Saturday, March 10, 2001
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

A Chinese Nobel Laureate living in exile
By Khushwant Singh

TO read and write about a novel over 500 pages long with unpronounceable names of people and places comprising unlikely combinations of letters like QZN&Js is a daunting task. However there are compelling reasons to try and read Gao Xingjian’s Soul Mountain (Harper Collins). For one, it has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. Though quite a few second-raters were given the award and first raters overlooked, making one’s own judgement is well worth the effort. For another, Gao who had attained some eminence in his country, fell foul of the Communist regime and his writings were pronounced obscene. He fled the capital before they arrested him, disappeared into the mountains visiting old Buddhist and Taoist monasteries, looking for mythical serpents and the Chinese counterpart of India’s yeti (snowman), meeting scholars and farmers and having affairs with women. When he felt the government had forgotten about his existence, he slipped out of the country: since then he has been living in a self-imposed exile in Paris. His books are banned in China but published in Taiwan. It is probable the Nobel Prize Committee chose to honour him because besides being a master of prose, he was persecuted for speaking his mind.

Tagore’s offerings of love
March 3, 2001
Where has one come from?
February 24, 2001
Most educated Indians are bores
February 17, 2001
Sensing disasters before they strike
February 10, 2001
Mystery behind mystic numbers
February 3, 2001
Of time-wasting rituals
January 20, 2001
Dying flame burns bright
January 13, 2001
Honouring Gurudev
January 6, 2001
Assamese are the friendliest Indians
December 23, 2000
The Father Teresa of Punjab
December 16, 2000
Metros bursting at the seams
December 9, 2000
Going for Ganga darshan
December 2, 2000
To be among celebrities
November 25, 2000
The dawn chorus at Santiniketan
November 18, 2000
A priceless Divali gift
November 11, 2000

Making documentaries is her forte
November 4, 2000

Soul Mountain
is part travelogue and part fiction. Gao has one of his characters pronounced on his behalf. "You’ve slapped together travel notes, moralistic ramblings, feelings, notes, jottings, untheoretical discussions, unfable-like fables, copied out some folk songs, added some legend-like nonsense of your own invention, and are calling it fiction!"

Gao is being very harsh on himself. As a matter of fact there is a link between his characters and himself. To start with there is a nurse who like himself is trying to escape from unpleasant realities of life at home and the hospital she is working in. She meets the author, they become companions and lovers. Both share a lust for travel and for each other. "It is the absence of goals which creates the ultimate traveller," writes Gao. It is the same with love; if marriage is its goal, it ceases to be love. His description of his union with his lady companion is as lyrical as any I have read.

"Flushed cheeks and leaping flames are suddenly swallowed in darkness, bodies are twisting and turning. She tells you not so rough, she calls out you’re hurting! She struggles, calls you an animal! She has been stalked, hunted, torn apart, devoured. Ah... this dense palpable darkness, primordial chaos, no sky, no ground, no space, no time, no existence, no non-existence, no existence and no non-existence; non-existence exists so there is non-existence; of existence; non-existence of existence exists so there is non-existence of non-existence; burning charcoal, moist eye, open cave, vapours rising, burning lips, deep growls; human and animal invoking primitive darkness; forest tiger in agony, lusting; flames rise, she screams and weeps; the animal bites, roars and, possessed by spirits, jumps and leaps, circling the fire which burns brighter and brighter, ephemeral flames, without form. In the mist-filled cave a fierce battle rages, pouncing, shrieking, jumping, howling, strangling and devouring... The stealer of fire escapes, the torch recedes into the distance, goes deeper into the darkness, grows smaller and smaller, until a flame no bigger than a bean sways in the cold breeze and finally goes out."

Gao’s style of writing is unlike any I have come across. But one does not have to cultivate taste for dog meat and fiery mao thai to come to terms with it. He discovers that there is nothing inscrutable about the Chinese; their women are not frigid. At the end of page 509, one wishes Soul Mountain should have gone on for another 509 pages.

Tantric lady

Ravi MohanIt must have been more than 20 years ago when she first came to see me in my office: thirtyish, chubby with engaging manners and a winsome smile. She told me of the eminent men and women whose palms she had read and correctly predicted the ups and downs in their political futures: Moraraji Desai, Indira Gandhi, Jagjivan Ram, Chandra Shekhar and others. That kind of spiel is common among astrologers, palmists and others of their tribe. "Tell me something about my future," I asked her. Without looking at my palm she said, "You will be going abroad in a few days." Three days later I left for Europe.

If it had not happened, I would not have written about her. Since it did, I wrote a longish piece about her other predictions. Then I lost track of her.

She rang me up from Meerut where she lives and made an appointment. She has put on a little weight and her frontal hair had strands of grey. Nevertheless she looked as fetching as she was 20 years earlier. Since then she has been practicing tantra. In addition to reading palms, she has developed skills to ward off evils by tantric rituals. She claims to have saved a man condemned to death by exorcising evil spirits from him. She chats away merrily of her many achievements switching from Punjabi to Hindi to English and peppering her monologue with Sanskrit shlokas. Ravi is one of a family of six children of a Bhardwaj Brahmin family of Multan which migrated to India during Partition. She got her BA degree privately. In 1971, she married Sahib Das whom she met through the matrimonial columns of a national daily and settled with him in Meerut where his family owned a flourishing business in electric appliances. Her husband was an active member of the RSS. When the organisation was banned, he changed his name to Rakesh Mohan. He was jailed during the Emergency. Ravi nursed him for five years till he died in 1987, leaving her a childless widow.

Ravi was born with the gift of prophecy. Often what she said came true. She decided to develop the gift by studying palmistry from Guru P.C. Chauhan and soon acquired a large clientele of her own.

"How is it that no fortune-teller was able to predict the Partition in 1947 or the Gujarat Earthquake of January 26, 2001," I asked her.

"I am not an astrologer, but a palmist," she replied calmly. "Besides, fortune-tellers avoid giving bad news to customers."

I did not buy her explanation because she herself told me of deaths she had predicted. I asked her to explain how she read the future through lines on palms of people’s hands. Instead of showing my hand I took her hands in mine: they were soft and the lines much clearer than those on mine. She took out her magnifying glass and explained: "More important than the bold lines demarcating length of life, fortune and brain power are the barely perceptible lines in between which convey messages." She showed me the circle of venus on her palm and whorls on her fingers: four on one hand, three on the other.

In addition to fortune-telling, Ravi is now marketing two magical potions: Mukh Shodhak Jal which is meant to cure muscular and joint pains and Supati Jal to be applied externally to cure skin diseases. I asked her how these jals acquired healing powers. "It is largely a matter of faith. You have to believe they are curative and they will cure you. It may sound miraculous but miracles do happen."

Stolen property

Lord Babibgton Macaulay, the famous historian, was in Rome on holiday. One evening after dinner he decided to take a stroll to the Colosseum. On the way, a dark figure in a cloak brushed against him. Soon after, Macaulay found that his watch was missing. Being no weakling, Macaulay immediately gave chase and overtook his quarry. As communication proved impossible, neither being able to speak the other’s language, the encounter ended in a struggle in semi-darkness, during which the Italian was forced to hand over a watch. Feeling well satisfied with himself, Macaulay walked back to his lodgings.

There he was greeted by his landlady who said, "Excuse me, Signor, I have put your watch on the dressing table in your room. I found it in the dining room after you had gone."

(Contributed by Judson K. Corbnelius, Hyderabad)