By Atreyee Majumder
I wonder about Gautam Bhatia’s book The Wall, the first in the series of The Chronicles of Sumer, as I look at the sliver of sky available from my Calcutta apartment window. If this sliver of viewing nothing up above and onto the farthest point in the line of vision were blocked, my life would not be affected in any material way. And yet, it would make irrelevant a useless word – horizon. A yearning to imagine a horizon where there is none. Many have lauded Gautam Bhatia’s tremendous debut as a parable of revolution, fight against injustice, but I wish to excavate from The Wall a political subjectivity pivoted on appreciation of strangeness. Politics in the late modern world is layered heavily with the subjects of rights claimed against various quarters of the state. These rights – whether civil or political, economic or social, are claimed to assure the material well-being of the citizen-subjects. But Mithila-Seven, nineteen years of age, of the Maloran family, daughter of Ananta, the sculptor, attacks the Shoortan sovereignty of the Sumer city-state at the intersection of material being and imaginative vitality. She does not want the sovereign to do anything to restore her or her group’s wellness. She simply wants to destroy The Wall and recuperate the power to extend one’s imagination through viewing of the farthest point, the power to look out of the stagnant peace of one’s own inside. Her politics is predicated upon the yearning for an outside. Mithila-Seven emerges as an innocent terrorist with the yearning for a world without The Wall, an emotion that is called smara in Sumer vocabulary.
The city-state of Sumer lives amidst an elaborately articulated, and hence, presumably precarious, peace. The rahi grain is cultivated to satisfy the hunger of the citizenry. The grey river Rasa flows around the circular city-state and lends water through its tributaries. There are festivals and public gatherings of ceremony. There are rights of free speech and a government that practices some elements of democracy. The leaders – the Shoortans and the Elders – talk of law and order and stability and contentment. And yet, there are hints of a violent past. The Savarian Revolution is no longer legally spoken of, and is obliterated from the recorded Encyclopaedia of the Sumer city-state. The colour blue marks status here, and no one without high status can sport the colour blue. This explains the romantic song sung often by Mithila-Seven, and sometimes for her companion Rama – “blue/I dream you/blue.” Mithila-Seven fearlessly courts trouble. Her team – the Young Tarafians – comprising Rama, Lamon, Alvar and others – are looked upon as troublemakers. Their protest is of a strange kind, one that the contemporary world of politics and protest does not really mirror. It is the trouble of the imagination. It is not the trouble of unfulfilled interests. In the real world of proliferating struggles that stem from material poverty and related interests, Bhatia weaves, in all authenticity, a strange world.
Bhatia constructs a terrorist through the hue of innocence. Mithila-Seven takes on the powerful Shoortans and Elders solely with the simplicity of her argument, the sheer conviction of an earnest mind. I don’t want to turn to a sociology of Sumer here, and comment that it seems like a gender-just society where women speak their minds openly, and occupy high status, though that would be a relevant comment. It would do injustice to Bhatia’s craft. Bhatia takes great care to yield us a world whose categories are not akin to ours. I must honour that endeavour in my discussion. The question of gender justice seems irrelevant to the city-state society of Sumer. It is indeed our question, and we are so inured in it that we cannot imagine a society for whom this is not a primary receptable of politics. There are many straightforward, easy allegories that can be drawn between our contemporary late modern, postcolonial world and that of Sumer. Yes, we in India are governed by a sovereign who is trying very hard to sell cultural chauvinism and insularity over open-mindedness and imaginative vitality, very much like Sumer. Yes, we in India today are told to hate outsiders or persons who bear the marker of difference, much like the Shoortans are trying to get the citizens of Sumer to believe. But I must take care to parse apart the categories of power and narrative through which the Sumer society unfolds through the centrality of Mithila-Seven, in close loyalty to Bhatia’s craftsmanship.
Bhatia is showing history – written history, encyclopaedias and the like – to have become the preserve of the elites. There seems to be a kind of oligarchical, influence-driven rule of the elites in Sumer. There is a paper-quota and the use of paper is restricted among commoners. There is a rationing of writing, and history is oralized. The assurance of writing is yearned for and in such yearning, the troublemakers, the Young Tarafians, are inaugurating to my mind, a kind of class-struggle. They want to appropriate the social capital of the elites – the very social capital which enables them to have influence over the sovereign. I wish to deploy Antonio Gramsci’s term “organic intellectual” (Gramsci (1926) 2011) to excavate the political consciousness of Mithila-Seven. Never does Mithila-Seven argue domination through categories of social position, unlike activists of our world. She seems ambivalent to, or at most, tangentially concerned about her low position as a sculptor’s daughter in the Sumer world. She rises from the ranks and speaks an open, confident mind. She becomes the source of inspiration and support for her companions among the Young Tarafians, and comes to be known as the main trouble-maker. She speaks with conviction attacking the imagination of the powerful, attacking the source of sacrality in Sumer society, and speaking simply about the power to imagine a horizon. She considers her argument enough ammunition to start and sustain this massive struggle. She does not try to convince other commoners in the city-state, many of whom, like her sister Minakshi, believe life is good as it is, there is no need to attack the dominant status quo. It is the simplicity of Mithila-Seven’s politics that carves her out as one of the most magnificent dissenting characters in the history of literature.
The story of Sumer reminds of me Tagore’s dance-drama Tasher Desh (Nation of Cards) and the innocent fight against an unjust sovereign there. Freedom is the strange deliverable in both texts. Freedom, the unshackling of the mind from social discipline, one that Tagore vociferously defended in his political writings, and the word that has in recent times, been brutally desecrated by the American Imperial State. I see in Mithila-Seven a politics of strangeness, an orientation towards the strange, the unfamiliar. A powerful strange-sociability – a quality that is looked upon with suspicion in most societies, especially those invested in ethnonationalistic narratives about their own exceptionalism.
Utopia dominates many of Tagore’s works – I am thinking especially of the encounter between Buddha and a female servant in play Pujarini, and the novel Rajarshi in which the king is morally persuaded to give up animal sacrifice by a young girl. I see Gautam Bhatia as joining the legacy of Tagore in imagining an open, curious, imaginative, supple-minded society that will accept difference and strangeness with warmth and hospitality. This imagination of an open, supple, curious mind that is in search of answers from diverse sources, is lost in the dogma of modernity. Bhatia excavates simplicity and innocence in the power to dream – the stuff of utopia.
The other element of Bhatia’s work is that it takes away from the reader the comfort of time. Bhatia talks of the circular time that is imposed by the Shoortans in which the Sumer citizen-subjects are incarcerated. Smara emerges in the ultimate analysis is a word not just for longing, but a word for memory of a time before The Wall – Smara, an enemy of time (Bhatia 291). Smara is a criminalized sentiment in Sumer. Its banning ensures that citizen-subjects are not able to marshal time to make a political argument.
I take this poetic formulation spoken in a Sumer song and propose that time – linear or circular – is a carceral category that binds thought/memory to logical sequence and a disciplinary arrangement. Utopia, to my mind, is the enemy of time. It is a horizon of liberation that frees the subject from the shackles of sequentiality. I argue that Bhatia has created a methodological tool of signalling towards utopia by telling a strange story out of time.
In The Wall, Bhatia has inaugurated a fantastic city-state that makes itself known in a circular arrangement, navigated by river Rasa, and rahi fields, and a massive wall cutting off the sky from line of vision. The story is repeatedly illuminated by lamp-light and the fading light of sun setting over the Wall. The play of darkness and light takes a predominant shape of storytelling in The Wall. I would have liked to hear more on the ancillary characters. I would have been keen to hear more of Ananta’s backstory and about the Blue Revolution. In a final analysis, I haven’t quite read a book like The Wall, and I have never quite met a person like Mithila-Seven. So, this book is quite special. I expect Bhatia’s authorship will register in South Asian publishing as a major milestone.
Gramsci, Antonio. Prison Notebooks. Edited with an introduction by Joseph A. Buttigieg. Translated by Joseph A. Buttigieg and Antonio Callari. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.
Tagore, Rabindranath. Rajarshi. Kolkata, India: Manish, 1997.
Atreyee Majumder is a poet, writer and anthropologist. She teaches at the O P Jindal Global University. She is currently researching the contemporary life of Krishna bhakti in Vrindavan. Her first book on the time and space related to late stage capitalism – Time, Space, and Capital in India – is published with Routledge (2018).
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