By Sourya Chowdhury
Title: Open Couplets
Author: Torsa Ghosal
Publisher: Yoda Press, 2017
At a seemingly innocuous juncture in Torsa Ghosal’s Open Couplets, a minor character narrates an uncanny tale set in a gargantuan, maze-like historical structure, a ‘Bhulbhulaiya’. It is a startling vignette that captures the essence of this complex novel. Multiple thematic concerns are conveyed through a labyrinthine narrative that appropriates conventions of genre fiction. This lyrical detour is emblematic of the novel’s enduring desire to destabilize the expected at every turn. But the image of the meandering maze is more transcendental; it signifies a hypertextual universe where infinite possibilities exist, not unlike the “Garden of Forking Paths” from Jorge Louis Borges’ eponymous short story. As you approach the end of the novel, you realize you have to choose your own hermeneutic exit, but more on that later. Open Couplets is undeniably ambitious for a debut novel, and Torsa Ghosal pulls it off with élan for the most part, only sometimes straining to balance the many ideas that jostle for space.
This is the story of art and artists; of artists in the margins, artists located in a liminal, threatened space, artists hanging on for dear life, artists challenging the zeitgeist while also celebrating it. The novel is a meditation on the quintessential creators who help revolutionize the aesthetic paradigm, often at the cost of their own safety.
Ghosal’s novel uses the quest motif as a catalyst. The main plot revolves around ethnographer Ira Chatterjee embarking on parallel journeys to locate two very different artists. However, it is difficult to sum up a work that relies so heavily on the reader’s participation; the text is ingrained in a postmodern universe where meaning is always contingent and protean. The deliberate juxtaposition of narrative voices (epistolary, interview, traditional third-person narration) as well as an intermingling of difficult themes makes any attempt at an overarching interpretation a tricky task. It is a project that requires careful handling on the part of the author, and the end-product may hang heavy on the reader at times. Despite this, the reader feels the desire to push on simply because the overall narrative is so compelling. We are taken on a contemplative journey that is both inward and outward and cuts across ideas and people.
The flamboyant, cross-dressing poet Fasahat Zaidi (a modern-day aesthete) is the writer-in-residence at a university in the United States. A master raconteur and ghazal exponent, Fasahat shares a unique equation with Ira. When this maverick storyteller disappears without a trace, it is up to Ira to descend into the metaphorical catacombs to find him. However, here again, the expectations from the traditional quest narrative are negated and twisted in a gesture of defiant boldness by the author, not unlike the artists she wishes to celebrate.
Counter to this runs a more traditional search story. Ira is researching the idol makers of Kolkata for her PhD thesis and is especially intrigued by the spectral existence of a female artist from Kumartuli (the North Kolkata hub of idol making) and is desperate to locate her. Ghosal’s ability to mould her form to suit her content is noteworthy. Her minute description of life in the lower middle class by-lanes of Kumartuli captures the essence of the area, both geographically and aesthetically. These sections of the novel are evocative and detailed and seem to draw their essence from the grim realism of socialist Bengali writers such as Manik Bandopadhyay, though Ghosal is able to demonstrate more restraint. Ira’s detective work, reliant on chance clues, is entertaining in itself, though the tale of the female idol maker turns out to be along expected lines – more or less. There is a freshness of plotting that can startle the uninitiated, a mix of patriarchal challenges and artistry. It is the second phase of this idol maker’s artistic evolution that is more revelatory and thought-provoking with respect to the novel’s predominant concerns.
On the other hand, sections devoted to Fasahat in the novel (exclusively presented in the form of emails, a form which dominates the novel) are almost self-reflexively fantastic. Fasahat writes in one of his mails, “The moon is hanging tantalizingly low over the Anasagar Lake, which had once collected itself within a small bowl, offering itself up to Khwajaji. I cast my net far and wide, just in case the moon drops off the sky. But it never does, like the single word repeated at the end of couplets, proximate to the line underneath but not quite there.” His musings have a peculiar structure, a poetic stream of consciousness that is deliberately abstruse. The clear contrast between the two main linguistic approaches also highlights the more earthy and grounded nature of the former artist – the idol maker – set against the more ethereal persona of the latter.
The ethereal and the dream-like manifest themselves very often in the novel, almost carrying it into the realms of magic realism. What separates fantasy from the magic-realist? For me, magic realism is that departure into the fantastic which offers the author a well-polished tool to comment on the real, à la Garcia Marquez in Love in the Time of Cholera or Rushdie in Midnight’s Children. Open Couplets is no different in this departure into the unreal, whether it is in the quasi-fantastic depiction of spaces and people or the chimera-like storylets that pop up at unexpected junctures, or the unique characterisations. The non-chronological narrative constructs a world where seemingly disconnected characters are found to be linked in unexpected ways. Amongst the passages that I liked the most is the section which conjures a nightmarish cityscape; Kolkata besieged by a curfew. Any kind of art works because of a visceral connect that the audience feels with it. This connect is often difficult to articulate, bounded as we are by the limitations of language. This achingly beautiful evocation of the city was one such moment for me.
The evocation of the urban milieu is no casual occurrence. The cityscapes of Lucknow and Kolkata are essential to the character of the novel. Ghosal’s rendering of historical Lucknow through Fasahat’s voice is poignant and displays a great deal of knowledge about the storied history of this city and its culture. However, this section has a slightly artificial feel, especially when compared to the more organic treatment given to Kolkata. They showcase contrasting methods in how cityscapes are constructed in fiction. Even the unnamed American city where Ira resides is referred to as a “Midwestern La-La land.” San Francisco also attains a new persona in the hands of the author. The urban space becomes magical through the descriptions even though this metamorphosis is intangible and difficult to analyse as factual.
The speculative is the vehicle for a novel firmly entrenched in real-world issues. Open Couplets is a pioneering work in South Asian literary fiction in its exploration of gender and sexuality. All major (and some minor) characters challenge traditional conventions of sexuality in their own way. There is the fiercely-grounded social activist Riz who expresses his homosexuality as a political statement. He is a brilliant foil to Fasahat, the dream-like poet whose ambiguous sexual proclivities add to the ethereality of the character. At one point the two actually engage in a debate on the purpose of art, invoking the spirit of Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw (no prizes for guessing who took which side). Even clearly heterosexual characters such as Ira’s friend Amber subvert the normative. Perhaps the most baffling is the relationship between Fasahat and Ira. It baffles Ira’s mother (penned with a lot of warmth and humour) and will baffle readers as well, and the confusion is deliberate. In the context of the LGBTQ movement, especially in South Asia, this novel arrives at an important moment.
Indeed, the only criticism that one can make of Open Couplets is that the author tackles too much in quite a slim tome, perhaps not doing justice to all the issues raised. This means that the reader’s attention is sometimes deflected from the main thrust of the narrative. However, the novel’s strength is also engendered by this vaulting ambition as it makes the author take several worthwhile risks. The end-result is predominantly refreshing and often awe-inspiring.
Ghosal reserves her biggest surprise for the ending. I, personally, needed a whole night’s contemplation to arrive at my takeaway from the novel, and it is but a foregone conclusion that the next reader will arrive at a completely different understanding; such is the delectable way it has been constructed. This appeal to the reader’s imagination is the most enduring quality of Open Couplets. The beauty of the novel lies in what it leaves unsaid.
Sourya Chowdhury has worked as a journalist at the dailies The Statesman and Hindustan Times and is currently working with All India Radio. He has worked in print, television and radio in various capacities and holds an M.A. and M.Phil. in English literature from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. His interests include consumerism, weird fiction, postmodernism, urban culture, sports and Indian classical music, among others.
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