The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, September 21, 2003

Eastern exotica through western eyes
Arun Gaur

Neem Dreams
by Inez Baranay. Rupa. Rs 295. Pages 278.

Neem DreamsORIENTAL is me — this is an outsider’s appropriating view of the Orient. The outsider may be an Australian novelist like Inez Baranay born of Hungarian parents in Italy, who presents a composite set of personae — Andy, Pandora, Jade in the novel — on a probing mission to India. The author wishes to create a new surface-discourse, to weave a new romance about India, its people and places.

Andy is an English lawyer in search of a cure for his satanic virus contracted possibly out of dark gay experiences. What appears to be incurable in his native Europe seems to have an answer in India. Witnessing people "washing in the river along with corpses and ashes", in the sacred Varanasi, he marvels at Indian immunity, therein lies his hope of recovery and salvation. Perhaps the ongoing research on the medicinal properties of neem would find some hitherto unknown remedy for his malady. Pandora is a feminist-eco-scientist from Australia on another variant of a wild-goose chase — a search for a perfect feminist project. Through her encounters with Meenakshi — a victim of a western "serial dumper" of young women of "other races" — and her associates Prashant (husband) and Dinesh who run factories where neem products are churned out, Pandora almost succeeds in realising her dream of an ideal village project involving neem cultivation. Jade is a representative of a New York store called Orientalisme and has come to procure authentic skin care potions made from neem: neem gel, neem lotion, neem bath oil beads, etc.


All these three have descended on the Indian soil armed with their separate missions. But it is the exotica of the East that welds them together and transforms them into believers of the properties of the neem tree. Neem creates for the West a new knowledge. The rituals associated with the neem, their pathos, irrationality, faith, ancient authority, and authenticity are almost everywhere (excluding places like Mumbai, Bangalore) and are found even at the ghats of Varanasi.

The western trio has a chequered past — their lesbian and gay experiences, the condemnation of their homosexual urges, their dramatic failures in life after scintillating conquests. And when such a mind encounters the ghats of Varanasi, communal blood oozing on the roads of Ayodhya, Gandhi’s quaint self-proclaimed poverty, beggar-boys making "the fingers-to-mouth" gestures, Ganesh idols inexplicably drinking offerings of milk, it bursts into "self-pitying misery made murkier still by guilt", and it rebels. It rebels to create a new genre of Orientalism, to block the vandalism of the West, to make itself a sacrificial feast for the gods. Oriental appropriation of the other is not its dream. Or if it is still a dream, it has become more devious and subtle than the normal instruments of cultural usurpation.

As the lively impulses of the trio join, direct and indirect voices mingle with the nightmares, rituals, and hallucinations and lead to a great bonfire of stacked neem leaves. Andy and Pandora — the "neem warriors" — perish in what they grandly conceive to be an instance of the great Indian tradition of sati. The smoke is meant to send a message of freedom to the neem growers: "The people get the seeds or no one gets the seeds". The mystified Jade is already dead, trampled by a delirious crowd of Ganesh devotees.

In the bonfire and in the trampling, the knowledge of the Orient suffers — shifting from one surface to another, from one appropriation to its counter-appropriation, from one Orientalism to another. It is all a play of surfaces and surface-dreams and their surrealistic dissolutions. To the fiery message from death the neem tree remains impervious. "Untouched, the tree stands, its roots burrowing deeper, its spreading branches lifting higher against the smoke-burdened sky."