’K Sridhar’s book within the book sends the characters and readers chasing connections between the word and the world, prophecy and reality,’ writes Soni Wadhwa.
There is a certain kind of storytelling that washes its hands off its resemblance with reality: it pegs any similarities between the story and reality on coincidence. Threatened by this overdose of cautioning against any attempt at making meaning through connections, readers find it refreshing to read the “inspired by” or “based on” stories that affirm their relationship with the real. But when they begin a novel that opens with an ironical declaration that “all characters in this book are real and, therefore, bear no resemblance to any person living or dead”, the readers know they are in for a treat. Twice Written promises to disrupt the way stories become real, and delivers more than that.
K Sridhar’s recently republished novel opens not only on that defiant note but also with a reflection on the nature of writing itself. As it unfolds with the stories of Prahlad, Ananya and Laila set in the Bombay of the 1980s, it takes the reader on a breathtaking experience of navigating that context with the help of unusual media like those of trains, historical dates, signboards and real estate of Bombay. The three characters meet, converse about books and ideas, come too close, and drift apart as well. God, or Doraiswami, attempts to rewrite and over-write their lives. His book within the book sends the characters and readers chasing connections between the word and the world, prophecy and reality. The resulting novel is an extraordinary story intersecting with the stuff of philosophy, revealing the genius of thinking with the questions of meaning, existence, and experience. This is a palimpsest of the real and the superreal or the supernatural, blending the reality of these lives with the imagination of God.
This glimpse into the novel does not do justice to its thought and style. It does nothing to orient a curious reader to place the book in the tradition of Indian English writing. In the way it gets lucid with the idea of writing and the subject that is written about, it hardly has any predecessor. Most of contemporary writing gets busy with emotion and observation of reality without questioning the parameters of the correspondence between signifier and signified. As a character in the novel puts it,
In our journey on the path of self-realisation, we also become aware that the world as we see it is not real. And our own self, as we see it, is not real. We realise it is all a story. When that realisation is complete, you get the full picture. That is when you can do a reading … or possibly even writing.
In this sense, the ultimate story is about the story itself. Sridhar’s hero, too, is the story itself and there are several moments in the novel complicating the way reading and writing merge:
Life is a text, and like other texts, it is finite in its length. One can probe the infinity of life not in its length but in its depths. You cannot grieve that you will reach the end of the book and that the story will be over. That is the very nature of something that extends from cover to cover. But you can delve deep into any one page of the book, into any one line, for that matter, and it is in that depth that you can discover infinity – the vastness that gives you freedom from grieving over the limited nature of things.
The other unusual hero in Twice Written is Bombay – unusual because in elite literary circles, there is a lot of rhetoric about the city. But where are the authentic novels dealing with its condition after the Emergency? It is as if the city did not exist in the 80s. Where are the Indian English novels about the Babri riots?
Sridhar has an uncanny access to the memory of the city: it takes a special medium to turn the Partition into the primordial memory behind the communal tensions that haunted the city in 1992-93. It takes a huge leap of imagination to take the details about the city and locate them vis-a-vis the wider angles of the universe itself:
As Prahlad lay down near the projector, the sky came on and the first notes of his favourite Led Zeppelin album floated across the theatre. Page and Plant moved into top gear and the music was measuring the diameter of the theatre, of Bombay and of the universe in one giant leap, doing a non-stop to Andromeda, hitting the Bombay skyline, bouncing off Haji Ali and going straight to the Pleiades cluster. It mingled and mixed with the cluster and turned back to hit Chowpatty beach, spending just enough time there for a bhel, kulfi and paan and then heading straight for Orion: through these multiple reflections, the music, in the manner of primordial sound, was constructing Bombay as a mirror image of the Universe. And in the middle of all this, supine on the floor, lay Prahlad contemplating the unreality around him in the form of the projection of the sky and the silhouette of the city. Unreal city, unreal sky and unreal the horizon where the sky meets the city! The only thing that seemed painfully real for now was his love for Laila and with his love he was, as Plant was now singing, ‘down on the killing floor’.
There are many moments in the novel about the city about its hurried pace, composure, or even ugliness, but this one is a good example of the sheer scale of the parallels Sridhar comes up with. The palimpsest is not visible merely at the level of layering, but at the interconnections in every trope in the novel – typesetting, printing, compositing, designing and so on.
The latest edition of Twice Written comes with a postscript and a collection of essays responding to the novel. The postscript takes the mischief of the book even further, following up on the conundrum of who writes what. The original edition looks pale without it.
The essays, ranging from informal reflections to academic responses, largely play with the philosophy of writing or the structure of the novel, and understandably so, because the idea of a book reflecting on a book is a very gripping one, yet rare in South Asian expressions of literature. These essays do not seek to elucidate the novel: some of them are quite complex and assume familiarity with the work of philosophers like Derrida or Nietzsche. The last essay, however, is the most accessible one, with a relatable take on the book. Apeksha Vora reflects upon her life and, in the process, identifies with a character. While the rest of the essays try to establish a distance while interpreting the novel, Vora’s approach is disarming in the way it challenges Sridhar’s opening statement about reality and resemblance. It is only logical (albeit ironical) that this edition of Twice Written ends with an affirmation of the resemblance between a real person and a character, further entangling the written and the real.
Soni Wadhwa is an academician based in Mumbai. She teaches courses in Literature Studies and Mass Media. Her work can be found on Asian Review of Books and Deccan Herald, some of which has also got republished in Scroll and South China Morning Post. She blogs here.