In the formally recorded, not long history of South Asian immigration to the West, certain events and years have become vital markers. Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Blood – whose English translation by Debali Mookerjea-Leonard brings the book a new set of readers in the 2020s – is set in 1965, with most of its action centred in London and Calcutta, though its unhappy, angst-prone Tapan Roy lives in the US.
The year was crucial for the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act (or the Hart-Celler Act) that freed immigration from earlier “discriminatory” quotas in place from the 1920s, such as those based on “national origins”. Among other things, the Act also encouraged immigrants with special skills and professional achievements; Tapan found himself to be a special draw in these circumstances.
California, where Tapan has been a research scholar in nuclear physics, doesn’t feature much in this novel, apart from a lone chapter where Tapan recounts his friendship with his bohemian, good-natured friend Ted, who is confused and intrigued about most things Indian, especially what he senses of its spiritualism and history. Yet, his acknowledgement of, and preoccupation with, the cruelty his own British tea planter ancestors inflicted on their estate workers does not arouse a similar indignation in Tapan. Rather, Ted’s self-flagellation, of a piece with his character, adds to Tapan’s amusement.
However, a complicated and somewhat inchoate anger festers in Tapan when he recognises two people in a photo, in his girlfriend Alice’s London apartment. It throws him off-balance, leaves him with questions and self-doubt. Tapan knows his anger lies in old hurts and humiliations, but any resolution appears beyond him, because all his attempts to make up with Alice, whom he has hurt in his confused response to this new knowledge, appear futile.
In the dilemma Tapan is confronted with, Gangopadhyay shows us the angst and the in-between state of the newly post-colonial citizen. That is, someone with aspirations to be a global citizen but is only too aware of his own past, his country’s colonised past, and realises that he will always be second to others with more privilege and fewer traumatic histories. The effects of such doubt can be tragic, making one unrecognisable to friends and even oneself.
For instance, Tapan’s friend Dibakar describes him in various ways: a “vagabond”; someone who has “rejected tradition”; lacking patriotism; “unhappy”; “high-strung”; “agitated”; and “depressed”. Some inkling of how he is seen by others comes to Tapan at the hospital where he visits an old flame, Damayanti. Her inability to recognise Tapan stuns him.
“Climbing down the stairs, he could still hear Damayanti’s alarmed cries, Who’s that, who’s that? Did he scare her? But why? He’d never hurt her, never done her harm! As he climbed down the steps, Tapan felt a rocklike heaviness in his chest, his breath seemed stuck in his throat. Subir’s family members must think that he’s ill-omened. What was the point in his coming? What if her condition deteriorated because she got scared upon seeing him, who would forgive him?”
It could be a metaphor for how Tapan sees his own changing self, and a changing country to which he had once belonged but no longer recognises now. Gangopadhyay appears to juxtapose the characters of Ted and Alice to represent a now apologetic West, remorseful of its own past, vis-a-vis Damayanti, Dibakar, and Tapan, as replications of more recently emancipated regions of the world – a generation new to anger, yet largely aloof from their own traditions.
Caught in the middle
A prime theme in this novel that remains constant is the question of belonging, even though “home” and “being global” have taken on new connotations in our time. When Gangopadhyay’s novel – titled Rokto in Bangla – was published in 1973, other writers were, in their own ways, seeking to explain the new world reality. A reality in which everyone, colonised and coloniser, was now a global citizen, ostensibly “free” to understand, and living in proximity with each other.
Nirad Chaudhuri’s magisterial 1974 work, Scholar Extraordinary, was a biography of Max Mueller, one of the foremost “Orientalists” of his time. RK Narayan’s collection of essays publishedwritten the same year (1974), Reluctant Guru, featured the writer’s journey to the US and his encounters with the many “Teds” all agog about India’s spiritual traditions.
Perhaps the one contemporary novel that best encapsulates the bewilderment and anguish of the person caught in the middle is Kamala Markandaya’s 1972 novel, The Nowhere Man, recently reissued by Hope Road books. A first generation Indian immigrant, Srinivas encounters racism in London of the late 1960s, which reminds him of the hostility of colonial officialdom towards students like him in India only some decades ago.
However, he also realises that he cannot return to India; “He had no notion of where to go to in India, or what to do when he got there… . ” Srinivas tells himself, “If he left he had nowhere to go.” Compare that to Tapan, who tells Dibakar with some bravado that he can live anywhere he wants to. A wish that might possibly make “home” an always nebulous, a forever elusive ideal.
Blood, Sunil Gangopadhyay, translated by Debali Mookerjea-Leonard, Juggernaut Books.