Monday, October 16, 2006

Zapped, the monkeys

This time of the year about 3 years back, I was in a small town called Parwanoo in Himachal Pradesh, as part of my friend's baraat (I love the lilting sound of the word Par-wa-noo, like the Gujarati word bap-pore). In a brief respite between matrimonial business in the afternoon, me and comrade Choudhary decided to walk up a winding road leading to a community on the top of a hill near the main town. Halfway up, we hear a loud bang and look up to see a flash of light and flame on a transmission pole on top of the slope. Also, in mid-air and falling, we see two fatally zapped monkeys. Once we have trudged to the top, much to Choudhary's disgust, I peer into the brush under the pole to satisfy my morbid curiosity.

Anyway, sometime back I read Red Earth Pouring Rain by Vikram Chandra which starts off with a near-death monkey that has been shot by a boy, set in modern-day India. The boy's kind family that revives and cares for the monkey discovers that it is an extraordinary one - it is a story-telling monkey! The monkey's tales form the book, and the way the stories dip and weave from present into the past, and from fiction into non-fiction, make the book extraordinary. The books eclectic list of characters include Yama, Ganapati, 18th century Maratha warriors, 19th century freedom fighters, modern housewives, American teenagers and of course, a monkey.

The style is quite unlike most of English writing that comes from Indian authors. To my distress, most Indian-English writers seem to limit their story-telling to the confines of their own experiences, and consequently those of their urban English-speaking readers. Without discrediting this genre of writing in itself, I would argue that the English writing scene in India does need the gallop of imagination and dash of surrealism that Chandra provides in the style of "wild" Latin American authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa (my distaste for the mundane, familiar style of some Indian-English writers forced me to coin a rather grandiose term to describe what I like - "transcendental fiction") .

Back to the book, with its interplay of fiction and non-fiction, there is much for the history buff in there. One of the protagonists is Sikandar, a Scottish-Rajput crossbreed, who is a fearsome mercenary fighting for the Maratha first and then for the British. Sikandar's character is modeled after Colonel James Skinner, of similar history and lineage, who helped Daulat Rao Shinde (forebear of current Indian MP Jyotiraditya Scindia) fight for Delhi. After joining the British, Skinner went on to form the "Skinner's Horse" cavalry regiment in the British Army. Interestingly, the Indian Army inherited this regiment and it exists today in the form of the 1 Horse Armoured Regiment.

Maybe Choudhary and I should have smuggled one of those poor monkeys back to the marriage hall and tried to revive it...

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