Of gods and men | Book review: Nireeswaran by VJ James

Malayalam writer VJ James presents a stinging satire on faith and belief in his third novel translated into English.

Nireeswaran review
First published eight years ago under the same title, Nireeswaran scooped major literary awards.

In the beginning of Nireeswaran, the novel by award-winning Malayalam writer V J James, is a street called Deva Theruvu or God’s Street. It leads to a temple. Antony, Bhaskaran and Sahir, three friends who live on the street, are atheists who decide to change the name of the street to something less obvious. Having already formed a “fellowship of the debauched” with the first syllables of their names, they rename the street as Abhasa Theruvu or the Debauched Street.

In his third novel to be translated into English, James gathers an ensemble of characters in an unnamed village to take aim at the visceral notions within a deeply divided world. The trio of atheists forms the principal cast who sets off a chain of reactions with their incendiary logic of an anti-god. Named Nireeswaran, the anti-god in stone is given a form (human), body (man) and an abode (under a conjoined peepal-mango tree on the Debauched Street).

Another set of three characters— Eswaran Embrandiri, a disgraced former priest, and his friends Arnos Pathiri and Zaid Maulvi—unwittingly pushes the agenda of the original trio. With the help of his two friends, Embrandiri successfully consecrates the statue of the anti-god, an act that soon leads to miracles in the village. In the first miracle, Sumitran, a mentally-ill villager, is cured of his stammering after praying to the statue under the peepal-mango tree. Indrajit, another villager, wakes up from a coma after 24 years. Parameswaran, an unemployed man, receives a government job after an 18-year-long wait. The old and destitute Kartyayani’s son, lost during a church feast when he was only three, returns after 18 years. Another got a long-awaited Gulf visa and yet another finally had a reason to smile because her husband’s rheumatism was showing signs of improvement.

Soon, there are more people praying to the anti-god than the village’s own deity. As the number of believers of the new god swells, some enterprising villagers come forward to help by forming a new association, christened the Nireeswaran Prarthana Sangham or the Association for Praying to Nireeswaran. They also launch a money-back-guarantee prayer group for those living faraway with the assurance of a full refund if their prayers are not answered.

A scientist who had a long career at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, James doesn’t rest with the redrawing of the pulpit in the satirical portrait of the three atheists and their revolutionary idea of an anti-god. Like he did in Chorashastra: The Subtle Science of Thievery—his 2002 novel and his first to be translated into English two years ago—where he created an imaginary world in which thieves are sworn to embrace the higher purposes of the profession, the author doesn’t hesitate in recasting fresh ideas of scientific inquiry on the altar of social awakening. The Debauched Street’s atheists have company in the form of Krishnan Ezhuthachan, a parapsychologist, and a scientist from a research institute in Bengaluru, a 21st century Albert Einstein, on the verge of a discovery on smells. Roberto, the scientist conducting research in the village, finds the profession of Janaki, a sex worker in the village, convenient in his conquest of unknown scientific frontiers.

First published eight years ago under the same title, Nireeswaran scooped major literary awards in Malayalam, among them the Vayalar Award, Basheer Puraskaram and Kerala Sahitya Academy award.

Translated into English four years after his last work, Anti-Clock, the novel carries on the author’s constant search for voices that do not conform to a certain idea of social hierarchy and justice. He lets his characters raise questions that remove the veil on the paradoxes of contemporary society. Antony’s question, ‘Why not create a new god who is an antithesis to all existing gods?’ launches Nireeswaran.

The loud voices in the novel lay bare the rampant commercialisation of religion that feeds on the bizarre beliefs of people, such as their race to join the religious frenzy over the anti-god in this case.

The author’s proclivity for a provincial setting, an unnamed village in Nireeswaran, amplifies the voices like those of Janaki and Ghoshayatra Annamma’s (Annamma of the Procession), who symbolise the shift of power in favour of the fringe dweller.

The vast array of characters in the author’s armoury lends a multiplicity of images and ideas, sometimes prolific and profuse to a fault. Nevertheless, the dauntlessness of the novel is matched only by its lofty literary ambitions. And both combine to make Nireeswaran a compelling study of the times we live in.

(Faizal Khan is a freelancer.)

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