Varanasi, the city of paradoxes: where corpse burn all the while and people find peace, where dead animals float on the river Ganga whose water purifies everyone, where lust and death exist side by side. Into this city, which he had left behind long time back, arrives Sudhakaran, now past 60 years of age, on the invitation of his once friend and mentor, Professor Srinivasan. This trip to Varanasi is also a trip to Sudhakaran’s past and how it affects his present.
Sudhakaran journeys into his past in a zig zag manner, starting with his arrival in Varanasi and discovering the Prof. Srinivasan had expired a few days earlier. He decides to wait for the arrival of Prof.Srinivasan’s ‘life partner’, meet her and then leave the city. He starts recalling his past in the city and then in a haphazard manner, his past in other cities like Bangalore, Bombay and Paris. It is a journey filled with women: passionate women, selfish women, loving women, women who change the direction of his life. It is journey filled with passion, disappointment and fear. It is the journey of a man who is unable to understand the consequence of his actions. It is a journey of a man who runs away from himself. (“How can you run away from yourself?” asks a monk to Sudhakaran.). It is a journey where true love is rejected on the altar of passion.
In his college days Sudhakaran encounters adolescent love, a love which wants to rise above physical desire, love which wants to sacrifice everything in order to achieve the beloved. Sudhakaran loves Soudhamini, who reciprocates his love. To ensure that this love for her comes to a logical conclusion, Sudhakaran moves to Bombay in search of a job which will stabilize him and enable him to marry Soudhamini. Fate in the form of Gita intervenes.
Gita’s passion and Sudhakaran’s first sexual experience, without understanding the consequences fully, drive Sudhakaran away from Gita and also from Soudhamini. He has no choice but to move to a city where many do not know him and he lands in Bangalore. Here he encounters the passion of Mrs. Murthy and later runs away to Varnasi when he discovers that Gita has found him in Bangalore.
Sumita in Varanasi is the next lady who enters the life of Sudhakaran and for her Sudhakaran is just a pit stop before reaching her final destination. Later Sudhakaran marries a Fench lady in Paris and has a child with her. She moves to America and doesn’t join Sudhakaran when he gets back to India.
Varanasi becomes a sort of final destination for Sudhakaran. Here he offers the ‘pindam’ for Prof.Srinivasan. The priest then says that Sudhakaran can offer ‘atma pindam’ for himself, just in case there is no one who can come and offer the ‘pindam’ at Kasi after he passes away. Sudhakaran offers ‘atma pandam’ at Varansi.
The final act of ‘atma pindam’ is a symbolic one as far as Sudhakaran’s character is concerned. Though he is physically alive, he is emotionally dead. More importantly, he has died in the memories of others. Just after offering the ‘atma pindam’ Sudhakaran encounters Sumita on the steps of the ghat but she doesn’t recognize him. All the women that he encountered and ran away from must have forgotten him and must have carried on with their lives, as if he was an accident along the way. There is probably none in whom his memory is alive. The will of Prof.Srinivasan is the last nail in Sudhakaran’s coffin. Srinivasan stands steadfastly with the woman who has come to live with and has consented to be Srinivsan’s partner without getting married to him. Srinivsan ensures that she gets the required monetary protection after he passes away. Srinivasan’s love and courage to not let go this woman who stood with contrasts starkly with Sudhakaran’s own life, where he has always run away from women or where the woman have not been ready to stand by him.
Vasudevan Nair’s tells the tale in a very non-linear way. The novel moves like how a rickshaw would move in a crowded city. It goes into one alley, comes to the main road, then moves to another smaller alley, comes back to the main road, takes another deviation and somehow reaches the final destination. The blurb says that this is Vasudeva Nair’s most experimental work. The structure of the novel is quite experimental as such.
Throughout the novel, Vasudevan Nair maintains a sort of melancholic but detached tone. The initial chapters establish this tone. Even the most climactic and passionate moments in the novel are tempered by this tone. Every moment becomes just another moment in the passage of time. Every key moment is viewed from the current lens that Sudhakaran wears and the passage of time robs the events of their intensity. This tone serves the novel well.
Vasudevan Nair invokes Varanasi very well and brings out the various facets of the city and how it functions. He tells us how death has a calming influence here and how death is the main of source of commerce here. The two people, with whom Sudhakaran became good friends with while he was in Varanasi, deal with death. One takes up the hereditary business of selling wood and other requirements for cremation. Another runs something like an ashram where those who are about to die come to stay and hear bhajans being sung all day.
It is also possible that the novel may face criticism for its portrayal of women. Most of the woman are self centered and use Sudhakaran for their selfish needs. Except for Soudhamini, for every other woman Sudharakan is one who will douse their passion. It is not clear if Gita really loves him or he is used because he is a Malayali and she will have no objection from her house if she marries him. For Mrs.Murthy, he becomes a way of satisfying her lust. For Sumita, who is still unable to forget her ex-boyfriend, Sudhakaran becomes an assistant with whom she can give went to her emotions and her passion, till he boyfriend calls her back. She doesn’t think twice before leaving him as soon as she gets a call from her boyfriend. For the French lady who marries Sudhakaran, it is a marriage of convenience. In short, most woman whom Sudhakaran meets, ‘use’ him for their own purpose. Is it because Sudhakaran is vulnerable or is it because he is scared or is it because he himself doesn’t know what true love is and cannot love? It is probably a combination of all of these. Maybe this is why he meets only such women?
Varanasi, for Vaudevan Nair, represents the death of passion. Passion which drives the life of Sudhakaran, dies a lonely death in Varanasi.
(I read this novel in English. Translation by N.Gopalakrishnan. Published by Orient Blackswan.. The Tamil version of this review, translated by a friend of mine appeared in Solvanam : http://solvanam.com/?p=33003 )