In the novel form’s capacious chest of mysteries, one intriguing phenomenon is the attraction of so many novelists who call themselves realists to protagonists who are anything but. (Of course, they can be “realists” in different senses, but equally, sometimes they are not.) Like all paradoxes, this one too points to an important truth.
From Cervantes onwards, naïve protagonists in fiction, their hearts full of great dreams and noble ideals, believing that a more just world can be realised, often rudely schooled in worldly truths by the cynical, provide a point of view on human nature that eventually unsettles the reader just as much as their fictional milieu unsettles them. Of course, they may come across as purely comic if they, like Don Quixote, refuse to learn anything at all. But equally, should they learn to adapt themselves completely to their circumstances, we sense something tragic about their pragmatism, like that of a parrot that has made peace with living in a cage. And so their education has not been in vain, for even as these characters become more worldly-wise, we feel the need to defend or rescue exactly what they are abandoning. It is a good template for a story...I feel it myself as I write this schema out.
Something like this narrative arc – one says “something” because this 500-page novel is nevertheless only a fragment of a massive, seven-volume story, and much remains to be realized in the “future” of the story – appears in Girti Deevarein (Falling Walls) by Upendranath Ashk. Ashk was one of the leading lights of Hindi literature in the twentieth century, and remains, alongside Premchand and Yashpal, one of the realist Hindi novel’s holy trinity. The Girti Deevarein series was his great novelistic project: the story of five years in the life of a highly sensitive young man that he hoped would also become a portrait of the age.
Here is a writer, therefore, who is no hurry at all. (How was he to know that his first readers in English would be reading him decades later in a time when there is time for nothing, and especially not novels?) For three or four hundred pages, all we are given are the torments of the provincial young protagonist, Chetan, in the town of Jalandhar as he flaps, stumbles, falls, and gets up again, buffeted by the storms of family, education, livelihood, poverty, marriage – and his own questing self, which will not allow him to accept easy answers to his questions, even as it cannot reject the dictates of convention.
Brutalized by a belligerent, hard-drinking father who is nevertheless perfectly secure about his place in the world, Chetan knows he can never become the same kind of man. But has no sense of what kind of man to become instead. He needs time to grow into a place of independence, but meanwhile time is a rope steadily twisting tighter knots around him: a wife who does not represent what he wants in a woman, a job in a newspaper that bears no resemblance to what he seeks from work. He is tormented both by his feelings of towards women who cross his path – most notably his own sister-in-law, Neela – and by his inability to do anything about them. Not having a strong sense of self, he repeatedly places his trust in older men who seem to represent some kind of power or virtue. But each one of these engagements leads him only to a further revelation of “the duplicity of the age.”
Above him, another figure seems to proceed much more serenely: the narrator, building up in painstaking (and occasionally pointless) detail the surfaces and structures of lower middle-class life in undivided Punjab in the nineteen-thirties. We are in a universe of galis and mohallas, charpoys and turbans, thundering patriarchs, downcast mothers, the frames of karma and dharma, the Arya Samaj and the Congress party, a glass of milk before bed and one set of new clothes every year. Men prefer the company of men, women only open up to other women, and both sexes sublimate their unactable yearnings in story or song or silence. Late in the book, at a restaurant in Shimla, we learn that Chetan “tasted salad for the first time in his life” – a novel taste in a world where milk reigns over not just meals but metaphors, and the prevalent theory of parenting holds “that the curses of a mother and father are like drops of milk and ghee.”
Daisy Rockwell, Ashk’s greatly involved and touchingly partisan translator (she has also written a critical biography of the writer, and published a collection of his stories called Hats and Doctors), has elsewhere compared Ashk to Proust. The resemblance is certainly worth contemplating. Both writers wrote a seven-volume novel sequence that remained unfinished; the theme of In Search of Lost Time is also the development of a nervous and questing young man into an artist; and both protagonists return obsessively to the fevered climate of their childhoods.
But the fundamental difference between the two writers is that Proust’s story is told in the first person by the protagonist, who by the force and beauty and peculiarity of his obsessions succeeds in converting us to his poetic vision of reality, while Ashk’s narrator shows us Chetan from the outside as the prisoner of his circumstances, and reality in Ashk’s world remains stubbornly prosaic and mean. The workings of memory are central to the narrative method of both writers. But the dozens of flashbacks into Chetan’s childhood in Girti Deevarein reveal not just of a character who seeks refuge from his own present, but also a writer wrestling with his own rather rudimentary technique and generating more mass than meaning.
About a hundred pages from the end, though, the writing suddenly takes wing, and Chetan’s difficulties with the world suddenly begin to be marked by insight rather than incoherence. Glimmering observations begin to appear about the relationship between art and life, self and society, religion and morality. Trying, for instance, to compare the boy Chetan’s genuine love of nature with the adult Chetan’s equally genuine love of art, the narrator observes that “with art, he found what he couldn’t attain in nature: self-expression” and that “Art is really the daughter of nature.”
The story builds up to a devastating denouement. After having meditated for long upon his discontents, Chetan decides that he is at fault for the emotional distance between him and his wife. He resolves to make a genuine effort to scale the wall of gender difference so deeply built into marriage by tradition, and make his wife not his slave but his friend.
Just then, though, comes the news that Neela, his sister-in-law, is about to be married off at a very young age. And Chetan remembers that it was he himself who, having nearly committed a misdemeanour with Neela, had advised her father to have her married off and in so doing, congratulated himself on his own powers of restraint.
Now, attending the wedding, he sees that the girl is being married off to a well-off, well-over-the -hill widower. Yearning for a genuine soulmate himself, he has just ensured that another human being will forever be denied one. Yet again Chetan feels hapless, but there is a difference: he feels hapless for the sake of someone else. And in the same breath he ceases to lie to himself.
The naked truth appeared before him. He was in love with Neela. Despite a year and a half of married life, he loved her….Intelligence, religion, morality, society, marriage – all those walls which in reality had kept his desire hidden from him had fallen in his imagination.Watching these walls fall so dramatically, one moves from asking more of Ashk to asking for more Ashk.