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Fever by Samaresh Basu

One of the benefits of reviewing books is that one occasionally is presented with something extraordinary that one would almost certainly never otherwise have come across, let alone read. Fever by Samaresh Basu is one of these. Mahakaler Rather Ghoda (“Horse to the Chariot of Time”), as it was titled in the original Bengali, is purportedly a classic of modern Indian literature that has never until now appeared in English; I say “purportedly” because the volume’s otherwise admirable introduction includes little information on the book’s history and I have no easy way of independently verifying the book’s status.

Fever recounts a brief period in the life of Ruhinton Kurmi, a Naxalite leader. The details of the historical and political background in which the novel is steeped, while interesting and undoubtedly important to both India and the author’s intentions, are unnecessary to the appreciation of the novel as a work of literature, for the story deals with universal themes—oppression, love, pride, suffering, disillusionment—that are recognisable regardless of the setting.

 

The story opens with Ruhinton—a once-feared revolutionary now wracked by illness and largely broken by seven years of imprisonment and torture—being moved from one prison to another. He has survived this far by shutting out the past, but it all comes rushing back. It is a short book, barely one hundred pages, and not very much happens: it starts off slowly and repetitively. But while the novel is more driven by psychology than plot, when the dénouement drops, it drops like a guillotine.

Ruhinton is himself masterfully drawn: his ambiguous past and the truth about his present painfully teased out. Settings and scenes are briskly evoked. The language’s rhythm manages to be both lyrical and staccato:

 

There is a wind which blows in as night breaks into day. It is easy to tell for it has a distinct touch. One can feel it even with one’s eyes closed.

 

For those inclined to notice such things, Basu uses and color and leitmotif to reinforce the novel’s themes. It is satisfyingly complex; the introduction by Shirshendu Chakrabarti helps.

Fever is not a pleasant book; indeed, it can be so intense as to be exhausting. But it one of the best novels I have read in a very long time and one that I expect will still be read—in certain circles at any rate—for many decades in the future. Here’s hoping that Fever finds its way into high school and university literature syllabi. Its rawness and directness might serve to wake even the most jaded student. The simplicity of the language (the translation by Arunava Sinha is fluent and natural) keeps the work accessible.

Fever is one of the first volumes in Random House India’s new series of Indian classics in English translation. If this novel is any way typical of what is hiding behind the veil of India’s multitudinous languages, we have a lot to look forward to.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.