the author’s quest to know the ultimate in Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu and Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola.
Myth forms the central structure in many works. It travels down the ages through the collective unconsciousness of people and survives the test of time. It changes its shape with the progress of civilization. Maturing from savage to the civilized, modern and technocratic people, it reshapes, restructures and remoulds in the psyches but remains somewhat hidden in the deeper recesses of the mind only to resurface with new force, renewed vigour through the creative process of a mind.
The central concern of this paper is to validate that authors often delve deep into this well of mythology in their quest to find out the ultimate truth of life-- existence of God being the most prominent of all. They challenge their own faith, question it in various mental sorties and reaffirm it astonishingly. The authors selected here are Manil Suri and Gita Mehta whose works are deeply rooted in Hindu mythology.
Mary Magoulick gives a broader panorama of how myth has been incorporated variously by scholars of Structuralism, Feminism, Functionalism, Religion and other disciplines. Beginning with the classical delineation that myths are tales believed as true, usually sacred set in the distant past or other worlds with extra human, inhuman or heroic characters, she takes up belief of Grimm Brothers that “Divinities form the core of all mythology” followed by that of Gregory Schrempp that myths are prevalent in our culture and offer symbolic resources that suit the overall intellectual purpose of the author. Added to it is the view of Levi Strauss that mythical thought works from the awareness of oppositions towards their progressive mediation. But the most comprehensive definition is that myths are symbolic tales of the distant past that concern cosmogony and cosmology, may be connected to belief systems and may serve to direct social action and values.
In his seminal work, ‘the Archetypes of Literature’, Northrop Frye, broadly classified the myth of rituals into four phases namely—the dawn, spring and birth phase; the zenith, summer and marriage or triumph phase; the sunset, autumn and death phase and the darkness, winter and dissolution phase as per the solar cycle of the day, the seasonal cycle of the year and the organic cycle of human life though he considers the quest myth as the central myth of literature. It is the quest myth which is clearly visible in the works opted here. In his ‘Anatomy of Criticism’ he divides the whole literature into four mythoi or generic plots.
The Death of Vishnu works on the central myth of lord Vishnu – one of the three revered deities of Hinduism, the other two being Brahma and Shiva. The author presents a lowly man Vishnu, a parasite on the dwellers of a Bombay apartment, as the very incarnation of the supreme lord. At moments, he lapses into the reminiscences of his mother who used to say, “Remember, you are Vishnu”. He has an illicit relation with a public woman – Padmini who again has been named after Lord Vishnu’s better half – the goddess Lakshmi. In between the author works out the character of Jalal who seeks epiphanies. Jalal, inspired by Surdas, is trying to subdue all his desires to get a glimpse of the divine, equates the protagonist with the great deity, feels enlightened on seeing the image of the deity with many limbs and mouths.
I am what you taste in water, I am what you see in air. I am the breath in every flower, I am the life in every creature. . . . Look at me and see in my body the whole universe (Suri, 156).
The question arises why does an author mingle the sacred with the profane. Why does he depict ordeal of a man like Jalal struggling to know the ultimate after renunciating the whole world? Why does he create the character of a widower, Taneja, who deeply shaken after the death of his wife, ventures into the world of Babas and Sanyasis ( religious people in India, who lead their followers to the exalted path of salvation) and still finds no ointment for his wounds, no spiritual healing power anywhere? May be the answer lies in the quest myth.
‘The importance of the god or hero in the myth lies in the fact that such characters, who are conceived in the human likeness and yet have more power over nature, gradually build up the vision of an omnipotent personal community beyond an indifferent nature. It is this community which the hero regularly enters in his apotheosis. The world of this apotheosis thus begins to pull away from the rotary cycle of the quest in which all triumph is temporary’. The tendency of both ritual and epiphany to become encyclopedic is realized in the definitive body of myth which constitutes the sacred scriptures of religion (Frye, Archetypes, 430).
The author in The Death of Vishnu, certainly, is not talking of ethics, not simply delineating characters taken from ordinary life, but voicing his own inner turmoil that he faced at some stage of life, tired of the material advancements. The void he feels in his heart looks for a remedy in his oeuvre and so Manil Suri, the professor of Mathematics at a renowned University in America conceived of writing a trilogy of which the two books that have been published are The Death of Vishnu and the Age of Shiva.
The writers, well aware of the critical theories, act as their own critics in their works. Daiches claims that the critic (I substitute it with the writer) ‘considers questions of popular taste, the function of reviews and periodicals . . . the effect of religious, moral and political ideas on literary judgment, the relation between writers and publishers and the significance of such phenomena as the “best sellers” and the kind and degree of responsiveness to artistic activities that can be found among different sections of the community (376).
Suri delineates the myth of Lord Vishnu’s ten incarnations including that as Kalgi which is yet to take place. The writer mingles the divine with ordinary by allowing his protagonist Vishnu to consider himself the Almighty Lord Vishnu. Even he imagines Lord Vishnu saying to him in a vision.
‘It is your scared duty’, I urge him. ‘Your dharma, as foretold in Agni Purana. To cleanse the barbarians from this land. The earth is parched, it has been insulted enough’ (Suri, 242).
The author enunciates his general philosophy through the character of Jalal in one of his self-discourses. Jalal prides in having discussed philosophy and fate of the world with intellectuals, has strong notions of the ideas of other faiths – foreign and contradictory, believes in renunciation like Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism (tried to subsist without food and bed) and knows obscure rituals yet fails to influence his Muslim wife Arifa. He could not understand why religion provokes such obstinacy and hysteria in people that they torture themselves.
Eventually it was she who won – a victory that appalled him, since it represented the defeat of everything he championed – rationality and reason – to so primitive a force as faith (Suri, 143).
The novel also employs the myth of Jeev – the yogi spirit that takes birth after birth about nine hundred and ninety thousand times till it is thoroughly cleansed and is suitable for mukti (salvation). Kegley finds many of the contemporary works by non or anti- religious authors, employing undeniably religious symbols.
The other work “Karma Cola” seemingly in a post-colonial ambience appears to project that the Occident has long exploited the Orient and now it is the turn of the East to take over the West. East is drawing thousands of Westerners in their quest to find solace of spirit. The Westerners from countries as diverse as Germany, Switzerland, France, Britain, America, Canada and Australia land in the country of god, lured by Hindu mythology or the myth of India and end up as completely lost identities escaping to their motherlands or drugged or still hoping to gain from their spiritual gurus. The author proclaims that the East not only is exercising hegemony over the West but is exacting high price from the West and also treating the latter as a slave (the unquestioned slavery of Westerners shown towards their religious gurus in following his / her every command).
The protagonist of the novel is not a travelogue writer or a journalist working on the condition of foreigners in India or capturing exciting stories to sensationalize but appears to be an urban educated soul yearning for a spiritual experience that ultimately lands at one ashram or other and gets disillusioned everywhere. It again projects the quest myth (quest of the protagonist and the Westerners).
Matthew Arnold in his essays on culture talks of the cultural idea of perfection that is “increased spiritual activity, increased sweetness, increased light, increased life and increased sympathy” and considers its achievement as the ultimate concern of any culture. He says that culture doesn’t win to one sect or other but makes the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere. It may appear that Western culture aspires for perfection and Eastern culture has the best thoughts (as per the myth of India) and therefore the quest leads to migrations to the East. Gita Mehta parleys of this marketing of Eastern wisdom by religious gurus like the Coca- Cola Company of America that tried every strategy to maintain hegemony of the soft drink over the world market and now the minds of the Americans and others fall in the trap of Eastern counterparts.
The prominent myth in the novel is the myth of Karma. The author quotes the real meaning of Karma as enunciated in the Bhagwad Gita whereby Lord Krishna advises Arjuna to follow his Karma. The religion interprets it as acting as a warrior against adharma. “Because you are bound to act. Only action will save you from the bondage of action” (Mehta, 100). She continues how Westerners are converting our complicated philosophical concepts into everyday slang. She quotes numerous examples throughout. “I crashed my car last night. I have bad Karma”’ says the Mexican student (100).
No doubt, India is selling its myths of Karma, Tantra, Krishna (Hare Rama, Hare Krishna beat that is often fused with Jajj), Kali (the goddess of destruction) and even saffron robes and jewelry along with the technique of Yoga and Indian cities like Delhi, Poona, Calcutta, Goa, Rishikesh, Benares and Bombay are replete with the cases of novel ways of marketing these Indian myths (or better Indian wisdom and mysticism) invented by holy men.
The author also talks of enlightened minds like Aldous Huxley and W. B. Yeats who worked on Vedanta and the Upanishads respectively and found “in the east something ancestral in ourselves, something we must bring into the light” (Mehta, 67). The author cites an example from mythology how Pandavas, at a game of dice, couldn’t get up and faced the choice of slavery or exile. Similarly the Westerners or spiritual tourists in India either turn slaves to their Guru or are forced to have a drugged exile. “Kipling did point out that India is the grim stepmother of the world, and the mythology of India illustrates over and over again that it is one thing to feel playful, it is quite other thing to sit down at the table” (Mehta, 191).
The mention must be made here of the Indian myth of Guru- one who can perform miracles and the novel takes up some miracles performed at various ashrams across India. The question whether these miracles come from fantasy, spiritual power or are a marketing strategy remains unsolved. As far as the Westerners’ rigid obedience to these Gurus is concerned, Levinas offers an interesting observation that all Western systems of thought have operated to incorporate otherness into sameness. He calls for a face to face encounter where the other is not incorporated into the same, doesn’t become an alter ego but is left with its otherness intact.
Mythology is not taken as a shaping principle or for esthetics but it has a deeper role to play in the text that can be the archetypal quest to find perfection, light and truth which is universal in character or as Nussbaum says that literature presents embodied and concrete experience, individual perception and universal rule. We need not interpret a literary work for any value judgment as has been done in the earlier ages because Aristotelian ethics were meant for a Greek community, an extremely restricted democracy and are hard to be applied to a multicultural and heterogeneous modern society. ‘Modernism has disrupted old coherent rituals and myths and impoverished authors fill their voids by crude, extemporized and fragmentary myths’ (Wellek and Warren, 192).
To conclude with Nussbaum, We do read for life, bringing to the literary texts we love our pressing questions and perplexities, searching for images of what we might do and be, and holding these up against the images we derive from our knowledge of other conceptions, literary, philosophical and religious. And the further pursuit of this enterprise through explicit comparison and explanation is not a diminutive of the novels at all, but rather an expression of the depth and breadth of the claims that those who love them make for them.
“About the trilogy”. Manil Suri . 22 July, 2006.
“An Interview with Manil Suri.” Asia Source . 21 July, 2006.
Charles W. Kegley, “Literature and Religion: When is a literary work a religious interpretation? Humanities, Religion and the Arts Tomorrow . Ed. Howard Hunter. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972.
Daiches David . Critical Approaches to Literature . London: Longmans, 1956.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism . New Jersey: Princeton, 1973.
_ _ _, “The Archetypes of Literature”. 20th Century Literary Criticism . ed. David Lodge. London: Longmans, 1986. 422-433.
Levinas, Emmanuel. “Ethics and the Face”. Rice and Waugh 422-429.
Magoulick, Mary. “What is Myth?” 18 Feb. 2012
Mehta, Gita . Karma Cola . New Delhi: Penguin, 1993.
Nussbaum, Martha. “The Starting Point: How Should One Live?” Modern Literary Theory. eds. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. New York: Hodder Arnold, 2001. 414-421.
Suri, Manil. The Death of Vishnu . London: Bloomsbury, 2002.
Wellek, Rene & Austin Warren. Theory of Literature . NY: Penguin, 1986.