Detail of Raja Balwant Singh of Jasrota Contemplating a Painting, attributed to Nainsukh of Guler, c. 1748
This is how things are placed next to each other now, without warning, geographies and times buttressing each other.
Sharmistha Mohanty’s book Five Movements in Praise reads like a series of miniatures not unlike the 18th century Indian miniature paintings that she frequently references and reproduces. Lacking traditional plot structure, the narrative simply flows, often seamlessly, between conversations, dreams, observations, landscapes, events, paintings, travels, stories, and myth, all within India. Everything is equal and connected. Like the many-armed Hindu gods that appear in the book, the text is narrated by an uncertain number of voices – or perhaps only one voice in different guises – including the “traveler” (who is represented at different times as male and female), the “visitor,” and, finally, a female narrator in her forties who is traveling with a European man named Stefan who is some twenty years older. Odd things happen. A sparrow and its severed head fall out of the sky. Near the town dump, a strong wind causes it to rain rice and matchsticks and a mirror.
Mohanty continually shifts or transitions between opposites – between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the mundane and the mysterious, garbage and poetry, life and death – not as different ends of a spectrum but as one and the same thing seen from different perspectives. Five Movements is a book obsessed with vision, with the ability of sight to place us in active relationships with paintings and sculpture, with landscapes, with things we cannot even understand. The most critical element for vision is light, and not a page – sometimes not a sentence – goes by without reference to light and darkness and their effects on what we see and how we perceive.
When she reaches her street there are no lights on it, no lights in the entire neighborhood. The power failure allows the street to be filled with leaf shadows, mango, coconut, jamun, fishtail palm, the leaves of one tree touching another on the concrete paving blocks. The almost full moon is directly overhead…Each leaf of each tree is illuminated or not by chance, a silver leaf moving next to one that is dark, but both wakeful, conscious of each other. The breeze brings the rise and fall of human voices, in a lower key, each one attuned to this night. In the plot of land used as a storage ground, piles of white marble shine. Beyond it the white chapel on a rising slope from 1856, the time of the Portuguese fathers, working among rice fields and fishing boats, claims the moonlight as its own. Next to it the old mansion of wood and stone stands, self assured, receives the light on its roof of Mangalore tiles, then passes it down to the balconies, the trees, and the shrubs close to the ground. Night, wide open, is here, made from primary principles, woven into a Bengali neelambari sari deep blue and filled with stars, painted for centuries as night of love never night of fear, never, night of Radha and Krishna where nothing will be excluded, neither forest, nor animal, nor human, neither here nor there, night indistinguishable from Kali who appears after all the flames and the philosophies, after the mourners have brought down the flaming sticks on the ones they loved and walked away without looking back, night staying awake outside a semi-circle of caves after the fire has burnt to ashes, night that the ascetic questions, night from which anything can be built, she leans on the silver light, night of the declining heart, therefore night of ascesis, capable of freeing itself from all contexts, original.
Death is ever present. And violence. The book opens with a visit to mausoleums on a hilltop and comes to a close with the death of a narrator’s mother. Throughout the book we see ominous glimpses of one or more groups of young boys who play cricket, throw stones at dogs, and harass others. “‘These are not boys,’ Rashid tells me, ‘they are men, stunted and deformed.'” The harshness of their lives has deprived them of their childhood and they lack the vision to move beyond their seeming lack of options. “I see in their eyes…a curiosity followed rapidly by resignation, a foreknowledge that what is new will never belong to them.” And later: “Perhaps, for them, each action is perfectly equal to another, the stoning of a dog, the beating of a man, a conversation, a game of cricket, the beaten man being carried away.” When the female narrator and Stefan visit a famous cave to see a carved Bodhisatva Padmapani, just such a group taunts them, an Indian woman with much older European man, and beats them with their cricket bats.
As the opening sentence makes clear, Five Moments is also about scale – the scale of time, the immensity of the universe. “The land rises and falls, a geological breath.” What Mohanty is doing through her narrator(s), it seems to me, is showing us what the individual self looks like when it has no boundaries, but flows in all directions, connecting to all things. The narrator(s) and Rashid, the mausoleum caretaker, who are able to see “the ampleness of time,” recognize that this leads to the perception that “the universe seemed more distant, more slow, and without the capacity to inflict pain.” By standing outside of one’s self, one is able to see the self as a third party, as a character in a book or a figure in a painting. “He watches himself moving through the land. It is watching that he trusts.” The alternative is to live from moment to undifferentiated moment like the bored boys with the cricket bats.
He has painted, in the same painting, the teller and the tale…what he paints is outside time, what he paints is not a moment that will pass…In the end, what he paints is a landscape of belief, not doubt.
In her book, Mohanty reproduces a number of 18th century Indian paintings, sometimes excerpting only a tiny detail. She also includes color photographs that are credited to Namit Arora, Benoy Behl, Samimitra Das, NASA, and the author. The landscape photographs underscore the critical role that light and darkness play in the novel.
Sharmistha Mohanty. Five Movements in Praise. Mumbai: Almost Island Books, 2013.