Somewhere in the three hundred-odd pages of Ranjan Kaul’s Through The Forest, Darkly lies a novella of half its length and twice its appeal. That book, I imagine, would be a precise, ethically complex account of some of the political extremes currently shaping India, taking a young man out of his well-to-do Delhi comfort zone into the hinterlands of Maoist occupation – and the reader with him. This book, on the other hand, is a prolonged, mostly monotonous telling of that journey, pedantically detoured and ultimately unimpressive. Aseem, a recent graduate trying to find a sense of direction, chances on the idealistic Swati, who teaches at slums and rejects her parents’ Communist allegiances as not being radical enough. Bored with urban ennui and not realising the hypocrisy of having met her in the first place at a socialite gathering, he becomes politically active – thus condemning himself to repeat the failures of his father Avinash, a former Naxalite.
The novel opens with a short, captivating prologue describing two funerals, but recedes as soon as the first chapter begins into a prosaic and sometimes grating style. There’s a vexing schizophrenia to the narrative: portions set within the forests of Bastar carry a genuine lyricism, while everything else is written with a marked lack of craft. By the time a corporate mission that turns mutinous sends Aseem into the forest, the setting that inspires Kaul’s better passages, we have meandered through too many pages of stilted, adverb-qualified dialogue, redundant scene selection and lines like “No one in the car was interested as the driver proceeded to unravel the silk from the cocoon of his knowledge about caterpillars” and “’Fine, give my love to Aseem,’ said Menaka, and went back to the epicurean world of cocoa”.
The caricaturish Menaka, Aseem’s insipid and opportunistic aunt, is the source of most of the novel’s troubles – not because of how she contrives certain events of the plot itself, but because of the author’s evident lack of facility in rendering her in a manner that is either fully-fledged or at least relevant. A disproportionate amount of attention is paid to her tangential conversations and fixations, and one gets the sense that Menaka is Kaul’s real obsession, his muse if you will, but one with whom he grapples with little reward. The motivations of other characters – supposedly less facile than this one – are not given this sort of attention. Thus we don’t understand why Sri Sri Narayanaji, the godman whom Aseem’s uncle Aroon is repackaging for the world, agrees to go along with the commercialization of his image. We don’t understand why Aseem’s mother Ritika tolerates her sister’s manipulations, or even what drives Swati, whose do-gooder actions clash with her belief that the adivasis are naïve and incapable of compound thought. We aren’t presented, in any insightful way, the extent of ideological and ethical conflicts at the novel’s heart, or the complex relationship between adivasis and the “civilized” world, with its contrary forces of Maoism and capitalism. We do, however, get an exasperating amount of detail about Menaka’s toilette, libido and moods – as well as her dog’s.
Still, Kaul’s portrayal of everyday life in the forests of Chhattisgarh is a vivid and convincing one. This is where the novel’s entire potential can be found, and one wishes that Aseem, and the novel, had found their way into it sooner and with less petty distraction. Through the Forest, Darkly mirrors, in its failure, the activism of some of its protagonists: what counts is the commitment to be immersed in the nucleus of the situation, regardless of whether or where else action has flared. All else is peripheral.
An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.