Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Lost Books Month- The Dark Dancer by Balachandra Rajan

Come on publishers, let's bring Mr. Rajan back to print.

I know. The month is over. I made the mistake of trying to obtain the movie based on the book featured today and failed to get the post up during the month of June. I still haven't procured the film yet. Any advice on this would be welcome.

This Friday I will return to doing the Week In Books posts and next week will go back to Monday Front List/Back List posts. I just wanted to fit this last lost book in, as it is perhaps the most merited one featured this month.

The Dark Dancer by Balachandra Rajan. Fiction. Simon and Schuster. 1958. Hardcover. 308 pps. Out-Of-Print.

Paradox, contradiction, miracle - they were the barriers to which explanation was drive. But at least in that hypnotic figure the paradox was a radiance in one's senses, the intense union of power with tranquility, not captured but liberated in that eternal dancing. And the miracle was not that of a single individual's unrepeatable insight, Ozymandias lost beneath the seventh city, there to be disinterred by the sure hands of Blenkinstauffer and placed in the great vestibule for millions to gape on, by courtesy of fruit juice and vanadium and even your best friends wouldn't dare to tell you. Again and again, century after century, thousands of times in city or village, the molten metal would settle into solidity and the craftsman gazing upon it would feel the strange light of a vision not his own. Feel it perhaps in parched earth and prowling jungle, in the marriage drums of the sea's far-off thunder, tranquility where the surf breaks, in the cave of loneliness with the glaciers grinding. Creation, Destruction. Two concepts but one dance, the trampling leg, the out-thrust arms asserting the law invincibly, ecstatically, the drums beating, the strings plucked in supplicating monotony, raise me, raise me into the mystery's center; for something to be born something must die.

-from The Dark Dancer, in a scene where the author describes the duality of the Nataraja, Shiva as Lord Of The Dance and the traditional bronze idols made in his likeness.

Salman Rushdie evokes a similar sentiment in the beginning of his scandalous classic, The Satanic Verses. Actually, he quite directly writes a line similar to the final one of the above paragraph written by Rajan. I'm not implying anything scandalous by pointing that out. Rushdie is a master and the line is, to some degree, a cliche in the parlance of reincarnation metaphysics. Still, there are other similarities between the writings of Rushdie and the lost novels of Balachandra Rajan.

Rajan was a somewhat unlikely novelist. He was the Professor Emeritus of English at the University Of Ontario and his career is mostly remembered for his studies on Milton. He was an academic first and that rarely bodes well for creative endeavors.

Rajan was also a political dabbler, being at the time of The Dark Dancer's publication the representative of India to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Rajan died in 2009 at the age of 89. Both of his novels, critically acclaimed in their day, are out of print and have been for some time.

Written in 1958 The Dark Dancer tips its hat toward the espionage fiction of Graham Greene to some degree but maintains a voice and energy that is extremely independent. Greene's impression can be sensed in the subplots concerning the protagonist's love triangle and the machinations of petty bureaucrats operating in the limbo of Indian government just prior to the partitioning and eventual Indian independence from Great Britain.

Rajan tells us the story of a young Indian man in his late twenties, who has returned home to India after an extended stay abroad. Educated on scholarship at Cambridge, V.S. Krishnan remained in England throughout World War II and finds himself back in a homeland that he no longer identifies with. His relationship with his family is austere, as he views them with a cool Western attitude and they in turn view him as a somewhat perverse product of two environments.

Krishan is home for good however, and in time he begins to submit to the plotting traditions of his parents and homeland. A marriage is arranged on practical lines and he abandons his dream of becoming a teacher in order to take a more respectable job in the civil service. Life in India is about to change however, and violence will beset young Krishnan from within and without.

The first moment of foreshadowed strife emerges while Krishna, his wife Kamala and his new friend Vijayaraghavan attend a "peaceful" protest which of course turns incredibly violent. The normally demure Kamala, who hails from a austere Brahmin family, hangs on every word of the orators and shouted slogans. Her eyes burn with anger and conviction, which Krishnan recognizes as harbingers of potential tragedy. Some of the novel's most polemically eloquent language is uttered by the once supposedly meek housewife.

"It's all in us, in the many, many years of occupation, submission to the State, obedience to the family, every inch of our lives completely calculated, every step, down to the relief of the grave. And if we wanted to protest, there was only the pitiless discipline of nonviolence. Then all of a sudden the garden belongs to us, and we reach up into the blossoming tree to pluck the ashes."

This is impassioned language. Rajan's love for the high poetic comes alive in The Dark Dancer, both in powerful verbiage and dramatic plotting.

Enter Cynthia.

Krishnan's friend from college, who has grown into a tall, poised beauty that evokes instant fear in Krishnan's heart. He recalls her fascination with all things Indian and how prone she was to exoticizing him and India to fit her romantic views. She has grown into an enlightened seductress who has set him up as her primary target. Krishnan in turn, tried to walk between the life lived with his loyal Kamala and the enticing Cynthia. A love triangle amidst the violence of partition... That's a lot for even a guy as smooth as Krishnan to handle.

The revelation ocurrs when both Cynthia and Krishnan realize that they have misjudged Kamala. Her convictions surpass her Brahmin sense of duty and her involvement in the fight for Indian independence grows increasingly more extreme. Her endangerment leads Krishnan to finally make a choice between East or West.

Or perhaps to stand firmly, defiantly between the two crushing forces.

The Dark Dancer is a novel that was extremely exigent for 1958 and yet would have fared better with an audience from 1978. The western taste for Indian fiction had not yet been rendered insatiable by the likes of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children or V.S. Naipaul's Indo-Occidentalism. In general, the English reading world of 1958 was not interested in Indian, African or even South American novels. That would come a decade or so later. To paraphrase Rushdie's expression, the empire had not yet begun to write back.

The Dark Dancer is a sober book, and when compared to Rushdie's masterpiece of magical realism it is outright mundane. It lacks any whimsy and its comedic elements are couched in the drama of manners, which is ironically and thoroughly British. It is however a powerful story that deals directly, and perhaps more efficiently, with the questions of identity and belonging that Rushdie has wrestled with in his writings and quite famously in his actual life.

It is written straight, and in this sense is more argumentative than the literary inventiveness of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie. It is more direct but equally as aware of the implications held within a life lived between realms.

"I'm a half and halfer," she replied a little wryly, "and home could be close to you because your a half and halfer also. Like something in a mirror, the same image but the loyalties reversed."

"It's a no man's land, he told her. "You want to live there, between two worlds, under perpetual gunfire."

Salman Rushdie probably knows a little something about that.

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