Redeeming an awkward Dostoevsky
Like a psalm
Author - Perumpadavam Sreedharan
Publisher - LiFi, Rs 725
For Dostoevsky admirers in particular, and for all those who like to believe in the hope offered by unconditional love in general, Like a Psalm is a must-read, writes KALYANEE RAJAN
What constitutes love? How far does it differ from lust; or does it really? Is spiritual love a polar opposite of its sexual counterpart? Is love all about sacrifice, even if the sacrifice means utterly demolishing one’s sense of selfhood? Where does the last ounce of strength emerge from especially when one feels wronged beyond all wrongs, beyond all human help, with even God simply observing one’s misfortune? Can one love someone as intensely as one hates them? Perumbadavam Sreedharan’s eccentric protagonist Fyodor Dostoevsky finds no answers to his persistent and intense pain of loneliness and longing, punctuated by erratic bouts of gambling and epilepsy. Perumbadavam’s Malayalam bestseller Oru Sankeerthanam Pole (1993) has now run into more than hundred editions with around three lakh copies sold, a massive feat by all standards in a regional language. He was awarded the prestigious Vayalar Award for this novel in 1996. Filmmaker Shiny Jacob Benjamin also made a docu-fiction, In Return: Just A Book based on the novel, shot in St. Petersburg and Kerala featuring Perumbadavam himself undertaking his maiden journey to Russia several years after writing the bestseller: it was subsequently selected for the Indian panorama section of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in the documentary (non-fiction) category in 2016.
In the novel, skillfully translated into English by poet and critic A. J. Thomas as Like a Psalm, Perumbadavam seeks to capture a brief but vital duration of merely 26 days in acclaimed Russian novelist Dostoevsky’s colourful life. The translation is introduced by popular Malayalam writer Paul Zacharia under the title “The Signature of God”, a phrase applied to and intricately associated with the protagonist of the novel.What follows in the sixteen chapters of the short novel, is a vivid tale of Dostoevsky’s struggle against his self-destructive tendencies and all such odds to recover hope, love and life.Perumbadavam’s acute grip on Russian literary history and his nuanced portrayal of the workings of a troubled mind takes the reader by surprise, as the reader is allowed insightful glimpses into the minds of both the lead characters, Dostoevsky and the attractive and sharp twenty-year-old stenographer Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina. A debt-ridden Dostoevsky manages to strike a deal with a devil incarnate publisher Stellovsky, for three thousand roubles with a promissory note handing over the rights to all his works — old or new — as security against non-deliverance of his new novel The Gambler within the stipulated time period. A hardened gambler himself, he proceeds to lose the amount in spectacular losses, whereafter begins the impossible chase to finish the novel. It is then that he hires the beautiful and intelligent Anna, a stenographer and an ardent Dostoevsky fan herself, having inherited all his works from her late father.
Dostoevsky, looked after feebly by the ageing maid Fedosya, seems irrevocably tied to a vicious cycle of gambling by taking loans and promptly losing any gains made thereof, and,an endless self-scrutiny culminating usually in extreme despair and solitude. Whenever not whiling away money and time at the casino, or drowning himself in throes of guilt and self-deprecation, he seeks refuge in holding long conversations with God lamenting his misfortune in love and life, or reading passages from the bible, chiefly dwelling upon the Book of Job. As she encourages him to write and takes the dictation from Dostoevsky, Anna keenly observes the workings of the troubled and frenzied writer’s mind, her own thoughts oscillating between sympathy, fascination, and horror at Dostoevsky’s rather severe mood swings. Despite his several indiscretions and shortcomings, Anna perceives that Dostoevsky holds love and God in a great sacred spirit which fascinates and appeals to her. As their professional relationship progresses, Dostoevsky finds himself irresistibly drawn to Anna, confiding his deepest secrets and misdemeanours to her, further intriguing and attracting her by turns. When not in his company, Anna pores long and hard over his daily conduct, glows in the spirit of being his confidante, pitying and empathising with the fate of such great a writer. Her attraction towards the writer more than twenty-five years older than her is mixed with adoration and espies a “profound and spiritual expression” in him when he kisses her palm for the first time.
Subsequently, the writer and the steno together race against time to complete the novel The Gambler in order to escape the lopsided contract of forfeiting all rights over his published work, while also progressing in terms of better mutual understanding and acceptance of each other. With great hesitation, he proposes to her and she accepts, willingly and happily binding her fate to his, boldly denouncing whatever slander they may have to face from the myopic society. She refuses both her suitors Ivan and Illyich, while displaying unusual courage in accepting him in entirety, at one point handing over all her savings and asking him to go over to a casino to satisfy his gambling lust; and sharing her decision to marry him with not just her indifferent family, but also her priest and spiritual father, Father Filip Speransky, who to Dostoevsky’s immense surprise, blesses the union with his unquestioning acceptance. Perumbadavam’s masterstroke of incorporating the spiritual seamlessly with the material in this scene is worth mentioning, as the father appears to be at least ninety years old, with a “ruddy face, eyes filled with love and compassion. Snow-white beard. Tender voice”, resembling “Yahweh” himself. The novel also packs in a thrilling end, an ultimate vindication of love and commitment, of loves material and sacred, and the redemption of the awkward, immensely gifted and deep-delving writer of human psyche and struggles.
The novel offers hope and redemption to all suffering from seemingly incessant misfortunes, self-doubt, and lonely lives, while tracing an unusual tale of seeking and finding love in the least expected scenarios. Both the translator AJ Thomas and the publisher Lifi deserve rich accolades for bringing out this English translation of Perumbadavam’s Malayalam masterpiece that weaves a nuanced, rich and lyrical narrative around one of the greatest Russian literary maverick writer’s life and the unravelling of a crucial period therein. A must read for the numerous Dostoevsky admirers.
The reviewer teaches English Literature in DU
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