Balkrishna Naipaul’s heralds a new genre of the Vedantic literary approach, feels the Sanskrit Scholar The Mansion, Dr Churaumanie Bissundyal.
Balkrishna Naipaul’s The Mansion resonates and flashes with melodies and colours of Raja Rao’s The Serpent and the Rope. Both novels are semi-auto-biographical, dealing with a Brahmanic search for universal truth. Raja Rao’s central character, Ram, marries a French college teacher, Madelaine, who becomes his disciple and later leaves him to pursue his own internal search. Balkrishna Naipaul’s Krishnaji, a young pundit, similarly torn between his love for a village girl, Chano, and a quest for metaphysical and epistemological realms, spins out suspense and plots of esoteric undercurrents.
The two novelists however part company as Rao finds disillusionment with the Vedic and Puranic rituals on the bank of the Ganges, knowing not what is rope and what is serpent. On the contrary, Naipaul finds enlightenment and solace in the Hindu ritual practices of Trinidad, enunciating the mansion as a symbolism of tattva jnaan or knowledge of primordial essence. Both novels , however, try to find a common ground between Western and Eastern thought, life, and civilization, dismantling the hegemonic trends o f Western fiction writing to a set up a base for new approaches challenging the Aristotelian structure.
The setting of the novel illuminates the landscape luxuriance of the Caribbean and South America, evoking reminiscences of such writers as Edgar Mittelholzer and Wilson Harris. Like Vidya Naipaul’s Mimic Men, it effloresces with cocoa-and-coffee plantation splendour, of mountain slopes, valleys, and ridges, pronouncing a solitary Victorian mansion relapsing in slumber of dereliction to wake up again from its grandeur of wood, metal, marble, stone, and mortar. Balkrishna Naipaul describes as follows: “The house sat on a ridge that sloped towards the north into cocoa and coffee, shaded over by blooming immortelle trees… especially the greener hues of the mangroves in contrast to the paler sugarcane plantations that covered most of the Caroni Plains.” Vidya Naipaul with equal perfection describes in his Mimic Men: “The floor of the cocoa woods is covered with broad brown-and-gold cocoa leaves; and between the cocoa trees, stunted, black-barked, as nervously branched as the oak, there are bright coffee bushes. sheltered by immortelle trees.”
The derelict mansion, with its history of silver wares, white aristocracy, ballroom dance and Christmas parties, underlines the theme of the book: a long spell in avidya (ignorance) to the bursts of vidya (enlightenment), where the chittam (the conscious, self-effulgent self) is experienced. As how the mansion must be recreated to its lost reveling and magnificence, Krishnaji must journey and search for the ultimate ecstasy of his inner self. Krishnaji’s search, however, parallels Hermann Hesse’s main character Siddharta’s, where the temporal world serves the same importance as the incorporeal. In the Vijnan Bhairava such a nexus between sexual ecstasy and the Supreme Brahman is shown: “The pleasure which terminates in the infusion of the power of bliss in a person on the achievement of sexual intercourse – that pleasure is one’s own pleasure on the realization of the essence of the Brahman.”
In innocent love between Krishnaji and Chano, erotic implications emerge as the two lovers “hug and kiss, fondle each other’s hair, caress each other’s body in such lilting fashion that (they)would experience weightlessness… a form of bliss that is only experienced by the devatas… the gift from the gods; the gift of love from Radha and Krishna from whom (they)owe (their) unique existence.”
Like Siddharta, in Hesse’s Siddharta, Krishnaji, to find his shining conscious self, journeys through the labyrinth of indriya (senses), mana ( mind), and ahamkar (ego) in a process what Dante calls “inferno” (hell), “purgatario” (mundane existence), and “paradiso” (paradise). These three states, in brilliant characterization of Doctor, Jackson and Chano, achieve the novelist’s goal of existence in different plains.
Gregory F Gerald, in his introduction to Modern Satiric Stories, states that fictional characters comprise two groups: cultural and functional. Cultural types represent various groups, ideas and institutions of a particular society, and may change from culture to culture. In contrast, functional characters are primarily important for their plot roles, such as protagonist, antagonist, narrator personae, or satiric victim. With respect to cultural character, Balkrishna Naipaul chooses to paint a canvas of a wide social landscape straddling the histories, psyche and beliefs of Europe, India, Africa, and pre-Columbian Trinidad. Characters, such as Doctor, Laloo, Mr. Singh, Madam and Mr. Ellis, do not only play their roles as functional characters but also spiral as metaphors and symbols to tell what the Caribbean is with respect to the whirlpool of European conquests, Taino decimation, African slavery and Indian indenture servitude. To state the institution of Brahmanism brought from India to the Caribbean through indenture servitude, Naipaul paints Krishnaji as a metaphor of the Vedas and Puranas. At a puja ceremony, he states: “…my father handed me the shank, the ceremonial, conch shell used in the ceremony to summon the devatas, while picking up the ghariyal and mukdhar, the gong and hammer, poised to start the puja… This was not normal procedure, but it did bring back the required solemnity to the puja atmosphere, and as soon as I had finished blowing the shank, I stood and promptly raised my hands to signal that everyone rise as I commenced the purification ceremony of both the bedi the anointed seat of the devatas.”
The Mansion is indeed a very courageous piece of work to deconstruct the centre of Anglo-African literary hegemony in the Anglo-Caribbean where Indian writers with Vedantic orientation cannot find even a place on the margin. Balkrishna Naipaul, unlike his cousin Vidya Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, with tremendous power, craftsmanship and research, unravels and elucidates the Brahmanic ritualistic traditions in the Caribbean with pure passion and beauty. Vidya Naipual, in his A House for Mr Biswas, to the delight of Afro-Anglican critics, in one instance, derides into scathing lampooning the shraadha karma (funeral rites) of the traditional Brahmin where he depicts a fuming photographer taking out pictures of a coffin put to stand upright with the body of Raghu inside, the relatives flanked at the sides. Balkrishna Naipaul does not wa l l o win such mockery of the Brahmanic traditions. Instead he writes: “The world beyond maya, so to speak; a place, known as vashitya, where the soul is in full control of natural forces, rather than the body being fooled by that aspect of the brain that is more conducive to maya orientations where one is chained to the idea that I am my body. This is coming to terms with in the ishititya realization of the supremacy of the true self over nature.”
The structure of the book, though defying the Aristotelian and Kafkain models, flaunts all three plotsthe archplot, miniplot, and antiplot. It begins with a roller-coaster start: “Chano came straight into the puja room and sat beside me just as I was finishing my morning sandhya. She sat close beside me but said nothing the same way she had done the previous night during the Satsang” and ends with a satisfying denouement: “Who knows, maybe your Aji did come as Chano to take you back with her to England and finish what is necessary to do there. Time will tell but only you will know the truth.”
The Mansion is a brilliant book introducing a fresh genre and style into the art form of the novel, creeping into the Vedantic psyche and speaking out candidly against the Anglo-African literary hegemony in the Caribbean.
The author is a leading literary figure in Guyana, with several poems, plays and novels to his credit.