Library of India

Vilas Sarang: the writer you should have read to understand post-modern Indian literature

Not many Indian writers created new worlds as effectively as this bilingual writer who died last week.

Vilas Sarang – writer, poet, translator and essayist – who died recently, demonstrated in his literary work a consistent engagement with the word, striving to show how literature and a writer’s vocation could be used to telling effect to create new worlds. In that sense, his work – short stories, novels and poetry – was always an experimentation, where he constantly tried to define himself anew, to creating new worlds, blending time and worlds and space. In Sarang’s non-fictional work, there was a constant attempt to explain – his own literary inheritance, and the traditions of his milieu and fellow writers.

Born in 1942, he grew up when Marathi literature was at its most vibrant. He read the Marathi writers associated with the Nabakatha (new story) movement of the 1950s and 60s – Gangadhar Gadgil, Vyankatesh Madgulkar and Aravind Gokhale and always acknowledged their influence in his own development as a short story writer. He studied English literature at the University of Bombay, and began writing in the early 1960s in both Marathi and English. However, he soon aspired to belong more to an “internationalist modernist tradition” – for he looked up to literary figures like Beckett, Kafka, Camus, Hemingway and Borges as inspirations. These twin influences shaped his own bilingual approach, and Sarang always acknowledged that the “splits in his side” aided his creativity in equal ways.

Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, in his introduction to History of Indian Literature in English (2003), wrote that Vilas Sarang well understood the pleasures and pitfalls of a dual citizenship in two languages. The space a bilingual writer occupied was open to constant debate and defence. In an essay in World Literature (1994), Sarang called writing in English something he did consciously, whereas Marathi was always in his unconscious mind.

He regarded the English versions of his stories as the definitive text’ and the “original” Marathi as the stage towards the final casting. “To write first in Marathi, then redo the text in English, is thus a means of reconciling the two halves of my divided psyche,” he wrote. He was to use this trope even in analyzing the poet Arun Kolatkar’s work, when the latter translated some of his own work from Marathi to English. Kolatkar’s poetry in Marathi, Sarang felt, had a surreal quality but when he translated these into English, Kolatkar favoured a “greater formality and intellectualization.”

On Translations and Collaborations

In time Sarang would veer sharply from the directions Marathi literature took a decade or so later (late 1960s onward). He called Marathi literature then as being stuck in a “middle class ethos and reflex” and engaged with Bhalchandra Nemade on the latter’s advocacy of nativism. Sarang called it “pernicious,” even “limiting.”

In 1971 he moved to the Indiana University at Bloomington to work on literary translations, and his advisor there was Professor Breon Mitchell. They were of similar age, and Mitchell was soon to make a name for himself translating writers in German such as Gunter Grass, Kafka, Heinrich Boll, Sten Nodolny and others. It was there that Sarang asked Mitchell to look at some of his own pieces, those written in English and others he had translated from Marathi and for a time, there was a unique process of creative collaboration. Mitchell says that Sarang’s writing had an unusual, inventive quality and that Sarang was a fine writer in the Indian literary scene.

Sarang, however, believed that the creative English then popular in India carried echoes of the colonial British, and he wanted his work to sound more contemporary, more colloquial, and smooth, and thus reach a wider readership. These stories would go on to be published in places like the London Magazine and Encounter and later appear in the first Penguin collection of his stories, Fair Tree of the Void (1990, the poet Adil Jussawalla wrote an introduction to this).

The content was entirely his, and Mitchell describes that his help lay mainly in advising and suggesting ways in how the language might sound more new and modern. Sarang in turn, trusted his judgement and the two books, Fair Tree of the Void and In the Land of Enki (1993) carry both their names. Some of Sarang’s stories would appear in Marathi as well (Soledad in 1975, and later in Atank, 1999), while the Marathi version of Enki won a prestigious award.

Perhaps this collaboration with Mitchell mirrored Sarang’s engagement with bilingualism and his own thoughts on self translation. It wasn’t merely a literal effort, for in translation an entirely new poem was created in the process. Translating, as Sarang suggested, integrated the many selves a writer possessed.  Just as a bilingual writer’s creativity wasn’t quite satisfied with writing in one language, even a writer using just one language had to constantly find new ways of doing so, even creating a new piece out of an old one that would reach an entirely different readership in time (italics mine).

Bajrang, or as he sees himself, “the great Indian bustard”, appears in two stories in Fair Tree of the Void. A strangely disembodied character, sometimes afflicted by scatological worries who is driven to do things quite spontaneously, Bajrang in these stories also shows up the strange divide between unconscious desire and the rational mind.

All of Sarang’s fiction begins with a realistic premise followed by a detailed absurdist narration. The fluidity and chaos in Bajrang’s mind mirror the contradictions we carry, the arguments we constantly have with ourselves and Sarang transcends such contradictions and binaries, as he works in his absurdist, alienist themes, and yet his stories lose none of their narrative vigour. Left cold after an evening’s romantic assignation by the beach, Bajrang is drawn to a funeral pyre, and then to everyone’s horror, he warms himself by it.

And in the next story, Afternoon by the Rocks, a man in a blue shirt is watching him make out with his girlfriend, and soon Bajrang knows there is little difference between himself and the voyeur. This fusion of selves appears in some way in the story, Musk Deer where a man rounding up beggars soon realizes that he too is crippled in some way.

Some of Sarang’s stories reflect his time in Basra, Iraq, where he taught in the mid and late 1970s; it was a time also when the Emergency was imposed in India. He did experience a claustrophobic time in Basra, where even possessing a typewriter needed a licence. His stories feature a country with a tin pot dictator in place, a general who decides to abolish an entire season for fear of being overthrown in a revolution. Return, with its serpentine bureaucracy and its faceless interrogators is of a piece with Kafka's Trial.

In The Terrorist, the unnamed narrator finds himself in a new town, ostensibly to carry out a mission. But as he waits, he is drawn to a woman in a post office, who he spies first through his post office box. In his isolation and the long undefined period of his waiting, we get a peek into his mind, and how the terror that seems missing in this almost somnolent town, is inside him, upending his own rationality.

Ganesha idols all over Mumbai come alive in Revolt of the Gods and they hide away hoping to escape immersion at the end of the ten day festival. In Interview with Mr Chakko, Chakko, talks of the time he is marooned on an island where the women had half-bodies, some had only their upper half and others, the lower half. Chakko does flee the island and returns home to marry a “full-bodied” woman but he is by now too used to half bodied women and the story has a gruesome end.

Themes and Concerns

Stories from Fair Tree of the Void appeared later in The Women in Cages (2006), which included stories Sarang had worked on entirely on his own. In between, besides his work in Marathi, the anthology of Indian poetry he edited and his critical work, there were also his other novels, The Dinosaur Ship and Rudra, the Untouchable God.

Three hard to define stories in The Women in Cages take on trafficking and sex work. Sarang’s use of imagery and his melding different planes of narration – dreams, soliloquies, and then realism, both of the magical and stark kind – appear to reflect an essential hopelessness and an attempt to show that differences (for instance between sex workers and others) that do exist may in fact be only superficial.

He described his own work as somewhat “synaptic”, which is a physiological term, indicating the swift and constant flow of impulses between nerve cells. He constantly showed in his work an adventurousness, an impatience even to break with conventional tropes, but not ever losing narrative coherence in his writing. His writing has an essential seamlessness, despite the intriguing unsettledness it can draw from the reader, and while time sweeps and changes in narrative voice are frequent,  the story maintains its essential flow. He spoke of the need for creating and demonstrating uncertainty in work, with contradictions and ambiguity, all of which mirror life itself.

The title story tells of Sarsa, the aging embittered prostitute, Padhye, the journalist and Sarsa’s longtime client and also Babloo, a male prostitute now afflicted with AIDS. While her worries and her confiding in Padhye yield nothing, she dreams of a film like situation, where Babloo is a rabbit who has been cursed and then turns into a handsome young man. In Odour of Immortality, the prostitute Champa, has a tantric use his powers, and she develops vaginas all around herself. This makes her unpopular but in the end, Indra, the god, who has tired of his uxorious ways visits and then blesses her: All the vaginas on her body turn into eyes as they did once on his body.

Elsewhere too, Sarang has similarly revoked myths and legends and melded these into his modern stories. His bilingualism, as Arvind Krishna Mehrotra wrote, meant that Sarang understood the presence of Indian languages in Indian literary works in English and the corresponding presence in Indian language texts of English.

In the Land of Enki, Pramod, an idealistic young Indian, is soon disillusioned with his life in the US. He opts for a new life in Basra in Iraq, a place totally unknown to him but it was once the centre of an important civilization. It is at once a fable and postmodern tale. Basra was once the land of Enki, the powerful Sumerian god, but his presence, and arbitrariness appears replicated in totalitarian dictators who now rule the land Pramod finds himself in. Pramod sees the value of individual freedom, yet subsequent experiences only make him realize that the alternative to totalitarianism is not freedom but chaos. One nightmare is merely exchanged for another, and there are never any easy solutions, realizations that anyone can identify with.

The evoking of Enki is also reminiscent of a novel Mitchell worked on, Sten Nadolny’s The God of Impertinence where the god Hermes sees the world under the spell of another god, Hephaestus, who is now the master of technology and has humankind harnessed to it and to his powers.

In Tandoor Cinders, a father and daughter set out to punish a man in exactly the same manner as the latter had killed his lover. But as the killer falls through the clay oven (the murder site), it becomes a story on the nature of good and evil, the quality of sin and who has the power to punish. In Rudra, the Untouchable God (2003), Sarang is by turns sardonic and funny, as in his stories but Sarang has a gentler, meditative touch when he evokes Buddha in all his vulnerabilities and failings in The Dhamma Man (2011). Both (Rudra and Dhamma) are slim novels but present a unique re-telling of figures familiar in Indian tradition.

The Dhamma Man tells of Siddartha, who loses his mother at birth and then is protected by his father, who hopes to shield him from all of life’s sorrows. When awareness does dawn on Siddarth, he has an obsessive single-minded quest to find out why suffering exists. Sarang writes clearly and with precision of Siddarth’s days of abstinence in the forest and also, in his days as Buddha, of his self-centeredness towards the wife he abandoned and his young son.

In the beginning of The Dinosaur Ship, two expatriates, one Indian and the other Greek, in California nearly come to blows. Nikos first suspects that a murder is being covered up. But being a paleontologist, he realizes that the bone that has been unearthed is a whale bone. The two men then think up a bizarre scheme – of digging for dinosaur bones in India where there would be no treasure hunters to compete with them. A tale of fast paced adventure unfolds, set in a ship and then in India, and the novel takes a spectacularly metaphysical turn in the end, as the writer attempts to show the entire trajectory of life on earth. Dilip Chitre compared it to Gulliver’s Travels but it also reminds the reader of Voltaire’s Candide.

Another Life

Some of Sarang’s contemporaries, Arun Kolatkar and Dilip Chitre wrote a poetry informed by the sensibilities of Marathi saint poets and the French symbolists and their modernist heirs. Sarang imbibed this tradition, though his poetry shares the same flavours as his prose. A collection first came out in 1979. His poems in Another Life (2007) continue his preoccupations of alienation, the almost psychotic divides in our inner selves but they also show his political engagement. He also translated important Marathi poets such as Bapurao Jagtap, Vasant Abaji Dahake and Bahinibai Chaudhuri in different anthologies over the years.

The poems in the first section in Another Life,  draw from his time in west Asia (1974-79, 1991-2002). In War Torn, he writes: “Poetry, as the poets have told us for centuries, / Is for eternity, bombs are for the present.” Longer poems appear in the second section, interestingly titled Brahman is Broccoli with the focus more, in an absurdist way, on the physiological. A third section has poems on the craft of writing, where Sarang writes of the “low measured tones” of the English poet and the “strident voices and extravagant gestures” of “vernacular poets” in Poetry Reading, Bombay. The last section includes his translations of poetry from Vasant Abaji Dahake, women poets like Bahinabai Chaudhari and Janabai (a Marathi saint poet of the 14th century).

Yet, even as his works appeared at regular intervals, Sarang suffered from constant ill-health. Besides his literary works, some of which is hard to get now, Sarang’s letters of correspondence and the manuscripts of his English stories and early novels, showing his collaborative endeavour with Mitchell, are now in Indiana University’s Lilly Library. In the last decade, his non visibility in the country’s literary scenes meant an almost surreal enactment of the truth of our times that a writer not seen in public becomes almost forgotten. And Sarang, echoing his fiction, might not have minded that. Perhaps he knew that in many ways, he would remain an essential writer to read: Not just for what he wrote but in his understanding of why and how a writer does so. He was in that sense, a true writer’s writer.

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German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.