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The Path of the Prophet: the revelations

Reading O.V. Vijayan prompted me to pick up on the theme of India as an Idea. I keep going back to random pages of his “The Path of the Prophet (1992)” and marvel at the insights on offer. And I have not been reading much of late.

Vijayan was a unique voice you wouldn’t find clamoring for attention, especially among the mountain of schmaltzy Diasporas, or post colonial master servant dichotomies or countless other broadsides heaped on India. His career as a cartoonist and having lived in Delhi during the tumultuous decades of Indian experiment of democracy and nationhood elicited quite a number of stand out observations from him.

Vijayan saw India essentially as a conflation of many ideas left behind by millennial prophets from the Vedic period, the Buddha, Nabi, Christ, Nanak, Marx and Gandhi. Their ancient and modern manifestations are alive in unexpected corners in violent and sometimes harmonious fashion. As you travel in time through centuries long strife you sense the kind of dejavu that accompanies a fatalistic realization of this land’s survival from invasions. Vijayan set the backdrop of the book a few years and days into the murder of Indira Gandhi and the subsequent butchering of Sikhs in Delhi.

Narayanan - Vijayan’s alter ego in the book narrates the story of his father who imparted the wisdom of Gita, which he acquired from the world war I as a soldier when he lay down under the benevolence of small pox bacteria.

“First world war - In the sand dunes of Mesopotamia and in the legendary banks of Tigris and Euphrates, my father fought. Narayanan listened to the story snuggling in the lap of his father. The soldiers squatted in the trenches they dug in the dirt and sand and meditated on the love they left behind. Meanwhile a procession of another tribe was crossing their path - an exodus in search of Promised Land.

“Do you know who were they, Nanoo?” Asked his father and he answered himself: “they were bacteria on their journey from another battlefield, to get some rest.” Father contracted the pox bacteria. Fellow soldiers insisted that their ill compatriot couldn’t be allowed to stay inside the trench in order not to spread the disease. They wanted him shot and thrown into the cauldron of summer fire. Their commander, Capt. Gurmit Singh stopped them. He took father over to a tin shed and kept a leather pouch-full of water in it. On his way back to the trench, he was shot and killed by enemy fire.

In a soldier’s language, father explained the stories of the battles and retreats of bacteria as if they were yet another enunciation of Gita: Mankind is the disease of this earth - just like them, bacteria the micro mankind - they travel, discover, migrate - make tribal empires, civilizations, literature, art and entertainment. That indeed becomes our disease.”

* * *

Josef, Narayanan’s friend bemoans the fate of his former communist radical friends in prison who are awaiting death sentence: “They will come out. Staring death in its face and building the mystery of an exotic death have nothing in common. I can‘t really imagine what will they become at the very last moment!”

Martyrdom is only for those who accept God as their father. Like the crucifixion of Christ, only a soul can claim real martyrdom. How can enzymes and proteins claim martyrdom? When communists die, it will be reported in pamphlets and notices as mere deaths - meaningless deaths! A few things disintegrate and vanish around you - dreams, truth, periods of history, masteries sewn up in fat leather jackets. In the end, what left would be a glimmer of one’s own solitude and a short distance across. The human, bereft of civility and compassion stands alone, crumbles apart into minerals and chemicals, becomes one’s own prophet and speaks gibberish… Bhagat Singh was reading Lenin’s autobiography into the last few days of his life. What would an individual sentenced to death, pick up from such a book? Bhagat Singh and his comrades were moving towards a grand boundary. What was that lay beyond the fence? Each one of the prophets passed by, asking the same question.

* * *

While Sikh uprising troubled northern India, Narayanan met with Sujan Singh, a world war veteran and a taxi driver in Delhi - with whom he shared some of his thoughts and fears. During one of the rides, Sujan Singh as he takes the Journalist Narayanan to Rasuyi where a roadside death needed to be reported decides to call on Indian democracy:

Sujan Singh said: “this is just a beginning, Saab. Mark my word. Soon the country will fall into the hands of lawless goons. One of them has been shot dead in the middle of the road, in Rasuyi.”

Thugs have grabbed a nation of majestic lineage. People cheer on as triumphant plunderers flaunt their crowns, while the thief finds himself in the palace, feasts on left over from the empire, stands tall on the empire’s stilts and advice its simple subjects.

“The ruling class in India” Sujan Singh continued: “what they need is short respites, for that they will sacrifice Punjab.”

“Remember, we do not have an enemy to fight anymore. There won’t be another Bangladesh, most likely another nuclear test.”

“Or else a genocide!”

Note: The text in Italics is original translation by me. To keep the discussion on track, I 've selected the pieces randomly from the book. Another part to follow...


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