Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Picaresque Narrative

I was for a long time under the spell of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I couldn’t get the narrator Saleem Sinai’s voice out of my head, and every time I sat down to write a story, I found myself using the Picaresque narrative. The Picaresque narrative involves a narrator who usually a loser of some sort but describes in a funny, quirky way the circumstances around him. The narrator is also usually very egocentric.

I thought I could use Picaresque narrative in a rural Indian setting. My protagonist was the son of a Brahmin farmer in Tamilnadu who has failed to finish his high school education, is just lounging idly around the farm and the village, and is interested in the flower vendor’s daughter. The summer that year turns out to be exceptionally hot and monsoons are delayed.

I haven’t finished the story, and am thinking of abandoning it – the Picaresque style at the least – but the ideas are still there in my mind. Below are some excerpts. They are in no particular order; I’ve just put some of the sections that I like.


There was once a time when I liked sugarcanes because in the lands that my father farmed, there grew long shoots of them. I liked walking between the rows and rows of them in the fields, treading the dark, moist earth, or squatting, or sometimes sitting long hours teasing the earthworms that either disappeared deep into the soil or emerged from the depths. I used to pick the squiggly creatures up, place them on my forearms, and feel them crawl aimlessly on my skin so that I could feel the tickles and the goose bumps.


She, with textbooks and notebooks held against her bosom, and I would then walk to Selvam’s food stall on the highway, where we would exhort him to start cooking for us, despite his protests that it would be a while before the buses came. What could more mesmerizing, what could be a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than to watch Selvam vigorously knead the dough, pinch off portions from it and shape them into small flat, half-an-inch thick circular pieces, and lay them symmetrically on the large, black griddle? Ah, to watch him make his barottas and korma! To watch him stoke the burning sticks and branches below the griddle through the opening in the brick enclosure, to watch him swell his cheeks and blow at the fledgling fire!


For the next month or so, with the little money that I had to travel in local buses, I roamed farms around the village with my Kodak camera and rolls, most of the time sitting under trees on hot afternoons, watching the leaves wither and fall in the sapping heat, my ears alert for any slithers or rustles so that I could capture snakes on film. You may question as to what such endeavors could have accomplished for me; today, sitting at Selvam’s stall, I too shake my head and wonder what had possessed me then. Was it the sheer boredom and emptiness of those scorching days? Or was it, as I increasingly think it to be, just a stupor that I fell in during the relentlessly long summer months till the late-arriving rains came and poured sense into me? For chasing snakes was only one of the many strange things that I was involved in, each of which I have difficulty in explaining today.

If indeed dizzyingly high temperatures were what afflicted me then what of others in the village? Was I the only one who succumbed to the delirium of the heat wave? Were not others in the village equally freakish, were they not concocting rituals and superstitions and wandering through the village, exhorting others to join?

I admit that I was present at that most unusual of marriages but so were others; I made a plea that the marriage and the parade of the newly weds around town should bring rain and cheer to the village, smiles back on the faces of the farmers, but so did others. Yes, I helped with the wedding; yes, I washed the donkeys in the water tank, yes I dressed them in garlands, yes I smeared them with sandalwood powder yellow and red, yes I dodged their vicious kicks, yes I helped tie the knot that secured the beasts in the wedlock and joined the procession as it made its way around the village. I remember the media people taking a picture of us that appeared, as someone later told me, in the Sunday edition of The Hindu and, and as my cousin from the US told me, on the BBC website.

So what if we arranged a wedding of donkeys? Was it not for a noble cause, to bring succor to parched land? Is it really that bad to hope for rain, to believe that the monsoon will come soon? How is it a shame, or how is it different from other acts of devotion? Why do people go to temples and pray everyday? Why do they flatten their palms over the supposedly divine flames in the hope that they’ll receive blessings? Why do people worship idols of gold and silver and stone? Why are idols anointed in milk of cows when frail, legless and handless beggars can only look on helplessly at lactating gutters? Why do priests have to empty fruits and butter into ritual fires?

That was how I defended myself; I shudder to think of how utterly uncompromising I was. But it didn’t stop then for the Sunday after the marriage, I was involved in yet another plea to the heavens. This time, I collected stems of bitter-smelling neem leaves that were strung onto a thick fallen branch, but it took a while to find a frog – they might have never found one had I not learnt of their dwellings through long hours of sitting under trees, next to dry creeks and pools. I held the poor wriggling thing by its leg, jumped and pranced my way to the temple where a crowd had gathered, helped the priest tie the slippery leg with a string to the neem-laden bough, and joined the retinue that toured the village. We clanged the metal grilles of gates, collecting alms, and encouraging families to pray that the temperatures would subside and the monsoon would arrive soon.


the One said...

Very nicely written. Evocative.

And the bit about "lactating gutters" was brilliant.

Hari said...