Saturday, June 17, 2000

Portrait of a novelist as an artist

By Bhupinder Parihar

WHEN Niranjan Tasneem donned the gown of a college lecturer in 1961, after a decade-long sojourn in Shimla, he found it rather difficult to provide to his students the exact equivalents in Punjabi for some difficult English words. Trained in Urdu and Persian languages, his mother tongue Punjabi was for him no more than a language for communication. But over the years, Punjabi had assimilated a large number of words from Hindi and Sanskrit for the exactness of expression.

So he was drawn to the rich reservoir of Punjabi vocabulary which subsequently became for him a powerful medium of creative expression. A time came when he wrote his first Punjabi novel Parchhawen (The Shadows), that appeared in 1996. Earlier his two Urdu novels, Sogwar (1960) and Mona Lisa (1962) had been acclaimed on both the sides of the border for their unconventional treatment of the man-woman relationship.


Niranjan TasneemTasneem’s venture into Punjabi novel was an unwitting departure from the mainstream sentimental Punjabi fiction concerned solely with the craft of telling a story. His focus was on ‘the atmosphere of the mind’, resulting in the employment of artistic devices such as fantasy, interior monologue, time-montage and space-montage. The emergence of a new woman in the mid-sixties and the acceptability of the concepts of new morality captured the imagination of Tasneem who had been long nurtured in the fictional ambience of Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and Gustave Flaubert.

His early novels depict the tensions of modern life and portray the destiny of the post-colonial Indian male who had long adhered to the redundant values of life and was often a victim of existentialist dichotomy. On the contrary, the women as portrayed in Ret Chhal and Hanera Hon Tak emerged culturally more relevant. Their freedom was more than eloquent. With these novels, Tasneem ushered in modern sensibilities in Punjabi novel.

To talk of the death of the novel is futile, Tasneem feels. Electronic media with its colour, sound and sight has for the time being dazzled us. There is a kind of cultural shock also in what is presented as a delectable fare. Eventually fantasy has yielded ennui. For Tasneem the most beautiful image is that of a man holding a book in his hands — at peace with himself and the world around. Only a man at peace with life can read a book and enjoy it. Tasneem avers that the novel will always be there. What television is doing now, novel had done much earlier — superimposition of image upon image. In the first quarter of the 20th century, Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Dorothy Richardson had successfully experimented with time-montage and space-montage.

Like all modernists, Tasneem is a conscious artist. He can articulate fictional modes and language with rare ingenuity. He is the first modern who initially ploughed lone furrows with his experimental techniques and thematic subversions. The Sahitya Akademi Award is a rather belated recognition of his true-to-life portrayal of the obvious that often blinds us. His apparently simple narratives have deep structures that constitute what we know as the implied or the underlying next.

It did not trouble Niranjan Tasneem when his critics failed to respond meaningfully for a long time to his fictional works in Punjabi. They missed the metaphoric depth and the technical excellence. The readers, however, partially rejoiced in the romantic halo of his fiction. They could not respond to the underlying paradox of human existence and the anti-romantic stance of the novelist. On their part, what they looked for was the straight narrative and hackneyed sentimentalism. The critical insider in Tasneem rejects the beaten and the fossilised idiom of novel writing in the modern world. He likes Eric Segal’s Love Story for the reason that it captures emotions in flux. The unsaid in it has made the work timeless.

Most of Tasneem’s writings are autobiographical. He identifies himself with his characters and vice versa. After the novel is written, he discovers something of his own mixed up somewhere. This is perhaps his world-view that makes his identification with his characters mutual. He very competently transcends the ‘I’. In the process, he offers to the reader a glimpse of his time. What his characters experience are shared experiences. As a novelist of his times, Tasneem stands apart. His awards-winning novel Gawache Arth, (The Lost Meanings), ninth in the series, has been recognised as a major work. In this novel, he has depicted the trauma of terrorism in Punjab in the background of the holocaust of communal riots during the Partition days.

This novel, of course, is a sequal to his novel Jadon Sawer Hoi (When the Day Dawned) as the protagonist in both these period novels is the same. In the former, there is an irony of situation whereas in the latter there is an irony of circumstances. The primary concern of Gawache Arth is the communal divide of the eighties and the triumph of the cohesive forces of love, harmony and mutual understanding.

Niranjan Tasneem is of the view that the award has come to him ‘not a day too soon’. Still, this is not the end of the road, at best it is a bend. His forthcoming novel, Talash Koi Sadeevi (The Eternal Quest) hints at the arch of perpetual discovery — ‘whose margin fades for ever and for ever’.