Anil Menon is an author (The Beast with Nine Billion Feet) and an editor.
Lokenath Bhattacharya’s novel The Virgin Fish of Babhughat (1972) belongs to the family of dystopic visions that acquired its characteristic and possibly definitive form in the works of Yevgeny Zamyatin, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. As in We (1921), Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) and Brave New World (1931), here too we have an individual struggling against the totalitarian State. Like its kin, the novel values the individual over the collective, freedom over order, and the past over the present. And like its kin, it too places its faith, a despairing faith perhaps, in love.
Bhattacharya’s novel Babughater Kumari Maachh was written in Bangla (Bengali), and in the noble tradition of fine Indian literature, the few copies published would have quietly transmogrified into peanut wrappers in the markets of Kolkata had it not been translated into English by an eminent critic Meenakashi Mukherjee and published by Arnold Heinemann in 1975. Its marketability remained as dismal as ever, but at least the book was now assured of a peaceful weevil-free repose in university libraries across the West. In 2003, Mukherjee updated her translation for re-publication by Oxford University Press.
It is not an accident that such a work should have appeared in Bangla. Of all the twenty-two or so officially recognized Indian languages, Bangla, spoken by some two hundred million people in West Bengal and Bangladesh, has the oldest and most sophisticated tradition in speculative fiction. The earliest Bangla SF stories date back to the 1890s and Bengalis have played, and continue to play, an important role in both Bangla SF as well as Indian SF in English (Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome is a brilliant instance). However, the novel is still an aberration. In a land whose heroes’ quests often end in a blissful dissolution of the self, the protagonist’s struggles to preserve his sense of self sets this novel apart.
The novel’s male narrator, Aparesh Nandy, presents the text as an arbitrary subset taken from a larger work. It begins with something like the 257th chapter and ends on the 258th. In between are seemingly random chapters from earlier periods. The chapters deal with his life at a prison, somewhere in India, perhaps West Bengal. The novel’s uncertainities are his uncertainities; in the first chapter, he’s barely certain of his own name, though he’s still sure he used to be a writer. He has begun to lose track of time and chronology. He always writes in the morning, but occasionally narrates events of the previous day as events in the afternoon to follow. Even language, his first and last comfort, seems to be slipping away. As he says ‘… I am beginning to forget the language- the words seem to merge into each other.’
This is no private jailhouse manuscript, written on scraps of toilet paper, hidden with great cleverness from the eyes of guards. On the contrary, he is ordered to write, given every facility to do so, and is compelled to fill the blank pages with text. Failure to do so, like all failures to obey, is punished with physical violence.
It is unclear whether Aparesh is actually being made to write or is only imagining it. In the first chapter, like Atwood’s handmaid Offred, he contemplates who it is that he’s addressing and concludes it is none other than himself.
Other aspects of the prison are equally curious. It is a comfortable, even luxurious, place. The prisoners are given every comfort; plush white sheets, gleaming bathroom fittings, tea with biscuits, formal dinner at night, daily medical checkups. On the other hand, there are inexplicable inconsistencies. The prison has every comfort but birdsong is not one of them; in a moving chapter, the narrator recounts the story of the missing birds. They are forbidden clothes, lunch is an animalistic affair where they fight for scraps, and at night, they are assigned random sex partners of the opposite sex. There is no discrimination between the old and the young; he is as likely to be bedded with a seventy-year old grandmother as with a fourteen-year old, just arrived at the prison. It’s a place where the external situation has been leeched of meaning and faced with insanity, the mind retreates to the only situation that still makes any sense: the needs of the body.
What does one become in a world where body is all and being is nothing? In a raging quest to be, the narrator falls in love with Chandrima, one of the inmates. Her name, which relates to the Sanskrit word for the moon, is an apt one for she is as available as moonlight and just as uncommitted. On his instructions, she reluctantly plays at normalcy, the bossy Bengali housewife, beautiful in the manner unique to busy wives, reminding him to get this and that from the market, while he, the happily henpecked, hastens to obey.
Night is when such play threatens to erase what little scraps of sanity the inmates might have managed to retain. At night, the chaos in their regulated lives finds its full expression. For example, on one night, the narrator and an old woman, her cheeks colored with rouge, her brows dotted with the bride’s bindis, talk themselves into becoming Shiva and Kali. These striking scenes make the reader serve as the narrator’s memory; we are forced to remember, even as Aparesh begins, as the later chapters reveal, to forget everything.
Naturally, the unrestricted coupling at the prison results in numerous children, but with such parents, they are more or less raised by monsters. Increasingly feral, left to their own devices, the childen reflect as clear an image of the State’s future as does the mirror in Aparesh’s room of his increasingly indistinguishable face. The prisoners are afraid of their children, but they are still young enough, we are told, that they can be frightened away by shouts.
The novel is full of these brilliant, unexpected moves. We know of course that the story’s grim arc cannot but end in sorrow. Yet the prisoners’ desperate struggle to be something, to feel something, to compels one to read on. That they struggle is enough.
The author should have had greater faith in that sufficiency. The Virgin Fish ends on a dramatic note of rebellion; mentally we are made to hear trumpets, flags waving, swords being drawn. The book flap blithely assures us that this is ‘not a dystopic novel, because in a low key manner, it also celebrates the ultimate indestructability of love and the desire for freedom.’ It does nothing of the sort, thank God, but there is no denying the last chapter could be skipped.
Yet in another sense, the book flap may be right. This may not be a dystopia after all. Bhattacharya’s nightmare is an elitist’s nightmare. For the millions of his countrymen below the poverty line, slaving away from morning till night, his nightmare would be a kind of paradise. The subcontinent does not yet offer a context in which the novel can be conceptualized. Its prisons are brutal but mostly incompetent affairs; its victims have the solace that corruption always offers ways to ameliorate the worst of arrangements. Real-life attempts to impose a draconian rule of law in the mid-70s by Indira Gandhi, quickly fell apart, without violence and by the power of the ballot. Mukherjee suggests the novel anticipated Mrs. Gandhi’s totalitarian turn, but that’s mistaken, I think. If there is optimism to be found in Bhattacharya’s novel, it is that it describes a counterfactual Indian future rather than a possible one.
It is perhaps for this reason that the work has had little traction in his homeland. Few Indians I’ve talked to, including Bengalis, seem to have heard of the work. Ms. Mukherjee glumly remarks he’s a ‘writer’s writer.’ Which then raises another puzzle. Despite being considerate enough to die relatively young, his work remains to be discovered by Indian critics. Indeed, Lokenath Bhattacharya is more widely read in France than in India. He deserves a wider audience. Neil Postman argued that Brave New World was the description of an American nightmare. A similar case could be made for this book as well. This somewhat transparent attempt to stimulate local interest in book aside, truth is, this remarkable book requires no other recommendation to the cosmopolitan reader other than the wonderful story contained in its pages.