Friday, October 5, 2012

Synaptic Narratives and Half-Bodied Women: Poetics and Practice of Vilas Sarang’s avant-garde fiction

 ‘Literary creation is preeminently a synaptic activity’, declares Vilas Sarang one of the most exciting and neglected writers and critics of the post Independence India in his essay ‘Synaptic Narrative’. 

Vilas Sarang (1942- ) is known for his disturbing nightmarish short stories in The Women in the Cages (2006), The Boat People and the novels like The Dinosaur Ship, Rudra, Tandoor Cinders (2008), and The Dhamma Man (2011). He has written remarkable short stories, poems, a novel and also brilliant pieces of criticism in Marathi and English. Conventionally his sensibility is closer to the modernist canon comprising of Kafka, Beckett and Joyce. His Marathi short story collections are Soledad (1975) and Atank (1999) and translations of his stories in English are collected in the above-mentioned collections. His Marathi collection of poems is published under the title Kavita 1969-1984 (1986) and his collections of English poems are A Kind of Silence (1978) and Another Life (2010). However, he is also someone who has reflected and theorized consistently about literature, especially fiction and translation. His collection of criticism in English is a self-published book Seven Critical Essays. He has also written significant criticism in Marathi Sisyphus ani Belakka, Aksharanchya Shrama Kela(2000) Manhole Madhla Manus(2008), ,Sarjanshodh ani Lihita Lekhak (2007), Vangmaiyeen Sauskruti Va Samajik Vastav (2011).He has also published The Stylistics of Literary Translation ( 1988 ) which is also translated in Marathi as Bhashantar ani Bhasha (2011) and edited the anthology Indian English Poetry Since 1950 ( 1989). He has also edited reputed literary journals like the Bombay Review and The Post-Post Review.

Elaborating on what the term ‘synaptic’ means, Sarang explains that the term is borrowed from physiology. It describes ‘synapse’ as a place where nerve-cells join and an impulse is transmitted from one cell to another. In Sarang’s narratology, ‘synapses’ is about narrative transitions, logical connections and the devices of narrative continuity. It is what linguists would call the ‘coherence’ or semantic or logical unity - as against ‘cohesion’ or ‘verbal unity’ of the text. Sarang wants to develop a theory and a method of ‘irrelevancy’ and ‘discontinuity’ in fictional narrative, which has unexplained narrative transitions and which help to create a deliberate effect of abruptness. Sarang adds that he does not want to focus on this type of calculated effect but ‘downright disregard for narrative continuity’.

Questioning E.M. Forster’s formulation of a story as ‘the king died and the queen died’ and the plot as ‘the king died and the queen died of grief’, Sarang asks, ‘this happened…then that happened....’ Okay, but who said it has to have logical progression?” Why not something like, ‘the king died and the prince ran away with the court jester?”. The point is, says Sarang, between “the king died “and the next byte of information, there is a chink that you can take advantage of. The degree of linkage -including its near absence- may be set according to one’s artistic choice. Forster’s emphasis on causality and logic was fine in 1927, Sarang points out, but today in the age of uncertainty, it tends to dampen the spirit of “synaptic adventurousness”.

According to Sarang, because of this powerful constraint of writing continuous, coherent fiction, the writer has no time to go in the search of the opposite impulse, that of discontinuity which a poet is free to explore. This has resulted prose fiction lagging behind in terms of form, as compared to poetry. Vilas Sarang notes, “By daring to set up narrative tensions synaptically, prose fiction can expect to generate unexpected possibilities of meaning, and go on to ever more complexities and richness. An adventurous exploratory spirit is built into this approach, for one always dares falling over the precipice of meaninglessness.”

Sarang notes that while the experimentation of discontinuous form is common in the modernist poetry, like that of TS Eliot, discontinuous progression is not so common in fiction. He argues that fiction, especially longer fiction, always runs the risk of becoming predictable due to the demands of intelligibility, of unity and continuity. These demands, Sarang notes, are largely due to commercial reasons. Poetry, on the other hand, is not as much enslaved to market place and hence has more freedom to experiment with discontinuity and ‘irrelevancies’. Sarang also points out that the devices of allegory, metaphor and symbolism that are common in poetry are actually ‘synaptic’ devices -linking and joining devices.

Sarang believes that though surrealism and magic realism in the latter half of the twentieth century have played a salutary role in contributing to “fiction technology” by loosening the hold of logic and magic-less realism, these techniques have grown predictable and formulaic in their own right. Sarang talks about the dramatic advances in animation techniques in cinema as exemplified in the films like Antz and Shrek. These films can make anything seem ‘real’ and blur the distinction between virtuality and reality. ‘Magic realism’ looks less ‘magical’ today, as the magic seems to be fading.

Best illustration of what Sarang means by ‘synaptic narratives’ would be his own practice as fiction writer.  An excellent example of ‘synaptic use’ of myth can be found in his story “The Odour of Immortality”. In this story, Champa a Nepali sex worker in Kamathipura dreams of freedom from her oppressive state by making quick money and returning to Nepal. The madam of her house demands fifty thousand rupees for her freedom and so Champa starts taking in more customers than most of other girls. Having heard of the myth of Indra who was cursed with thousands of vaginas on his body, she fantasizes about having ten vaginas all over her body so that she would be able to take ten customers at a time and make money faster. She remembers the supernatural powers of the tantric Mahant Satyendra who can actually help her fulfill her desire for having ten vaginas. The Mahant uses his powers and Champa develops vaginas on her body. Champa becomes a great hit in the market, and other madams and pimps become jealous of her success. They inflict black magic on her so that anyone who has sex with Champa immediately becomes impotent. Her business suffers and she is crestfallen. In a synaptic leap, Sarang introduces strange twist in the tale. One day a beggar comes to her and demands sexual favours. Out of pity and because of his good looks, Champa allows him to have sex with her. However, she realizes that the beggar is none other than Lord Indra in disguise. She falls at his feet and tells him that she has been cursed that anyone who has sex with her will become impotent. Indra says that was precisely the reason why he wanted to copulate with her, as he had grown sick and tired of his lust and ill repute as a fornicating god. In return, Indra blesses her that all the vaginas on her body will turn into eyes as they did once on his body.  When her body develops thousand eyes, the sight of her eyes dazzled people.  Champa dies of AIDS in the end and her picture is worshipped in Navratri in Kamathipura.

Sarang’s use of myth as can be seen in “The Odour of Immortality” is by no means a “shaping device” but a tool to generate new mythological forms. Sarang seems to be using myths to create new mythology of his own. The most famous example of Sarang’s use of myth as a synaptic device is his story “Interview with Mr. Chakko”. The story is imaginary account of an interview with a sailor named Chakko who is shipwrecked and marooned on an unknown island of Lorzan. The mythical/synaptic aspect of this island is that women on the island had only half bodies-either upper half or the lower half, while men had whole bodies. The protagonist, Mr. Chakko first marries a woman with lower half of body “who only knew how to open her legs”. Later as he feels that he needs someone to talk to, he exchanges her for a woman who only has upper half of human body. The story recounts bizarre details of Chakko’s life on Lorzan. One ‘synaptic’ incident is when his fellow mate Vaiko desires to go the island of Amuraha where men are half bodied and women are full bodied. When Vaiko reaches Amuraha he is torn apart from waist by hysterical hordes of women.  In the end when Chakko manages to flee the island after decades and return home, he marries a ‘full bodied’ woman named Lakshmi  In a gruesome ‘synaptic’ twist to the tale, Chakko gets hold of an axe and cuts Lakshmi into two pieces as he is too used to half bodied women.

The story is open to multiple interpretations. The author, however, puts an endnote to the story recalling Freud’s statement that there is something “in the nature of sexual instinct, which is unfavourable to the realization of complete satisfaction.” Wendy Doniger (1999, 215-216) looks at this piece as a satire, a tongue in cheek allusion to the myths of splitting and doubling of women in Greek and Hindu mythology. The axe-wielding Chakko obliquely alludes to axe wielding Parshurama who on the orders of his father beheaded his mother only to have him revive her. Sarang however is more interested in creating a new mythical narrative, rather than using myth to impose order on the “immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”.

When Jean Francois Lyotard in his ‘Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism’ states, ‘A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern’, he is accentuating the import of the avant-garde tendency of certain postmodern art, which is radically experimental and irreverent towards the established rules of art. This irreverence towards traditional and established norms makes the modernist work possible in the first place. One can also consider Sarang as a true postmodern Indian writer in English. Taking a cue from Lyotard’s theorization of the term postmodernism as nonconformist writing i.e. the writing that does not play to the gallery of the market, media or academia and  argue that the post -eighties postcolonial novel in Indian writing in English as popularized by Rushdie, Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri or Vikram Seth is not really ‘postmodern’, it is possible to argue that more marginal and experimental writers like Vilas Sarang who have courage to write against the grain of market pressures and academic outlook can be thought more profitably as ‘ postmodern’.

It seems that poetry, rather than fiction, was first to articulate modernist sensibility in India. When we come to ‘Indian Fiction in English’, however, we find entirely different story. Vilas Sarang (1989:4) points out modernity was available to the Indian English poet readymade that and modernism came to some Indian languages much earlier. The same can be said about postmodernism in Indian writing in English. Interestingly there is no counterpart to modernist fiction in the west in Indian writing in English. The great absence of the fiction inspired by Kafka, Camus, Joyce, Faulkner, and Hemingway was filled up the fiction inspired by Marquez, Kundera and Grass. We started imitating the postmodern movement in fiction without imitating modernism in English. This shows that Indian Writing in English, though it pretends to be radical is actually extremely conformist, derivative and usually falling prey to fashions.

Unlike postmodernism in the West, which grew out reaction against establishment of modernism, postmodernism in Indian writing came out of desire to conform to the postmodernist movement in the west and especially the Latin American Magic Realism boom of the sixties and seventies. Influence of Marquez, Grass, and Kundera on Rushdie is unmistakable. However, Rushdiean School of fiction was obsessesed with the postcolonial themes of migrancy, allegories of nationhood and experience of Diasporas.  As I resist the tendency to conflate modernity and colonialism, I also tend to protest the tendency to conflate postmodernism with postcolonialism. The postcolonial novel, which came as postmodern novel after Rushdieian revolution in the early eighties has today become a cliché, dogma and conformity with Ghoshes and Kiran Desai’s still playing the raag postcolonial in their latest works. It conforms to the International market forces and caters not only to the western audience but it also caters to the tastes of postcolonial academicians armed with postcolonial theorization of the exile and the migrancy finds these convenient to discuss.

The genuine postmodern spirit, according to me, is non-conformist in Lyotardian sense. It resists the overwhelming forces of market, academia and established modes of writing and I find that the Great Indian Postcolonial novel is not really postmodern in its spirit.

The writer which I would like to term as postmodern are not the ones obsessed with postcolonial run-of-the mill themes of allegories of nation, colonial experience, diaspora, migrancy etc but are non-conformist and radical in their attitudes.  Vilas Sarang is severely neglected because of his radical and non-conformist mode of writing which combines grotesque imagery and extremely unsettling themes. Yet one of the reasons for his neglect is that he writes in a neglected form of short story.  Novel, as Sarang himself argues (2006: 283), is a ‘prisoner of the market place’ and short story is truly a Guerrilla form. Any theorization about postmodernism in Indian fiction will have to address the inequality among fictional genres. The novel remains the big boss and the other modes of fictional narration like short story or fables and this I think is because novel is more market friendly commodity.  Sarang is avowedly anti-representational modernist in his aesthetics and provides a refreshing alternative to over-hyped ‘diaspora' and ‘exiled' non-resident Indian English writers like Salman Rushdie, VS Naipaul and Kiran Desai.


Vilas Sarang. The Women in the Cages: Collected Stories, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2006

_________ The Boat People: Stories of the Dispossessed & The Caste-Out, Mumbai: Bodhi Tree Books, 2006

__________Seven Critical Essays, Self Published, Publication details NA