Then my good friend Ramaswamy announced on Facebook that he had recovered a whole set of books of Subimal Misra in the latter's home and people could buy them. Ramaswamy, as another mutual friend once said, is a master of Bengali slang!! He speaks Bengali fluently as he was born and brought up in Kolkata despite being a Tamilian. Ramaswamy, however, had never read Bengali literature and so wanted to fill this gap and asked a friend about some offbeat author to read as he wasn't keen on reading the well known ones. This friend directed him to the works of Subimal Misra.
Subimal Misra is a unique personality in modern Bengali fiction. He has published only in little magazines, which are a distinctive feature of Bengali literary culture and never in commercial magazines. He has broken the established notions of the short story and the novel and come up with narratives that have no structure and concentrate on exposing the underside of human life which generally gets papered over. He has used the cinematic techniques of the French New Wave film director, Jean Luc Godard, the montage and the cut, in his works and has provided empty spaces in them inviting the reader to use his own imagination to write and give completeness to the stories and novels. Misra is the ultimate sceptic, severely critical of both capitalism and the kind of socialism that has been implemented to fight it and this scepticism is expressed in dark humour.
Ramaswamy, a diehard anarchist like I, became so enamoured of Misra's work ( it is he who had clicked Misra's photo above, when Misra was still mobile as he is now bedridden, in the iconic Calcutta Book Fair) that he undertook the onerous task of translating some of his anti-stories into English and then getting them published by established capitalist international publishers!!! So now Misra is not just the toast of a select anti-establishment coterie of the Bengali little magazine literary fringe, but of anarchists and anti establishment freaks the world over. For the first time in his life, Misra is now earning money from his writings. ( He never received anything from his writings in the little magazines obviously since these are all voluntary efforts which run on shoestring budgets and made a living as a school teacher. He then published collections of his short stories and novels with savings from his salary much to the chagrin of his wife who said that the money spent on his publications if used wisely would have given them a better life (Touches of Xanthippe and Socrates here!!)). Lately he has named his publishing enterprise as the Underground Publishers!!
Ramaswamy said in the Facebook post that Misra was now ill and required money for his treatment and so it would be nice if people bought these books that he had recovered from his home. Since Misra had said that people could pay as much as they wanted for these books over and above the listed price, as he left it to the readers to decide their own price in the same way as he left it to them to decide their own meaning of his works, so I bought the whole set of books that were available with Ramaswamy after paying a suitable price and after a long time read short stories and novels in Bengali again.
I can only say that the experience has been an enjoyable one. Nothing angers me more than the way in which the human race has got straight jacketed into institutions, rules and regulations and almost universally is wasting its time chasing money instead of fulfilment. Passion for life has been replaced by an insane rush to accumulate money which has not been dented any bit by the recent ill conceived demonetisation foray. Such is the control of this rush for money that I find myself chasing it also, just to be able to survive and do something creative on the side!!! Subimal Misra has consistently challenged institutions and norms and made fun of them through his dark humour and has even broken with the accepted forms of the short story, novel and non-fiction writing and published in little magazines and self published his books to retain his literary independence and his abhorrence of structure. He is the master of the anti-story written without any structure comprising arbitrary montages and cuts of the darker side of life and with any kind of overall meaning possible depending on the worldview of the reader. Thus, he has gone one step ahead of Godard and created a free form literature that is unparalleled the world over. As opposed to Marquez's magical realism we can deem Misra's oevre as anti-magical realism!! He has written anti-novels also but they get mixed up with non-fiction, political comment and literary criticism and so don't really qualify as great literature in my understanding in which literature should be only fiction devoid of any socio-political haranguing and analysis. However, his anti-stories are really great stuff that, while providing a searing and humorous criticism of modern decadence and hypocrisy, also provide inspiration for living a life on the fringe cocking a snook at the establishment.
Many of his anti-stories are available in English Translation and there is a lot of literary criticism also of his works available on the internet but I will discuss here a recent one from his last published collection "Kika Cut" because it represents in many ways the quintessential Misra. The name of the anti-story is "Lenin is Lenin even if he had Syphilis (The bus won't start just because you bang its sides)". The book Kika Cut itself is a fantastic composition containing among other things a lengthy interview with Sartre, where he emphatically says that the author must not become an institution but must rather leave things open for the readers to interpret his writings in their own way and insert their own meaning into it. There are empty spaces provided for readers to write their own stuff but unfortunately these are not there in the part of the book where this anti-story is placed and so I am writing in this blog post of mine which can be considered to be an extended part of Kika Cut!!!! The book is a tour de force in montage and cut writing as everything is mixed up and at times one finds oneself reading various articles and anti-stories and the Sartre interview together along with the criticism of Misra's work by his readers all at one go. Life is actually all mixed up and we desperately try to order it for convenience instead of living it as it comes and the book Kika Cut is an invitation to live life as it is - chaotic and aimless. The book starts with a riddle which the reader has to solve. There is no answer of course to the riddle as it all depends on the reader!!!
Coming to the anti-story, there is a short paragraph at the beginning saying that the world has become a market and everything is being sold in it from the objectification of women in films to Lenin's posters in the World Trade Centre in New York.
Set in a village in Bengal, there are five narratives in the anti-story - Lenin's poems, the fight of the farmers against the marauding wild boar at night to save their crops, the meeting of the Gram Sabha to adjudicate on a formal complaint of domestic violence by a woman against her husband, the sexual escapades of a man with a teenaged girl who is a domestic help and the sexual escapades with an unmarried but ageing woman and her unmarried sisters of a young man from the city who has come to the village on a holiday. All four narratives proceed simultaneously interspersing each other without any warning sometimes a paragraph at a time and sometimes a line or two at a time. Eventually all the narratives remain inconclusive like life, presenting just montages fitted in cuts.
Lenin's poems that have been cut into the anti-story are a dark portrayal of Tsarist oppression of the masses in Russia but there is no call in them to the oppressed to revolt unlike there is in his political writings. The narrative of the poor farmers fighting the wild boar too is a depressing one, from the point of view of the farmers, as it is the wild boar that win even if the farmers unite to try and control them. The most interesting is the meeting of the Gram Sabha which is being held for the first time as never before has a married woman filed a formal complaint against her husband for domestic violence. The way the meeting proceeds clearly shows the extent of patriarchal control of village life in Bengal. The narratives of the sexual escapades also underline this patriarchy which makes men constantly seek sex and women too fulfil their desires despite a veneer of ethicality that masks the rampant underlying sexuality. All in all it shows that rural life in Bengal is complicated by various dark forces not the least that of the global market that has commodified everything as was mentioned in the beginning of the anti-story.
So this brings us to the title of the anti-story. It refers to the thesis propounded by some on the basis of some medical evidence of a peripheral nature that Lenin suffered from syphilis and this was the cause of his premature death in 1924 but that it was hushed up. Lenin tried to make the revolution successful in a country that he knew to be deeply patriarchal and feudal as is clearly portrayed in the poems that have been cut into the narrative. Thus, he attempted the impossible and so the statement that Lenin is Lenin who despite having known of the difficulty of bringing about a revolution in a pre capitalist country nevertheless tried to do so even though he was not in the best of health at most times. The subtitle is also interesting as it says that the bus won't start even if one bangs the sides. The revolution won't be successful even if one launches one if the society in which it is being launched is not ready for it. Rural Bengal even today is highly feudal and patriarchal as is most of India and the industrial proletariat has been atomised and depoliticised and so just shouting slogans of long live revolution are not going to bring about one!!!! Especially since the world is today, both economically and intellectually controlled by the market. The world we live in is a complex one and not amenable to simple solutions.
While, I generally liked Misra's approach to literature, breaking the confines of structure, especially his open ended story telling around events of a dark nature which leaves a lot to the imagination of the reader, I feel that he dwells a little too much on sexual intimacies between men and women. It is true that there is considerable amount of sex going on outside marriage in this country, with an increasing number getting caught on video indulging in it but it is within the framework of patriarchy and mostly oppressive of women even if in some cases women do enjoy themselves. Literature, as an insight into the complexities of the human condition, is not enhanced by the graphic description of sex between men and women and in one case in this anti-story between a man and a minor girl. However, this grand old man of the Bengali literary fringe has to be respected for his uncompromising writings against the institutional hypocrisy that has strangulated human life. He has gone even further than Sartre as he does not philosophise and he does not provide any solutions - anti-magical realism. After reading him one gets further strength to live a life free of myths and masks.