Monday, August 21, 2006

Kakar, the social scientist, nudges aside Kakar, the novelist

To be a mystic PETER HEEHS The Hindu Sunday, July 01, 2001
IN an enquiry into the nature of consciousness, the philosopher Thomas Nagel asked a provocative question: "What is it like to be a bat?" Clearly, bats exhibit some form of consciousness; just as clearly, it is nothing like ours. Sighted humans construct the world largely by processing visual information; bats do the same by processing echoes of their own high-frequency cries. Yet if humans cannot imagine what it feels like to be a bat, they can still be certain that it feels like something; for bats, like people and unlike stones, possess conscious experience.
Sudhir Kakar, in his novel Ecstasy, poses a question similar to Nagel's: "What is it like to be a mystic"? Placing a figure modelled on Ramakrishna Paramhansa in 20th Century Rajasthan, Kakar attempts to track his spiritual development in the hope of bagging that rarest of subjective states: mystical experience. Growing up near Jaipur in the 1930s, Gopal finds that he does not fit in. For one thing he is, literally, hermaphroditic; for another he is subject to unusual inner states. A passing tantric, aware of his spiritual aptitude, initiates him into kundalini yoga. The result is an almost catatonic state, from which he is rescued by a Ramanandi mahant, who shows him the way of bhakti. Further initiations follow, until Gopal, now Baba Ram Das, becomes a celebrated mystic around whom gathers a handful of followers. Chief among these is Vivek, a student at the local college, who is modelled, needless to say, on Swami Vivekananda. Baba Ram Das has high hopes for his protege but, after his death, Vivek becomes not an inspiring prophet but (conditions having deteriorated over the last century) a purveyor of political Hinduism.
Anyone familiar with the biographies of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda will find much that is familiar in Kakar's story: the passages of a mystic's development, with near-insanity followed by ecstasy; the moods of divine love; the mastery of the kundalini; the lonely realisation of Self. We are even treated to some of the master's parables as well as the occasional sermon. What holds the narrative together is Kakar's sympathetic descriptions of religious life - the set piece on a temple that specialises in exorcism is a classic - and his ironic descriptions of middle-class family dynamics. In these, Kakar, the social scientist, nudges aside Kakar, the novelist; but his social science has always been a good read. His prose is clear and evocative, and he cannot be blamed for stinting on his research. It is interesting to see how much this neo-Freudian psychotherapist knows about the bhavas of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. More important, Kakar has an openness to religious phenomena that most psychotherapists would be afraid to display. In The Analyst and the Mystic, he showed us that he was willing to take the experiences of a Ramakrishna seriously, without reducing them all to Freud's neurotic "oceanic feeling". In Ecstasy he looks at them more as states to be embodied than data to be analysed.
Openness and observation are necessary for good social science, and even more necessary for good fiction. But for fully successful fiction, two other things are needed: a sensitive ear and a mastery of voice. Kakar's descriptions are as good as any in Indian English fiction, but his dialogue is rarely convincing. The problem is one that few Indian novelists have solved: how to capture the rhythms of idiomatic Hindi (or whatever) in the different cadences of English? Even more difficult is the creation of narrators and characters whose voices are not contorted by the strain of speaking about Indian things to a Anglophone audience. Kakar at times adopts what might be called the Puranic voice informing us, deadpan, that the only inconvenience a sadhu experienced in a certain place was the need to fly to the Ganga for his bath. This is the natural mode of Indian storytelling from the Ramayana to Rushdie and when Kakar makes use of it, his voice is sure. But too often his narrator butts in with unnecessary details about the socio-economic organisation of a Rajasthani village or the location of St. Stephen's College. Believable narrators and characters must never tell us anything that would not occur to them to say.
The Puranic voice is most necessary when describing happenings beyond the ordinary, like the exploits of a Hanuman or the experiences of a Baba Ram Das. Kakar's attempts to capture his hero's inner life are often remarkably good; but finally we come back to what Nagel said about bats. Just as we will never know what it is like to be a bat from a bat's point of view, so we will never know what it is like to be a mystic - unless we become one.
Ectasy, Sudhir Kakar, Viking, p.251, Rs. 295.

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