In his brilliant book, On Late Style, about the stylistic changes the work of major creative personalities underwent in their late years, post-colonial critic Edward Said asks: “Are there unique qualities of perception and forms that artists acquire as a result of age in the late phase of their career?” Writing about Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, he observes: “Ibsen’s last plays suggest an angry and disturbed artist for whom the medium of drama provides an occasion to stir up more anxiety, temper irrevocably…and leave the audience more perplexed and settled than before.”
Kiran Nagarkar’s seventh novel Jasoda begins with a horrific description of a mother killing her newborn girl. Ploughing her farm in an arid land, a woman undergoes labour pains. Hopelessly alone, she manages to rest herself against a barren trunk, even as her little son comes up to suckle at her, and her ox licks the “sticky bits of placenta that had dripped from the baby”. Yet, Jasoda, who gives birth in such horrific conditions, has not lost her senses. Desperate to know the gender of her newborn, she kills the baby girl by squeezing her between her legs the moment she comes out of her body.
The novelist has returned to the Rajput land he had so majestically once described in his acclaimed work, Cuckold. The imposing palaces of medieval ruler Rana Sanga and his descendants are replaced by contemporary havelis located in a land that is witnessing a massive drought. Jasoda opens in Paar, a decaying princely province described as “arse-end”, with its prince Parbat Singh and his retainer Sangram Singh, the husband of Jasoda.
Tired of Sangram’s cruelty and infidelity, Jasoda eventually leaves the parched and crumbling province with her sons, reaches Mumbai, works for years, before making a return journey to her native land years later. Her sons grow old, get educated, the eldest one Himmat goes on to become “one of the youngest professors in department of pure Maths at Stanford”, delivers lectures around the world and marries a US woman named Alexandra.
However, as the novel draws the life of its eponymous character, it fizzles out midway. The narrative gets lost in the overloaded palette the novelist conjures up. In Cuckold, princely intrigues were marvellous in their descriptions; in Jasoda, these tussles betray little inventiveness. Jasoda and her sons chart a mammoth trail, but they evoke little warmth, a cold plasticity pervades the second half of the novel. Himmat’s rise in the US is neither convincing nor fully thrashed out, as is Alexandra’s decision to leave him upon his refusal to have a child. Many major bits are hurriedly rushed into, indicating that if the plot was restricted to Jasoda, Paar, and at most her travels to Mumbai, it could have been a far more compelling work.
The blurb terms Jasoda’s life an “epic journey”, placing it on a par with the epic tales of the Mahabharata, Odyssey and Iliad. The novel certainly has ambition, but perhaps not the gunpowder or the fire required to achieve it. A grand narrative was needed to hold together a canvas of this size, but the novel barely manages to stitch some loose threads that don’t really connect. Nagarkar’s fiction has an astounding range, from Six Seven Are Forty Three to Cuckold and the Ravan trilogy, he has deftly charted many landscapes that it surprises to find the novelist, now in his 76th year, so clueless in Jasoda. Was he trying to achieve a rare feat, a late style, but completely missed the mark? German composer and philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his marvellous essay, Late Beethoven, has a poignant observation about the phenomenon. “The maturity of a significant artist’s late works is not like that of fruits. They are not usually round but, rather, furrowed, even ruptured; they tend to lack sweetness, and are prickly and in their refusal to be merely tasted. They show none of that harmony which the classicist aesthetic is accustomed to demanding of a work of art, and the marks they bear are more those of history than growth.” Sadly, Jasoda does not betray the maturity of a late work. It does not prick you. Like the land it is located in, it’s mostly arid.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla