Reading, in fits and bursts over the last month, Sasthi Brata's My God Died Young, a flaming autobiographical work in English first published in 1968, I judge it to be six parts solid, worthy, caustic writing to three parts romantic angst and egotistical flailing (consider the very title of his book) to one part flab. The best parts are very powerful, but that even when Brata is on less solid ground he sometimes searches out his own egotism and immaturity. "I wrote this book to try and understand myself," he says at the beginning (he was not even thirty when he wrote it), and autobiography, he knows, "demands honesty". One feels that the two sides of Brata are somehow intertwined, and that we must learn to take the good with the bad. Nearly four decades after it was first published, there is still something for the contemporary reader in Brata's journey towards self-understanding. If his ideas and language have dated slightly, the kinds of pressures and predicaments he describes have not - he still speaks to our times.
Brata was born in 1939, the youngest child of a prosperous Bengali business family. A late and probably unexpected arrival, he "was not awaited with any sense of excitement" at his birth, and wonders if this has anything to do with his lifelong attitude "of strained resentment with the world". A spoilt child, doted upon by his mother, he received a traditional Brahminical upbringing, strewn with constraints, boundaries and taboos, and an education at a stern Catholic school that imbued in him feelings of guilt at any kind of perceived transgression, such as his awakening sexuality (He rightly remarks of this type of complacent writhing moralizing Christianity, still commonly found in Indian convent schools, "Adolescence is the most impressionable period of life. We were taught values which were obviously perverse at a time when we were defenceless.").
"Thanks to the twin pressures of a Brahmin home and a nonconformist upbringing," Brata notes, "most of the time I move around in the steel braces of subconscious inhibitions." Most Indians will be conversant with this feeling. Indeed, one of the arguments advanced by Brata's book is the extent to which our adult lives are in thrall to conceptions and attitudes formed in childhood. University at Presidency College in Kolkata, and a love of debating, freed him somewhat of these shackles. He studied science, flirted with fashionable Marxist ideas, believed he was a young genius and prophet, fell in love, agonised about religion, and contemplated his place in the world. Later, unhappy in enclosed, stratified India, he moved West, and decided to pursue a path as a writer. Everywhere he found that obstacles to his dreams lay not just in the conventions of society and the shape of his personal destiny - as some people like to believe - but also in something marshy and tortured in his own nature, even more generally human nature.
Brata's confessional language has a powerfully persuasive air. " "I hated my family and since I was a part of them, I hated myself too." "My outward actions were frenzied and daring because the inner man was so tame and ordinary." "Even the most genuine emotion [I felt] was centripetal, tending towards myself in the centre, with the other person as an incidental circumference. I don't believe I had any real feelings. I sometimes wonder if I do now." "I move about in a thick viscous cloud, always looking over my shoulder to see if anyone is watching." "I was the shadow of a shadow. It is always hard to build a life on such foundations."
Many readers will perceive that is not that some of Brata's feelings, particularly about his pervasive egotism, denote an abnormal man, but rather that most people manage to go through life without realising these things. The effect of Brata's work, even its more extreme formulations, is to point us towards greater self-knowledge. As when he observes, thinking about the failure of his relationship with a girl he loved deeply and in particular about his callous and hurtful behaviour towards her:
'Love' is an exposition of personality, essentially against the grain of ordinary experience. To be viable, we have to conceal. Sophistication, manners, tact, in a word all the qualifications of civilized living, insist on our ability to appear different from what we really are. To love someone else, we have to reverse the processes of our conditioning. We have to be naked, giving, non self-possessed. This is hard. There must always be a fight. Few people win. At best it is an uneasy truce, with the ego forever ready to stage an unexpected ambush.
Some of Brata's phrases - fusty Britishisms, and curious analogies to English examples rather than native ones of the kind one can still find in, say, a professor of English in Kolkata - are a mark of his time and place and his education. The old midwife who delivered him "looked as close to the Witches in Macbeth as Shakespeare could have imagined them to be." How could Brata know how Shakespeare had imagined his witches? "A great gulf had come between [my father and me] and not even a risen Lazarus could hope to bring us together again." Lazarus? Even if he did manage to rise, it is hard to imagine him doing so to reunite a Bengali youth and his father.
But a great many of these pages bear the strong stamp of Brata's personality and experience - it is not just his thoughts that are of interest, but also the power of his language (this at a time when, I think, there was no great respect anywhere for Indian writing in English). "The years of childhood are slow and timid; the transition to youth comes in a sudden rush." On Kolkata's College Street: "Bookshops cling like running sores all along its sides; bazaar notes, made-easies, a-pass-in-half-an-hour, sure-predictions, stare at the passer-by from the shelves." The only poor word in that exciting sentence is "stare".
Brata's restlessness and dissatisfaction are infectious. "I believe there is a basic contradiction," he writes of his unwillingness to live in India, "between the premises of Indian society and the kind in which I wish to live." That is a contradiction which - in an age of matter-of-fact corruption and easy bad faith, intellectual sterility, and petty moral censoriousness to go with our traditional smugness and hypocrisy, our willingness to abide in self-made prisons - a great many Indians are feeling as, in our opening-out world, we all become more and more different from each other. Brata is unembarrassed about writing a sentence like, "How [does] Man achieve dignity other than by asserting the freedom of his will?" No contemporary writer would capitalise that word 'man' unless he was being ironic.
Brata can be pleasurably caustic. "I am often reminded of the 'great Indian heritage' and of 'an Indian sensibility'. I am aware some people have made professions of exploiting these myths….Such a vision possibly exists. It does not consist in the mere fact of destitution, hunger, famine, and superstition." Or, of his decision to move West, "It is the obsequious, cringing facet of Indian personality that I despise. Hosts of explanations are given for this aspect of Indian character. But I have only one life to live. I would rather have an 'essay in failure' on my epitaph than die in the comfortable niche of mediocrity."
My God Died Young culminates in a beautifully realised scene in which Brata, having returned to India for a visit, is persuaded by his parents to "view" a potential bride. Reluctant but also curious, he submits to all the rituals of the arranged-marriage experience, driving to the would-be bride's home with his parents, listening patiently to her father reeling off a list of her achievements, scrutinising and being scrutinised by the gathered women of the girl's family. He asks the shy, veiled girl a couple of questions in front of the entire company, and hears her sing a song at his mother's request. Despite his reservations he is impressed with, even entranced by, the girl. At the same time the curious scene in which he is the chief player arouses in him a strange horror and repulsion expressed in these beautiful sentences that simultaneously evoke both a burgeoning, thriving life and and a kind of moral blindness:
The girl sat there like a Goddess. And for a moment I felt that no one but a Goddess could have her forbearance, her beauty, the sweet maddening melody of her voice. Restively, my eyes swung round to her, so calm, so removed, so enchantingly graceful like the swift green curves of spring. Then over the rest of those hard deadening faces, severe and resolute, presiding over the closing cries of an auction mart.My God Died Young is a pensive, cranky book - the kind of work that results when the narrator is both impatient with the hypocrisy of the world and despairing of himself. Readers may find in it echoes of Naipaul or Nirad Chaudhuri - like them, Brata is always asking the question: "Why do we live in this way and not in any other?". There must be more writers like Brata in other Indian languages, but even so he remains the kind of discontented, questioning figure of whom we do not have enough - it seems clear to me we do not have enough.
Other posts on Indian writers of splendid English prose: Ramachandra Guha, Attia Hosain, Pankaj Mishra, Altaf Tyrewala, Siddharth Chowdhury and Minoo Masani.