May 10, 2011

Book Review - Chitralekha by Bhagwaticharan Verma

ChitralekhaChitralekha by Bhagwaticharan Verma

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


Central Idea: No saintly act, no sin; a man just does what he has to do.



Plot: Two students, keen to understand the true nature of 'sin', are commissioned on a project by their Guru. One is sent to a rich young man enjoying all the pleasures of life, while the other is sent to a Yogi, who has abnegated all that is worldly for the spiritual. The students are required to serve these masters for one year and then revert with an answer to their question.

Pathetic Novel! But this terrible novel does one good thing: it reveals the truism that stylization, restraint and contextual relevance are necessary components of all fiction, even one -- in fact especially one -- whose purported aim is philosophy. With this thought, 'Chitralekha' may not even be regarded a novel, for it is a brutal failure on all these aspects. Its characters -- or rather types -- are so deplorably tied to the inescapable, shrill voice of the author, that it reads not as a subtle display of his intelligence -- as it could have -- but as a loud, over-the-top honking of it. Verma grossly marginalizes texture, concentrating unceasingly on ill-conceiving events to enable him to engage his characters in debates on philosophical issues. The fake characters exist solely for the delivery of the author's point and counterpoint, and nothing else. A Dostoyevsky reference may be made here, but any comparison is impossible; Verma is too verbose and straightforward to come anywhere close to the Russian (who, incidentally, is not a big hit with me). So pathetic is Verma's desire for control, that at no single page is he able to distance himself from the work and let it flow.

All in all, the plot and the central idea are simplistic yet strong, but their translation into fiction is poor. 'Chitralekha' is paragraph after paragraph of logical conversation (the logic by the way, if it really matters, is solid at times) delivered by characters who are clueless of what they will do next, other than talking, that is. 'Chitralekha' is hurried, as if it was written by a writer restless to provide his soul some deliverance from his own cumbersome intelligence.
But now I'm wondering. Should I deliver the final insult? I think I should: Chitralekha, ostensibly a masterpiece of Hindi literature would have never EVER found a decent publisher if it was written in English (Is that the reason why there are no translations in print?) You may call me biased. I have read one more book by Bhagwaticharan Verma -- 'Veh Phir Nahi Aayi' -- and it had the same problems as Chitralekha (the stentorian philosophizing was absent, which made it passable). I have not yet read 'Bhoole Bisre Chitr', supposedly Verma's best book, and so I will abstain from making an unqualified comment about his writing -- or about Hindi-Urdu-literature-that-is-not-social-realism. But after reading some examples 20th century Hindi novel, I have decided to be a bit skeptical of its claim of being as good as its Western counterpart.





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