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Subimal Misra’s subtle art of the anti-story

A recently published collection reveals Misra as a formidable, restless intellect with sneering contempt for institutions

Subimal Misra’s stories feature a profusion of ‘jump cuts’.

By Aditya Mani Jha

LAST PUBLISHED 02.04.2024  |  10:00 AM IST

Getting through Bengali novelist Subimal Misra’s books is a challenge at several levels, beginning with access. Misra, who died in February last year, snubbed every single mainstream Bengali publication in his lifetime, publishing exclusively in “little magazines". He was a regular fixture at book fairs, self-publishing and selling his own short fiction out of a stall. Then there is Misra’s intensely cinematic technique, influenced by Jean-Luc Godard and using a version of William Burroughs’s “cut-up", creating a polyphonic, patchwork text with multiple sources, disparate voices. His stories feature a profusion of “jump cuts", mid-paragraph tonal about-turns, and chant-like refrains more commonly seen in experimental theatre (Bertolt Brecht or in the Bengali context, Badal Sircar and Arun Mukherjee). You have to think hard and work harder through the course of a Subimal Misra story.

The recently published collection The Earth Quakes: Late Anti-Stories (HarperCollins India, translated by V. Ramaswamy) brings together 20 stories Misra wrote in the last two decades of his writing, between 1991-2010. It reveals a formidable, restless intellect, an iconoclast who elevated his sneering contempt for institutions into high art. The fervent Journal: 1991 sees Misra connecting the First Gulf War with the campaign to clean up the Yamuna—an unbroken, transcontinental history of people squabbling over meagre resources, and politicians managing to convert a problem into a catastrophe. The Real Detective Of The Mystery Beneath The Skin follows a 40-year-old writer cheekily named Ami (“I" in Bengali) involved with a 20-year-old woman he calls Grushenka, after the Fyodor Dostoyevsky character from The Brothers Karamazov; the two of them are referred to as “Theodor and Grushenka" in the story (“Theodor" being the anglicised version of “Fyodor").


The story—or “anti-story" if you will—converses with The Brothers Karamazov in increasingly subtle ways, whether it’s the moral trajectory of the protagonist or the fact that Ami seems to conflate Grushenka with his “real" love: writing. Reinvention in love, where every day one discovers something novel about ourself and the object of our affection, is depicted by Misra as a writer learning more about the relativistic nature of time. “Erasing the difference between the self of the future and the self of the present. I reconstruct myself anew each day. How can I become what I have not yet become—all my hopes and desires are only a ceaseless endeavour towards this rearrangement. This circle will never be complete."

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Misra wrote about the lives of ordinary people but he wasn’t interested in dreary realism. His characters exist in a vacuum of sorts, where the ordinary rules of a social contract don’t apply to them. They say and do things that are “profane" in an on-the-nose way. And while this makes them less “realistic", it also offers them the licence to tear into the hypocrisies of society. And Misra wasn’t unidimensional, not ever. While the aforementioned stories thrive on a certain straightforward chaotic energy, Misra could also make strict, linear, order-based storytelling disassemble itself neatly in the third act. Like he does here with the very first story, The Renunciant. It starts off reading like a biography of a fictional musician named Jharuprasad and a muse-like figure in his life, an older woman called Niyatirani. From the beginning, there’s the suggestion that Niyatirani will be the ruin of this man— “Niyati" means “fate". But by the end of the narrative, Misra has pulled the rug from underneath the reader’s feet and we are no longer sure about anything, not even the distinction between Jharuprasad and Niyatirani’s motivations and backstories.

Misra’s formal pyrotechnics are occasionally annoying, however, and can overshadow the ideas at the heart of his stories. The delightfully named Lenin’s Lenin, Notwithstanding Syphilis is an example of this. The story starts with a prose-poem, introduces us to a couple of characters—a lecherous middle-aged man and his schoolgirl victim—and then proceeds to lose itself entirely in a cacophony of “jump cut" segments. There are loose, tenuous connections drawn to its titular subject (“One could still see the frame of a foreign car from Lenin’s time in the garden…") but at no point does the text assume a personality of its own.

When Misra gets it right, though, the results are spectacular. No better example of this than the searing Nappy Change, written in 2010. Through the 2000s, the writer had expressed his frustration with the Left Front government in West Bengal. Nappy Change marks the culmination of these efforts and is about the horrific rape and murder of 20-year-old Tapasi Malik, one of the people protesting against the land acquisition in Singur (where Tata had planned to open a manufacturing centre). Following Malik’s death, the CPM and its supporters had tried to spread falsehoods, casting aspersions on the young woman’s character.

The story starts off with a gruesome recreation of the rape and then unleashes its mad-scientist array of “cut-up" segments—two segments stand out, from the novelist Mahasweta Devi and the historian Ranajit Guha, respectively, both borrowed from interviews they gave to Bengali newspapers. The choice of cutups is on point: Mahasweta’s fiction is largely about the lives of the marginalised while Guha is known as one of the leading lights of “subaltern studies". They present the theoretical and “practical" halves of the issue, so to speak. While all of this is unfolding on the page, Misra takes a stroll through the rogue’s gallery of Bengal politics, through a series of quick sketches.


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Like most Harper Perennial titles, the back of the book has an interview with Misra, where you realise that the man was just as allusive, digressive, brilliant and frustrating in person. He responds with an anecdote about how a large populace of rats in Bangladesh once had their anuses sealed surgically—these rats were then released, upon which they proceeded to kill each other out of pain and misery.

I honestly don’t know what to make of that little story. My advice is to power through and possibly, re-read what you have just read.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.