Reading Subimal Misra’s work is a fairly jarring task: It affords recognition, but not coherence. It makes a nod possible, but doesn’t take the frown away. Comprehension is always kept at arm’s length. One is made aware of language on a wholly unexpected level – a level one is not accustomed to, especially where fiction is concerned.

Everything about this book, This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale: Two Anti-Novels – the cover pages, the blurbs, the title, the text itself, the author’s foreword – draws you in. But it never gives you even a glimpse of satisfaction, or a glimmer of hope. You can’t help but turn the page, starved as you are from a lack of understanding. But the reason you’re turning pages is not that you comprehend nothing; rather, you do find yourself comprehending, you do see the violence and the hypocrisy, page after page, you acknowledge that you’ve seen snatches of it yourself at some point. But the narrative continues to slip through your fingers.

It’s apparently flimsy, and yet, through its absence, it lends the text a staggering weight. Things are happening, they are taking place, the pages are piling up, and yet, there is no sequence to their existence, one incident doesn’t care for the other. The only thing that prevails is the sense of misery upon beholding a historically battered landscape.

A potential weapon

Reading this book can be much more than an exercise in a different kind of reading, but even as this simple exercise, it promises to offer much insight. The eponymous novella – This Could Have Been Ramayan Chamar’s Tale – is a beautiful and unbearable collection of interruptions. To quote a brief summary from the blurb: “(It) is a novella about trying to write a novella about a tea estate worker turned Naxalite named Ramayan Chamar, who gets arrested during a workers’ strike and is beaten up and killed in custody. But every time the author attempts to write that story, reality intrudes in various forms…”

To me, as a reader who also attempts every now and then to write, this is the truest testimony there could be to the process of writing itself, even if one chooses not to focus on the deeply political nature of Misra’s writings. The entire novella is a rumination on the fact of interruption, on how it is impossible to write without encountering, over and over again, other facts, other persons, other writings, other thoughts. How writing is little more than a more or less haphazard stringing-together of such others, and deserves to be praised as such.

Misra’s exaltation of such interrupted writing, if it can be called exaltation at all, entails pulling the carpet out from underneath the written word itself, exposing it for the potential weapon of capitalism that it is. By recasting this written word to serve the trace he is zigzagging after, he makes us realise how a desire to narrate and to narrativise can be a straitjacketing move. And by giving us a text stripped of this particular desire, he makes us confront the unbearable: a text that does not narrate.

Iconoclastic tendencies

Janam Mukherjee helpfully writes in the introduction: “Scissors rend paragraphs, transcripts of taped interviews are included, film scripts are blocked out in unidentified dialogue, and the writer steps forward, out of the text, to comment briefly on the cacophony that abounds…there are voices of maidservants, college boys, babus and bibis, folk singers and ghost voters…he also includes diary entries and poetry, reportage and fantasy. Even Jean Paul Sartre makes an appearance…”

Misra’s iconoclastic tendencies can be seen right from the start, when he mentions a labourer walking briskly on his way to defecate in an open field and Rabindranath Tagore, in the same sentence. Several pages later, he documents an incident in which scholars work hard to prove that Tarzan and Jane were indeed husband and wife, that they were very much lawfully wedded and therefore there was no cause for concern.

On the very first page, almost in the style of found poetry and in a bold font, we find the following quote: “Until now, man has not been able to make a firearm / which fires bullets only in a single direction / and avoids / other directions.” When Ramayan, the man who gives the book its title, dies midway, it’s barely an event.

Even though there is a gherao followed by police brutality, Misra’s style strictly forbids anything along the lines of “sitting with” the problem. Even as one weaves one’s way, amazed, through the mess of words and informations, sardonic injunctions like this one make one stop: “Politics in the name of art is not permitted.” Ramayan Chamar’s last words to the writer are: “Mister, even the dog on the street bares its fangs when it’s kicked, and you’re a human being…”

“Greatest of internal threats”

This Could Have Been Ramayan Chamar’s Tale is one of the two anti-novels presented in this book. The other one is called When Colour is a Warning Sign, and goes even further in its ruthless treatment of narrative and politics. Aided by V Ramaswamy’s skilful translation, this work too sees as its project a constant ripping apart of the painful and insult-laden themes that dominate our daily lives. All throughout, one is at an advantage if one knows the history of the Communist Party in Kolkata, and the movement that started in Naxalbari. But to an uninitiated reader, reading – or trying to read – this book might do an excellent job of creating that initial, initiating impression of what really gave rise to this “greatest of internal threats.”

Would I recommend this book to other readers? Absolutely. Would I be optimistic about their reading experience? Absolutely not. Because I don’t think that’s the point of reading Subimal Misra. The only point – if at all any – is a kind of crucial enlightenment that reaches you in fragments. But if you can manage to gather them, you’ll be a better and stronger reader for it.

This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale

This Could Have Become Ramayan Chamar’s Tale: Two Anti-Novels, Subimal Misra, translated by V Ramaswamy, Harper Perennial.