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Red Earth and Pouring Rain, 1995
"Listen--" says the storyteller. And the tales pour from his mouth, histories and myths of bygone civilizations, adventurers from afar on the restless quest for their dreams, the high pride of princesses in a besieged citadel, the chivalry of warriors riding to death with a flower behind one ear, the clash of rival cultures and armies, famous weapons and magic births, impossible passions and noble ambitions, enigmatic smiling gods, exalted deeds and silly jokes, dancers, cooks, mahouts, holy men, and poets--a riotous, pyrotechnical explosion of stories handed down from one teller to the next, by each embroidered and enlarged to embrace new times, new ways, new lives in an ongoing epic of irrepressible imaginative vigour.
Chandra's subject in this breath-taking first novel is the age-old art itself and the power of a good story to hypnotize the listener, capture him, infect him with the liberating desire to shower his own tales on the world. "All stories have in them the seed of all other stories," one of Chandra's narrators teaches; "any story, if continued long enough, becomes other stories." The novel overflows with fantastical narratives ranging from the sublime to the idiotic, the classical to the ultra-modern; but whatever their nature, the author wins his self-set challenge: not a single one is boring. Scattered throughout the book, and ably woven into the overall plot, are short fragments of the poetry and philosophy of Chandra's native India, an infinitesimal portion of the heritage received from those he calls his "unwitting collaborators," including the anonymous 1st or 2nd century "poet of the Red Earth and Pouring Rain" whose pseudonym gives the novel its title.
Although one of the main characters remarks admiringly upon the diffusive might of the printing-press, Chandra deliberately harks back to the ancient oral tradition and prefers to show his storytellers at direct grips with their expectant and demanding audiences. The framing narrative is itself a bizarre story. A modern young Indian named Abhay, who has just completed his college education in California, comes home brooding about recent experiences in the United States and shoots a monkey that filched his jeans off his mother's wash-line. Abhay's shocked parents try to save the animal and nurse it back to health. The monkey's brush with death jolts it into consciousness of a prior life as a 19th century Indian poet, Sanjay Parasher. Using Abhay's father's typewriter, the convalescent monkey makes Sanjay's presence known, and before long both Sanjay and the reluctant Abhay are regaling an ever-growing assembly of gods and men with tales of the doomed struggle against the British Raj and the events of Abhay's trip from California to Texas with a carful of spaced-out American friends.
For Abhay, telling his story is liberating; under Sanjay's stimulus, he overcomes the reticence and the gaps in shared experience that had prevented him from communicating with his parents. But for Sanjay, who bears the major share in the narrative burden, the stories are a matter of life and death, because Yama, the god of death, is standing by ready to carry him off should he ever bore his listeners. Inventing a framing narrative of his own, the monkey-poet imagines a man named Sandeep passing on to a group of sadhus the story of Sanjay and the warrior Sikander, as told him by a woman meditating in the wilds. Beginning with the "Book of War and Ancestors," Sanjay exuberantly meets Yama's challenge until the concluding "Book of the Return," whereupon he tires at last and surrenders to the inevitable.
But Sanjay has handed on the storyteller's baton. "I take a deep breath," says Abhay on the last page of this long novel. "I am mad, perhaps I will be arrested. Will I wander barefoot in the streets of Delhi, will you exile me from this city I love? Will you stone me, will you imprison me? I cannot care. I must tell a story. Listen. I am about to tell a story... I will tell you a story that will grow like lotus vine, that will twist in on itself and expand ceaselessly, till all of you are a part of it and the gods come to listen, till we are all talking in a musical hubbub that contains the past, every moment of the present, and all the future."
© Wordreign, October 1999
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