Lifestyle Books and Art 28 Aug 2021 Book Review | Trippy ...

Book Review | Trippy reverie on Stalinism, sexism, Delhi and death of the soul

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | PRASENJIT CHOWDHURY
Published Aug 29, 2021, 1:09 am IST
Updated Aug 29, 2021, 1:09 am IST
It is also an account of how group rights come to impinge on individual freedoms
Cover Page of 'One Love, and the Many Lives of Osip B' by C.P. Surendran . (Twitter)
 Cover Page of 'One Love, and the Many Lives of Osip B' by C.P. Surendran . (Twitter)

If there is a single theme that dominates all my writings, all my obsessions, it is that of memory —because I fear forgetfulness as much as hatred and death,’ wrote Elie Wiesel in her book From the Kingdom of Memory (Summit, 1990), “for memory is a blessing: it creates bonds rather than destroys them. Bonds between present and past, between individuals and groups.” Reading One Love, and the Many Lives of Osip B, a stark piece of dystopian fiction by poet-novelist C.P. Surendran, one learns how memory, or the loss of it, helps in the process of myth-making in a contemporary India, and how narratives of power and powerlessness shape human destiny. It is also an account of how group rights come to impinge on individual freedoms and how a painful memory riddled with guilt gets blurred by amnesia.

Niranjan Menon, a Stalinist ideologue who, we’re casually told, was “a mass killer in his own right in his younger days, a champion of plots and purges; a proper Vohzd, a leader”, now a nonagenarian, is suffering from a deep amnesia. His first-person encounter with the horrors of Stalinism following a fated trip to the Soviet Union in 1961, benumbed him when he returned to India. The hallucinatory world of the old man continues to cast a long shadow on his adopted grandson, Osip B — the Stephen Dedalus of the tale under review — even though he runs away to Kasauli, to study at St George’s, a boarding school that will be his nemesis. Here he falls desperately in love with his English teacher, Elizabeth Hill, a British woman. “The first time she entered the classroom at the beginning of the term, she was dressed in a green cotton sari and matching blouse. ‘Hello,’ she had said. ‘Hello,’ we sang like a choir. All the 23 boys in the class had the same carnal thought. Hormones jammed the air.” Like the 15-year-old psychotic hero on the run in Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, a novel Elizabeth loves, Osip gets gradually embroiled in a relationship from which there is no easy return.

 

From his grandfather’s lair at roan-soaked Thrissur, to the balmy Kasauli, to the grimy Delhi, to the primness of Oxford in search of his fugitive love and back again to Delhi, Osip’s fitful journey is never happy. The moral questions confront him more when he, along with his fast friend Anand, makes a plan to exhume (Stalin’s exhumation never goes out of sight of which Osip’s grandfather was a witness during his Soviet trip) the corpse of the school priest to extort seed money from the priest’s son. The consequences of this heinous sin, added to his affair with Elizabeth who in her turn loves Kris, who happens to be the brother of Osip’s adopted  grandfather, qualifies him to be a man beyond any scope of redemption. If Osip’s grandfather is akin to Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment who is an ideological murderer with little sense of sin, Osip like the nihilist Svidrigailov, though is not as cheerful as Iago and Edmund, desires no redemption either.

 

Osip is condemned to a world governed by a totalitarianism, both real and imagined, that had earlier numbed his grandfather into a perpetual silence and now compromises Osip into a tame domesticity. A mobocratic India is populated by groups, the Right and the Left, cow vigilantes and the cow eaters, the misogynists and misandrists, the nationalists and the ant-nationals, victors and victims and by almost all possible polarities. “Faizal Rashid, you poor worm,” Avlok Dutta, a chest-thumping, blood-curdling nationalist posing as a TV anchor is seen to thunder on: “I will expose you today.” India’s dark underbelly gets exposed when Osip recounts the lynching of Idris’ father on charges of dealing in beef trade: “There were 16 missed calls from his father, 16 stabs to the heart.” The assailants chased his father down a dead-end alley with sticks and stones in hand, while Idris was watching a movie, at the Globe, in Daryaganj in Delhi. A dismissed Uber driver seeks to settle scores with Osip by literally castrating him, and threatening to rape Elizabeth.  

 

It is this Delhi that sometimes looks like Magnitogorsk, a massive barrack socialist city of steel built in the Urals next to the iron ore mountains, built in the 1930s to fulfil Stalin’s plan to transform the predominantly agrarian nation into a “country of metal”, where barracks stood at the foot of the ominous “Magnetic Mountain”. Forced labour recruited from the gulag or dispossessed peasants who were kicked off their farms during Stalin's dekulakisation and collectivisation movements, fed into the project. If the metaphor for Stalinism does get extended, history must not gloss over the fact that the Central Vista in Delhi, once built, has risen over a spectre of wholesale death and destruction of human lives.  With official figures fudged, the circumstances that led to the deaths of lakhs of uncounted Indians will never come to light, buried alive as they were in a tomb of obfuscation and neglect – built not of marble and sandstone – but of a stony heart. The metaphor for Stalinism haunts today’s India.

 

The devil lies in answers to what happens to Osip’s writer-friend Arjun Bedi, disintegrating under sexual harassment charges, to Anand, Osip’s partner-in-crime-turned-godman-in-the-making, to Elizabeth finally leaving Osip, who dies a metaphorical death like his namesake Osip Mandelstam did, the paranoid poet dying of tropical cold and starvation in the white wilderness of Siberia of Stalin’s excesses. Osip’s predicament is that of a woman who, as in Adrienne Rich’s poem Living in Sin, upon entering a life full of hope and promises with her lover, is whetted into conformity. Osip’s castrated soul stands absolutely powerless in the end as the emasculated media he works for a living. The death of the soul, as the novelist seeks to remind us, is worse than the death of the body. “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” Milan Kundera so memorably wrote, and the book stands as an eloquent testimony to this apothegm.

 

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