Saturday, 15 April 2017

Book Review: Adi Sankara & Other Stories, by Susan Visvanathan

Three short stories by Susan Visvanathan. The first one a mango slice, the second a pineapple with a slice missing and the third a pine cone. The mango from which the mango slice comes must have been a big one, though the slice is not large, possibly not more than one-sixteenth of the mango, or even one-thirty second. The pineapple, on the other hand is rather small and even if the missing slice weren’t missing, it still wouldn’t have been much bigger than a large mango. The pine cone comes from a tall pine tree and one can only guess how tall the pine tree would be.

Adi Sankara’s philosophy is well known to all Indians, whilst his personal life is remarkably murky, despite the existence of around fourteen biographies. Visvanathan’s Adi Sankara is a quick glimpse into what must have been Sankara’s childhood in Kaladi. It whets one’s appetite and leaves the reader hungry. One feels Sankara’s hunger for food and his fear of the crocodile as keenly as his hunger for knowledge. It was an exciting time then in Kerala with Islam having made an entry, the Buddhists confident and everywhere and the Syrian Christians laid-back and as powerful as the caste Hindus. Adi Sankara’s travels take him all over the sub-continent, to Pataliputra, Nalanda and Magadh. Surely there’s so much more to Adi Sankara, but Visvanathan hides the rest of the mango.

I liked the second story, Beyond the Ferry, best of the three. Jehangir, a village in Kerala where many children are born deformed, thanks to Thalidomide poisoning. Abe, a poor boy who has no physical deformity, other than that inflicted by his poverty. Shazia, a girl whom Abe befriends, but cannot hope to marry. Sayir, a rich old merchant from Benaras who comes to Jehangir to marry poor Shazia, still barely a child. Suleman, Abe’s friend, who doesn’t known Shazia from Adam until he ends up working for Sayir and meets his Sayir’s wife, renamed Tazia. When the story ends, Abe has done well for himself – he is an engineer and is still looking for a wife. Tazia has been divorced by Sayir and returns to Jehangir with Suleman and Abe spots them. Visvanathan makes it clear that Abe is unlikely to marry Shazia, though she is recently divorced, because Abe wants to marry a girl who his mother would approve. They don’t care about dowry, Abe’s parents, they are only looking at the girl’s personality. Yet we know that Shazia will not wed Abe.

The pine cone is from a cold land, where the snow fell steadily, the sun hardly rose, the poplars rose in straight lines and the bleak greyness of the sky was hard to imagine. The western world is in the dark ages. Nevertheless, certain things were always the same even in those ancient times and faraway lands, in that Kings spent an inordinate amount of time fighting and plotting for lands and power, they married to create alliances and not for love and their families were usually neglected. Visvanathan’s writing is so exquisite that one can feel the physical hardship experienced by wandering royalty in those centuries before the industrial age, where the cruel weather made it so easy for a weak child to die, even when the child was a prince!

In an era where the best writing is considered to be that which can be read on mobile phones in sms format and delivers instant gratification, Visvanathan’s craft work is a thrown back to an era which is rapidly fading from our collective memories.