The Marathi classic novel, available in English for the first time, delves into the futility of literary idealism and the failure of counterculture.
In 1963, Bhalchandra Nemade’s debut novel Kosla was published to much critical and public fanfare followed by an equally intense scrutiny. With its diary-like rambling narrative style, using language devoid of any sophisticated aesthetics and its specific politics and philosophy, Kosla challenged the traditional narrative in Marathi fiction. Stark realism was not strange to the Marathi novel, but the harshness of its language was, and this language and this technique catapulted Nemade to literary heights, from where he has never really looked back. The latest confirmation of this was his being conferred with the Jnanpith award in 2014. But maybe of greater significance is the Sahitya Akademi commissioning the translation of Nemade’s next four novels, collectively called the Changdeo Quartet.
Comprised of Bidhar, Hool, Jareela and Zool, the Changdeo Quartet is a set of texts examining the trajectory of one Changdeo Patil, who at times resembles and at times comes off as a sharp contrast to Kosla‘s Pandurang Sangvikar. All the four novels in the series are being translated by Santosh Bhoomkar, who has a certain advantage in understanding the text because of his study in ‘radical pessimism’, something that Changdeo is committed to throughout the quartet, especially in Bidhar.
Bidhar was first published in 1967 and was translated and published by the Akademi in 2016. A troubled and brooding soul in Bidhar, Changdeo is an aspiring writer who, along with a group of other students in Mumbai writes for magazines that fail to last beyond two issues. Much like Nemade of the 1960’s, he mocks the prevalent Marathi literary tradition and, along with the others in his troupe, hopes to write that one novel, one poem or one essay both iconoclastic and iconic, for his generation.
Oddly enough, it is out of India – in Latin America – where one finds a text to compare with Bidhar, Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives. Despite the huge differences of context the two novels share certain stark similarities. Indeed, that tells us more about literature and ideas than influence, for there is almost no way that Bolano would have been influenced by Bidhar. It is possible that Bolano and Nemade were both, to an extent, inspired by the same literary texts, but that hardly explains the similarities, of which there are many.
The main characters in the two books, Changdeo and Juan Garcia Madero, are both rather naive – although the former is better equipped at handling his naivety than the latter. That, however, is to be expected, especially from novels of this wide a scope, where the development of character is more important than the actual plot, of which there is hardly any. What brings out the strong similarity between the two novels is the texture within which they revolve – the indifference to uncertainty and the folly of charting grand, ambitious plans for literature are common – and constant – concerns in these novels. Moreover, both Bidhar and The Savage Detective present ambition of the youth as a laughable proposition, to be taken seriously only by the madmen of literature. Both the writers write about a certain kind of youth, the militantly anti-establishment and romantic youth whose ambition is aroused out of personal, social, political and professional struggles.
The madmen of literature – presented as borderline hypocrites – are the publishers, the printing press owners, the ‘great’ elder poets and novelists who have hardly published anything of any significance but have ample time to guide the listless, angry novelists and poets into obscurity. These angry poets and novelists gather around in cafes, travel by public transport, walk long walks, discuss in smoke-filled rooms and over drugs and cups of tea and coffee (and rice plates). They are almost always broke, but that hardly concerns them, for this uncertainty, they feel, fuels their literature.
And what is their literature? In The Savage Detective, we never know, because while there are hundreds of poets, there is only one poem, and that poem is not composed of words but lines. There is a magazine too, titled Lee Harvey Oswald, but Bolano’s rebels, throughout the tome, never display a single poem. There are similarly absurd titles of magazines in Bidhar, starting with Pan, which folds up in two issues and is replaced by Apan. Then there is Apat, which means ‘flop’, and Br, which means ‘okay.’ The only magazine that succeeds for a little longer is Kamini, which is published, edited and printed by one Ramrao, an RSS sympathiser who had to leave his native village following Gandhi’s assassination and subsequent rioting.
For the time being, then, the epicentre of Changdeo and his literary gang is Ramrao, who in turn hopes to run an “unprecedented literary movement.” This movement is realised to an extent with Kamini, a big-size monthly that takes to publishing Changdeo and his comrades’ stories, poems and articles, and gathers pace because the work produced by the magazine is rebellious, scornful and critical of the established literary trends. Kamini eventually folds, too, but it opens an important place within Changdeo’s understanding of the various identities his friends had adopted, and thus also shaping his own understanding of himself.
In paragraphs where he internally analyses the situation he is in, Changdeo concludes that the young boys – him and his friends – working for Kamini did so without anything in return because they felt that “a small world was emerging on its own after their own preference.” That they are ready to defend this world at the cost of something makes clear the seriousness of their purpose towards literature, the idealism they nurse and the hopes they envision. Nemade insists that this is not “excessive idealism” but it is idealism nonetheless, and this world eventually begins to be shaped by other influences, thus shattering those ideals.
In The Savage Detective, Bolano constructs a galaxy of genuine and informed poets, both talented and mediocre poets. He then traces their journeys following the dissolution of the Visceral Realist movement that they are a part of. The movement is structured according to the lifestyle of the Beats and influenced excessively by French literature; it is a movement of poets who are “meant to be orphans.” Similarly, in Bidhar, Nemade constructs a portrait of the artist as a young man, the artist as a troubled man, the artist as a hero who does not wish to be one, the artist as an individual grappling with numerous complex questions and, finally, the man as a defeated artist. In turn, it is also a portrait of the little magazine movement of the 1960s in Maharashtra, which helped nurture many important writers and, significantly, Dalit literature which found no place within the mainstream magazine market.
Changdeo comes out of these years a changed man, and Nemade’s talent is to let the reader imagine and feel that transformation in full by the end of Bidhar. That is also the case with Bolano’s characters – they end up in the jungles of Sierra Leone as war correspondents or in Spain, duelling with literary critics on isolated beaches.
In a sense, both Bidhar and The Savage Detectives track the life of a movement, and end up concluding the futility of idealism and the failure of counterculture. The characters in both these novels stand, at certain points in their lives, against the ideas of their youth, and are confronted with the chilling pragmatism of reality. There is no choice, and holding on to those lofty notions can hardly be any option, which is why they opt for forgetting and embracing all that they had once so vehemently opposed. More than anything else, these are heartbreaking novels, because they showcase and bare the hope of a new world and the subsequent thwarting of it in the face of forces established by humans but now beyond their control.
At this point it needs to be mentioned that I am aware of Nemade’s disapproval of such a comparison. His nativism dictates that a comparative assessment of ‘artefacts’ in Marathi by “picking up all and sundry works of art from languages all over the world” is “unintelligent” and “has to be avoided.”
However, I feel that to forward and formulate Nemade’s nativism, seriousness in translations and a study of those translations is imperative. G.N. Devy, in After Amnesia writes that criticism is “… not a universal game of concepts and tools, but a serious investigation of native literary traditions.” But I think literary criticism has the ability to present literature as an expanding sphere not limited to certain cultures. Moreover, as Vilas Sarang has argued, by limiting the scope of literary discourse, nativism makes clear its inability to construct an argument for international literature, instead making literature a victim of chauvinism and exclusiveness. Suffice then to say that I would agree with nativism in what it allows more than in what it limits.
In any event, even though I have certain reservations about Nemade’s ‘nativism’, his inquiry into society through Changdeo guides the reader into different corners, posing different questions. It is though, unfortunate, that Sahitya Akademi has published the third and the fourth parts of the quartet, but is yet to publish the second one. Even so, Bidhar on its own can stand as an individual novel of ideas, and sets expectations high for Changdeo’s subsequent journey in Hool.
Atharva Pandit is a student, currently pursuing a BA in politics at Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai.