Reading Subimal Misra’s two ‘anti-novels’

October 13, 2019

V Ramaswamy’s translations of Misra’s notable books help us look at the Bengali writer’s work with a fresh perspective

Reading Subimal Misra’s two ‘anti-novels’

I must have been 13 or 14 when my father handed me an Urdu translation of Maxim Gorki’s Mother. I was a little taken aback. My father is a long-time follower of Maududi, and, even at that age, I could tell that a name like Gorki suggested a link with communism. My father assured me that it was a good idea to read widely. I loved the book and finished it in a couple of days. Gorki’s masterful grasp of his characters and their politics, his ability to raise social consciousness through fiction, and above all, his unabashed sentimentality captivated me. I often detected the unmistakable mark of Gorki’s style on the socialist realist writers I read after him.

But it wasn’t till my undergraduate years that I met Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky. A poet, filmmaker, playwright, and -- like Gorki -- a socialist revolutionary. But how completely different from Gorki! Mayakovsky’s experimental verse, original and modern metaphors, surrealist imagery and avant-garde sound structures -- were a revelation to me. I got the sense that he wasn’t a typical writer; in fact, he seemed almost dangerous. Mayakovsky constantly craved something new; he scorned the past -- the past of literature, the past of politics, the past of his own personal self. He raced at breakneck speed towards the future, ripping to shreds any remnants of poetic and political orthodoxy in his path.

Mayakovsky is an uneasy presence in the canons of socialist literature -- someone who wrote odes to Lenin as easily as he satirised soviet bureaucracy. It was hard for me to find this rebellious streak in other socialist writers. That is, until I was introduced to the inimitable work of Subimal Misra.

Let me qualify. It will be dishonest to reduce Subimal Misra to a socialist writer. In fact, Misra joyfully refuses every category. In his essay, The Anti-Novel: A Manifesto, Misra lambasts every modern style from Gorki’s socialist realism to Trotsky’s psychological portrayal of character and place. He protests against the hegemony of "so-called reality" and its conventional portrayal in literature: "Because – when a medium as powerful as literature begins to speak in a single mould and tune, then what can make one more despondent than that, can there be anything?"

What is the point of repeating the same old structures, the same old words? What is the point of writing poems and novels just like the ones that have been written a thousand times before? No point, at least for Misra and Mayakovsky. They are priests of a different calling. They are here to show us the outlines, the very bare beginnings, of a literature after literature, an anti-literature. In Misra’s declaration -- "I would be most happy if I am not counted among writers" -- I found an echo of Mayakovsky’s cry: "Words/are lame!"

Misra is difficult, provocative, and, ultimately, tedious. But there is a chance that he is not tedious because he is a bad writer, but tedious because he refuses the pleasures of a conventional narrative, a predictable reality.

Subimal Misra was born in Bengal in 1943. He attended university during the 1960s and later taught at different schools and colleges. He began writing in the late sixties, announcing his entry on the literary scene with the publication of a strange, allegorical short story, Haran Majhi’s Widow’s Corpse or the Golden Gandhi Statue – the stinking corpse of a boatman’s widow travels down the Ganga and enters the city of Calcutta, where it disrupts the inauguration ceremony for a golden statue of Gandhi imported from America. Bengali politics during this period was deeply entrenched in different shades of communist struggle. Misra never joined any communist party officially, but he exclusively and prolifically wrote against the inhumane conditions afflicting the poor and downtrodden sectors of society, exposing the cruelty and hypocrisy of the middle-class in blistering attacks on the ossified socio-political structures that kept them in power.

At the same time, Misra fiercely defended his literary independence. He published his stories in small literary journals, which gave him the freedom to experiment and push the boundaries of narrative convention. He gradually built a committed readership, though he remained, almost by choice, a marginal figure in Bengali literary circles. The freedom to publish what he wanted and where he wanted allowed his fiction to traverse unchartered territories. His writing continued to become more scathing, more unstructured, and more entrenched in the brutal realities of poor and working-class people. For example, the story, Mohandas and Cut-Ball, returns to the symbolic figure of Gandhi, describing the life of a poor beggar who dresses up as Gandhi to earn money. Many of his stories describe the corrupt proceedings of lower bureaucracies and local police stations -- the many ways in which they are used as instruments of control against trade unions and peasant revolts. Other, more surrealist stories like Only God’s Alive Now (a man carries around the slogan of the French Revolution and meets Hitler)  and 36 Feet Towards Revolution (A man’s heart is removed, but he continues to live) turn the everyday into bizarre spectacles.

The book, This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale, described by Misra as an ‘anti-novel’, was originally published in 1982. A recent translation by V Ramaswamy has brought renewed attention to this classic of Bengali literature. In this book, Misra seems to be at the height of his literary power, seamlessly combining his attacks on middle-class morality with his graphic and phonetic subversions of traditional literary devices. There are none of the recognisable literary developments in this book -- no character, no place, no voice, no climax, no arc. It moves relentlessly through events and dialogues and peoples and images, never stopping long enough at any one place to let the reader orient their perspective. The book’s never-ending layers are like the thick layers of posters on public walls, torn here and there to provide a glimpse of all the posters buried underneath, their depth unfathomable. There is no beginning and no end – simply fragmented layers, half-sentences and unfinished events.

The book doesn’t build a coherent narrative; it slips through the cracks. We learn about Ramayan Chamar, a tea-plantation worker, but we never learn his complete tale. Instead, Misra takes bits of Chamar’s narrative and scatters them among an anarchic array of unidentified voices, historical facts, film dialogues, diary entries, cut-up paragraphs, and uncountable other forms that dart in and out of the whirling text – Ramayan Chamar is both present and never fully captured.

I cannot guarantee that you will enjoy Subimal Misra’s writing. Misra is difficult, provocative, and, ultimately, tedious. But there is a chance that he is not tedious because he is a bad writer, but tedious because he refuses the pleasures of a conventional narrative, a predictable reality. There is a chance that he is trying to reconfigure what we have held so dear for so long – the definite and totalising nature of both reality and literature. This chance, this promise of the new, is reason enough to read Subimal Misra.

Reading Subimal Misra’s two ‘anti-novels’