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ADALINDA GASPARINI                PSICOANALISI E FAVOLE
In: Tabish Khair. Critical Perspectives. Edited by Cristina M. Gámez-Fernández and Om Prakash Dwivedi New Castle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2014
BHOOLBHOOLAIYA. A MOVING LABYRINTH
THE BUS STOPPED BY TABISH KHAIR

Part II. Approaching Tabish Khair’s Novels. Chapter Four, Bhoolbhoolaiya, a Moving Labyrinth: The Bus Stopped by Tabish Khair;
pp. 51-70




 
                                                                                                                                                        Stories can knit the world together;
                                                                                                                                                        Stories can blow the world apart:
                                                                                                                                                        The choice is always ours.
                                                                                                                                                         (Tabish Khair, private correspondence)



ABSTRACT

 

Tabish Khair’s “The Bus Stopped” can be read as a choral chant of pain, amongst the houses to be found at the beginning and the end of the novel, and in the sixtynine chapters of the journey from Gaya to Phansa. Narrated by the author in the first and second persons, in the third person from the perspective of four characters, and through the narrating voices of a further two travellers; this novel is a self-propelled labyrinth, difficult for the reader who is seeking a stable structure to comprehend.  The novel’s unity is conferred by its movement, which is both constant and multidirectional, demonstrating the ceaseless transformation of landscapes, traditions and people. The stop which most likely inspires the book’s title is an unscheduled one; the bus stops when it is discovered that a tribal woman who has come on board with her young baby in her arms is, in fact, cradling a tiny cadaver. The characters when faced with this harrowing death and the heartrending grief of the mother - silent and dark like a night with no moon - all stop; even the author's words are stretched to their limits, reflecting the silence of life which gives and takes in mysterious, perhaps senseless, ways. The strength of Tabish Khair angloindian style, often lyrical, always dense, rises to evoke this borderless grief - this pain which scratches the soul’s surface - that our society’s myth of consumerism seeks to bury with consumer goods.  Literature evokes attention to words, which may occur between a narrator and a listener, between an author and a reader, between a psychoanalyst and a patient. The psychoanalyst, like all readers, can embrace that which this novel has to offer, providing an Ariadne's thread for this movable labyrinth.


 INDEX

1. An economic novel

2. Responsibility of the teller

3. To hear all

4. To see all



5. Amavas

6. Unwalled water

7. A Life's care



We could read “The Bus Stopped” by Tabish Khair as polyphonic mourn song, in the beginning and ending Homes, and in the 69 Journeys from Gaya to Phansa. Told by the author in the first and in the second person, in the third person from the point of view of four characters, and by two other characters, this novel is a moving labyrinth, hard to understand by a reader looking for a reassuring stable frame. The novel gets its unity from its constant various movement, showing the ceaseless transformation of landscapes, traditions, persons. The stop that gives the novel’s title could be an unplanned sudden stop: a passengers discovers that the tribal woman just boarded on the bus with her few monthes old baby, holds a cold little corps in her arms. All the passengers stop, and are compared despite themselves with this distressing death and with the excruciating grief of the tribal mother; she is silent and dark like an amavas night, a night without moon. The word of the same author brushes against its boundary, the silence of life that gives and takes through its mysterious ways, maybe senseless. The strenght of the Angloindian writing of Tabish Khair, that often is lyric, always rich, rises to evoke a pain without boudaries, a pain that bites our soul, that the consumerist myth would cover with goods. Literature evokes here a word care, something that may happen between teller and listener, between writer and reader, or psychoanalyst and patient. A psychoanalyst, as well as any reader, could hold this novel’s offer and mirror, then offering his own Ariadne’s thread for this moving labyrinth.

 



1. An economic novel

 

I have the home of my memories, that house of, shall we say, sixty-nine rooms. It is through the windows of those helter-skelter rooms that I first saw the world I have tried to show you, those rooms that are all jumbled up - as if in a bhoolbhoolaiya, as if in a house added to and demolished over the years, as in one of those mental states (like dreaming or remembering or meditating) when there is a seamlessness in the way things flow backwards and forwards. My homes - fragile, confusing, monstrous - have not been contained by Ammi kè yahan and Ghar, even though I have always borne their burden. (Tabish Khair, “The Bus Stopped”; Homes, Again, pp. 195-196) [Note 1]

 

Working as a psychoanalyst for thirty years, in Florence and elsewhere, means listening to clients, and to oneself alongside them. When a psychoanalyst has studied myths, fairy-tales and narratives for even longer – as I have, without ever reaching a conclusion, a satisfying theory – he/she may sense a kindred spirit in the author of “The Bus Stopped”, amongst the novel’s various homes, between the walls of varying thicknesses and across the sixty-nine Journeys.

Other Anglo-Indian novels [note 2] may be of particular interest to the psychoanalyst who is passionate about this kind of listening and study: they transcend the torment, the agony, the hasty or merciful funeral of the master and coloniser, a trend which has reached its sublime and tragic climax in western novels. Salman Rushdie and Vikram Chandra, like Tabish Khair, do not tell old tales of colonisers or of colonised peoples; their novels do not affirm or subvert cultural, ethical, religious superiority or inferiority. Nobody and nothing is presented as inhuman in their novels; there is no scapegoat to provide relief for the reader’s conscience: not the coloniser, the terrorist, the criminal or the fundamentalist.

I do not believe that these writers were directly influenced by Freud, though they tread a path akin to psychoanalysis: a devolution of the Ego that is not its contraction, a distance from one's culture that then appears as a myth amongst myths, not a rejection of it, but a new space capable of facilitating an unforeseen transformation.

 

These Angloindian writers do not offer lessons drawn from their thousand-year-old culture or from the history of a people for many years subject to European colonisation. Instead they offer a gift that can be accepted or rejected; they invite the reader to empathise with problems, with sorrows. The struggle to construct and maintain one’s identity – be it Eastern or Western – is such a challenge that we seek refuge in regressive movements, while everything urges us to recognize our mutual likeness. Old fundamentalisms re-emerge, zombie-like, throughout the world, as though history’s lessons – particularly those of the last century – were to be erased. Certain tragic outcomes - both personal and cultural - do not represent anomalies or crises of identity, but rather the common mode of construction of identity itself: all dominant cultures are built upon opposition against other ones and thrive on the destruction of the dominated cultures by means of extermination or conversion.

 

Franco Fornari – an Italian psychoanalyst – drew an analogy between the challenge of our time and that faced by those undergoing psychoanalytical care, forced by a symptom, a particular disease, to tread a difficult path of constant reflection, where things and houses become seamless, flowing backwards and forwards, their density shifting, disappearing and returning, amidst memories, dreams, symptoms and myths. By the Cold War period we could, and ought to, have learned that destroying the enemy would lead to our own destruction. The present poses a similar picture: the growth of the richest countries cannot be realized at the expense of other countries without irreversible damage to all. Psychoanalytical care requires that the subject overcome his barrier of nameless suffering, a process which first necessitates breaking down the paradigm of construction at the heart of the dominant identity, a paradigm based on power and conforming to hierarchies: mors tua, vita mea / vita tua mors mea (your death, my life / your life my death). The glory of a culture is contigent on the shallowness of its enemy culture, the stability of one person is dependent upon the weakness of another.

Franco Fornari considered overturning the paradigm to be the only solution: mors tua, mors mea / vita tua vita mea (your death, my death / your life my life). In this way the Gospel would not be interpreted as an ethical vow, but rather a necessity, an irrefutable fact. The libidinal advantage – theorized by Freud – would be linked to the vow of the Gospel, in keeping with the vow expressed by many religions: to acknowledge the other, to respect his/her life like one's own.

Economy and ethics would intertwine. These words would recover their etymological sense: ethics from the ancient Greek ethos (character), economy from oikos (home) and nomos (law), rules of the home, the home in which we live, that today consist of the world without exclusion of any single individual part. Our Greek fathers gave shape to our culture, but we must recall that their democracy only applied to the free man who partook in the assembly, and was not applicable to Athenian slaves or women. Their culture prospered through pride in the Greek language, while all other people were considered to be barbarians: bàrbaros means stutterer, then foreigner.     

        

In this particular sense “The Bus Stopped” - with its homes and its journeys - is an economic novel about our common home, the home of sixty-nine journeys. The author has been defined as a miniaturist, “The Bus Stopped” as a mosaic of Indian figures and landscapes. These definitions are like snapshots that may be perceived upon a first reading, while the complex frame remains invisible.

Tabish Khair leaves behind the homes of origin  - Ammi kè ayan and Ghar - but he always bears their burden, together with materials from the past that teach him to be wary of novelty which is presented as being overly advantageous. Ancient houses built using:

[a] compound of lime and earth that, claimed my grandfather and the ancient master mason who supervised the construction, was the mix favoured by the Mughals for centuries before the hard certainties of cement and concrete.  (Homes, p. 5)

Hard certainties that dissolve under another’s gaze, that prove impotent in the face of sorrow, when confronted with the tragic dimension that - from the depths of the human heart - throws them into question. The gaze of the driver Manghal Singh falls, in part 21, upon a big Sita Ashok behind some lopsided mud and brick huts:

He notices this tree on every trip. It is said that if you drank the water in which its delicate, perfumed flowers had been washed, you would be cured of grief. Those were the days when grief must have been a mud hut, Mangal Singh thinks with a twisted smile. Easily erected from the earth, easily washed away by the floods. Now we make our grief of concrete and cement, steel and iron: we inhabit its empty room. (Journeys, 21; p. 66)

This is not a case of regret for lost tradition, rather it is an acknowledgement of the value of what has been lost. To acknowledge the other means to acknowledge the outsider that is near - too near - to us, on a bus, in the Bihar or in Florence, but it also refers to the otherness of the past: the father and mother who are unfamiliar with the path their children take in growing up, the son and daughter who refuse to accept what their parents provide, the history that cannot teach us, the future that we can no longer conceive of or imagine.

An economic novel which, by resisting the establishment of a foundation myth - formed from an old compound or cement - describes labyrinthine links, like a bhoolbhoolaiya, between different characters and their myths, and between the different characters themselves, through encounters, collisions, indifference, passion, sorrow. Some characters are under the illusion that they are stable, like Shankar, the conductor; others transcend religions, social conditions and genders, like Parvati/Farhana. They all have a role in the novel. Lacking in traditional hierarchy, together they compose a poem, an erotic, grotesque, funereal, comic, tragic song. A poem that - by refusing to accept the false certainties of secular or religious ideologies - responds with ethical and economic resolve to the finger pointed by those who try to silence the outsiders: 

 

Look, say those who believe that they have deep-rooted homes, stop, stop, they exclaim as we pass their counters and gardens, look, look, look, they shout, for after centuries of eradicating the homeless, les marginaux, the landless peasantry, the gypsies, the wandering Jew, the bums, the lumpen proletariat, after centuries of planting people like trees, they still have us, and so they raise their fingers and shout, thief murderer stowaway immigrant. (Homes, Again, p. 199)

 

Bihar, the setting for Khair’s bus journey is a kind of topological object: the distance between Gaya and Phansa dilates, becoming as vast as the whole world, like the tout-monde described by Édouard Glissant. For the Caribbean writer, literature is itself ethical reflection, and economic too, like the rules of our common home:
 

J’appelle tout-monde notre univers tel qu’il change et perdure en énchangeant et, en même temps, la “vision” que nous en avons. La totalité-monde dans sa diversité physique et dans les répresentations que elle nous inspire: que nous ne saurions plus chanter, dire ni travailler à souffrance à partir de notre seul lieu, sans plonger à l’immaginaire de cette totalité. [Note 3]

 





2. Responsibility of the teller


Can my language dare to choose between the options? Can my language claim to tell all of Amir Ali? Or should I let the squall blow in the blind whiteness of a sea fog behind which I can hide my choice of words, the fact that what I have chosen, what I can choose is never enough, never complete? (T. Khair, The Thing about Thugs, p. 244)

The author narrates in the first person in the Homes at the beginning and end of the novel, when telling the story of Wazir Mian - the great chef in Ammi kè ayan and Ghar (4, 10, 14) - and that of his neighbour’s servant, Zeenat. A second person narrator is employed to address a silent listener living in an apartment in Patna (8, 12, 28, 32), and in Homes Again at the end. A third person narrator is used in 30 parts of the Journeys: those told from the sensitive perspective of the driver Mangal Singh (every part with an odd number from 1 to 59 inclusive), those told from the perspective of the Danish Rasmus, whose father was Indian (18, 30, 36, 56, 61, 63, 67), and of his private driver Hari (24 e 26), and finally those from the perspective of  the youth of Vilaspur (46, 50, 52, 58, 64, 66, 69). Why does Khair add two narrative voices to this multiplicity of viewpoints, thus risking confusing the reader who may struggle to discern the architecture of this moving bhoolbhoolaiya?

The conductor Shankar and the eunuch Parvati/Farhana - who boards the bus intent on introducing herself as a woman - may be seen to represent two opposite poles of the relationship that the story-teller keeps with his/her experience. They both maintain a steady helm throughout the novel, without wavering. While Farhana knows that a gust would suffice to capsize her vessel (e.g. when an old client of his/her Gharana, greets her while the bus is leaving),  Shankar is confident that he can remain on the right track (or, at least, that he is in the right), never doubting his common sense. On the one hand the eunuch can tell his/her story because he/she transcends all boundaries of religion, caste and gender; on the other the conductor can do so as he has no intention of transcending any boundaries. Shankar is convinced that he is worthy of all of life’s blessings and distrusts those who attempt to cross borders. He has an agreement with the driver wherein he pockets some of the income owed to the bus owner, he would not do so, however, was his salary not so meager. He resists the driver’s invitation to steal more:


I am not greedy like Mangal babu.

[...]

Shankar, you are a goddam fool if you do not try to take more of the bastard's loot. All the other conductors steal more from the sister-fucker. What are you afraid of? Your Hanuman, He won't mind. There - I have turned the picture around; He won't see you now!

That is the sort of man Driver Mangal Singh is: foulmouthed and without a shred of piety or religion. . (Journeys, 44; p. 141)

 

Keep your balance, be content - that is what the scriptures preach. I read the scriptures in Hindi. I listen to the discourse of holy men. Do not push too hard. If you miss a train, let it go; do not run after it. That has been my principle and it has carried me far: from being the 'help' of a motor mechanic, I have worked my way into owning a two-room pukka house. I have a family. I even have a bank account and, if things go well by the grace of Hanuman, I shall buy a minibus within a year and set up on my own.  (Journeys, 48; pp. 148-149)

 

To tell means to bear the responsibility of describing one's own story, to select a criterion. This is possible when one considers his criterion to be the only legitimate one, and believes himself to have a firm grasp on reality, as is the case with the conductor Shankar. It is also possible when one regards all criteria as unstable and precarious, but selects one nonetheless in order to survive, so as not to be overwhelmed by the squall of the wind in the tragic fog of reality. The eunuch chooses to live exclusively as Farhana, shedding his/her male name, Parvati, so that when reading the novel we easily forget that he/she is not a woman. It seems plausible to the reader that Farhana is able to convince the rich and inexperienced Vijay Mirchandani of this fact, and subsequently seduce and marry him.

 

There was a time when I could have been the keeper of the harem keys, a guard of the holiest of holy shrines in the Middle East, a dancer, a soldier, a spy, a scholar, a general in Delhi. I am not any of these today. But, then, I am something that is even harder to achieve for so many. I am the perfect wife.

I am not Farhana Begum or Parvati any more.

I am Mrs Mirchandani.

I will not be buried by strangers at a roadside. (Journeys, 68; pp. 165-166)

 

When the bus departs, the conductor Shankar recognizes the wealthy Mrs Mirchandani, and, to honour her, occupies the seats closest to her with the more polite and decent women on the bus. He offers the seat nearest to her to Farhana, providing her with the chance to present Mrs Mirchandani with a story deliberately woven to gain the woman’s empathy so that she will bring her home. The character most sure of his grasp on reality and the character most aware of its vagueness, are, in ways, very similar.

They are narrative voices because they choose their own perspective, though it is the author alone who brings their stories to the page. While the other characters are not first person narrators, Shankar and Farhana tell a story that transforms into a novel because someone lends them the words. They need someone who has complete confidence in the strength of the words, as well as in their inconsistency, someone who loves words without reservation, aware that this love may be unrequited: a hopeless lover who cannot resist speaking, calling, singing.

The author welcomes them into his house of sixty-nine rooms, which move far more than the Gaya-Phansa bus. Tabish Khair possesses an intense awareness that characterises the body of Proust’s work, that [l]e devoir et la tâche d'un écrivain sont ceux d'un traducteur (the duty and task of a writer are those of translator). [Note 4]

In this novel the writer does not build a house wherein one can feel safe; nor does he destroy the houses of the past or houses built in accordance with criteria which differ from his own, be they the wealthy house of the two Mirchandani ladies or the conductor’s two-roomed semi-pucca. He does not mistake the dismay he experiences - in witnessing the dissolution of all his former certainties and the return of blind zealotry - for the end of the world: the story, the novel, needs no external warranty, it is not dependent on the higher authority of a religion or an ideology. Words are sufficient for its existence.

In some of their novels Anglo-Indian writers realize the intimate relationships among languages that Walter Benjamin considered central to the task of the translator:

 

All purposeful phenomena of life, as well as life's purposefulness itself, are in the final analysis purposeful not for life, but for the expression of its essence, for the representation of its significance. Thus translation ultimately has as its purpose the expression of the most intimate relationships among languages. (The Translator's Task)

 

Being a translator is both less and more than being an author. It certainly absolves one from wearing a mask like Farhana, and from imprisoning oneself in a narrow-mindedness which demands the exclusion of the other, the outsider, for its stability. Even if truth is impossible to grasp, even if the white page at the end of the book indicates the end, the boundary of the spoken - just as death delimits an existence -, the tale possesses a strength of its own which owes nothing to the world views and ideologies which seek to dominate it. He who does not react to the finger pointed at him by pointing his finger in return, he who cannot resist the appeal of all languages, like all existences (even those most dissimilar to his own), is destined to live in the world of words, whose realm is poetry, fairy-tales, novels.

 

 




3. To hear all

 

Patna’s listener, endowed with sharp hearing, sits in his apartment and draws a map of the owners of the flats, of their wealth and their financial straits, of their sense of rightful belonging to a higher social class and their conviction that those unable to better themselves are lazy or lacking in those qualities that only a good background can offer. A community is composed of its people, the privilege of some is emphasised by the privation of others, and even where there is no transcendent reason – such as ancient castes – to explain these differences, this does not allow for individual human drama – individual richness – to be perceived. As in a commedia dell'arte or in a sociodrama, everything seems to recur without interruption: Mr Sharma’s angina attacks, the hum of the air conditioners which are either noisy and old, or soft in the case of the new Japanese model. Together with the listener in Patna we hear the sizzle of the onions in the boiling ghee, Mrs Prasad rebuking Chottu, and Chottu unwillingly listening to these daily scolds, without responding, choosing instead to return home later and later every evening. The listener in Patna is familiar with that which repeats itself day after day, month after month, year after year: he introduces us to Mr Sharma’s sorrow as he climbs the stairs slowly, pausing to recover his breath, suffering from angina and worrying about the marriages of his three daughters.

While caste divide is transcendentally motivated, the diversity of economic and social conditions is presented as a dynamic situation: anyone, through education and work, can improve their lives, almost without exception. But invisible barriers are no less difficult to cross than visible ones. The lesson Mrs Prasad imparts to her servant is only worthwhile from her perspective: Chottu thinks that it is a sham lesson. The listener in Patna does not ignore injustice, but he is aware that reality is this: one cannot expect it to change. He remains silent, never speaks, he continues to listen and understand the needs of all, without taking sides. His passivity is reminiscent of many intellectuals who isolate reality through sharp observations and a dynamic, agile perspective which relieves them of all responsibility for the tragic dimension that permeates the life of all, and is always ready to unleash its devastating power. 

 

He is no longer the small, timid boy, dressed in a ganji and half-trousers, mucus peeping out of one nostril between sobs. He dresses as smartly as he can and carries a comb all the time. He has a collection of cheap sunglasses, mostly of plastic, which Mrs Prasad always makes him take off. His voice has started breaking. (Journeys 28; pp. 86-87)

 

Chottu belongs to the category of people planted like trees (cit.); he is taken from his rural village to Mrs Prasad’s house, where she lives alone, proud of her successful children far away. They give her expensive gifts that she prefers not to use, like the color television to which she prefers her old black-and-white device. The listener in Patna knows that Chottu is the victim of an injustice that cannot find redress in the education that Mrs Prasad provides; he knows that humble Mr Sharma’s coat is worn, that he buys vegetables at closing time, when they are cheaper. He knows that he takes the stairs slowly because of his angina, that his wife and their three daughters - who never rebel - will never be rid of the feeling of inadequacy and deprivation that characterises their lives. Listening to them all he understands that the eradication of old transcendent castes does not put an end to social barriers. The listener in Patna understands that the promise of happiness contained within the myth of consumerism is a falsity; he knows injustice may change form, but that its omnipresence is never expunged: in the Patna apartments, on the bus, throughout the world. It seems he finds it sufficient just to listen, perhaps he believes that nothing exists but the theatre he listens to while gazing at the television with the sound switched off. There are many means of avoiding the tragic dimension that is always liable to spill over, from outside as well as inside.

The listener in Patna is very sensitive and refined, he perceives the truth and the need in the lives of all his neighbours, he understands them, and bestows his attention and human sympathy upon them all. He understands Chottu's turmoil, and together with him we realise that he has no means of escape. Chottu does not embrace the Sharma family’s submissiveness, and cannot hope to be content learning and working without pause:

 

He has the example of young men and women, like the eldest Sharma daughter, who have rigorously studied themselves into a future of self-doubt, frustration and failure. He knows all the school masters and professors in the neighbourhood, and has discovered that the ones with money are the ones with other sources of income than those bestowed on them by their degrees. He doubts that Mrs Prasad's sons have maid their money the straight and narrow way. He has seen Hindi films. He knows all about easy money, though he has never had any. (Ibidem, pp. 81-82)

 

When writing in the second person Khair speaks to every reader, particularly those who believe that they have heard all that needs to be heard, readers who engage with others by listening, being sincerely interested in other's lives. To believe that you have heard all means to build a map of reality that isolates life's tragic dimension, so that you may rest in your armchair or fall asleep every night, reassured by the regular repetition of familiar voices and noises.

 

It is a sleep full of sounds. Your father's voice across a decade and three states, the sounds of your past and present, your reality and imagination, all mixed up with creaking beds, footsteps, dog howls, truck sounds, the drip-drip-drip of the tap. You never cease hearing, though you feel that you have heard it all. Once you wake up with the feeling that you have been hearing voices around you, low conspiring voices, that you might even have heard a short shriek; you lie in bed listening and fall asleep again without realizing it. (Ibidem, p. 94)

 

You feel you have heard all, but you haven’t. You haven’t heard the silence in Mrs Prasad’s flat. (Journeys 32, p. 103)

 

Only Mrs Prasad’s body lies in the apartment; Chottu has let some boys in, probably assuming them to be mere thieves. Perhaps Chottu does not know of her murder when he boards the Gaya-Phansa bus with a very expensive half-wrapped Banarasi sari - his payment for letting the murderers in.

 

The listener in Patna - and the reader too - is forced to accept that he did not hear it all. Tabish Khair - as he explains to the reader in the second person – introduces us to the sixty-nine rooms of his home, which represent different forms of narration, listening, observation. Regardless of how carefully we listen, despite how completely we observe all that goes on around us, just at the point when we think we have heard it all, the tragic dimension strikes and ravages the harvest of certainties we have so carefully cultivated.

Perhaps the novel alone - a true novel - has the power to express the effort involved in containing the tragedy of one’s life - so as to be able to live - and the failure of this strength just at the point that it seems this objective has finally been achieved. The second person returns in the final pages of the book, perhaps it is the same listener in Patna who now asks questions, perhaps it is a reader, a very careful one. The listener and the reader, now aware of the impossibility of hearing it all, begin to avidly question what happens next:

 

What about Chottu? Did he get home with the glittering Banarasi sari, the sari that was his payment, along with a few rupees, for letting in the murderers? Did he know Mrs Prasad's fate? Did he care about what happened to her in her home, that flat filled with the unused symbols of her children's absence, gadgets that she resented so much and that Chottu could only covet?

[...]

There are things I cannot see in books. (Homes, Again, pp. 197-198) [Note 10]

 

 




4. To see all

 

A flock of doves lifts heavily from the road to make way for his bus. He sees them settling back again, waddling on the road, erasing his passage.

For a second, the image of Sunita comes to his mind: Sunita young, when her eyes had smiled at him and her lips had smiled at the world. Such a large flock of happiness had lifted from her face and eyes after marriage - or was it before marriage, when she decided, for she could have said no - such a large flock that never settled back. Never. (Journeys, 7, p. 29)

 

Mangal Singh curses his employer, the fat bastard bus owner, and recalls the image of Sunita - now the bus owner’s wife -, remembering how he had hoped to marry her. He suffers from regret and bears grudges, and accepts it as fact that his mind operates like a sensitive photographic negative. Working for the fat bastard who married his Sunita reminds him of his failure, and the yellow rods with the narrow strip of brown and the red top – resembling a writer’s pencil - which separate his cubicle from the passenger sections remind him of another of his failures. He had hoped to be a writer while at college. Like the listener in Patna, Mangal Singh is not lacking in sensitivity. Sensitive as a photographic negative, sensitive as a diapason, the driver is impressed by the colour of the fields or the sight of an old passenger on the bus - dignified and defeated - and is able to capture the tragic truth to a greater extent than any other character. He struggles against his own sensitivity: why should he always remember Sunita, who gave him nothing, who by now greets him without even seeing him? The heavy purses hanging on a bicycle:

 

They make him think of the maalik, husband of his second cousin, Sunita, whom he had once hoped to marry, long ago, long long ago. They remind him of the maalik and his pregnant purses and he laughs aloud until tears come to his eyes, startling the passengers nearest to him. Just to reassure them, he clears his throat, balls together the phlegm in his throat and, leaning out of the window, expels it with such force that it falls clear across the road, in the dust, where it sizzles for a second and dissolves into a damp spot. (Journeys, 11; p. 41)

 

Proust wrote that the ethic of an artist may - and sometimes must - be radically different from that of common men, to the point of becoming incomprehensible, slipping the moorings that would anchor the artist to a solid identity. A writer, a true writer, is always a migrant, even if he never leaves the country of his birth; he is an outsider, even if he seems well integrated in a particular environment. Above all, he is slightly outside of himself; he nurtures that devolution of the Ego that Freud sought through psychoanalysis, which leads to the gradual awareness that we are not masters in our own house. It also leads, however, to an awareness that our house has no owners other than those to whom we give our keys. The maalik bus-owner imprisoned Sunita in his comfortable house and Mangal Singh moves around her like a fairy-tale actant who - having caught sight of Rapunzel at her tower window - does nothing but remain there in the hope of seeing her again, filled with anger towards the magician who holds her captive. The tale of Mangal Singh is hampered by his impotence in the face of his unrealized dream, the injustice of being subjected to his rival employer, a kind of Oedipal father he is unable to either confront or abandon. His eyes - more attentive and acute than others - have not been afforded protection, and common sense - personified by Shankar who travels with him - assaults him, paralyzing him.

 

Suddenly out of nowhere on a broken wall the scrawled graffiti in Devanagari: Proust Padho!

Read Proust.

What, he wanders, is fucking Proust? (Journeys, 25, p. 80)

 

If he were to listen to the call of the devanagari, Mangal Singh might know Proust, who spoke of how to separate one’s own sensitivity from common sense, not as a form of revolt, not by virtue of an ideology, not to provide solution. It consists simply of disengaging them so as to discover that a memory – free from the constraints which support the consensual construction of one’s identity – may, like a magical helper in a fairytale, be allowed to pass through the opening created by the suspension of all reassuring certainties.

A flock of doves takes flight from the road near the Karbala-Kund, reminding him of Sunita’s eyes smiling at him; a flock now departed, never to return. There are no conditions for research, and his sensitivity is conflated with resentment:

 

What irritates him - though he does not realize it fully - is not his inability to restore their past in the present, but her ability to erase her past from the present. He feels that something has been killed, something defenceless like an infant. But he doesn't know what. Instead he thinks in familiar terms -  he thinks of what Sunita did not for him and what other women, and men, have done for him. Instead, he works up a resentful anger at himself and gets down to argue with Shankar. (Journeys, 43; p. 135)

 

The common sense personified by Shankar is still powerful enough to prevent Mangal Singh from protecting his sensitivity, but not so powerful as to dim it: the driver is subjected to his sensitivity, he is impressed by it. The lyrical passages in the novel are attributable to the third person narrative from Mangal Singh’s perspective. Sight is the primary sense with which one establishes a grasp on reality, indicating the right perspective to adopt, but Mangal Singh’s lyrical receptiveness breaks this hold, and he, together with the reader, is struck by the following image:

 

A broad ditch covered with water-chestnut plants, their green leaves blanketing the yellowish water. A paddy bird standing like a statue at the water's edge, its streaked earthy-brown mantle concealing the white feathers underneath and making it merge with the earth, waiting, waiting for a frog to make the slightest mistake. (Journeys, 31; p. 101)

 

Mangal Singh does not understand that this image is triggered by one of Sunita’s doves, of Sunita’s eyes, living in his memory. He does not notice its return, and, regretting lost time, its image becomes just an item in his collection:

 

He sees life in still small images, almost frozen, and does not really know what image - momentous or incidental - would etch a particular moment or day or trip into his memory. Some people collect stamps or bottles or coin; he collects images, you have to collect something as worthless as images, don't you? [...] Not that he chooses the images consciously; that is simply the way his mind orders the seamless and yet unravelling days of his life. (Journeys, 1; p. 12)

 

If this novel is a labyrinth, a bhoolbhoolaiya, Tabish Khair is Dedalus, the architect who, having built it, is the only one who knows its structure. As in an unicursal labyrinth, one must walk every path, follow every character, paying attention to the moment that each of them boards the bus, to the exchange of a word or a look between passengers, to the images that make an impression on the driver and punctuate the tale of all. The labyrinth in Crete was built to imprison the Minotaur, at once human and animal, to rid the town of this threatening hybrid of human and wild nature. The civilizing hero's task is to fight and defeat this hybrid, which poses a constant threat to the town, the civitas, the civilization. Tabish Khair did not construct this labyrinth to imprison someone who - simply by existing - disturbs the peace of the town’s inhabitants; rather he offers a space, of reasonable complexity, where these various characters may find hospitality and shelter enough to allow their stories the opportunity to be seen or glimpsed, guessed at or heard.

Life is filtered in and out of the labyrinth, like air that is breathed in and out, basic and unmasterable. Half-way through the novel one is presented with a story of grief that captures all but the most distracted reader: the story of the tribal woman is the only one that is not interrupted by another story. From parts 46-61 no other tale is told, and throughout the subsequent Journeys, and the final Homes, its indelible mark remains.

The image of the death of a baby had already sprung to Mangal Singh's mind in connection with his sorrow and regret at the departure of the flock of doves, thus alluding to a connection between his story and the harrowing episode of the tribal woman who boards the bus with her child - merely a few months old - dead in her arms. Mangal Singh remains silent and still while the passengers grow agitated, speak, search for an unattainable explanation for the event, a solution which will allow them to continue the journey, shed the grief, bury it hastily. He is more defenceless and susceptible to the cruelty of death than any other passenger, to its senseless violence, quite separate from anything that – by linking human beings – makes their existence possible:

 

What Mangal Singh would remember most vividly about this trip were the two flies probing the concavities of the child's nostrils, impervious to the seething of life around them, impervious to the silence of death that sat like a blush on the child's face. (Journeys, 57; p. 163)

 

This image becomes more essential in the last of the odd numbered parts that Khair narrates in the third person, through the perspective and sensitive memory of Mangal Singh, after which we are no longer privy to his viewpoint, as only silence can follow:

Finally, it was simple: Two flies probing the concavities of a dead child nostrils. (Journeys, 59; p. 165)

 




5. Amavas

 

 

A miraculous black Madonna is worshipped in many Italian Catholic churches: a statue or painting originating from the sea or from a faraway country, conferred with an adventurous, fabulous, miraculous story adopted over the course of its journey, surrounded by various silver, gold, or wood ex-voto, painted or sculpted by worshippers. Relevant too are the bodies of saints, enshrined for centuries in so many churches, in crystal urns - similar to the crystal box built by the dwarves for Snow White -, miraculously intact, often black as ebony. The Madonna patroness of Toscana is white, dark is in her name: la Madonna di Montenero, Blackmountain's Madonna. Her Sanctuary – with a view of the sea – is on a hill surrounded by thick woods: Montenero (Black Mountain), once Monte del Diavolo (Mountain of the Devil)[Note 5] Popular piety restores the great mother goddess’ dark traits to Mary, the human God’s mother, characteristics which have been eliminated by official doctrine. According to Catholic doctrine Mary is the only human creature conceived without original sin, remaining a virgin after the birth of her Son. She is the only creature, other than Jesus Christ, assumed to heaven in body and soul.

The miraculous black Madonnas personify the dark feminine again, a darkness that no established order could ever assimilate, the same darkness that Hinduism - without euphemism - worships in Goddess Kali (in Sanskrit kala also means black). No patriarchal order can annex this darkness or suppress it. The violence of the Catholic Church against its inevitable return led to so many European women being burned at the stake, accused by the Holy Inquisition Tribunal of being witches or heretics.

 

A black mother, a tribal mother, with her baby dead in her arms, is the subject of Journeys 46-61. This is the only story told without any suspension, it is not interrupted by any other character. The story begins when a passenger discovers that her child is no longer alive, and the bus, which has just departed from Vilaspur, stops. It falls to Shankar to narrate this story, Shankar who is firmly anchored in common sense. He never loses sight of his personal goal, he does not interrupt his personal journey: he has no time to empathise with the grief of the tribal mother. He looks at her, questions her, observes the reactions of the various passengers, all the time working towards his personal objective: to leave again as soon as possible. When a townsman remarks that they should help her cremate the child, Shankar's response is that the tribal people do not cremate their children, they bury them: the conductor wants to save time, the bus should not be late.

 

Your child is dead, he told the woman, in a measured, matter-of-fact tone. Why are you carrying a corpse into the bus?

Not dead, said the woman, emotionless and unmoving.

It has been dead for hours, insisted the Brylcreemed townsman. It is ice cold.

He is only ill, replied the woman. I am taking him to his father in Phansa. There are doctors in Phansa.

Where do your husband live?

In Phansa.

Where in Phansa?

I do not know. He went away five months ago. He went to Phansa.

[...]

It took us fifteen minutes just to convince the woman that her child was stone dead. These rural women are so obstinate in their ignorance.That is why when I married I looked for a girl who had been born and brought up in Phansa - not in a huge debauched city like Kalkutta or Dilli, but not in a village either. We turned the child over, uncovered the body, made the woman feel the coldness there and the lack of heart beats, even pointed out the faint stench of decay that had started emanating from the corpse. Finally, she stopped saying 'not dead'. But she did not weep or go away. She placed the child on the ground before her feet, as if the child no longer belonged to her, and remained sitting on the steps. (Journeys, 54; pp. 158-159)

 

The tribal woman does not say anything more, her expression does not change, she is an amavas night, a night without moon.

I had patients whose pregnancies were tragically terminated. Young women who were told by their husband, parents and friends not to think too much about it, advised to consider another pregnancy as a means of overcoming the unfortunate incident. These women had no words to express their grief, their experience of themselves - of their wombs - as a place of death rather than life. Despite living in a modern culture, aware that this episode represented an unfortunate fatality for which they bore no responsibility, a nameless anguish descended upon them, suffocating them. Like the tribal woman, they were dark, archaic and silent.

 

Chaos ensues when the little corpse is discovered; some passengers disembark the bus in shock. Only a few remain seated, some of the better-dressed men [...] and a couple of older villagers with the caste marks on their foreheads stayed away from the body (Journeys, 60, p. 168). Farhana remarks that she too remains seated near Mrs Mirchandani, faithful to the role she is acting: 

 

She was also a woman who could not really sympathize with the losses of those who were too dissimilar, and, to be honest, most of us are like that. She spoke about various things, while the tribal woman stalked my mind and thoughts. (Journeys, 65; p. 180)

 

Only one young woman, too ordinary to be invited by Shankar to Mrs Mirchandani’s section, forces her way through the little crowd to sit near the tribal woman:

 

The brazen-looking, cheap woman who had jumped out of the bus with a snotty child in her arms had also stayed with the tribal, sitting on the same step, touching her on the head, theatrically stroking her matted and snaky hair. Her own child was toddling around on the ground, trying to pry something out with a stick, apparently unattended. (Journeys, 60; p. 169)

 

But we know her name, she is Zeenat, running away from a servile job with her child, in search of another servile job. Together with the narrator we remember her grace and her smell. [Note 6]

In telling the tribal woman’s story, Shankar’s narrative voice (Journeys 48, 54, 60) alternates with the author in the third person from the point of view of the gangly youth in Vilaspur, a student who often helps his parents with their farm work (46, 50, 52, 58, 64, 66, 69). Sitting on a wall at the bus stop, hoping to catch a glimpse of an interesting tourist or an elegant city woman, he does not understand why the bus stops again after having pulled away. He looks at Zeenat:

 

The woman with the snivelling child - quite an attractive woman, he thought, but cheap-looking, without an aanchal on her head - was still pushing the men away, shouting, Give her some space, let her breathe!

He was disappointed. Maybe it was not even a thief. In sounded like someone had just fainted. But then he heard the voices more clearly: It is dead; the child is dead. Just then the crowd at the bus door parted to allow a firangi to get off, a tall man who looked very much out of place in the bus, and the youth caught a glimpse of the dead child in the tribal woman's arms.

She was sitting on the front steps of the bus.

Her arms were tattoed with abstract designs.

She was the only spot of stillness and silence in that seething mass. (Journeys, 58, p. 164)

 

It is this spot of stillness and silence, the colours of which have been extinguished by death, which causes the bus to stop; perhaps it is this stop, more than any other, which lends the book its title. The bus stopped, the noise and sounds of this journey, of any journey, can no longer touch her, make her speak, comfort her. All the narrators, all the perspectives through which the writer tells of this journey crowd around her, around her amavas night. He who deludes himself into believing that he may escape the tragic dimension is destined to remain blind. There is no true word that does struggle against this insufficiency of words, beyond which sacred silence poses constant questions about the enigma of death intertwined with life.

 

         She sat silent. Dense as amavas night. (Journeys, 60, p. 166)

 

 




6. Unwalled waters

 

The firangi that seems out of place, the young Danish Rasmus – of Indian heritage – finds himself on the bus after his Indian driver stages a serious mechanical breakdown. He is unable to tolerate the Danish businessman’s sarcastic jokes at the expense of the old Ambassador any longer, and takes revenge by forcing him to get closer to the others. He is left without the protection of his personal car, without air conditioning and with a suitcase full of money intended for a politician who will further his business interests. When the majority of the passengers become agitated and head for the exit, Rasmus clutches the suitcase closer to himself:

 

[b]efore  the shouts broke into his silent calculations of time and duty, Rasmus had already been vaguely conscious of the many strands of voices that filled the bus with a low hum. The many conversations that wound into one another and then separated. He thought later that they were like the tilkut he had seen being twisted and kneaded around wooden posts with short handles in Gaya. The strands of tilkut snaked around the post, merged and separated, separated and merged.

But now suddenly there was only one reality of conversation on the bus. Death. But it was not at all the kind of death Rasmus could recognize. It did not have the ordered decorum, the regulated heaviness, the dutiful attendance of the deaths he had witnessed or heard of in Denmark. It did not separate itself clearly from life. The strands of this death remained intertwined - horrifically so for Rasmus - with life on and around the bus.  (Journeys, 56; pp. 161-162)

 

That which troubles Rasmus is at the heart of the novel: death reveals itself to be intertwined with life, and when we convince ourselves that we have heard or seen everything, when we think that its silent thread has been well hidden, death suddenly intervenes, like life: orderless, inseparable from life, impossible to annex to life.

Rasmus' viewpoint may represent the subject’s inclination to assimilate the other for the sake of unity, to construct a hierarchy which includes the outsider, while simultaneously designating a precise, settled, place to him. In colonial work dealing with the western soul, the subject seeks to dominate through subjection, extermination, conversion: his own subconscious as unknown as that of the foreigner.

Rasmus’ attempt to construct this unity is a legacy of his father, summarised in a rhetorical question which returns to him to mask his unheimlich upheaval:

 

Where else but in India? Where else but in India?

Rasmus could hear his father, Alok Sen, alias A. Jensen, utter that sentence. His father had said it in two different ways. In Copenhagen it had been a statement of pride: Where else but in India you have eighteen, eight-teeeen major languages being spoken side by side? Where else but in India you have so much history? Where else but in India could independence be achieved by non-violent means? Ahimsa, Ahimsa, his father would repeat, drawing out the word. Know what it means, mister?

But as soon as Alok Sen alias A. Jensen landed in Delhi, the burden of the phrase had changed. The stress had moved to the second half of the sentence: Where else but in India one have so much bureaucracy and inefficiency? Where else but in India can one see so much poverty? Disgusting! Criminal! Simply criminal! he would expostulate.

And now, bumping along on the potholed road, trying to keep his shirt from getting too dirty, Rasmus spoke to his father in his mind: Where else but in India could a bus stop to bury a child and then proceed as if nothing has happened?

[...]

Where else but in your India, Rasmus asked his dead father. Where else but in bloody India?

Mister.  (Journeys, 61; pp. 172-173)

 

A positive myth of Indian supremacy is reversed and results in an equally negative myth of Indian supremacy. Rasmus' father tried to build a mythically solid house, to live in as if it had deep roots, and Rasmus tries to continue with his ordered stable life by returning to Denmark:

 

[t]o his girlfriend in Hillerød, to their three-room flat in a nineteenth-century building, to the candles that they light every evening, the framed paintings, the potted plants, the dust order of belonging.  (Homes, Again; pp. 171-172)

 

Rasmus is not myopic enough to be secure in the solidity of his roots, he tries to process his experience on the Gaya-Phansa bus by comparing it to a tilkut: at the end of the cooking process its many strands are now invisible, as is its infinite internal twisting and turning, merging and separating.

The bhoolbhoolaiya of this novel may be experienced by the reader as a tilkut: the author allows the reader to remain unconscious of its labyrinthine strands. But the same reader has the opportunity to appreciate that this novel is not a finished and cooked story: the author offers the reader with more refined taste something more than a good tilkut. He is presented with the opportunity to move with and be moved by this Indian, Western, human labyrinth, Khair's bhoolbhoolaiya.

Travelling back and forth amongst these Journeys, Homes and Homes, Again - which are not ordered but numbered - the reader may experience the complexity and richness of this set of stories and characters, which may be viewed as a matrix novel. [Note 7]  The reader who is satisfied with this novel as a finished and cooked tilkut forgoes the opportunity to move with, and be moved by, things that, by their seamless nature,  flow backwards and forwards ... like dreaming or remembering or meditating (quoted). He relinquishes the chance to discover how Tabish Khair gives shape to contemporary rooms, that are fragile, confusing, monstrous: characteristics that no old building – such as his Ammi kè yahan and Ghar  can possess.  It is both difficult and necessary to realise that the old ideal of a continuous and irresistible process of betterment and evolution has collapsed, as has the notion that it is possible to conceive of a future like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants: [Note 8] we must bear their burden too, as the author in the first person does:

 

My homes - fragile, confusing, monstrous - have not been contained by Ammi kè yahan and Ghar, even though I have always borne their burden. (cit.)

 

The translator knows that characters and stories may exist seamlessly, thanks to an elusive structure, probably unknown to the author himself, but real nonetheless. Real too is the possibility of translating any text from and to any language, and the chance of reciprocal understanding and misunderstanding.

 

The many strands that go into the making of tilkut, the twisting and turning, the grunting and wrenching, the merging and separating, all that would be invisible in the finished and cooked tilkut of narration that Rasmus would feed his audience in Copenhagen. Why don't you write a novel on it, his girlfriend would say, something dark and sinister, heavy and Kafkaesque, or something light and irreverent, funny and magic realist like the whatsisname Rushdie? (Journeys, 67; p. 187)

 

The Western reader, unfamiliar with ancient Indian cultures and languages and Indian literatures - to which the English Empire had nothing to add - may ascribe a magic realism to Rushdie's novels. Upon reading the work of Indian writers such as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra and Tabish Khair, we begin to realise that perhaps it is they who imbue the language, left to them by their most recent colonisers - the language the whole world is learning – with narrative and poetic strength.

When Rasmus’ girlfriend suggests that he draw upon his experience on the bus to write a Kafkaesque novel, she is oblivious to the fact that the tribal woman’s story is beyond the inglorious sunset of the great western subject. New eyes are required to see her, to listen to her, to touch her, the perspectives of many diverse passengers on the bus combine; many voices are necessary for her story to be told. They are, however, able to converge on the bus, where the privileged area surrounding Mrs Mirchandani provides no real shelter from the others; the blend of smells and languages flows without boundaries on all buses across the world. The memory of Mangal Singh, silent in his driver’s seat for the entire time, is effected by the stark image of the flies around the child's nostrils, and the reader who has accepted the closeness of contact on the bus, through all the moving and stopping, will hardly be able to forget it.

  The youth in Vilaspur observes the tribal woman without distancing himself from his own life, his parents, house, henhouse, the wild animals he may catch and sell, his unfolding future. The listener in Patna, like the silent and eager reader, wishes to know more about him too:

 

Even the village youth who sat on the wall and fetched the spade has a home. I am not a magician; I cannot really take you into the semi-pukka home of that youth, but I can point it out to you if you slow down a little. There, there it is, next to the peepul tree, hunching into the rest of the village, a ploughshare resting against the wall of the half-open shed, one side of the house pockmarked with drying cowdung cakes. (Homes, Again, p. 197)

 

The patient reader, who does not seek a service exit to enable him to finish the book without becoming involved, is upset by an image mediated through the perspective of the youth in Vilaspur, stark as the final image impressed on Mangal Singh's mind and more enigmatic: a painful animal maternity. It is an unheimlich image which we may only observe by getting close to this youth without seeking a solution, be it new, old, eastern or western. Painfully vague, this image is a difficult experience of the closeness of the other in our labyrinth, throughout the sixty-nine Journeys and our Homes. This novel weaves together various cultures, languages and people, revealing links we should cease to misunderstand, whether we are disturbed and silent like Mangal Singh, chatty like Shankar, seeking shelter like Farhana or horrified like Rasmus. In his house of sixty-nine rooms and journeys, the writer reawakens the capacity of the translator, capable of nourishing every interpretation, every one of our stories. 

 

At the entrance of the shed was a stuffed calf, leaning against the mud wall. The calf had died soon after birth. It had been stuffed and the stiff brown effigy was carted to the mother twice a day so that she could lick it with her powerful tongue and continue to give more milk than usual. [Note 9]
No one had ever laughed at that cow.

He had felt like laughing for hours after the bus left. Laughing, but not from happiness or ridicule. He could not fathom the wells of this desire to laugh. (Journeys, 64; pp. 178-179)

 

The night that envelops his village is a deep one. In its darkness you can see the stars. The stars are brighter out there than in towns and cities.

There are no stars on the land. If there had been daylight, you might have seen the neighbouring villages. But at night the villages light no lamp beyond the waking hours. Unlike the sky, the land wears its night without the cover of stars.

He is not laughing any longer. He is sleeping. Fitfully, like a bus passenger. (Journeys, 69; p. 192)

 

In the closing pages a funeral song is dedicated to the child hastily buried on the road. The reader may partake in this funeral song if he is capable of recognising the other’s grief while recalling his own grief, his home grief. The reader can participate in this novel if he knows that his home, like all homes today, has rooms and journeys which are seamless, and things flow backwards and forwards, like dreaming or remembering or meditating. 

 

And what about the child who was buried by the roadside? Did he find his home there, under hearth and rubble? Or will he be dug up one night by the foxes and dogs that have survived the monopoly of men? Will he be swept away during the next flood, washed into a tributary of the Ganges and from there into the Ganges and from there into the Bay of Bengal? Will the yet-unwalled waters of the oceans be its home?

There are things I cannot see in books. (Homes, Again, pp. 197-198) [10]

 

There are yet-unwalled waters, and wells we cannot fathom. A psychoanalyst works near those waters, watching things coming to the surface, coming from the other. The desire of life may come out of us when we are lost in our bhoolbhoolaiya, like the desire to laugh of the gangly youth in Vilaspur.

 

 

 




7. A Life’s care

 

The first literary fairy-tales were printed in Venice between 1551 and 1553 in Giovan Francesco Straparola’s collection entitled  Le piacevoli notti. Among these tales is that of Flamminio from Ostia, a boy who does not know fear and decides to go and look for Death, having heard tell that it is the most dreadful thing. He leaves his village and along his very long journey he meets lumberjacks and hermits, cobblers and tailors, but he discovers nothing about Death. Finally he arrives in a white desert town, where he meets a very ugly old woman, badly dressed, terribly wrinkled and hunched, with a sharp blade by her side and a big bag on her shoulder. He asks her if she is Death, as he hopes, and begs her to teach him what fear is:

 

The old woman replied, 'No, I am not. On the otherhand, I am Life; and know, moreover, that I happen to have with me here in this wallet which I carry behind my back certain liquors and unguents by the working of which I am able with ease to purify and to cure the mortal body of man of all the heavy diseases which afflict him, and in the short space of a single hour to relieve him in like manner from the torture of any pain he may feel.' (The Nights of Straparola, p. 271) [Note 11]

 

Ugly old Life grants him his wish, however, chopping his head off with her blade and replacing it backwards on his body. When the boy sees his bottom he is so frightened that he pleads with ugly old Life to help him. She lets him suffer for some time  before granting his second wish and restoring him to his previous state. After this encounter Flamminio returns quickly to his village:

 

[O]ccupying himself for the future in reaching after Life and flying from Death, devoting himself more diligently to the consideration of those matters which he had hitherto neglected. (Ibidem, p. 273)

 

Many variants on this tale, The boy who did not know fear, are widespread across Europe, and if we look beyond the bizzare surface of this adventure we are faced with issues of  mourning and melancholia. Depression is a psychic epidemic in our society, while our prevailing collective myth encourages us to seek a life free from pain, fear, old age and mourning. Our stories may be both similar and opposite to Flamminio’s. He sought out death while forgetting about his life; if we seek out life while repressing death, our outcome may be worse than his.

As a psychoanalyst I could prescribe reading “The Bus Stopped” as an antidote to the repression of mourning: on Tabish Khair’s Bus we experience a growing sense of mourning, to which each character contributes in a unique way.

There is no happy ending for them, because a novel is not a fairy-tale, just as life is not a novel. Ugly old life goes on, however, carrying her big bag on her back, full of poultices capable of curing all pain, like the perfumed flowers of the Sita Ashok in which the driver Mangal Singh no longer believes. There are so many tales in that big bag. This novel is amongst them.

NOTES


Note 1
Any quotation from "The Bus Stopped" is henceforth followed just by the novel's part (e.g. Homes, Journeys and their respective numbers) and by the page.


Note 2
For my essays on Indian-English novels, see Bibliography.


Note 3
É
douard Glissant, Traité du tout-monde; p. 176. By whole-world (tout-monde) I refer to our universe that changes and endures while changing, and at the same time to the “vision” that we have of it. A whole-worldness (totalité-monde) characterised by its own physical diversity and by the representations that it inspires in us: so that we can no longer sing, speak or work adequately from our particular place, unless we immerse ourselves in the dream of this wholeness. (Our translation)


Note 4
A la recherche du temps perdu,  Chapitre III, Matinée chez la princesse de Guermantes


Note 5
http://www.santuariomontenero.org/index.php; accessed May 30th 2011


Note 6
See: A. Gasparini, Exceptionally Sensitive. Travelling within The Bus Stopped by Tabish Khair; forthcoming 2011, New Delhi, India, O.P. A.N. Dwivedi.


Note 7
A careful study would reveal how many characters in Filming and in The Thing About Thugs, have their matrix on this Bus. Consider, for example, the servant Zeenat in The Bus Stopped and Durga in Filming, or the similarities between Shankar in The Bus Stopped and John May in The Thing about Thugs.


Note 8
John of Salisbury, Metalogicon, 1159: Dicebat Bernardus Carnotensis nos esse quasi nanos, gigantium humeris insidentes, ut possimus plura eis et remotiora videre, non utique proprii visus acumine, aut eminentia corporis, sed quia in altum subvenimur et extollimur magnitudine gigantea (Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size) .


Note 9
The reader who dismisses this image as belonging to an archaic culture, should recall that we eat meat and drink milk produced by feeding cows massive doses of growth-stimulating hormones.


Note 10

The Bus Stopped
was published in Italian, translated by myself. Il bus si è fermato, Roma: Nova Delphi 2010.


Note 11
The Nights of Straparola. Translated by W. G. Waters; http://www.archive.org/stream/nightsofstraparo01strauoft#page/n271.





BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 

Albertazzi, Silvia, e Gasparini, Adalinda, Il romanzo new-global. Storie di intolleranza, fiabe di comunità. Pisa: ETS Edizioni, 2002.

 

Benjamin, Walter (1923), The Translator's Task; En. tr. by Steven Rendall; http://www.bonnierskonsthall.se/upload/Kulturella/litteratur/The%20Translator%C2%B4s%20Task%20-%20Walter%20Benjamin%201923.pdf; accessed February 2, 2011.

 

Fornari, Franco, Psicoanalisi della guerra; Milano: Feltrinelli 1966.

 

Gasparini, Adalinda, “From a Murdering Gaandu to Another day. Beyond the Phallic Axis in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games”. In: Postcolonial Indian Fiction in English and Masculinity; edited by Rajeshwar Mittapalli and Letizia Alterno;  Delhi: Atlantic 2009.

 

          “Inner Diaspora”. To be published in: Indian Diasporic Writers; edited by A.N. Dwivedi; New Delhi: Pencraft International.

 

          “Farewell, Father Œdipus. Freedom and Uncertainty in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games”. In: Entwining Narratives. Critical Explorations into Vikram Chandra's Fiction; edited by Sheobhushan Shukla, Christopher Rollason, Anu Shukla; New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, on behalf of WASLE (World Association for Studies in Literatures in English) 2010.

 

          “Exceptionally Sensitive. Travelling within “The Bus Stopped” by Tabish Khair”; in: Tabish Khair: Critical Perspectives. Forthcoming 2011, New Delhi, India, O.P. A.N. Dwivedi. (Straordinariamente sensibile. Viaggiando con Il bus si è fermato di Tabish Khair (2013)

 

Glissant, Édouard, Traité du tout-monde; Paris: Gallimard 1997.


See also our following Italian translations:

Il bus si è fermato (2010) (translation of The Bus Stopped, 2004)

Jihadi Jane. Da Londra alla Siria. Storia di una foreign fighter (2018) (translation of Jihadi Jane/Just Another Jihadi Jane, 2016)

Soon to be published (scheduled for 2019, Tunuè, Narrativa estera): La notte della felicità (translation in progress of Night of Happiness. Pan Macmillan India, 2018). To read an excerpt: Tabish Khair’s unsettling new novel asks what secrets Ahmed is keeping from his boss Anil Mehrotra.


Ultima revisione 7 novembre 2018