18 June 2022

Book Review | 'Data Peer': Longing For A Long-Gone, Harmonious World

Hrishikesh Sulabh’s latest Hindi novel, Data Peer, set in a Patna locality called Peermuhani, brings alive a world where the spirit of coexistence binds the Hindus and the Muslims, the living and the dead.

Praying silhouette.
Praying silhouette. Getty Images

Data Peer
By Hrishikesh Sulabh
Rajkamal Prakashan
pp. 556, Rs 200 

Hiraeth is a Welsh word, which means deep longing for something, especially one’s home. The word is similar to the popular Portuguese term Saudade, a feeling of longing, nostalgia, or melancholy. And then there is the Bihari word, hiris, which echoes an unexplained longing or yearning that you cannot even begin to fathom.

This is exactly the space where I found myself while reading Hrishikesh Sulabh’s latest Hindi novel, Data Peer. It created an intense longing for a world which no longer exists around us in so many ways. He has made alive a time and space where a much warmer, intimate space was created within the boundaries of the oneness of belonging to a particular economic stratum. This belonging was continuously nurtured in various minute ways, creating layers upon layers of emotions, cementing the social fabric of coexistence between different faiths, a weave which is held strong amidst all the chaos of intolerance, exclusiveness, divergence and dichotomy which has been corrupting and destroying the world around us.

A world which is truly no more; the harmony is gone, the rhythm broken, affection replaced by suspicion and doubt. And, in this context, the book assumes such importance and such a sweet relevance and context to what was and what can be instead of what is. The book takes you to the narrow bylanes of Peermuhani, a locality in Patna. It introduces you to the people who have lived there for ages, for so long that the brick and earth are as much part of their bodies as they are of the bygone era.

Hrishikesh Sulabh mentions his address as Peermuhani, near Muslim kabristan, Nurani Masjid. You hear the address from him and you are hooked. There is no saving now. This address is pulling you in and you are harpooned brutally quickly into a world which raises a series of goosebumps. How would it feel to be so near to death, the antithesis of life? Death is a fact that we go constantly into denial mode. 

I remember the Jewish cemetery in Prague. During the more than three centuries in which it was in active use, layers of soil were added to accommodate newer graves. Thousands of gravestones are crammed into the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Contrary to my thinking wherein I had let my mind dwell on the gloom and depression of visiting such a place, I was instead surrounded by serenity. The sun-dappled enclosure with residential buildings all around and trees standing in the company of the dead, one felt at peace. Suddenly, everything took a pause. I remember sitting on a bench, falling silent, a sense of comfort arising.


Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague
Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague Shutterstock

Raseedan, Ameena, Chunni and Fazlu live within the kabristan, with the dead, yet totally immersed in the business of living. They are the gravediggers and caretakers of the kabristan and the masjid in it. And, like the experience I had in the Jewish cemetery, these residents live with the dead in utmost harmony. This living is not gruesome or morbid. It is just as much a part of their lives as the different layers of emotion that they go through; sorrow, betrayal and occasional peace and happiness. Emotions that highlight our being alive. 

Hrishikesh Sulabh has seen this world intimately. He lives in the house next to the kabristan, the kabristan which is the centre stage of the story. So much so that it is almost a character which breathes and responds to the people residing within. It is witness to the surreptitious romantic rendezvous of Chunni and Bablu and Ameena and Sabir. It lends its serenity to Raseedan who begins to accept life as it is. 

There is also a recurring leitmotif of the shihor and kadamb trees that form a part of the kabristan life. They stand in silent support of the living and the dead. The twilight is etched sharply in sadness and hüzün (the Turkish word for melancholy), with the swaying trees whispering silently as the birds descend in stupor every evening. 

The shihor and kadamb trees blend with the women, the women who are doomed to suffer silently and pitifully and who will remain trapped in it. It is only Chunni who manages to rebel and take flight, to claw out of the kabristan with Bablu, thus escaping the misery and shaping her life somewhat.

The living and the dead thus live together as much as the Hindus and the Muslims of Peermuhani. Then, there is music. The intricacy of raga, the instrument of shehnai, the gharana and how this changes the life of Sabir. His journey from an opium addict to the shehnai vada playing in the capitals is again a tale of destiny and fortune, and also of returning to the roots. Against this is the melancholia of Ameena: her life wasting away, her heartbreak which runs parallel to the heartbreak of Data Peer, and how the two let this grief define their lives differently.

There is so much intimacy in how the book pulls you in in a warm embrace, holds your hands and takes you within the life of all the people. They are all real people; you feel you are there, with them. The language that they speak. Their quarrels and affection. The food, the smoke and the bylanes were described so vividly. The couplets of Meer and Khusrau. The ghats of Ganga. Hrishikesh Sulabh has a language that flows like a mountain stream; sometimes, playful and naughty, and sometimes, running deep and still. It gathers words that are lost and brings them up like shining pebbles. In that sense, he is a keeper of memories and dialects. This is as much evident in Data Peer as it was in his previous book Agnileek. His control over language evokes a space, surrounded in smoke, visible yet shrouded in mystery. It reveals and hides and his story of loss and anguish fills your heart to the brim. 

You are there again, even if it was never your world, yet you feel a longing. You are struck with hiraeth.