his own caste. Patmugi decides to seek legal redress. She and her mother and the narrator, whom she calls Uncle, set off for the old capital at Rangpur. The journey is long and Patmugi is downcast. She spots an outenga tree and asks the narrator to climb up and pick some ripe fruit to refresh them. Although it’s midday, and hot, the narrator climbs the tree. But a strange thing happens when he is handing down the fruit. He looks at Patmugi’s upturned face and is struck by her beauty. For a moment he can’t move. Patmugi seems to be aware of what is happening; she laughs and asks if he is all right. They carry on walking, but the narrator is confused and horrified by what has happened. He has known Patmugi since she was born; his daughter is the same age as her, and he has never felt attracted to Patmugi before.

When they reach the lawyer’s office, first Patmugi and her mother hand over their savings to the lawyer, who tells them the case will be difficult. As they are about to leave, her hand on the door, she tells the lawyer she has changed her mind. She says she has already had ‘proofs of the betrayal, the cruelty, and the weakness of the male sex’, and leaves the office. Patmugi, her mother and the narrator return home without comment. Later, she comes to see the narrator and tells him, ‘Uncle, please forgive me. A man does not and cannot fully understand a woman’s character. They say, even the Gods do not. The only ambition of a woman is to get a man fully under her control. What kind of a person that man may be does not matter much. During the last few days I saw a lot and learned a lot of things. I do not want any more of that vile Brahmin. All the same, I do not like to do him any harm. God is truth and truth alone is God.’ Quoting the great Assamese religious reformer of the sixteenth century, Xonkordeb, she says that the only true worship is to see God in all beings, and that she has decided to follow Gandhi and work for the nation.

The narrator writes down these events, and sends the piece to a writer friend, who advises him it’s no story at all – ‘If you call it a short story then the humdrum occurrences at your home and mine will also be stories.’ But the narrator does go ahead and publish it, making a remark about how any elevation the story offers is of the height of a string bag instead of a palanquin, so that a reader won’t have far to fall.

When I was thinking about the story again it became apparent to me that it’s playing with tropes of superstition and ghost stories in Assamese culture – Patmugi’s mother herself remarks to the narrator, offhand, that it’s kind of him to climb the outenga tree as it’s the sort of tree in which bad spirits usually live. This is a common superstition in India, so it’s not much more than a remark about walking under ladders. But actually what has happened to the narrator – which Patmugi alludes to, in an unstated way – is a form of enchantment, parallel with that worked on the reader by the writer. Patmugi rewrites the rules of the story for an instant to change her role from downtrodden woman to (paradigmatically) that of a goddess, able to seduce anyone and alter the rules of manifest reality. She drops the seduction, because she sees the narrator as a family member rather than a potential partner. But in the same way, the story is about creative power – it stretches out the rules of realism a little. This is much more subtle than what is termed magic realism – rather than including the fantastical or fabulous as an everyday element, it is looking at the very spring of creative work, and suggesting that the source of life itself may not be very different. The way the narrative teases the conventions of realism brings about a slight elasticity in how the reader experiences her own faith in what are believed to be the laws of the physical world. It’s exactly this slight stretching and subsequent relaxation of the usual belief in cause and effect that I have been thinking about while writing the novel I’ve just completed, about the almost accidental seduction of a thirty-something British Asian man by an Assamese woman, and their encounters with a light bulb that has extraordinary properties.

I grew up in a very rational, post-Enlightenment environment. Unusually in an Indian family, as a child I never saw any of my relatives perform a religious ritual. My father’s family, south Indian Christians, go to church, but growing up in Bombay around my mother’s Hindu family, I only saw the cultural elements of festivals. People in my family would have rolled their eyes at the mention of astrology, ‘energies’, or the astral body. Yet these are the ideas I became interested in later on – and I was always interested in magic as a child, though I came to believe with regret that it would not arrive in my life. I did GCSEs in Physics and the other sciences in England, but the first time I encountered a system of describing existence that made intuitive sense to me was when, training to teach yoga at an ashram in the mountains in India, I studied Vedic theories of how the world is made up and the philosophy found in the Upanishads, sections found at the end of the Vedas (hence, Ved-anta, end of the Vedas). I believe in the atom about as much as I believe in the astral plane (I haven’t seen either, and anyway, the two don’t contradict each other), but the second idea gets me further.

Making use of monsoon flood waters from the Brahmaputra, Rajaduar, North Guwahati – photo by Anjali Joseph

What is reality? The answer would seem to have something to do with an idea of realism in fiction. Recently I was re-reading E. M. Forster’s The Longest Journey. I read and loved the book at fourteen. One of the things I liked in it then was a discussion early on between a group of friends about reality. In fact – they are talking about Bishop Berkeley’s concept of idealism, that a thing only exists when it is seen. I love Berkeley, probably because something of how he represents reality feels right to me. In the Sixth Form of the strange Catholic comprehensive I went to, our philosophy teacher summed up the empiricist philosopher David Hume’s attitude to miracles: ‘If his net don’t catch it, it ain’t fish.’ Isn’t that true of all systems that account for reality?

This time around, reading The Longest Journey, I was mesmerised by the following two sentences in which Forster kills off a character who until then has been offensively healthy (in contrast to Ricky, the protagonist, who has a limp and is considered rather delicate): ‘Gerald died that afternoon. He was broken up in the football match.’ Eh? Gerald was annoyingly hale before he went to the match. What is ‘broken up’? (The OED, unusually, doesn’t enlighten me.) In the space of a page and a half, Gerald – who, remember, went to the football match perfectly healthy – has been left in the pavilion. No one calls a doctor, because, why bother? The rector comes to see him. His fiancée sees him. He dies. She cycles home. Then comes the scene Forster is actually interested in: between Ricky and Gerald’s fiancée. Fair enough; I wasn’t interested in Gerald either. But, in the framework of what appears to be a realist novel, it’s fascinating that Forster makes such a point of doing away with Gerald so laconically. He could have found another way of ridding himself of Gerald, but this is flagrant. Let’s not forget, this is the man who gave a series of lectures on how novels work, later published as Aspects of the Novel. Nonetheless, Gerald, he seems to shrug, blah blah. And perhaps by extension, realism, blah blah.

Two years ago, when I had just moved back from Assam and was living in a friend’s flat in London, I went to see the Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum. The Japanese print makers were all interested in the ‘floating world’, their term for what Hindus and Buddhists call maya. In Vedanta, maya is phenomenal reality, sometimes mistranslated as illusion. It’s not illusion, in the sense that it’s clearly there; but it’s not the true reality, the source of things (which has various names, slightly pointlessly: the Universal Energy Field, as a book on healing calls it; Brahman; God). One print stopped me: a waterfall, with enormous carp bursting out of the falling stream. The carp are absurdly huge, and seem to leer at the viewer. And the water is oddly massive, as though it were a solid object, not fluid. I bought a postcard of the picture and took it home. After a while, it struck me what was going on. Hokusai could draw, just as much as Forster could write. But while figurative visual art is usually considered to be a painting of or about what is depicted – so this would have been a picture of the waterfall, and the carp – they weren’t the subject of the print. What was actually being shown on the strangely object-like water was light. And the carp seemed to be tipping me the wink: Oh, so you thought you knew how things looked?

The standard view of ourselves and how we interact with the world of objects, nature and weather, is that ‘When a person perceives something, he receives (or better, gathers) information about the world’, as the philosopher Gareth Evans notes in The Varieties of Reference. The view in some strains of Hindu philosophy is different – the only reality is Brahman or universal energy, and everything else is just projected form thinking it exists. In Vedanta, sometimes there can be a severe attitude to the manifest world (it’s not real, don’t think about it). In tantra, another set of approaches in Hindu philosophy, the universal energy itself is referred to as Devi or goddess, and the correct way to deal with the manifest world is neither to buy into it as real, nor to turn away from it, but to play with it. The result is lightness. What, then, if the true subject of the novel is not events, or people moving through space, acting on the world, being acted on by the world – but rather a dramatisation of creative energy, an invitation to play (while engaging with the world generated by the writer) that continues even when the last page has been turned?