On Vasco da Gama’s trail
Akshaya Kumar

For Pepper and Christ
by Keki N. Daruwalla. Penguin Books. Pages 354. Rs 399.

For Pepper and ChristVoyages across continents provide ready stuff for a novelistic take off. Playing safe in his debut novel, Keki N. Daruwalla chooses to recount Vasco da Gama’s path-breaking expeditions to India in the 15th century through a topography that requires fastidiousness of a seasoned navigator and a map-maker. The novel extrapolates the reader to medieval time and space without effort. The research that has gone into the making of the novel is formidable. Landmarks are graphically captured; the sea-routes, however, lack the necessary detail. The novelist spends more time on land, and the journey through the sea is covered rather too swiftly.

Narrated through ‘three voices’, of brother Figueiro, Taufiq and the obtrusive narrator, the novel unfolds the politics of early colonialism at three levels. First, it is the Christian perspective. While the legend of Prester John beacons the Portuguese to search for a Christian dominion in the East, the challenge of converting the heathen souls into the fold of Christianity also triggers them to the eastern shores. The second perspective is that of the medieval jihad, i.e., Moor-Christian rivalry, problematised and subverted through Taufiq, who is the protagonist of the novel. Daruwalla is at ease when it comes to the description of this character. Taufiq learnt his navigation skills from the legendary Ibn Majid and ironically is an Arabian Moor that guides Christian ships into the Indian Ocean.

Ehtesham, the painter, who is forbidden to paint the divine within his own religion, is employed by Church to paint pictures of Christian gods. He is a dreamer and a compulsive artist who is at loggerheads with the keeper of Islamic morals in Cairo named Muhtasib. He is easily the prototype of M. F. Hussain taking on the Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal, the self-styled repositories of culture in India. The third perspective that comes into play is that of trade. More than da Gama’s gunpowder and intimidation, it is the rivalry of Moorish Calicut versus Hindu Cochin that facilitates the arrival of European colonisers in India. The comment made by a captain that "anyone who is not a Muslim is a Christian" refers to the binary-driven polemics of medieval religiosity.

As postcolonial rhetoric mounts, and as the battle cries of jihad and civilisational clash escalate, such a relapse in medieval history through fictional route is immensely topical and urgent. For Pepper and Christ is one such historical novel that allegorises ‘our’ present. Even though the novelist recounts the details of the sea-voyages more like a traveller-cum-historian, withholding his poetic propensities, the sheer trajectory of the exercise is enormous. All it requires is a slight substitution of ‘pepper’ with ‘oil’, and the novel becomes a tale of post-9/11 politics as well.

Daruwalla’s endeavour is stupendous, but he misses some opportunities. The novel recounts history, but it falls short of re-writing it. Had the novelist recounted the tale through an Indo-Portuguese character, through his/her mischievous incredulous genealogical reconstructions of past, the novel could have gathered more complexity, comical double-edgedness. Also, the novelist should have participated directly in the course of the novel, not just as a narrator but as a player in the action. Except for the creation of a character named Taufiq, there is nothing remarkably creative at the level of plot in Daruwalla’s novel. Another expectation of a gastronomical kind remains unmet. As Indian English novelists chutenify language, narrate history of the small things through pickles and jams, and literally cook and fry stories with lots of spice and pepper, Daruwalla fails to play on the metaphor of ‘pepper’ and indeed the entire ‘masala’ and ‘curry’ culture of the subcontinent. Pepper is not just an add-on; it is the ingredient of the culture itself.

As one concludes the novel, one question looms large: Why should Daruwalla after so much of poetic rafting decide to sail into the ocean of fiction? Is poetry a build-up to fiction? The titles of his poetic collections such as Crossing of Rivers, Landscapes, Under Orion, The Keeping of the Dead, The Map Maker, etc., do point towards a cohesive narrative world-view of which For Pepper and Christ seems to be a natural bye-product. Fiction, in Daruwalla’s case, is post-poetry, if not a derivative of poetry per se.