In translating Subimal Misra’s Two Anti-Novels, V Ramaswamy brings to English readers a radical Bengali author from India. The two anti-novels are This Could Have Been Ramayan Chamar’s Tale and Where Colour is a Warning Sign. These are jarring, even disturbing, compilations of snapshots of reality. There is neither plot nor character in the conventional sense. The collage of diary, newspaper articles, metafictional ruminations work towards pointing toward the impossibility of enjoying literature as pleasure and making readers very conscious of the fact that reading for story is also a pitiable form of consumerism.
Both works were published in the early 1980s but they remain today, after more than three decades, quite contemporary; nor are they specific to anywhere in India. The documentation of caste, class and politics as usual in the two anti-novels is an example of a classic of a different kind—one that does not speak of universality of emotion or situation but of poverty and exploitation less the cushioning of story and characters.
This Could Have Been Ramayan Chamar’s Tale is “about” the death of a Ramayan Chamar, a worker belonging to a lower caste—except that such a story cannot be told. No writing can come close to describing what such a character could have gone through in life and in death. The police records, the writer, the politicians have different things to say and hardly anything about the dead man. Among the few lines that appear under the heading Ramayan Chamar are:
But our democracy is like a brassiere’s elastic –
One can expand or contract it at will.
Parts of the anti-novel also have the word “scissors” embedded in several places to indicate the censorship. Whatever little there is in the form of continuity vanishes further with the scissors. Some bits verge on the metafictional:
At first, an entire chapter is deleted. Next to be deleted is the important section where the writer becomes mired in his real-life writing crisis.
Misra is erudite. References to Marx, Goddard, Hitchcock, Matisse, Truffaut and Brecht abound. The simplistic notion of a story is likewise missing in the Where Colour is a Warning Sign too. It is nominally about two lovers but its canvas is much wider than Bengal. One poem incorporated into the novel reads:
Israel invaded Lebanon
America provided the ammunition
Provided the fighter planes
Several thousand Palestinian folk became refugees
America gave them dollars
Provided assistance for refugee relief
It’s ten in the morning
While rubbing Keo Karpin hair-oil on the head
I teach tenses to my niece Pupu
Tense is the most vital thing in English grammar
While learning about the difference
Between past and past perfect tense
Pupu finally says:
Uncle, I’m not there.
Two Anti Novels is simultaneously a literary text and a work of literary/cultural criticism. It is not a pleasure to read. It is a sharp reminder that fiction is the opium of the masses. The presence as well as critique of Marxist thought in the book jolts the readers out of routine practice of reading and making meaning.