Book Reviews

Shades of Life in Usha K.R.'s ‘The Chosen’

Over the years I have realized that it is easier to write on books that one does not like completely and it is difficult to write on books that one accepts, assimilates, and identifies with totally. I did not expect when I first picked up ‘The Chosen’ by Usha K.R. the pleasant surprise that awaited me. To begin with, it is a good novel.

Nagaratna, the heroine, the soul of this novel comes from a lower middle class background. She and her mother from a village in Karnataka come to live in the outskirts of Bangalore where Nagaratna's brother Satya and his wife Pushpa are already staying. 

Nagaratna carries a head of her own over her shoulders. She thinks. She does not copy the style of her classmates, not even of the most charming and beautiful of them, Shylaja. She is self composed, every bit an original. I am reminded of the Freudian concept of psychic energy while thinking about this character. In fact, throughout our discussion in this paper we will need psychological and Para-psychological viewpoints to demystify the text and build our understanding of it. Mental energy is energy in the physical meaning of the word i.e. probably something that can be transformed into another kind of energy analogous to the transformation of mechanical into thermal energy. Energy is not perishable-it can be accumulated, preserved, discharged, dissipated, blocked-but it cannot be annihilated. This postulate of preservation of mental energy, its transformability, its functioning in a close analogy to physical energy, is one of the guiding principles of psychoanalysis. 

Nagaratna or let us call her Naga is no meteor but she certainly is quite a person, especially keeping her age in mind. What I like most about her is her observing power. She carefully looks at people, compares and contrasts, and draws her own conclusions. The big thing is that she wants a better life. She is not satisfied with the mundane, low, cheap, inconsequential existence. She has that necessary hunger, that sparkle that makes one move forward in life.
When Naga enters the school, there is an undeclared war of nerves between her and Shylaja, the most beautiful girl of the class. In Nagaratna, Shylaja recognized an original. All she usually saw around her were pale imitations of her. When she wore a pair of earrings or bangles, or the latest hair clip, the very next day half the class would be wearing the same thing. They also tried to copy her laugh, she knew, and the way she looked up from beneath the flip of hair across her eyes. But Nagaratna continued to plait her tightly. When all the girls were swarming around her, admiring her latest hair band, Nagaratna would not even ask her where she had bought it. To Shylaja, Nagaratna had the appeal that the elephant with its lumbering grace has for the deer. 

The two girls work as a contrast only to show what the other is not. Eventually they become friends or 'best friends' in their adolescent terminology. To the world of adolescent girls where style of hair, dress, feminine charms, lisping, eyebrow depletion, sideway glances and a touching faith in one's own attracting power are everything, Nagaratna by and large, remains an outsider. She is the only one in her class to know that the plural of mouse is mice and the correct way to end an application is 'yours faithfully.' With her sound knowledge of English grammar, she stands first in her class. Ultimately she is accepted by her mates; acceptance being such an important factor in any individual's life, particularly in the transforming age of teens. 

Two girls, Shylaja and Nagaratna, choose two opposing directions. When the short-hand tutor, NPP Sir, writes a letter of admiration and invitation of Nagaratna, she decides not to go. Instead, Shylaja goes and hooks him as we come to know quite late in the novel. Nagaratna wants a job. She wants a neat and clean home like that of one of her neighbors, Nirmala. Even amidst such hustle bustle, Nirmala manages to live with some grace. Her children are clean and tidy. Her home is peaceful. This is the promise that life holds for Nagaratna, a ray of hope, a distant possibility. 

 Then comes real life drama and experience in worldly affairs. For all her psychic energy, her personality, and her good English, the system does not see Nagaratna any different from countless others with a B.Com. Degree and a diploma in short hand. Her sandals wear out. Her confidence is on the brink of falling into the abyss of depression. She is desperate for a job and a job is not in sight. Her state at this stage depicts the fate of so many young men and women in our country who are bright in their own way. 

 She gets the job of an office assistant in an ashram school. The cacophony of Saikrupa Apartment in Vithala Colony where Nagaratna lives and the expansive, cool, soothing peace of the ashram premises where she works, are two opposing and most drastically different facets of human existence. The school sprawls across acres. Disciples of Swami Mukteshwaranand, popularly known as Guruji, run it. The present heir is Tejas Pandit. His daughter, Ms. Damyanti Pandit, runs the school. Tejas Pandit lives in another ashram at Muttu. This world of spirituality cum social service is new for Nagaratna. She is drawn to it as magnet does to iron. She is fascinated and impressed by the graceful living and thinking of Ms. Pandit, her nephew Priyam, her friend and benefactor, Vasant Chandra, and Tejas Pandit and his entourage. To top it all, Vasant, a trustee of the school, son of a big businessman makes romantic advances towards her. Our Naga is on seventh heaven. She is happy.
Then comes her fateful visit to Muttu, the Ashram headquarters, where the great Taejas Pandit lives. The need of a spiritual guru is fundamental to human nature, just as love, hate, deceit, friendship or bigotry is. There is no escape from it. Since the very beginning, people have gone to and assembled near the wise one, the radiant one, the most compassionate one among them and have relieved themselves of their anguish, their failures, and frustrations. And frustration is also fundamental to human nature. No one, howsoever successful has escaped from it.

Sudhir Kakar writes,

‘To be approached in awe and reverence, he [the guru] is someone who makes possible the disciple's fateful encounter with the mystery lying at heart of human life. He is also Rasputin look-with piercing yet warm eyes, hypnotic and seductive at once, a promiser of secret ecstasies and radical transformations of consciousness and life. The guru is also the venerable guardian of ancient, esoteric traditions, benevolently watchful over the disciple's experiences in faith gently felicitating his sense of identify and self.' 

Naga's encounter with Tejas Pandit and of many others with him resembles the above description.  Dumped and buried by the trivialities of life, cheap talk and dirty politics, the guru's touch and look is like an unlocking of the spiritual reservoir.

‘He simply held her hands in his and smiled at her and she felt a sudden liberating gush of happiness, as if a secret valve had opened in her heart to let the blood through. It was his eyes that locked you in-Serene, luminous and very, very kind as if they had instinctively divined your uncertainties and your troubles and would provide all the answers.’ (194). 

Tejas was marked for his 'tej' (radiance) right from the beginning. Swami Mukteshwaranand chose him to be his heir, the inheritor of his spiritual legacy. He sidelined the old timers like Biswas (Mauni Baba) and Chandana (Tejas Pandit's first wife and Damyanti's mother). Now, this selection of one and rejection of others is a tricky business. It gives birth to what we have in ‘The Chosen’, a parallel text or story. One story is what is usually accepted and propagated by Tejas Pandit and Damyanti. But Mauni Baba's daughter, Shyamoli tells Naga a story not known to the world, the suppressed and ignored story. "I could never say this in front of my father. But Guruji himself was not free from flaws,' she said slowly. 'My son in spirit, he called him and loved him like a father-blindly, unconditionally. Of the three of them, equally worthy, he decided that only Tejas would be sent to Shantiniketan’.
There are several all along that suggest that all is not well in the ashram. In the present times (or who knows, it might have been the same in older days), spiritual conclaves have been badly marred by reports of bad moral conduct. Spirituality, 'the preparation of soul curry,' has become a profession just like any other profession. The sheer intensity and totality of a devotee's surrender before the Guru paves way for perversion. It is very difficult to overcome the temptation when you are surrounded by beautiful, attractive males and females of all ages, sizes, and shapes. Chandana, Tejas Pundit’s wife objects to his spending private moments with his secretary; then follows punishment for his wife. He neglected her so completely that her existence itself zeroed. She did not exist for him. He drove her carefully and calculatedly to commit suicide.
Shyamoli says,

‘the Pundit is too clever-yes, very clever-and that's the last thing you expect a guru to be...........I can forgive him anything, but not the way he treated her, his wife. She practically ran the ashram, along with my father. Chandana will take care of that, Biswas will see to this, their names were always on everyone's lips, but he did not see them. He has that remarkable quality of not seeing what he doesn't want to see and of making people feel worthless when they don't agree with him........She committed suicide......But he drove her to it.’ (245-46). 

This is the sidelined, parallel tale. There is a big gap between how the Pundit is perceived by the world as a spiritual guru and the cunning maneuverer that he actually is. The last bit is also cemented in the whole scandal when he finally marries his secretary, Suguna. Damyanti, his daughter is thrown out of her mind. She has remained a spinster just to take over the spiritual legacy. She felt to be 'a team' with her father. But the 'tilism.' the chimera, the charisma, the myth is broken for her and for the reader as well. For Damyanti, the most painful thing is not the relationship but the act of marriage-marriage for her being 'the most common, most middle class thing in the world. But then, this is all part of the spiritual game-the risks that a guru-devotee relationship usually runs into.
The Chosen’ evokes ideas in many other spheres as well. The very word ‘the chosen’ suggests the looming fate of human lives. You do not do a thing, you perform no role on your own-you are chosen to do it. Tejas is chosen for the guru role, Naga is chosen to have a glimpse of sophisticated life, Damyanti is chosen to act as an inheritor of spiritual legacy. It is the destiny, the preplanned scheme of things that chooses some, discards others, and how it discards after choosing. It is more painful to be cast off after being chosen. Damyanti receives a jolt from her father; and Naga from Damyanti and Vasant. Without a word or hint, without any reason or rhyme, Naga is left in the lurch, as though she is nothing, she does not exist, she is of no importance to anyone. She is rejected just as husk is separated from grain and blown into the wind. Naga is simply dropped out of scheme of things. After roaming in the town with Naga, after offering flowers to her, after showing her concept shops where food, junk jewel and artifacts are all available in one sweep, Vasant leaves Naga without any explanation, without even a word of formal excuse. It is appalling to our middle class sensibilities.
As if to seal her tragic fate completely, Naga is thrown out of the school as well. Damyanti, disappointed by her father, leaves school and goes abroad to her sisters. Damyanti's nephew, Priyam is the new man in command. And it is told to Naga that just as a US President goes for his own team, every Principal also need her/his people to man the system. Naga tries to commit suicide and fails there too. She is nursed back to health and brought back to Sai Krupa courtyard amidst the realization that she has no job to return to and the 'nursing home bill has eaten into the rest of the nest-egg her father had left for her wedding.' (321).
The lower middle class existence is so pathetically brought out in this novel. The street described in the novel seems directly coming out from the phenomenal tele-serial by Aziz Mirza, 'Nukkad.' Spirituality is personified by Nillakai Swami, the healer of the poor. There is a matching centre, a barber's shop, a grocery store, as also the goddess, Plague Amma, who came into existence in some remote past when plague had hit the area. The sheer congestion in homes, the forced proximity of one home to the other leaves no space for privacy. Tears are public, so is laughter. There is no possibility of thought except crude generalizations ruling human life. Naga has her 'private' space in the living-cum-drawing room near the window overlooking the street where she sits and combs her hair. The stairs of the apartment, and the common space downstairs serves as a courtyard to all the occupants of Sai Krupa-children do their homework there, women take nap, clean grains and pound masalas. Every thing is discussed out in the open-honeymoon of someone, someone else's efforts to get pregnant, daughters and their marriages-everything is out for public display. There is no such entity as an individual in Sai Krupa. All vows, the ills of life are hurled at Shani, the evil planet. Petty affairs and trivial talk are the order of the day. 

I am remained of Dominique Lapeer’s words when in ‘The City of Joy’, he calls the dwellers of Anand Nagar slum as sub humans. Although, the conditions here are a shade better than Anand Nagar but the roughness, the thick skinned attitude is sickening indeed. Lemon lamps are lighted to appease gods. Naga's exposure to the fine aspects of life is of no meaning to Sai Krupa residents as well as to members of her family. What is the meaning of a job if it does not pay you well? What is promotion without increase in the salary? Naga, in her airy, seventh heaven days is fed up to this obsession with money. She declares, 'Anyway, you wouldn't understand.' (95) The same Naga, when faced with the bitter truth of being used and thrown off, decides to talk about a pay hike. But then, it is already time for her to leave the school. After the betrayal and humiliation, knowledge comes to Naga in painful pangs. She cannot escape the truth of her birth, her family, and surrounding. Her fate clings to her very closely.
Amidst all these dreary affairs, life goes on uninterrupted. Births, heroic deeds, love affairs, and survival-everything moves on smoothly. For example, Indramma, the owner of the apartment, is a single woman with a son. She runs her catering business from her won kitchen, serves and packs for office goers, school and college goers, earns a somewhat dignified existence. These are unsung, unrecognized heroines of the lower rung of the Indian social matrix. A millionaire's daughter goes for charity work in her white starched handlooms, and the whole world goes mad at her goodness, kindness and gives a standing ovation. And here are women, exploited and abused, struggling hard to hold their heads high. The book pricks the sensibilities of the reader continuously as the two worlds, one exuberant and elegant, the other, decayed and poor are juxtaposed.
It is a unique experience to see life in two strata, two hues, two compartments only to realize in the end that the apparently better one is actually dirtier. Perseverance, comradeship, and companionship are found in lower strata. The human virtue, the godliness, is not in ashrams; it is in chawls, slums, and apartments like Sai Krupa. Our Naga is no ordinary woman. At twenty-one, she has all the necessary experience to face life. And the miracle is that she is not dumped, not stumped. Life goes on unabated. Happiness and zest also go on. The very last sentence of ‘The Chosen’ says, ‘But today, Naga knows, though it is neither a festival nor a birthday, today there will be a row of ghee lamps on the God shelf.’ (321).
Sinner and saint, beloved and betrayed; in Kamala Das's terminology, at the tender, young age of twenty-one, Naga begins her innings in life. Das writes and I conclude with her lines: 

I am sinner, I am Saint.      
I am the beloved and the betrayed.
I have no joys which are not yours.
No aches which are not yours.
I too call myself I. 

1. Bejamin B. Woleman, Contemporary Theories and Systems in Psychology (New York: Harper and Row, 1960).
2. Usha K.R., The Chosen (New Delhi: Penguin, 2003).
3. Sudhir Kakar, T.g. Vaidyanathan, ed. The Essential Writing of Sudhir Kakar (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 141.
4. Kamala Das, Poems Old and New (New Delhi: Macmillan, 2002), p. 178.  


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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Views: 3347      Comments: 1

Comment excellent review!! really nice.

rahul singhal
12-Mar-2014 06:33 AM

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