Friday, Jan 28, 2022

A Shape-Shifting Novel Which Reveals Identity And Nationalism To Be In A Flux

In this shape-shifting novel with a gallery of characters who don’t fit in fully, old certitudes like identity and nationalism are revealed to be in a flux

A Shape-Shifting Novel Which Reveals Identity And Nationalism To Be In A Flux
A Shape-Shifting Novel Which Reveals Identity And Nationalism To Be In A Flux -

C.P. Surendran’s One Love, and the Many Lives of Osip B. captures the chaos of change—both within individuals and in the nation. As we enter the world of Osip Bala Krishnan, we are caught in a web of narratives that take us through the eve­ry­day life of a young man and his disturbed psychological world. His inner turmoil, caused by the inability to dist­inguish the real from the imagined, is reflected in the society around him as well. We flow with multiple mom­ents of ‘becomings’ that changes peo­ple, relationships and value systems.

Communism slips into Stalinism and dreams of secularism realign into the rigid shape of majoritarianism. Justice is often hijacked by the value system of the mob and soc­ial media platforms become spaces where people are accu­sed and punished. The hills, the cities in the north, Kerala, UK and Russia figure prominently. Kashmir becomes a rebel space of the mind. “I travelled to Kashmir, my Spanish Republic, fought another’s battle, for ano­ther’s freedom....,” muses Osip.

We first meet Osip when he is 18, a student at a boarding school in Kasauli. An orphan, he was adopted by Niranjan Menon, a communist from Kerala. He names the boy after Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, whom Stalin persecuted and exiled to Siberia, where he died of starvation in 1938. The name suggests that the erstwhile USSR casts a long shadow on the story.  

Osip falls in love with his English teacher Elizabeth. Uncomfortable at having had sex with her student, Elizabeth leaves for England and the novel follows Osip as he pursues her. The changes that have come over India are portrayed with biting sarcasm, but as one is eased into the narrative, one finds that taking sides or being politically correct is not easy. Kerala has taught Osip that one ideology can’t be countered with another. “My grandfather was a great Communist leader in Kerala—a state, as imaginary as it is real, where the revolution was always about to happen, but did not, at the last minute, so it can happen...again.”

The idea of ‘India’ is in perennial flux and as the writer Arjun Bedi, Osip’s reluctant mentor, says, “India looks forward to its past”. Anand, Osip’s friend, decides to cash in on the moment and reinvents himself as a successful godman.

The young journalist duo Dev and Diya pursue Arjun, trying to fix charges of sexual exploitation on him. But they are more caricatures. The novel is dedicated to ‘The victims and their victims’, foreclosing any possibility of fixed codes of right and wrong. As Arjun states with echoes of Thomas Becket, “So, I ebb and eddy toward my exilic status, which I console myself is an essential stage of a writer’s evolution, but…even this thought could be an assuagement of my vanity”.

Media baron Alok Jain, in whose newspaper Osip finds a job, is a ruthless manufacturer of news. As a journalist, Osip finds that reality is what a billionaire can order to his will. Strident debates on night-time television is a background score, with a voice accusing people of anti-nationalism and corruption. Surendran’s experience in the newsroom is visible in the vivid descriptions.

As Osip’s grandfather’s health deteriorates, his wife Gloria builds her image strategically, blending communism with feminism, without believing in any of it. If her husband had been actively involved in the cause and lost himself in it, Gloria is a canny player.

Another character, Idris Abbottabad, “is a part-time thief.... Used to pass off as a train attendant…he is part-time everything”. Idiris who changes his religion, his past and his identity in his pursuit of survival, best captures the ethos of the narrative.

The novel reminds us that identity, nat­ionality and beliefs are never fixed. We keep moving towards it, half knowing that we will never get there.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Liminal Spaces, Liminal Lives")


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