Book review

Why Upamanyu Chatterjee’s new novel must be read: because everyone turns 50 one day

What is the need for the Buddha at 50? The reviewer explains why “Fairy Tales at Fifty” has become her favourite Upamanyu Chatterjee novel.

Like the fin de siècle in literature and the arts, a new morality and aesthetic seem to attend the last year of every decade of human life now. Nine, 19, 29, 39, 49, and so on. That precipice of standing on the cusp of what is in effect only a hyphen in calendar time has given birth to so many stories about age that they almost constitute a sub-genre of literature and certainly a psychological problem that pays for the insurance policies of several shrinks. It also has a marketplace name: the mid-life crisis.

I began reading Upamanyu Chatterjee’s Fairytales at Fifty just after I turned 40 and returned from a visit – no, not a pilgrimage, I must clarify – to Bodh Gaya. Fairytales at Fifty, which has, in this short span of time, become my favourite among Chatterjee’s body of work, fit into my life like a space that had almost been purposefully left vacant on a bookshelf. And the question arrived immediately: What is the need for Buddha at Fifty?

Where does Buddhism fit in?

In Bodh Gaya’s Mahabodhi temple, I’d seen a group of white American kids, freshly tonsured, being herded by their parents. These three- and four-year-olds would be left in the care of Buddhist monks for a few years here before they were planted back into the American way of life. I was curious about the ambition of these parents and sad about the imagined difficulty of these teenage monks a decade later. And yet, I was certain about something – Buddhism was not a ship for the young.

That feeling, even conviction, of Buddhism, with the philosophy of dukha giving it its timbre, being a religion for the middle-aged, came to me repeatedly as I read Fifty. Chatterjee’s stories about men and women battling middle age as if it were a terminal disease are invested with folk religion, not so much the technology of the soul as it is about their lives not being theirs alone but a part of a pattern that was revealed in these stories many centuries ago. In that, folktales and what Chatterjee calls "fairytales", imbuing them as he does with the kind of irony that is peculiar to him, become something akin to a horoscope – the people in these stories must make the same journeys as their ancestors in these tales.

These are fairytales about Angulimala, whose father abandons him for months to return at an opportune moment, his fairy godmother who brings his desires to life, his experiments with sex and the trail of blood a life like his must leave. This is also the tale of Nirip, “the impotent prince”, Nirip, who could have been Anguli had his biological father not chosen his twin, the brother with two kidneys, over him. Just before his 50th birthday, he discovers the fact of his origin – his blood is not of those whose surname he carries. Both these men are battling the same disease in their own ways – they are fighting fifty-ness.

Why 50? And why Buddhism at 50?

Middle age must be the age of excess, for youth and old age, its boundaries on either side, seem like fables of austerity, one a memory, the other a scary anticipation. In Chatterjee, where so much of the plot has always been in the surreptitious workings of the body, his men and women, like us, trip on excess, thinking of it as diagnosis and cure. There is sex. And then there is more sex. "Take my gand, precious Lord."

So much semen flows in these stories that middle-aged sex seems a bit like fiction and the fiction begins to smell like sex. All until it strikes me: Is this what Buddhist fiction – a category I had only recently discovered after reading the anthology Nixon under the Bodhi Tree – is about, excess piled on excess so that its ugliness is brought to the surface?

Then there is hypochondria. Worry, worries about the body cheating on you always, as if it were a spouse turned into a contract killer. Buddhism for the Soul, Yoga for the Body – the DIY cure to Life at Fifty. “Muscles with age lose mass and firmness, this the Preface to the fourteenth yoga tome that he’d bought had advised him. Callisthenic exercises and pumping iron delay but cannot prevent that deterioration.

Only yoga when you were 83 could give you a permanent hardon with the snout which you could – since it pointed to Heaven – glimpse God. The physical decay is first observed in the looseness of underarm skin, sagging breasts, thinner arms and legs, shrivelled, pendulous buttocks and a reduction in overall height...Ageing was inevitable; its ravages could be dramatically retarded for a decade or so by the correct and sustained practice of yoga and forever only by the miracles in a fairy tale.”

The probing eye

There are times when you want to hide your self – wherever that self is, in your mind or heart or brain – from Chatterjee’s investigative gaze. He is worse than your mother: he even knows your bathroom secrets. He knows the crazy exotic you use as cure: not Buddhism and yoga alone, but also herbs (“Sulekha-di had Manasa-ma’s way with herbs, condiments and spices, seasoning her desserts in the oddest of combinations to produce a savour that lingered for ages”), Chyavanprash or money.

Middle-age is the time of beggary, and so, “Bhiksham dehi”. “There is some virtue in poverty. The Buddha – Sid the prince, as he was known to us in school – just left because he wanted to get away from his wealth.” But there is such wealth in poverty: “The rich have always been less the slaves of chance, of circumstance, than the poor, for the weight of wealth regularly loads the dice in their favour.”

And there is Chatterjee’s take on it: “What’s the point of being rich if you can’t have three kidneys? You have just one”, this about the wealthy Nirip who is born with only one kidney. But this is a parable about urban beggary: “Even the famous beggars of history, the votaries of austerity, simplicity and self-discipline, Gandhi, for example – and the odd, modern weirdo godman – they could pooh-pooh a life of luxury generally because there was someone hovering around them who would foot the bill.” Be a beggar on your birthday: “It’s his fiftieth birthday, you see. Why only receive on your birthday, why not also give? When you give, you become lighter, your lungs expand, your health improves. Your best birthday gift to yourself.” Be your own beggar. Beg from yourself.

Boredom, being stuck in the middle, gives the lives of Chatterjee’s protagonists the courage to treat their lives as one in need of rescue operations. After his birthday celebrations, for instance, Nirip, after having tried his best to experience the “ordinary” (another thing that loses its sheen with age) by using public transport, sweat and the forced proximity of bodies being his imagined antidote for the sterile spaces of his wealthy life, the automobiles and the spotless drawing rooms, dives into a dirty sewer-like pond (the urban “lake”?) to save his infant child. After the rich description, I was stopped mid-paragraph: Was the pond inside Nirip’s head? Like the battles that Gautama once fought while meditating under the tree in Uruvela.

The third quarter of life

Fifty is also the age when good Hindus ought to begin the third quarter of their life – the vanaprastha, by moving into the forest, renouncing, in some measure, the worldly life of the householder. Siddhartha left home and household at the age of 29, which, we must remember is also a fin de siècle age. The rest of his life, which in an alternative history book might have been one of a restless traveller moving between Sarnath and Uruvela and Magadh, eliminating robbers on the way, somehow becomes the story of many a traveller in these fairytales, particularly Anguli.

Nirvana cannot come without cheating – Siddhartha found it by cheating on his responsibilities as a husband and father. Anguli finds it by cheating on people he meets on the way, by killing them. What happens to sons abandoned by their fathers – Gautama’s Rahul or Jayadev’s Anguli in Chatterjee? “A bit sad for the kid, though. Growing up without a father, wondering who he was and where, and why he had abandoned them, was it his, the son’s fault? All because Papa had gone away to discover himself.”

What kind of discovery is this, and what could enlightenment be in middle age? What but the discovery that your parents are not your blood parents after all, as Nirip does. And how does enlightenment come? Not through the mind but through the body: through blood tests. For it is the body that changes first: “The pupils themselves become smaller with age. As one grows older, therefore, less light enters the eyes. The elderly need more illumination than the young. ... Sorrow can’t touch them anymore, they’ve ceased to grow, their lives hold nothing of interest, that’s what happily ever after means.” This is Fiftyhood – Illumination as Enlightenment.

And the accoutrements that constitute middle age? Here is an example, the tea-pot: “Longing for things – teapots and fountain pens – was a sign of wanting to belong, to be counted amongst the living. I want nothing because I lack nothing because the riches of the world are in my head ...” The Buddhist “nothing” is therefore turned on its head.

Part of the delight in reading these stories is in playing the childhood game of “Match the Column” where you look for Chatterjee’s interpretation of religious symbols and “events” – the “tales” on which they are “based” are, of course, almost colloquial now. That also must be urban enlightenment, for Chatterjee wouldn’t be the writer he is if he does not let his sentences pinch us into sitting upright, to get the meditative pose right. For who else but he can turn the teapot, that utterly urban trope, Nirip, the wealthy man’s fetish, into a religious offering, almost like a lotus?

The journey at fifty

At 50, one must travel like fairytales. For travel is essential to the spiritual experience. “Transport had apparently become less forbidding, more modern in the interim ... No one trailed puke like that from a bullock cart ...” “Instead of throwing up in protest, they could do the more intricate thing, just walk away, like a cat, like the Buddha, just go away from their lives.” And say the significance of the “driver” in these stories – chauffeur Wilson as the charioteer Krishna.

We are used to folktales and fairytales coming with a price tag: the moral. They do too, in Chatterjee, but not necessarily at the end of the chapter. The opposite of excess must not necessarily be austerity but deficit – and so Nirlip, the wealthy man, born of and into excess, has to survive on only one kidney. It would be terribly cruel to give away the stories here. Like religion, you must experience them. For fairytales must be exercised from time to time. Otherwise they would become statues, like the Urban Buddha has to us, a consumerist people, middle aged Agastya Sens.

Fairytales ask you about your age. How old are you, reader? “If you didn’t know your age because you don’t know when and where you were actually born, you would party all week, all year because any day could be your birthday?” We must all read this book because, whether we like it or not, we shall all be 50. Or perhaps we already are, no matter what our birth certificates say.

Fairy Tales at Fifty, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Harper-Collins India

Sumana Roy writes from Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal.

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