Where has Subimal Misra been all these years?
This question recurs to the reader throughout the reading of this masterful collection of the Bengali cult modernist’s early stories. And the answer is duly supplied: The Golden Gandhi Statue from America comes with helpful addendums from the author and translator, explaining Misra’s views on anti-establishment literature, the reasons he has eschewed all forms of mainstream publication, and what it means to “live the practice (of writing)”, as exemplified by Sartre.
As to why the work of a writer so defiantly underground has now been translated into a language as ubiquitous as English and marketed by a distinguished press, a major counter to four decades of dissidence, there is no better answer than the stories themselves. They deserved wider recognition. And as readers in a time of anti-establishmentarianism so fashionable that it becomes co-opted within the same system it claims to oppose, it’s eye-opening to see what real anti-establishment literature is.
The world of Misra’s characters is a Kolkata underbelly of deviance, madness and the fantastically gruesome. “I feel humiliated to be in the line of litterateurs like Rabindranath Tagore,” he complains in the appendix, though it’s hardly likely that he will be hung from this same tree. Reading this collection, however, a picture of an entirely different dynasty emerges, populated by current Indian writers of the increasingly popular genre of experimental fiction, and it’s arguable that – through a nexus of influence and imitation – Misra may well have been at its source.
Written between 1968 and 1973, these fifteen stories are not for the reader who can’t stomach a little rape, a little cholera and a more than ample serving of homicide. But this is hardly the work of a raving mind. These stories are premeditated, thoroughly crafted, carrying all the markings of a writer who reads intently and acknowledges his influences. Misra readily admits inspiration from authors including Dostoevsky and Kafka and the auteurs Eisenstein and Jean-Luc Godard (to whom the book is dedicated).
In “Commentary ‘71”, Kolkata’s streets run with blood and the memory of earlier massacres; in “Bare Bones Awakened”, the city faces its apocalypse. In “The Naked Knife”, the question of exactly what a woman consents to when she holidays with two men is pushed to an almost misogynistic extreme; in “Fairy Girl”, a prostitute’s corpse is mutilated and enjoyed. The beautiful “The Bird”, in which a young man “keeps his heart’s sadness within his heart” as he accompanies a band of birdwatchers, ends in a twist that’s almost an antithesis to O. Henry. In the stunning “Blood”, a battle with mosquitoes turns darkly existentialist. Long before Roberto Bolaño, Misra had captured the disturbing, enigmatic landscape of the counterculture, in a way that is subversive without being pretentious, Indian without being exotic, and somehow both contemporary and classic at once.
One question remains. The publication in English of The Golden Gandhi Statue from America will probably propel Subimal Misra to a celebrity he has derided throughout his career. What will happen then, when his cult becomes conventionally cool?
An edited version appeared in today’s EDEX, The New Indian Express.