To be published in a Volume on INDIAN DIASPORIC WRITERS,  by Pencraft International, New Delhi, India TALES FROM AN INNER DIASPORA
Edited by Prof. A.N. Dwivedi of Allahabad University, INDIA, currently working as a Prof. and Chairman of English Dept, at Taiz University, YEMEN



Escape from oneself leads to death when the loss of a homeland – whether it be in the form of a lover, a happy childhood, an ideal – is so painful as to be annihilating. Vikram Chandra often writes about this pain and how it can become an experience involving all of one’s being and how, if one survives, contemplation of one’s loss may liberate one from a force that dominates internally more violently than any external force ever could.  There is an emptiness that attracts the soul, and if one does not allow oneself to be swallowed, then one can feel life moving on beyond control and no longer contained by one’s own imagination.  The value of the word, then, is based only upon the game of telling; the tale grows like a twining plant, and the author does not claim to tell the truth but only to create a feeling of truthfulness.  The author’s work here has a status intimately linked to that of the psychoanalyst, for this search and these words may seize an opportunity for transformation based only upon the inner strength of expression.




It may be difficult, too, for many of us, to abandon the belief that there is an instinct towards perfection at work in human beings, which has brought them to their present high level of intellectual achievement and ethical sublimation and which may be expected to watch over their development into supermen.  I have no faith, however, in the existence of any such internal instinct and I cannot see how this benevolent illusion is to be preserved.  The present development of human beings requires, as it seems to me, no different explanation from that of animals: What appears in a minority of human individuals as an untiring impulsion towards further perfection can easily be understood as a result of the instinctual repression upon which is based all that is most precious in human civilization.  The repressed instinct never ceases to strive for complete satisfaction, which would consist in the repetition of a primary experience of satisfaction.  No substitutive or reactive formations and no sublimations will suffice to remove the repressed instinct’s persisting tension; and it is the difference in amount between the pleasure of satisfaction which is demanded and that which is actually achieved that provides the driving factor which will permit of no halting at any position attained, but, in the poet’s words, ‘ungebandigt immer vorwarts dringt’.  The backward path that leads to complete satisfaction is as a rule obstructed by the resistances which maintain the repressions.  So there is no alternative but to advance in the direction in which growth is still free – though with no prospect of bringing the process to a conclusion or of being able to reach the goal. (Freud, 1920, pp. 50-51)


This extract from Freud, which more than any other positions what was new about psychoanalysis, talks about sublimation.  Sublimation is that process of transformation that makes artistic expression and scientific research possible.  We start with this passage because it suggests how research may be disquieting – it is as if Freud were leaning out over the abyss, unable to stop himself from doing so, but hoping not to fall and to learn something new that he can then relate.  It should be remembered that according to Freud poets are the first and best of psychologists.  But what does this mean? Why do Freud’s writings on artists and their works contain anticipations of some of his fundamental theories? Why did the founder of psychoanalysis – in the sense both of the treatment of the sufferer and of a method for investigating human culture – give names to unconscious forms taken not from medical terms but from mythical figures like Oedipus or Narcissus? What is the meaning of the fact that his final work, his spiritual testament, focuses on Moses, the key figure of Jewish history? In this work Freud examines the reasons for the Diaspora and anti-Semitism, from its earliest forms to the Nazi persecution that obliged him to leave Vienna to spend his final days in England.    

His questions and hypotheses range over the whole of Western culture, and the encounter with the great Oriental cultures now facing us does not appear to make Freud seem overly pessimistic regarding the possibility of our recovery from the violence with which we kill ourselves and the madness that puts at risk the very existence of the human race.   

Horror at the death camps, at the millions of soldiers dead, at the civilians killed by bombing, led to the Nuremberg trials, where Nazism and the Nazis were condemned and German and Italian racist fury treated as an episode of madness alien to Western culture and as a sickness to be rooted out.  Rather, totalitarianism, in all the innumerable forms with which it has manifested itself and with which it continues to manifest itself, is an extreme yet constant manifestation of something belonging to our culture and to humankind itself.    

Collective contemporary tragedies such as fundamentalist terrorism or the war for democracy, like our inability to stem their destructive forces, are no different from those of the past.

We see repeated on an ever larger and more frequent scale the falling away of the illusion that it is possible to achieve a balance capable of protecting us and our culture from the bloodbaths and atrocities punctuating history.

We may consider Die Traumdeutung (1900) as the moment in which psychoanalysis was born; we should, perhaps, think of humankind more as a dreaming animal than as a political animal.  In the night, in the powerlessness that comes upon as we sleep, whilst our eyes move as if we were watching a film on a screen, the mind is carrying out a process that uses only a memory of reality deformed by the designs of the unconscious.  The same process is carried out during our waking hours, but it is seen only in such common events as Freudian slips.  In the century that witnessed the collapse of the illusion of universal peace that had been generated by Humanism and the Renaissance, in the century of the Baroque, the motif of life as a dream is fully articulated.  We need only think of the title of Calderón de la Barca’s play, La vida es sueño, or Prospero’s oft-quoted speech in The Tempest: we are such stuff as dreams are made on.  We look upon contemporary fundamentalism in all its forms as the violent expression of a need to invent a cultural identity having a more solid form than the rather unheimlich one of our dreams, a need analogous to that of reinforcing an overly fragile, almost inconsistent, identity found in those on the threshold of psychosis.   

What allows us to tolerate our perception and comprehension of the fragility of our individual and cultural identity?

This question brings us back to our first one, and we may formulate a hypothesis: does an understanding of the human condition come to poets (and scientists like Freud) through a capacity to tolerate this fragility without going mad?


We may consider a diaspora as one of the functions through which an identity constitutes itself.  In order for a people to exist, it has not only to tell itself a story but also to affirm that the story of its origins, of the justness of its laws, of its right to occupy a land and build cities there, is absolutely true.  This story has to occupy the apex of a pyramid made up of all stories, past, present and future.  We need not give examples: everyone can find them in their own cultures and those cultures they know.  It is not difficult to recognize that the Great Stories that legitimize the existence of a people and derive from a historical event or religious revelation have the same structure as fairy tales or myths.  Nor is it difficult to observe that their transformation in absolute truth is a violent process requiring many victims.  However, the need to live with the support of a legitimization of one’s identity that guarantees the right to be superior to other human beings, to exploit them and dominate them and even to kill and massacre them, seems to impose itself with a force so great that any description of the imaginary or mythical reality of collective or individual superiority can in comparison only seem so weak as to be powerless.  

The drive towards repetition, theorized by Freud as Thanatos, opposite and complementary to Eros, the drive that favours life and fertility, is expressed in our total blindness to recent and ancient history, as well as in our refusal to recognize what the media show us: human beings, simultaneously similar and diverse, affirm their right to kill each other in the name of opposing divine legitimizations, each of which has equal myth value and is equally lacking in objective value.  Their expression and success depend only on violence and the force driving them forwards.  How can we not be scandalized when we see a debate on television in which a representative of Israel traces the right of his nation to fight against Palestine back to a divine mandate whilst the Palestinians deny Israel’s right to exist based upon the fact that they inhabited that land?   


I wanted to ask: will you kill me Rajesh? Will you kill my Muslim mother and my Muslim father? Will you take their land then, our needle-point of land into this wilderness? Will you live happily in it then? Could you? Tell me, tell me, I said. Tell me. (Chandra 1997, p. 219)


Iqbal will never meet his lover again in this story, nor be able to ask him this question.  What allows us to love or hate, to help people through life or kill them? The mythic truths that a power structure has made absolute, and continues to make absolute, supplies its subjects with a reassuring answer: we – unlike the others, the unbelievers – work for goodness and justice, and this implies the elimination of those who contest our hegemony.

For those who do not believe that one myth is more firmly rooted in reality than another or that one people has more rights than another, this question continues to resonate and go unanswered.  To continue asking it, to bear the unbearable insignificance, perhaps means experiencing the feelings of Iqbal at the end of his story as he looks at the picture of Rajesh, his lost lover, hanging on the wall of his room:


Alone, I'll look for the painting in the dim shifting light. Now I'll see only a glimmering in the dark, a white that comes out of the shadow. I'll know that Rajesh is not in the lines, that the body is not in the colour. But there is that colour that moves through the body, rang ek sharir ka. There is that glow. I know what it is. It is the absence in my heart. (Chandra 1997, pp. 257-258)


The power structures built up around a myth that claims to be not just one story amongst many but a revealed truth above and beyond any other human story hide an absence in the individual’s heart that is also an absence in his culture’s heart.  Poets are the first and best of psychologists because they live on the edge of this absence in the heart, intoxicate themselves with the lack of any definitive answers, and sing a mourning song for their exile from any system offering certainties.  Freud’s affirmation that poets are the first and best of psychologists may be restated thus: the only people who can understand their fragility and that of others are those who can tolerate the emptiness that opens up when the question is asked: What is a human being? What is his destiny? What is the meaning of his existence?  In this sense, Freud is very close to the poets.  The psychoanalyst’s work is similar to that of a doctor; he takes care of people who, session by session, hope to improve their lives by loosening the slipknot of their pathologies.  It is work that is anything but simple, but this is not the place to discuss that.  When psychoanalysts speak of things not directly involving their work and talk of literature, they are not curing a patient, but saying things that may easily call down the wrath of literary critics, who accuse them of making thought-provoking foundationless affirmations.  Nor would their position change were they to reach a level of competence in the study of literature equal to that of professional critics.  This is because what appears as ‘incompetence’ indicates their lack of legitimization outside of their practice or the psychoanalytic association to which they belong: in other words, they can allude to the truth but not state it, describing its echoes but not fixing it.  The psychoanalyst who talks of literature brings to it a toolkit more like that of a novelist or poet, and in no way resembles the literary critic or historian.  All he has is the force of his words, which may be creative, interesting and stimulating but are not words suitable for fixing certainties.  In the essay that stands as his testament, Moses and Monotheism, (1934-1938), Freud says that his work may be described as a historical novel.  It is without any value as a description of reality, or rather, its value as a description of reality is indeterminable.  Yet can the reality value of any single individual or of any given culture be anything other than indeterminable?    

That which escapes our absolute determination and remains foreign to it is a threat, but at the same time has a flavour of truth about it that even power itself seems to need.  The protagonist of Sacred Games first sees the light of day in the short-story collection that Chandra published after his first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain.  In the story ‘Kama’, collected in Love and Longing in Bombay, Sartaj, the Sikh police inspector, receives a visit from his wife, who wants to divorce him in order to marry another man.  The attraction they still feel makes them finish in each other’s arms, and as they make love Sartaj recovers the luminous certainty deriving from their union:


His fingers dabbed and stroked through the folds and in the plump fluttering confusion there was time and its thousand and one tales, first flirtation, vanilla ice-cream eaten dripping from her fingers, and a Congress election poster outside the restaurant window while they quarrelled  and he clung to none of them, they drifted and vanished his tongue moved and his lips and his fingers under her bottom, and then he heard her rising cry, and he knew she had her right index finger in her mouth, biting. (Chandra 1997, p. 124.  Italics in original)



One thousand and one tales, one thousand and one nights: in Chandra’a first novel the narrator, the monkey who had been a brahmin, convinces Death to put off taking his life until he finishes telling his story.  In the same way did Scheherazade postpone her death, telling tale after tale, with no other weapon than her words, and thus was not put to death by the sultan who had all his brides executed the morning after the wedding night in order that they not be able to cuckold him.  Sartaj’s certainty, his union with his wife Megha, return as tales, fables and stories, and he does not try to cling on to any of them.  His passion returns and subsides without there being anything underlying it, without any remorse.  It is in this episode that we witness the temptation of Sartaj, for he is tempted to recover his pride thanks to his triumph over his rival:


She held him and he thought of the other man viciously. But who is the cuckold, which is the husband, and he felt despair in his throat, like black and bitter iron. (Chandra 1997, p. 120)


The male competition for possession of women has lost its bearings, and winner and loser exchange roles, preventing the reconstruction of lost identity.

His certainty about his place in the world, like the certainty he finds in possessing a woman, is left shattered.  The old story, the thousand and one stories, reveal themselves as the stuff of dreams, and the main character is left with only the emptiness in his heart.

We may consider this emptiness as checkmating any identity based upon stable foundations, and come to believe that novels spring forth uniquely from this emptiness, which is the same as that which Iqbal experiences as he sees his lost lover’s portrait glimmering in the dark.

Vikram Chandra’s characters, whether they are those who seek to cover it with a construction of one kind or another or those who happen to be able or obliged to bear it, are always confronted with this emptiness.  It is an absence, an emptiness, a nothingness that seems both the burden and the privilege of our era, and only those who believe in absolute foundations stigmatize it as moral relativism, for they fear the strength in its weakness.


In the Middle Ages, Care was for Salvation of the self grantable only by God’s graciousness; in our world – secularized, but only up to a point – the Care that truly ennobles us is that for Nothing.  Only those who care for Nothing (which is not the same as those who do not care for anything) can make history, or, in other words, experience the relativity of time in its fullness: they know that their lives has neither home nor shelter.  Because, for the genuinely alone, Nothing (alias Being) is only time, becoming and flow. (Sergio Benvenuto 2008, p. 105; our translation) [1]


We know of no certainty that can be born from caring for emptiness, but we know that no form of fundamentalism can arise out of it and authorize human beings to dominate each other in any way.  Whoever experiences this absence, unknowingly or without being able to avoid it; whoever knows its time and space, so different from those normally known yet so near to everyone’s time and space: these people can never dominate others for they are aware that they are not even their own masters.  Even though psychoanalysis was born with the discovery that the ego is not master in its own house, the ethic and epistemic meaning of Freud’s discovery seems to be more present today in literature than in psychoanalysis itself. 


Chandra takes this inner exile as his starting point.  Let us briefly examine the opening of Red Earth and Pouring Rain and its narrative devices.

Abhay has just returned from the US, and feels a visceral dislike for certain Indian habits of his parents, retired schoolteachers.  In particular, he finds it disgusting that an ancient monkey steals the washing from the line, and will only give it back when his mother offers it food.


‘He’s still terrorizing you after all these years,’ said Abhay. ‘You should do something about it.’

‘He’s just trying to make a living, like the rest of us,’ Mr Misra said, ‘and he’s getting old. He’s moving pretty slowly now, did you see? Forget him. Eat, eat.’  [...] Abhay was unable to shake the conviction that the animal, secure in the cool shade of the leafy tree, was enjoying his meal more than he was, and that there was some secret irony, some occult meaning, in their unwitting sharing of food. (Chandra 1995, p. 3)



Abhay is seized by a sort of jealousy towards the monkey, which he views as mentally (and linguistically, given it cannot speak) inferior to him, yet cared for so well by his parents.  The monkey is a usurper, like a younger brother would be, and Abhay attributes to it a capacity for enjoyment that he has lost.  Abhay discovers himself to be an exile from his own childhood, a stranger in his own house and homeland.  He tries to convince his parents to chase away the usurper, but his efforts are in vain even when his intellectual inferior steals something of his and he throws a stone after the animal:


‘He got my jeans,’ Abhay said; ‘the son of a bitch has my jeans.’

‘Well, what did you expect?’ Mrs Misra said, a little stiffly, irritated by the sudden violence inflicted on a member of the tribe of Hanuman. ‘You scared him away.’

‘Will he bring them back? Cost forty dollars.’

‘No. He’ll probably drop them somewhere and forget all about it. You’ve lost your pants.’ (Chandra 1995, p. 4)


Abhay, just like the Western colonizer, has to impose his way of life before the fascination of the inferior overwhelms him with a pressure from his soul no less than that of the monkey on the great tree in the garden. He’s just trying to make a living, like the rest of us, says Abhay’s father, but this statement, if truly listened to, undermines Western superiority: the ruler, who feels authorized to fight against those who differs from him, considering them more or less monkeys, does not think that all of us, whether from East or West, whether human or animal, are trying to live our lives; rather, he thinks that there is a better and more legitimate way to live: his own.  Abhay is neither American nor Indian; he is an exile trying to believe himself in his homeland because he has not yet understood that his diasporic condition is definitive.  No spatial movement will bring him home and no action will bring his exile to an end.  In order not to recognize his situation, Abhay has to revenge himself on the monkey who has left him trouserless, and so he picks up an old 22 rifle and shoots.


[A] thin line of white light blossoms from a dark window, and the monkey feels an impact against his chest, under his right shoulder, an instant before he hears the flat WHAP, before he registers, with a baring of fangs and an amazed growl, that something very bad has happened; he feels himself being spun around, sees suddenly the red sun, the pink-white wall splattered with red; the world spins and breaks into fragments, red and white, red and white, another wall a glowing yellow, staggering to the side, the edge, slipping and stumbling, a slow slide, a desperate grab at the edge of the roof, but already strenght and balance are gone, and the monkey drops, turning, and in the drop, within the space of that turn, a wholly unfamiliar image, a completely unmonkeylike scene flashes into its mind, red and white, red and white, glowing yellow, three thousand lances, the thunder of hooves, and then the monkey hits the red brick with a thick thump, to lie silently at the edge of the courtyard. (Chandra 1995, pp. 5-6)


Abhay fatally shoots the monkey who stole his jeans, and this in the novel serves  to represent the futility of conflict, but it also triggers the whole plot of the novel.  Abhay’s shot awakes in the animal’s mind memories of a human past, which will be recovered only when it wakes and which were prefigured by the images of war that had flashed through its mind during its fall.  Something unexpected has awoken during the fatal fall, and the story wells up out of what has awoken.

Abhay does not escape from the uncertainty of his identity by euphemizing it, and to imagine that losing one’s homeland is simple is to condemn oneself to a pattern of thinking that wears a contemporary mask to repeat identity rites belonging to the past.  The tragic dimension of defeat cannot be softened, but it can be lived through.  No-one can escape this crucial passage; no-one is supplied with instruments to make crossing it easier.

The dweller in the great trees that Abhay wanted to do away with is now much closer to him: the senseless animal is brought into the house and put to bed and cared for by his parents.  The monkey that is and is not the brahmin that once was and Abhay who is and is not Indian and is and is not American have to meet: their very hostility makes it necessary.

Abhay will divide the job of narrator with the monkey, and amongst the stories he will tell when the monkey needs to rest will be one about a young American who follows her Indian boyfriend to his home country, only to return to the United States when she realizes her inability to adapt to the climate and rhythm of India, leaving her boyfriend behind alone.  Her parting may be read as finally demonstrating the impossibility of a harmonious and relatively painless fusion between the two worlds. 

In the same way, in Chandra's previous two works, Inspector Sartaj Singh’s divorce makes it impossible for him to lead a life that does not face the emptiness, the absence of being, where the poet is always to be found leaning out over the abyss.

The fall of the monkey shot by Abhay recalls other falls, like that of Sanjay, the child who would later on be reincarnated in the monkey:


[H]e abruptly became aware of the lack of anything under his behind, the ponderous, unceasing demands of gravity; there was an expression of bemused concentration on his face, an indication of what-is-this-nothingness-under-my-arse as he toppled over backwards, ankles sliding across the stone, the world turning upside down, the things of the soil - its leaves, the blades of grass, the grain of mud, and something else, two bumps - getting bigger, a moment of light:


Yama is a happy god. Ruins seed the ground, the harvest is tendrils that burst out of the soil, through the soles of our feet. [...]


When Sanjay gained consciousness there were two holes in his head, spaced evenly on his forehead above his eyes, and people began tell him secrets ... (Chandra 1995, pp. 215-216)


A new form of consciousness seems to spring forth during the fall and it is thanks to it that people tell Sanjay their secrets: we might wonder, freely associating ideas, whether the psychoanalyst too does not have two holes in the head after a fall that cause his patients to tell him things that they have not even admitted to themselves.


There is the fall of a small animal in the opening lines of Sacred Games:


A white Pomeranian named Fluffy flew out of a fifth-floor window in Panna ... Fluffy screamed in her little lap-dog voice all the way down, like a little white kettle losing steam, bounced off the bonnet of a Cielo, and skidded to a halt near the rank of schoolgirls...(Chandra 2006, p. 3)


During an argument a husband with an unfaithful wife throws his wife’s lap-dog out of the window, and then locks himself in a room and calls the police because she wants to stab him.  When he sees the tiny body, Sartaj Singh comments ‘Love is a murdering gaandu. Poor Fluffy’. (Chandra 2006, p. 5).

Before the chapter ends, it is Sartaj himself who imagines falling into nothingness, after having asked himself whether the streets of his childhood still exist, whether there had ever existed happy times and places or whether they were just inventions of his memory:


He thought suddenly how easy it would be to keep leaning over, tipping until the weight carried him. He saw himself falling, the white kurta flapping frantically, the bare chest and stomach underneath, the nada trailing, a blue-and-white bathroom rubber chappal tumbling, the feet rotating, and before a whole circle was complete the crack of the skull, a quick crack and then silence. (Chandra 2006, pp. 22-23)


In the short story ‘Kama’ mentioned above, Sartaj does not want to sign his divorce papers, and his boss asks him why:


And Sartaj [...] said without wanting or meaning to, ‘I’m afraid of dying.’ [...]  There was a weariness in Sartaj’s arms and legs now, even after he closed them, he felt hot and scratchy. Every breath was labour now, because he was afraid of the silence. He was too afraid even to feel contempt for himself. [...]

He had these words in his head, ‘to contemplate,’ and ‘death.’ Between them there was a kind of light, a huge clear fearful sky in which he was suspended. (Chandra 1997, pp. 115-116)


What philosophical system, historic religion or political ideal could cure Sartaj of his weakness? If the woman who has left him returns, if she is his like she once was, then for an instant he triumphs over his rival, but the desolation of uncertainty returns, and he asks himself, ‘who is the cuckold, which is the husband, and he [feels] despair in his throat, like black and bitter iron’.

The fall can be mortal, like poor Fluffy’s, but usually it is not, and opens new vistas in the hunt for interaction with one’s own community.  Sanjay in Red Earth and Pouring Rain  has two holes in his forehead after his childhood fall that lead other people to tell him their secrets.  Reincarnated in a monkey, at the beginning of the novel he sees a flash of his former life and, after the fall, remembers his name, his story and his suicide when he awakes.

In both novels there are two narrators, one of whom is dying, and whose death comes as soon as he finishes telling his story at the end of the novel.  In the first novel the narrator who survives is Abhay, who does not know if he is American or Indian and who tries to resolve this unheimlich vacillation using violence, but instead finds himself at close quarters with what he wanted to flee: the monkey, the wordless one, the ancient being, is mythically united with him, mythically instinctive. 

In the first novel, the axis that generates the spiral of the story is the conflict between primal myth – India with its immense intertwined narratives – and contemporary myth – America with its frenetic dynamism consuming people and things.  This axis is found running between young Abhay and the old monkey, as well as between the present and the nineteenth-century India in which Sanjay lived and between colonizer and colonized. 

Chandra’s grasp of the core of Western culture is masterful: only those who feel the strength and attraction of their enemy are able to face him, unveil him and make themselves known to him.  If one’s enemy is the bárbaros, the stutterer, the inferior, then in fighting him one repeats the act of dominance against who and what is different, and condemn oneself, sooner or later, to domination by another. 


For someone like me, who grew up and still lives in Italy, in Florence, and is soaked in Classical and Humanist culture, the following passage of Chandra’s mirrors remarkable truths: 


Sanjay flung up his arms, wanting for once in his life to make the catch, but the thing of course spiralled through and hit him on the chest painfully, so that tears came to his eyes and he had to scrabble in the twilight dust for it.

‘Read it,’ Markline said, already turning around and walking away. ‘And come back next week.’

It was a book, and Sanjay peered at the title page, bringing the paper very close to his nose; it smelt like smoke, and the title was arranged very symmetrically in simple back letters: The Poetics of Aristotle.

That week, Sanjay studied the book: the sense was clear enough, if limiting for the maker of art; there seemed to be an insistence on emotional sameness, on evoking one feeling from the beginning to the end of the construction, as if unity could be said to be defined as homogeneity or identity; there seemed to be a peculiar notion of emotion as something to be expelled, to be emptied out, to be, in fact, evacuated, as if the end purpose of art was a sort of bowel movement of the soul; but all this was reasonable, somehow, understandable, even if it violated all the rules Sanjay had attempted to learn from Ram Mohan’s fragmented discourses; even as it was, it was comprehensible as an intellectual exercise, a system of belief, one darshana of the world. What was unearthly and frightening about the book was a voice that whispered from its pages, a voice that whispered and yet hushed all others, that left a silence in the printery-shop, in which it alone remained and spoke, spoke again and again one phrase: ‘Katharos dei eynai ho kosmos.’ And even in the evenings when the book was shut, or at dinner, Sanjay could hear the repeated syllables drifting through the courtyards and flying over the walls, under the wind and the rubbing of branches; they went on, gentle and reasonable at first but then maniacal in their insistence, morning and night, katharos, katharos, until Sanjay pounded at his ears and pressed his head between his fists, unmindful of the pain. (Chandra 1995, pp. 332-333; italics (other than ‘The Poetics of Aristotle’ mine)


In the mirror that Chandra offers us, the western reader can see himself reflected in the image that Westerners themselves have offered to the Other, and understand that we have deceived ourselves about our ability to transform or create the Other to our advantage.  Sanjay, the young brahmin, who reads the Poetics after having been struck in the heart, or breast, by the thrown book, understands it perfectly and would not be affected by it were it not for that insinuating insistence inviting purity: catharsis through tragedy, liberation from the emotions, banishment of feeling, all moving towards purity.  This purity is the foundation of the Western subject, his ideal, and is formed when there is a belief in the cultural promise to control emotion, passion and disease.  The  affection that we feel for a friend is closely related to the disease that affects us. [2]

The ideal male subject is one able to control and command emotions and feelings, as in the proverb with which Italian fathers sought to teach their sons: A crying man and a sweating horse are worth nothing. [3]

The ideal of purity that haunts Sanjay is responsible for the ambiguous kinship between the how we are affected by both emotions and diseases.

The attraction of the void and the falls that recur in Chandra’s work are the movement that follows on from the inevitable and painful confrontation with this ideal, which is expressed by the passage quoted above dealing with Aristotle’s Poetics more clearly and succinctly than it is in  any philosophical or psychoanalytical test that I know. Chandra makes an issue normally considered abstract physical: the pain of the book striking Sanjay’s chest, the obsession with the voice whispering that ancient word, katharos, katharos, katharos...

The possibility of forgetting comes with reaching the edge of a chasm that is neither salvation nor the struggle against salvation.  The void is that Nothing that we can care for, the space and time of a Being that no authority can definitively justify and establish.  This void is fatal to a certain form of identity, the only one that the West knows, and to defend which the totalitarian systems of the twentieth century, massive and perverse heirs of all of the belief systems of our history, were born and had both their bloody successes and their eventual failures.  What led the West to hold the Nuremberg Trials was not understanding and abandoning this ideal, but a last-gasp attempt to save its ideals by removing the perversions that revealed its cruelty.

The Westerner is established as a dominator with respect to the weak, the sinful, the ill, the inferior. 


Exploring this ideal in Sacred Games, thanks to his inheritance of an age-old culture Vikram Chandra examines a theme prefigured in Love and Longing in Bombay: that is, an opposition not between East and West, India and America, but between who destroys the law and who protects it.  What is the Law, what prevents people from destroying each other, what are the conditions for civilized life?

Inspector Sartaj Singh and the crime lord Ganesh Gaitonde are the two protagonists of the novel, the two sides in the game: the law exists because they both exist.  Their game is a game of the past, of cops and robbers, goodies and baddies, but their opposition, their war, ceases and is transformed into an unexpected alliance when there appears on the scene the threat facing our lives today: Guru-ji.  Ganesh Gaitonde’s guru embodies the ideal of purity discussed here, taking it to extremes. 

He wants a perfect Muslim-free Hindu India, ordered and cleansed.  He has scores of followers all over the world, including Europeans who wear Oriental clothes and perform namaste: their ideal has failed, so they seek it elsewhere, ready to change everything so that nothing changes.  Western naïveté is unable to imagine how Hinduism, with its hundreds of thousands of gods, can express an ideal of absolute purity and justify violent action to bring it about.  Equally, anyone who is aware of the Qur’an’s philological debts to the Old and New Testaments finds contemporary Islamic fundamentalism senseless and without any basis in fact.  Yet Western peoples and intellectuals, with only a few exceptions, have not found the ideals of cultural and racial purity of Nazism or Fascism senseless when they showed their purifying and destructive power, nor have they found Stalinism senseless, with its Utopian dream of a justice and equality that had to be realized through similar bloodbaths.   

We should therefore recognize Chandra’s praiseworthy willingness to take on the burden of unrelentingly investigating evil and the tragedies that we are living through all over the planet, in which we take part from the comfort of our chair in front of the television or computer, alternating horror at genocide and war in Africa or at the hundreds dead in the latest terrorist attack in Mumbai with our three square meals a day.

Our era is not characterized by a greater capacity for knowledge and reflection but by less possibility of repressing tragedy.  The ‘bowel movement of the soul’ that Sanjay talks about referring to Aristotle’s catharsis becomes ever more difficult, and it may happen that the individual finds himself, through events, images and narratives irremediably affecting him and his culture, on the edge of the Void, of Nothing, of that Being that would seem to coincide with falling, with Death.  .

This is a Void, an Absence into which the individual falls: Ganesh Gaitonde, the gangster, recognizes his fellow man in Inspector Sartaj Singh, whom he once met when he went incognito to one of Guru-ji’s big meetings.  In their brief meeting they share their sense of loss and absence despite their roles and disguises:


‘People always tell me I look like someone they know. My wife used to laugh about it.’

‘She used to? Not any more?’

He was very attentive, this chikna inspector, and he was not at all the thick-brained sardar of all jokes. You had to be on full alert with him. ‘She’s dead,’ I said, very quietly. ‘She was killed in an accident.’ He nodded, looked away. When he came back to me he was the maderchod inspector again, but I had marked that small blink of sympathy. I could be sharp too. In my life I had learnt to read men also. ‘You also lost someone,’ I said. ‘Who, your wife?’

He gave me back a hard glower. He was a proud man, of course, and in uniform. He wasn’t going to tell me anything. ‘Everyone loses somebody,’ he said. ‘That’s what happens in life.’ (Sacred Games, p. 569)


The city’s salvation stems from two men’s loss and absence: Ganesh Gaitonde, who will only become aware of his loss and absence at the end of his story when he prefers to fight for his city rather than be Guru-ji’s favourite gangster; Sartaj, who suffers and who is formed by them from the beginning of the novel onwards.  This is not one of those definitive salvations obtained by religious, mythical and fairy-tale heroes for their cities, but the thwarting of an atomic attack against millions of Mumbai’s citizens, their houses and the city’s beautiful sunsets, which do not lose in beauty and their power to move just because their extraordinary colours perhaps derive from air pollution.


Let us now return to the question that we asked at the beginning:  why, as Freud recognized, are poets the first and best of psychologists? Why should a psychologist study a novel, as in this essay on Chandra?

As we have seen, when psychoanalysts discuss things that fall outside of the ambit of their practices or the groups of colleagues with whom they compare their clinical work, their authority has no firm base.  They do not have the prestige of doctors, whose treatments have an efficacy that no-one calls into doubt, or of philosophers, whose thoughts may aspire to a purity unaffected by emotion or disease.  All too often, psychoanalysts only patch up the dangerous fragility of their egos, plugging the holes visible in their daily frequentation of the precipice separating and joining normality and madness: to do so they spin theories that seem a continuation of the radical novelty of Freudian psychoanalysis, but in fact have only the function of repairing ultimate individual weaknesses and of containing the uncontainable risk of falling into the void of being.

As in Freud’s case, psychoanalysts are fascinated by novels because writers, like them, draw their power solely from words and language.  Their weakness consists in the fact that no institution can legitimize their efficacy, as if this happens then their investigative ability is compromised, and they become psycho-orthopaedics, and thus a figure that medical profession is able to absorb.  At the same time, this is also their strength, because the core of the profession, the one thing that cannot be done without, is an experience difficult to put into words: that of the word that transforms; the word that bites into flesh.  Like the writer, the psychoanalyst can experience the pleasure of truth taking shape in his narrative:


He does not always care whether what he says or conjectures is real: he is seduced by the mere consistency of his reproduction.  Yet perhaps, even if this is the case, we should trust him, trust in the pleasure that psychoanalysis continues to give us, notwithstanding everything; a pleasure, certainly, because of its meaningful connections – but also nourished by the secret belief that these connections have an effect on human flesh and blood. (Sergio Benvenuto, 1999)

If, on the brink of nothingness, the psychoanalyst both resists and accepts the unheimlich [4]attraction of the void, then, like Sartaj Singh, he cannot stop asking himself where this Nothing, this fascinating Being, comes from:


Where did it come from? He said it aloud, 'Where did it come from?' Then he saton the floor, and found that it was painful to bend his knees. His thighs were aching. He put both his hands on the table, palms down, and looked at the white wall opposite. He was quiet. (Chandra 2006, p. 23)



In the character of the monkey there remains the memory of the brahmin who lived during the British Raj.  Sanjay the brahmin voluntarily placed his neck in the silk noose that Yama holds out to mortals.  Yama is a happy god, as Sanjay realizes in his first fall:


Yama is a happy god. Ruins seed the ground, the harvest is tendrils that burst out of the soil, through the soles of our feet. They occupy us without or knowledge.

Kites float in sluggish circles for thousands of years, alert for the faintest ribbon of dust below. Everything is the eater and the eaten, rocksthrob, expand, contract, until they burst. Snakes abandon their below-surface treasures to husk off their skins under the sun, leaving the figures of former selves, fragile histories that begin to disintegrate as soon as they are formed.


What is sacred cannot be history, but memory (the grimace of the monkey, the shark’s yawn) is divine. (Chandra 1995, pp. 215-216)


If we consider these things as sacred and thus unable to become stories like those dogmas that institutions erect and support, then we may think of them as what can keep us away from the void.  Memory, however, cannot accept stable borders, and in our era, where the world’s cultures and languages mix and mingle in a thousand and one ways, it leans out over the void.  This is the void into which Sanjay falls as he dies, escaping from humankind, whose affection he can no longer bear.  The monkey he has become, ignorant of all this, who steals Abhay’s American jeans and is shot to death, finally remembers the life he had refused and realizes that he is condemned to live out his life as an animal in wordless proximity to mankind.  Those who surrender to the fascination of the god of death’s silk noose and willingly anticipate the one absolute certainty of the living have to renounce the tool unique to humankind: language.   


I saw, then, clearly what lay ahead of me - life after life of scuttling through murky waters filled with danger, aeons of mute desperation divided equally between the twin demons of hunger and fear, and, worst of all, eternities of what I had once wished for: incomprehension, un-selfconsciousness... (Chandra 1995, p. 15)


It is only if he speaks once more, only if he has time to tell stories, that Sanjay will avoid being reborn in animal bodies.  The god of death, who is about to carry him away, has no interest in this wish.  The happy god participates in the unending transformation of life and has no need for stories of human beings who mistakenly believe they can command life and death.


In order for a story to be born and develop with the vitality of a climbing lotus vine, it is enough to have the desire to cheat time, to articulate its superhuman – or inhuman – flow with the rhythm of a voice, of black marks on white paper, of the click-clack of typewriter or of the near-silent pressure on a computer keyboard.  The monkey starts to tell his story using Abhay’s parents’ old typewriter, as his vocal chords cannot utter the words that he now remembers, and his slayer lends his own voice to the tale.  The fatal encounter generates a story that allows the brahmin monkey to liberate himself from wordless repetition and to reduce the punishment suffered because of his refusal of human language, his scorn for its value, and his suicide.

At first Yama does not want to wait, nor is he interested in the story of events that he always participates in.  Codified history cannot cheat time and death, but rather a story interweaving true and false, aware that truth is often unlikely, that human constructs capture reality and that the word can bite into flesh and modify the flow of the blood.  This is what is missing in life that reproduces itself without our intervention, from the monkey’s grimace to the shark’s yawn and the kite’s soaring flight.


Throughout Chandra’s first novel, Death sits in the corner, invisible to almost everybody on a throne blacker than night, shot through with gold dust.

In Chandra’s most recent novel, Ganesh Gaitonde shoots himself and dies at the beginning of the book but keeps on telling his story to the end.  Notwithstanding his death, his stories keep on being told, even though Sartaj Singh, whom he had chosen as their listener, has not given him enough time to tell them: stories have their own time that cheats time, just as the rhythms of poetry generate meanings unknown to animal life, just as Orpheus with his lyre enchanted wild beasts and swayed the divinities of the netherworld to his will.

The time of the novel, like the time of psychoanalysis, is a time suspended for caring for Being, which we may call Nothing because it serves no purpose, demonstrates nothing, is mastered by nothing and masters nothing.

Perhaps it is in the myth of the Vehi contained in Chandra’s first novel that we may find a paradoxical representation of humankind, a description of its origin that marks it out as privileged at the same time as it recognizes what is absent.

It is the same story that we can find in any human origin myth, but which we seem endlessly to forget – as if it were possible for there to be any salvation denying absence or ignoring the emptiness in the heart. Iqbal recognizes this emptiness in the portrait   when he renounces to the illusion that it can bring him back his beloved’s image. 

We can forget this absence, this nothingness, this mistake, this erring, only by attributing it to others, inferiors, bárbaroi, enemies to destroy or convert.

If diaspora is an inevitable counterpart to the homeland, then one man’s homeland is another man’s diaspora.  What happens if diaspora and homeland confuse their boundaries and exchange roles in the hardest place to colonize, the human heart? The young Indian coming from the US and the white monkey living in the garden of his old house; the Sikh police inspector and the gangster: they come together to tell a story – and then? And then the story generates another story, or an essay, or simply a reflection that, finding neither his end nor his destination, starts off once again from where it falls, like a far-away creature:


They called themselves the Vehi, and told me, later, that once a piece of the sun had fallen, circling end over end; an eagle, imagining it to be some kind of small hummingbird, had stood  on one wing-tip and arced down to snap it up, and had fallen immediately groundward, rendered insensible by the heat within his gullet. As time passed the eagle’s feathers and claws had dropped to the ground one by one, until all that was left was a soft-skinned animal reshaped by the luminosity within, and this was the first human, the remote ancestor of the Vehi. (Chandra 1995, pp. 97-98)


(English translation by Luke Seaber)



Benvenuto, Sergio, Gli amori di Matematica e Psicoanalisi. PSYCHOMEDIA, 1999. Available on:;                 accessed 6 January  2009.

                        Accidia: la passione per l'indifferenza. Bologna: Casa Editrice Il Mulino, 2008.


Chandra, Vikram, Red Earth and Pouring Rain. London: Faber and Faber, 1995.

                        (1997), Love and Longing in Bombay. New York: Little, Brown, 1998.

                        Sacred Games. London: Faber and Faber, 2006.


Freud, Sigmund (1919) The Uncanny. SE, Volume 18. Translated by James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press, 1955.

                       (1920) Beyond the Pleasure Principle; SE, Volume 18. Translated by James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1968.

                (1938) Moses and Monotheism: Three Essays. SE, Volume 23. Translated by  James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, 1968.

[1] Nel Medio Evo la Cura era per la Salvezza di sé che solo Dio poteva graziosamente concedere; nel nostro mondo secolarizzato – ma non troppo - la Cura che veramente ci nobilita è quella per Nulla. E solo chi si cura di Nulla (a differenza di chi non si cura di nulla) può fare storia, ovvero vivere fino in fondo la relatività del tempo: sa che la sua vita non ha casa né rifugio. Perché per il singolo autentico, Nulla (alias Essere) è solo tempo, divenire, fluire.

[2] In Italian, affezione may mean either affection or disease.  In Spanish, the word afección has the same double meaning, as does the French  affection.  These words derive from the Latin affectus, the past participle of the verb adficio: the subject is affectus, passive, acted upon by an emotion or illness.

[3] Uomo che piange e cavallo che suda non valgono nulla.

[4] ‘Unheimlich’ is here used as an adjective in the sense described by Freud (1919).


Penultimo aggiornamento 5 novembre 2018
Ultimo aggiornamento 9 ottobre 2022