When things fall apart
Reviewed by Shalini Rawat

Days and Nights in the Forest
By Sunil Gangopadhyay. Trans. Rani Ray.
Penguin Books. Pages 178. Rs 250.

"On the grass of sloping hills/a scatter of white sheep,/unravelling already like the balls/of wool they are going to be." A. K. Ramanujan (Uncollected Poems)

JUST as the first two lines of the poem hold a promise that is violently broken shortly after, the title of the book "unravels" as soon as you begin reading it. The romanticism of four city-bred friends taking a break to spend time in the forest ends as soon as the novel begins and the process of disruption from the everyday neatly ordered civilised world starts. The hope of a pastoral retreat that promises relief from all postmodern ills is belied and the youths return without any epiphanies of realisation.

Fugue (flight), or rather unsuccessful attempts at it, is the underlying theme that creates as many undercurrents of tension as it struggles to dispel. The young men, who come in search of spiritual/ psychological/ physical succour encounter an "idyll" that is fragmenting and coming apart at the seams already. Travelling ticketless to a remote tribal area, the youngsters seek respite from the cares of the city life but despair at the discovery of lack of amenities (tea stalls and eggs for instance) at their destination. The indigenous people, on the other hand, seek flight from the poverty, monotony, repression and loneliness the land and its inhabitants are compelled to live with.

The chowkidar of the resthouse, where the men literally gatecrash for their stay, adds to the volatility of the story. He is forced to risk his job and mutely serve the uncouth and demanding youths while his wife lies dying. A tribal boy, Lakka, who is drafted as a helper on the side for a promise of life in Calcutta, is as much a victim of the system as the tribal girls who are ready to sell their bodies for some money. An element of drama creeps in with the introduction of two educated women in the narrative whose grace and poise act as a perfect foil to the immature and caricaturesque characters of the men. The plot, taut as it is, crackles in the charged atmosphere.

The novel exposes and examines the fault lines between the city and the wilderness, the rich and the poor, the civilised and the tribals and the male and female. The characters are crude deconstructions of the uprooted young who are unable to furnish an authentic version of the Self to this day. For them, as for the colonisers before them, the land, its women and resources exist only for their pleasure. The belligerent boorishness that we encounter in the youngsters today was, no doubt, diagnosed by the author half a century ago.

The tone of the novel is unkempt and the resultant sparks of violence resound in the disheveled dialogue and unreasonable behaviour of the men. The grating style, accentuated in the wonderful translation, is as unsettling as it was meant to be. Satyajit Ray, whose movie based on the book presents a more sophisticated version of the story, was smitten by the experimental (a novel with many protagonists) and radical story line (a holiday that hardly was). Depicting the traditional and the radical on a collision course, the novel merely scrutinises the resultant flotsam and jetsam and holds them up for us to see.