Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Mandalas of the 2000s - Chatterjee's Weight Loss

I add here some lines as an afterthough to my notes on Pearl S. Buck's Mandala, although there is not enough time to write about this complex novel properly.

Upamanyu Chatterjee (b.1959) is an established Bengali novelist, who has recently made an international breakthrough with his latest, Weight Loss (2006). When I found this novel, I was overjoyed by the prospect of reading something raw, crude and politically incorrect about Indians' private lives. The little voyeurist in me was expecting more than the cultural anthropologist, who prefers to listen to gossip about servants, updates on marriage arrangements and such everyday chitchat.

Weight Loss didn't betray me, the novel really hit me in the face and challenged my stereotypes about Indians. But I had to force myself through it, it was a truly disturbing book that did not offer any occasions for simple enjoyment, breathing out, or relief. The novel is a walking crisis, a portrait of inner and outer chaos, a constellation of chapters on the verge of breakdown. It is one of the un-sexiest book on sexuality I've ever come across. The meaning is not to titillate, but to tell stories of obsession and compulsion.

The novel follows the youth and adulthood of Bhola, a bisexual middle-class college teacher, whose life is revolving around a servant couple, Moti and Titli, who both become his lovers at different stages. Bhola can only act sexually in the presence of people of lower class/caste; his marriage is doomed, as he cannot be aroused by his wife. He makes life choices arrording to the moves of the couple, finding himself eventually at a New Age Calm Centre, where the couple is working and where people are trying to get rid of their masturbation habits by drawing mandalas:

"You will create and colour you own wheel and make it evolve into a many-tinted pictogram that will depict exactly where you are focussing your time and energy and where you might need to pay more attention. It will help you identify imbalances in your daily life. Do you spend too much time fantasizing? Masturbating? Remember that none of your activities metaphysically is more wasteful." (Chatterjee 2006, 402)

The novel is most successful in portraying the immense gaps in the lives of the rich and poor in India; illiterate servants do work at health retreats charging astronomical sums from Western tourists. Their living conditions do not give them the luxury of a search for "inner life" that the brochures are advertising. I have always been excited and appalled at these new non-material ways of making a living - Chatterjee does a good job by portraying the absurdities of the spiritual marketplace. One is not in the mood for any kind of Dream Yoga meditation, sufi whirling or herbalism after reading this.

If this is a novel about male mid-life crisis, it is definitely different from many Finnish or European ones I've come across. Chatterjee does not invite to identify with any of the characters, but portrays all of them pitilessly, under brightest fluorescent lights. Bhola is fully aware that he is wasting his life, but does not make any efforts to come out of his condition. His best friends are bingeing on drugs, he is bingeing on his sexual compulsions, and every day rolls on accrodingly until the objects of desire start making claims from him.

The point of Weight Loss is not to like it or dislike it, but to put up with some aspects of the world he is narrating. It is an absurd exaggeration of transgressive love lives, not asking from the reader to approve or disapprove them. It does not make moral judgments for or against. Some aspects of the tale are part of our everyday realities across cultures - the story could also be told from a Nordic point of view, in which the gap between the haves and the have-nots might not be as crude, but still it would exist. Chatterjee makes us ask questions about class, status, wealth and sexuality, not only in India, but in any society. The answers very rarely are easy, and not all comedy makes us laugh out loud. There are also other emotional categories than empathy/sympathy. Sometimes ambivalence is the only answer.

The stripped maharaja - on Pearl S. Buck's fiction

Inspired by a friend, I made a one euro purchase at a flea market, the Finnish translation of Pearl S. Buck's Indian-orientalist novel Mandala (1970/1972). Approaching the novel with the prescribed irony only available through decades' afterwisdom, I was expecting the worst. Even the cover was appalling: monumental brown faces of Indian royalties on a pink marble background. Could have been a Bollywood poster of the 70s. Very appealing from the perspective of orientalist India-kitsch.

Pearl S. Buck belongs to summer cottage literature in Finland. We inherit these titles from grandparents, and if we don't have enough space in our houses, we dump them to summer cottages or flea markets. I doubt my grandmother ever read her Buck novels, but she had got them as presents from friends. She was more of the FinnLit type. All I know about the titles at our summer cottage is that they portray Chinese culture. Pearl S. Buck (b. 1892) grew up as a daughter of American missionaries in China and learnt to speak Chinese before English. But for the purposes of here and now, the later cultural jump to India puzzles me more.

Knowing that the author was nominated the Nobel prize in 1938, the reading seemed even more demanding. What literary values could there be found in an emerald-studded display of orientalist clichés?

There is a modern maharaja who has lost most of his properties after independence and is forced to convert a family palace into a posh hotel for American tourists. There is a cold wife, the maharani, and an independent-minded young American woman, who plays the piano at a hotel lobby in Delhi. There is a son who dies in a battle against the Chinese in Ladakh, whose rebirth everyone is expecting.
There even is a Catholic priest who enjoys drinking the palace's own rose wine far too much. It's known as a powerful aphrodisiac by the locals.
People measure the men's virility by looking at the growth of hair in their ears.

The mismatched love couple visit Taj Mahal at night-time, not once but TWICE.

There is a certain degree of psychological depth in the novel, especially in the character of the maharaja himself, and his torn loyalties between modernity and family tradition. His messed-up relationship to women, sexuality and his own body is more than an average romance novel could offer. Buck strips the maharaja bare of certain types of romantic expectations. She does it very nicely and politely, as a kind of honorary guest to India who is aware of the narrative limits of her genre. The romance remains, but some sugar has been cut down.

In fact, I would like to read this story re-written from the perspective of the 2000s. Perhaps the characters could be different, but I believe some of the tensions remain the same. I wonder what the tale would sound like without any sugar. Of course, a plain tale cannot exist. There are always ornaments added to stories. Probably there'd be an increase of salt and fat. In the 2000s version, sex would be explicit and ugly. (See also my reading of Upamanyu Chatterjee's Weight Loss)

There is more political history in the novel than one would automatically expect. The analysis of the Indo-Chinese relations in the border zones is quite nuanced, considering that it is a romantic novel. Americans are not portrayed through American eyes only; there is a certain level of "talking back" (even in the form of fictional characters). As a whole, the novel is an odd combination of orientalism and post-colonial critique. Buck wrote it in her late 70s, when apparently visiting his missionary son/grandson in India. She could not have produced this in an armchair, there are many cultural details she can only have picked up while living in India. We learn something about the Rajputs, caste relations and the relations between Hindus, Muslims and Christians. We learn about Tibetan Buddhist beliefs of afterlife. We even learn about tribes living outside the realm of major world religions.

I imagine Mandala would make a solid Bollywood film, with the potential of international distribution. The clichés could be played with, using all the devices of postmodern irony - Bollywood filmmakers are surely in this juncture already, knowing how to make the most of the iconicity of India. I cannot imagine a better future for an almost forgotten author, whose moldy books new generations would not otherwise touch.