Suniti Namjoshi’s Dangerous Pursuits is structured like a triptych – three parts that make up the whole, guiding the reader’s eye through slight perspectival shifts, necessitating a step backwards, a pause, to take the whole thing in. In her introduction, Namjoshi writes of the pursuit of dreams and of happiness, and while conventional wisdom (or your unfortunate choice of rose-tinted glasses), would see the two as converging paths, the three stories in this volume work within the gaps between dreaming dreams and having them come true.

Titled “Bad People”, “Heart’s Desire”, and “The Dream Book”, the three sections of the book explore vintage Namjoshi territory. There are fables and fabulous feminists and a large cast of flawed, only too real humans, trying to negotiate their way through complex lives.

Looking towards the future from within a present that is deeply troubled by the consequences
of the dreams of previous and our own generations, their excesses, their consumerism, their
relentless pursuit of “more,” she writes, with graceful forgiveness, “We’re not an evil species,
just not as clever as we thought we were. We’ll have to change – our ideas, our attitudes, our very make-up. And it’s hard, especially when there is no guarantee that will get it right.” Pursuing dreams is difficult, she says, but it is dreams that bring about change. And stories are the tools that feed dreams.

Re-narrativising the classcis

All three narratives in Dangerous Pursuits perform the consciously political act of re-telling stories that already exist, while teasing out voices, perspectives and slants that have hardly ever been allowed centerstage. The last two decades have witnessed several re-tellings of the Ramayana, forcing the reader to re-visit tales and characters embedded in our collective cultural consciousness.

In “Bad People,” Namjoshi brings together Ravana, Shurpanakha, and Kumbhkarna, a sibling trio that has never before represented the kindness, ease, and camaraderie that Ravana dada, Shupi, and Kumbh have in this narrative. Salvaged, saved, and salved by his sister, Ravana wakes up thousands of years after the great war, into a world in which he can fight his divinely ordained destiny of conquering all and focus, instead, on making things better, making a difference, without needing to be a glorious hero.

Namjoshi turns an ironic eye on the rhetoric of heroism when her Ravana admits, “It’s obvious that
small boys like to play at being heroes. And surely it is equally obvious that heroes and villains sometimes behave like small boys.” Can the hyper-privileging of masculinity in the epics possibly be challenged? Could we have epics that situate themselves outside the sanctioned framework of men fighting men over land, power, and women? This newly awakened Ravana and his much-reviled asura siblings would want us to hold on to that possibility.

“Heart’s Desire” and “The Dream Book” both draw on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Aimé Césaire in his A Tempest (1969) and Margaret Atwood in Hag-Seed (2016), have already tried to tell Caliban’s story and to tease open the original text. Namjoshi shifts focus to the women of The Tempest. In “Heart’s Desire,” an old woman tries to make a Faustian bargain with the devil but conjures up Ariel, a slightly snarky, mostly subversive spirit, instead. Unsure of what she really wants, she also hires a Personal Angel, a guardian of sorts, an all-purpose help. The woman prefers to go by the name Syco, calling to mind Shakespeare’s witch, the exiled mother, too trivial to appear onstage, and conveniently killed off before the plot of the play kicks in.

Syco doesn’t want a slave, doesn’t want a dukedom, doesn’t want to be Prospero, doesn’t even like Prospero, and yet, like Prospero, finds herself stranded, only, not on a remote island, but in a modern-day bubble of aloneness. If Prospero’s search was for power and his (self) righteous return to it, Syco’s quest seems to be for relevance.

“The Dream Book,” defying conventions of structure and genre, traces the dreams and desires, the
conflicts and resentments, of Shakespeare’s original cast – Prospero, Miranda, Caliban, Ariel, Ferdinand, Gonzalo, Alonso, Trinculo, all just a shade or two removed from their 17th-century selves. Dreams are desires in this narrative. Miranda desires her brave new world, Ferdinand desires Miranda. Caliban desires his place in his world and Ariel, as always, desires freedom. In this dream world, these dreams and desires chafe against each other, with edges sharper than those on Shakespeare’s comedic stage.

“The Dream Book”, in proving an alternate plane to its characters, makes them more expressive, more confessional. Like Ferdie says, “In dreams they are not just those persons we thought they were. We arenot the people they want us to be.”

Social censure

Running through the three parts of the book is the sharp voice of social critique. In “Bad
People,” when Ravana wakes up to the 21st century, he finds it in thrall to the Lord of
Wealth, much as his own was. In “Heart’s Desire,” Ariel asserts, “Money is magic,” and in
all our current realities, it might well be. Wealth refuses to re-distribute itself, concentrating
in the hands of those who wield political power. The affinity between political and financial
power-centres that “Bad People” showcases is a familiar pattern in our own world and just in
case we were to forget, Namjoshi reminds us with an epigraph mentioning the names of the
world’s first potential trillionaires – Jeff Bezos, Ambani, and Jack Ma.

Interestingly enough, while the narrative proposes a near-socialistic solution to the problem of inexorable capitalism, it also pauses to examine the ethics of propaganda and false choices. Social censure is often brought home in Namjoshi’s typical style of wry humour. Syco wants to understand the lives of the poor but her attempts at working as assistant to her friend’s house help end in complete disaster owing to her inability to either follow instructions or ask when unsure of the instructions issued. She is “no good at being poor” because her privilege forms a barrier to any immersion in experiences of poverty.

In “The Dream Book,” Ferdie acknowledges the unfairness of Prospero’s treatment of Ariel and Caliban: “Cal deserves credit for refusing to serve. He and Ariel were cruelly coerced.” And, in the same breath, says, “But then/one needs servants.” If there were a Utopia in which all dreams were to come true, it would still be a world in which the poor, the dispossessed, would continue to serve, because “one needs servants.”

Namjoshi’s fiction has always been resolutely feminist and Dangerous Pursuits is no exception. In happy inversion of the trope of women rescued by men, Shupi saves her brothers and brings them back to life. She questions the age-old patriarchal strategy of blaming the world’s ills on women when she responds to claims of Ravana having fought Rama because of her, with, “Eve made Adam eat the apple.”

The world of the epics, and often, that of Shakespeare, has frequently denied agency to women, apportioning blame instead. The women in Dangerous Pursuits re-claim agency and refuse to belong to men.

Miranda tells Prospero, “I am not your foot, Father. I have my own feet.” Her Brave New World is one in which she isn’t transferred, like property, from her father to a prince; it is a world in which women might dream their own dreams, live their own lives and make their own mistakes. Syco refuses to let the world name her, choosing her own identity, even when she can’t choose or figure out her heart’s desire. Shurpanakha, Sycorax and Miranda, with ample support from other women who appear in these pages, all bring some much-needed course correction to our literary canon.

While the stories and the politics of Dangerous Pursuits are obviously our focus of attention,
mention must also be made of the writer’s deft hand with form. “Bad People” has epigraphs
to chapters borrowed from news reports and current affairs. The title of the piece comes from
the transcript of Donald Trump’s impeachment acquittal speech: “Little did we know we
were running against some very, very bad and evil people…”

The humour is delicious and wraps the title up in layers of irony waiting to be unpacked. There are stories within stories, anecdotal, cautionary, and there are fables. There is that story of the three perfect sisters revered by an entire kingdom who turn out to be statues, a story that brings sharp teeth to its critique of patriarchy. There are intertextual references that emerge like Easter eggs.

When Ariel announces, “Call me Ariel”, one can’t help but see an echo of Melville’s Ishmael. There
is poetry, a sliver of which must be shared here: “An old woman rehearses silence. The night / is silken and steely. With the palms of her hands she touches/ the pillars of night. She hears the sea sigh fitfully. The old woman / buries her secret, then goes in secret/ to look at her secret. She tells herself / she knows she is foolish.”

Underlying it all – the story, the framework, the playfulness – is the writer’s own dangerous pursuit. After all, in a world so hopeless, so poised on the brink of certain disaster, what could be more dangerous than the pursuit of hope?

Dangerous Pursuits

Dangerous Pursuits, Suniti Namjoshi, Penguin and Zubaan.