The power of Ajith Pillai’s Junkland Journeys lies in the deeply observed life, illuminating an unexceptional man going through amusing times.
The idea of escape can be engaging and liberating. In the moments that thoughts of escape illuminate themselves, they therapeutically provide us with strength and forbearance to endure the contemporary. There are different stages to escape, the escape from the current ‘station’ of life being the most giddy. This idea helps us take refuge in the suggestion that it is possible to walk away from the professional, the social and the filial. To walk away from the web of relationships that bind us – to culture, country, economy or the continent, and to our humble or not so humble lives. There is the escape of Siddhartha, who forsakes family, kingdom and identity in search, as we have read, for the answers of life and becomes the Buddha.
Hari Menon, the hero of Junkland Journeys, a novel by Ajith Pillai set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, manages to tease out all these desires with a deceptively light touch. In middle class competitive India the desire to escape worldly ties – while revered and dignified in stories and myths – is the hallmark of the lazy and vacuous. This is how Hari is judged by his father, Jimmy Menon, a former soldier, and now a rich businessman. Like all “good” Indian fathers Jimmy micro-manages Hari’s life, forcing him to study science “…to bring Hari on this destined path, he tortured him through his childhood with awe-inspiring books on medical science…even though his son fared poorly in science he continued to pressure him….after drinking with his cronies he would stagger into Hari’s room and ask him questions about the medulla oblongata and the kidneys”.
After yet another drinking bout, Jimmy tells his son, “…I knew they [Hari’s brothers] would do well because they listened to me. But you never had faith in your father. Had you heeded my advice you would have been a [doctor]…Now it’s too late. The best you can do under the circumstances is to become a creative director. Who cares for a copywriter?” In turn, Hari hates his father but he cannot show this, because he is so financially dependent on his father.
Hari longs to escape from his domineering father and the ‘normal’ expectations built around him. The plan is purportedly that Hari will travel to Manali and Goa to discover himself but the costs for the trip are to be paid by his father. In reality, though, Hari, exhibiting ingenuity unexpected of him, never leaves Bombay and slums it out in the downmarket parts of the city.
Having thus escaped the ‘disciplining’ of family and work life, he wanders around the city aimlessly, getting his fix of hashish and watching movies. In the process, Hari meets people from prosperous homes, who too are slumming it. They debate the virtues and vices of capitalism, literature, consumerism and alternative life styles. Vandana Mishra, or Vandy, is one among the many people that Hari meets. Vandy also is trying to escape her karmic station in life, for being born to rich parents. She convinces Hari to experiment with drugs beyond marijuana and hashish. Hari and Vandy become inseparable with their focus on acquiring the next fix and the ups and downs of the junkie life over the next two years or so, until they are busted by the police.
The arrest sends Hari and Vandy to Kerala, for detoxification and rehabilitation at his father’s guesthouse there. There is little to do. After the initial euphoria of the refreshing country setting dissipates, life settles to boredom and the struggles of the mind. Hari takes to reading and thinking about life and even to following the contemporary politics of India. In his reading, Hari pours over philosophy, literature as well as poetry. One of the poems that resonates with Hari is Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson, where god is a faithful dog in pursuit of man who keeps running away from him.
Thompson himself was an opium addict, and Hari then coincidentally goes on to read other authors who have experimented with drugs. Around the same time, the caretaker of the guest house adopts a small puppy. It is in this phase that Hari tries to experiment with LSD and in his first hallucination. The small puppy, whom Hari does not know about, drifts into the room and Hari, on contact with the puppy, is left speechless at this godly-dogly mystical vision. Hari sees this as a message from god through the dog and believes that god is communicating with him through the dog. Hari becomes the interpreter of the message from the dog, god, dog-god and god-dog.
Soon the puppy learns how to place its paw on the head of those who come to seek her blessings and the news of the holy dog spread in the region and the legend and name of Bow Mata is created. Meanwhile, Hari continues to trip out on acid. It is Hari’s father who takes charge, smelling a good business opportunity in this spiritual nonsense. He sets up Hari and Vandy in an ashram called Nirvana, which boasts a meditation and yoga centre, near Bombay. The ashram runs successfully, as the rich and famous come to seek blessings, it becomes popular and the legend of Bow Mata runs far and wide, with even foreign journalists doing stories on them.
All of this comes to a sudden end with the riots that break out in Bombay after the demolition of the Babri Masjid. After the communal disturbances, Nirvana’s policy was to “…stay clear of any communal talk, remain neutral and…not be drawn into any discussion…” Hari agrees to this but gets worked up when he listens to the news and …”had given scathing interviews in which he had condemned the riots and the targeting of one minority community…”. When asked by trouble makers about the pro-Muslim stuff he has been saying in his interviews, Hari responds, “…I must reiterate that I am against violence and do not approve of people spreading hate or taking the law into their own hands. There cannot be mob justice. The killing of innocent people must be condemned by all sensible people…Very clearly, the second round of riots in January were incited and planned. It was a pogrom against the Muslim community.”
By now a minor celebrity, Hari’s words carry weight. They ricochet across the press and soon the media starts to question the credibility of an ex-junkie and a Hindu-baiter playing god. Thus ends this stage of Hari’s life, and along with Vandy, he takes off for Lucknow to escape the scrutiny. A decade or so later we get a brief glimpse of him as the boss of a recording studio in Delhi.
Hari’s slumming in Bombay is a sort of karmic movement, of living another life one wishes for, in the manner of what it would be like living another person’s life. The godman period of Hari’s life is superbly chronicled. The sheer number of godmen India has thrown up and their proclivity to accumulate wealth and utilise their proximity to god/spirituality to be sexual predators is astonishing. In reading about the escapades of real godmen, one wonders if despite their renunciation and presumed higher station in life as compared to mere mortals like us, also fall prey to very illusion of the world they suggest they have mastery over. Hari, of course, is not the ‘real’ kind of godman, beyond the accumulation of wealth, masterminded by his father, Hari comes across as a sincere and self-effacing. The messages Hari conveys to seekers are derived from his own lessons in life and consist of the obvious like ‘anger doesn’t resolve any problem, don’t act in haste’, more homilies than haraunges.
Junkland Journeys is an amusing story narrated in a deeply understated manner. There are few flourishes of style. It is as if the writer left the chuckles to the characters and story. Nevertheless novel is gripping with its fantastical tale, fascinating characters and their well imagined back stories. The language is lucid but not over-descriptive, letting the reader’s imagination colour the frame. The junkie and godman are characters with their own notoriety in the literary world. The junkie is usually inscrutable and romanticised, living at the edges of society. The junkie turned godman is almost a natural extension, if one thinks in terms of the Beat generation and segue to the Flower Power revolution which brought together drugs, music and spirituality in the 1960s and the 1970s. The power of the book, though, truly lies in the deeply observed life that Pillai is able to present, illuminating an unexceptional man going through amusing times, in a Bombay that he seems to have researched so thoroughly that he can map it out with a few spare lines.
Satyabrat Sinha teaches at the political science department of Presidency University, Kolkata.