Few contemporary writers own the epithet of a “fabulist” with as much sass as 81-year-old Suniti Namjoshi. The word, deriving from the Latin fabula (“story”), refers to a storyteller. But it could equally mean a liar, a compulsive teller of tales. The best fabulists are masters of the art of fibbing. They inhabit a morally dubious, if exciting, universe, where conventional beliefs about life and art, gender and sexuality, right and wrong, turn topsy-turvy.
Born in 1941, UK-based Namjoshi embraces these contradictions in her writing with an elan that’s hard to rival. Over the last four decades, her books for adults and children have continuously pushed the boundaries of the real and the imagined. It’s a pity that they aren’t as widely read, enjoyed and celebrated as they deserve to be.
In 2013, Zubaan published The Fabulous Feminist: A Suniti Namjoshi Reader, which gave readers a taste of her spiky genius, wicked sense of humour and refusal to play by the book. There’s no room for just outrage in her writing, though Namjoshi is nothing if not a profoundly political writer. Since then, more of her work—a memoir of her time with her late cat Suki, a revisiting of Aesop’s legacy in Foxy Aesop—has appeared in India, as have some of her writings for children.
Namjoshi’s fables, poems and prose experiments are heavily drawn from sources as varied as classical Greek and Sanskrit myths, Shakespeare’s plays, and a rich tapestry of folk and fairy tales that have been circulating around the world ever since people have been telling stories. “Suniti”, or “S”, is often a character in these narratives, a woman much like the writer. Like a grown-up Alice, she is lost inside her wonderland, inhabited by hydra-headed monsters, comical dragons, talking cows, kings and queens from an ancient past, all of them vulnerable, with their all-too-human foibles.
Namjoshi’s latest offering, Dangerous Pursuits, is a collection of three such extended stories in her signature style. The opening tale, the best one, brings back Ravan, the king of Lanka, and his siblings Shupi (Surpanakha) and Kumbh (Kumbhkaran) into the 21st century. The title, Bad People, is tricky. If you think you are going to read about the “bad people” from the Ramayan, you would be sorely mistaken. Rather, the reference is to humankind, which has inherited the Kaliyug, where men continue to oppress women, communities are killing off each other, and everyone is destroying the earth and all its natural reserves.
Instead of embarking on the well-worn path of re-imagining Sita’s predicament, or a feminist rewriting of the epic that ticks all the boxes (Surpanakha’s disfigurement, Ram’s sexism, and the inequality of women inside Ravan’s palace), Namjoshi packs a different punch. In Bad People, Shupi and Kumbh are appalled by injustice and climate change. And they want to save the world. But to achieve this goal, they need their big brother—which is where they run into trouble.
Thanks to Shupi, who dragged his dismembered body from the battlefield and stitched it back together with her magical powers, Ravan is alive again. But he feels out of place in the 21st century. No one accords him the respect a mighty king like him deserves. He is shocked to see women asking for, and often enjoying, equal status with men. Even a few of his 10 heads are now possessed by the spirits of some of his female ancestors.
But some things remain comfortingly familiar. The poor are still trampled over by the rich, the inequality of the sexes is far from erased. “There’s some difference in the technology, but things don’t seem to have changed all that much,” Ravan observes.
When history, fiction and myth are stirred together by inexpert hands, the cocktail can give the reader a giant headache. But in the hands of an expert mixologist, it attains a heady buzz. And so, Ravan, Shupi and Kumbh set out on a fabulous mission to save the world, riding on a hare-brained scheme of selling a fairness cream that not only improves complexion but also literally makes people fairer—more just, equitable, kinder.
Armed with this unique business proposition, the siblings set off on a wild adventure with Leela, a snake-charmer’s daughter, whom they meet at a fairground. It doesn’t take long for wily politicians and greedy businessmen to go after them. But, apart from evading these tricksters, the team also has to grapple with bigger problems. As Ravan muses, “Are we justified in forcing everyone to become calmer and kinder and altogether better?”
Such ethical dilemmas persist in the next two pieces, too, especially in Heart’s Desire, an acerbic meditation on old age, mediated by Syco, or Sycorax, the monstrous mother of Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the winter of her life, Syco wants to fulfil her heart’s desires, abetted by her guardian Angel and her old foe, Ariel. Her search takes her to India, where a lesson in humility awaits her.
The Shakespearean theme continues into The Dream Book, the weakest section of Dangerous Pursuits, where the desires and dreams of the cast of The Tempest—Ferdinand, Miranda, Ariel, Caliban and others—collide and conflict to create a pastiche of emotions. In his long poem The Sea And The Mirror (1944), W.H. Auden left behind an exquisite poetic commentary on Shakespeare’s play. With its multiplicity of voices, forms and styles, Auden’s poem set a staggeringly high bar.
Despite her nimble intelligence, Namjoshi brings only fleeting sparks to The Dream Book, for example in this inspired line: “The limits of a dream are the limits of desire,/ of what you imagine and do not dare to imagine….” Still, it is through her rereading of ancient stories that she inspires the reader to dream—and perchance to regard the world with much more wonder in their eyes.
Somak Ghoshal is a Delhi-based writer.