Utopias for better reality
In its language, tone, setting, and even in the portrayal of its unique characters, this book creates a beautiful universe that invites readers, asking them to enjoy it and not analyse it too much, writes Sheenam Batra
Moonrise from the Green Grass Roof
Author: Vinod Kumar Shukla
Publisher: Harper Perennial, Rs 399
Moonrise from the Green Grass Roof is a fascinatingly versatile and polymorphous novel with variegations of its plot, content and tonalities. The characters of the novel are eccentric, vivacious, naïvely fantastic and tenderly humorous. Each character has its own quirks by which it is known and often named after, it in its society. Bolu is a six-year-old second-grader who can only speak while he walks. Conversation can only be sustained with him if the other characters in the novel also indulge in walking along with him. Bolu’s appellation is derived from two Hindi words with one clearly suggestive of his loquacity and the other subtly indicative of his innocence, closeted and preoccupied with his own thoughts, detached from the brutalism of pragmatic world. Bolu’s eccentricity is not just literal but attributes to it a metaphorical and imaginative dimension. The dynamics of his movement is a corporeal enactment of the allegorical representation of his restlessness, enthusiasm, progression and flightiness of his mind.This is further elucidated through another symbolic and literal signifier of Bholu’s infatuation with the patrangi birds where the celerity and agility of Bolu’s walk gets transformed into his ability to fly with the patrangi birds. Bhaira is obverse of Bolu and can be read as a foil to the latter. As signified from Hindi, Bhaira is a child who pretends to be partially deaf or chooses to hear only what he wants to. Unlike Bolu, Bhaira can only speak and communicate if he is in a static position. Bhaira, as again suggested from Hindi word bhaye, is a timid child who sees vociferousness and ferociousness of his father, Bajrang Maharaj, synonymous to that of an uproarious tiger. Several times across the temporality of the textual space, images of Bajrang Maharaj and the village tiger interchange and interfuse into one another. Chotu is a ventriloquist devoid of a voice of his own. Koona is a girl who does not dream or if she does, she does not remember them. She wants to learn how to dream. The eccentricity of each character distorts, transcends and enmeshes into real, surreal, bizarre, fantastic and imaginary.
Eccentric proclivities are exhibited not only by the young people but also by the old people in the text. The oldness of an old couple in the novel is characterized not only by the fact that they are more than a century old but to such an extent that they seem ageless. The beauty of the text evinces itself through the fact that such oddities do not inspire condescension, mockery or altercation. Shukla etches out these oddities of his characters with warmth and gentleness so that despite such differences, the singularity of each character remains intact and is happily and harmoniously accepted by the other characters in the novel. Oddities do not tear apart but enhance sensitivity, affability and strengthen solidarity within the members of the society in the novel. This is a nostalgic and a utopian understanding and representation of society which is again emphasized through the organic and affective bond between the characters and nature. Bolu flies like and with the patrangi birds, Chotu mimics the birds, Bajrang Maharaj speaks and walks like the tiger, Koona gets converted into a cat. Shukla’s universe is a plenitude of magical possibilities where none seems to perturb the characters and all are either celebrated or encountered fearlessly and optimistically. The moon is not a single, cold or distant entity but it is a benevolent presence that walks with each character in the novel. The children can speak to moon, share their thoughts; they also ask it tauntingly where it was; they seem to know where moon comes from and where it goes but all from their innocently rationalized thoughts. It highlights the thin line between playfulness and curiosity, reason and fantasy. The author speaks of a wonderful, splendid and magnanimous universe which embraces and inevitably joins us all irrespective of how separate and different we all might seem. This universe obliquely critiques and intensifies the irony of the real universe with its corruption and pretensions of sophistications. The obliquity hints at the possibility of an alternative and better world.
The fluidity of the novel can be seen as to how its content camouflages and slips into various subgenres and how polyphonic tonalities can be heard throughout its textual space. The novel’s content makes it legible as children’s literature, fantasy, utopian, philosophical, romantic and a folk narrative. The literary material is interspersed with graphic caricatures. The novel’s tonalities and rhetoric are equally diverse, ranging from cheerful and brisk to nostalgic, sentimental, affable, contemplative, humorous, real and imaginative. There is no concrete plot to the text. At its best, it can be characterized as abrupt and episodic with a telos of its own. This looseness and variety is not to be derided and seen as clumsiness of the author. But it has to be read as a seminally significant and resourceful stylistic strategy exercised by the author. Through such a mélange, the author underestimates any inhibitive impulse of uniformity and pattern. Rather, the formlessness and amorphousness exhibited by the plot, content and tonalities of the novel indicate at the textuality of a story and its storytelling. The author acquaints the reader with a novel understanding of literature. The fabric of the story can be composed of heterogeneous elements and storytelling need not always have a progressive, linear telos but its ability to transcend from real to imaginary is only realized when it is able to reconcile disparate, heterogeneous elements together within a single textual space. The author through such heterogeneous materiality of the text lays bare the materiality of a story and its storytelling. He underlines the mechanics of storytelling. Thereby, he shows that storytelling is a synthetic aesthetic. He shows that storytelling is an imaginative activity and imagination is that which breaks bounds and cannot be confined; it has telos of its own, like storytelling.
What is pertinent to ask is that is a work of literature necessarily always to be understood and channelised through some utilitarian orientation like politics or morality or academic relevance?
The reviewer is a research scholar in the Department of English, University of Delhi
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