Author CP Surendran, in a free-wheeling interview with Joseph Antony, discusses his novel, One Love and the Many Lives of Osip B, and the contemporary issues that shaped it.
Osip Bala Krishnan is a student in a boarding school in Kasauli, who falls in love with his English teacher, Elizabeth. Named after the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam by his Stalinist grandfather — with whom Osip shares a unique mental condition that often causes him to hallucinate incidents of Russia in the mid-20th century — he is determined to find Elizabeth after she disappears. In the process, Osip unravels the secrets of why his grandfather pretends he cannot remember his past.
Osip’s journey is aided by his friend, Anand, a god-man on the make, Arjun Bedi, an iconoclastic writer disintegrating under sexual harassment charges, and the corpse of the school priest, which Osip and Anand kidnap to extort seed money for their adventures. Through a clutch of dramatic characters, the plot traces and connects contemporary themes of transgressive relationships, gender politics, nationalism, individual freedom and group rights, fake news, and power.
Excerpts from the interview:
The book asks: Can a dysfunctional young man survive a deranged world? According to Thomas Hardy, “A story must be exceptional enough to justify its telling,” as with the Ancient Mariner stopping the wedding guest who is in a hurry. Why must one listen to Osip Balakrishnan, the narrator of your novel? Is this an exceptional story?
Osip is the part-time first-person narrator. The rest of the novel is in the third person. How the others in the novel look at him is not how he often views himself. In the many conversations that he has with other characters, Osip is reminded he is odd. It turns out they all are. Only he is trapped in his oddities.
What one must listen to in the novel is the overall voice of the story itself, emerging out of the box, as it were, nuanced certainly by Osip’s neuroses. Each one of us is the story of at least one major dysfunction. It is in the hiding or the overcoming of it is that we become the Other to ourselves. In Osip’s case, there is no running away from failings. He is a classic victim, prey to his own vulnerabilities. The novel is the world according to the guy least fit to survive. It is his testament in a world of legitimate and often fashionable victimhood. A trope is sought to be inverted here.
What’s an exceptional story? Since you mention the Ancient Mariner, what’s its theme? Essentially Christian guilt of a sailor at the killing of an albatross, and the lessons he learned in atonement, which are not possible without the pagan experiences at sea as a result of the killing.
And the name of the atonement is love, of ‘all things both great and small.’ The shooting of the albatross with his bow was a result of the mistaken notion that the bird somehow caused the assisting wind to die. Without that mistake, the sailor would not be in a position to address the wedding guest. The sailor cannot rise without falling. One Love’s theme is much the same, I would say. It is about people committing mistakes and subjecting themselves to the shaping forces of their indiscretions. Each moment, each choice of ours is loaded with fate. It is scary.
The Ancient Mariner should have been half its length. But that is not to the point. The exceptionality of the narrative is the sustained intensity of the act of contrition, proceeding from an act of guilt, an act of transgression. One Love’s basic, controlling idea is: is there a right way to live? Osip’s not doing the correct things is equalled by his inadequacy in making them good. It is a less violent variation of the Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker; or a Neo (The Matrix), having popped his red pill, wakes up to an awfully damaged world without the ability to meet it.
The book is prefaced by an interesting epigram — ‘Victims and their victims.’ Where is this coming from?
Well, a bit of personal experience finds its way into the novel. Not just mine. But that of people whom I know and know of as well. For instance, I know people who ended their lives on the basis of allegations of sexual misconduct. The campaign in India, while historically necessary, is essentially an urban, elitist movement in entitlement, says a central character, Arjun Bedi (a writer, and Osip’s mentor, facing the charges). Only a fraction of the charges actually translates into serious violations that can stand in a court of law. A little of that passes into the life and fate of Arjun Bedi in the novel. But the novel does not seek to justify him.
The theme of victimhood though is not just limited to social conduct. It is latent in everything we do. Dev and Diya, rights activists in the novel, for instance, are a well-meaning couple. But they are interested in promoting their fan base and writing a book. There is a career in their goodness, a career to be made out of Samaritanism.
Again, Osip’s grandfather, Mr Menon, has done much harm in the furtherance of an idea (of human good) as represented by communism. His naming his adopted grandson Osip is an act of expiation for his Stalinist excesses. The path of good intentions is paved with pain, as they say.
Elizabeth, Osip’s self-willed teacher, and lover, at times, is seen as exploitative of her power over Osip, turning him into a rather willing victim. But there is an incident in Oxford, where Osip provokes Elizabeth to slap him and thinks that the victim (Osip himself in this event) has the power to manipulate his tormentor to violence and, therefore, a reversal of the roles. He revels in it because it makes way for a certain intimacy.
Violence often results in the banishing of distances between bodies and minds. On the other hand, the idea of victimhood is not a passive one at all. It does things to others. Worse, it does things to the self. You entirely shift the blame to an external agency. It is delusive because it makes you feel good often at another’s expense.
The chief concern of the novel seems to be the relation between the individual and group/state. What interests you about this relationship?
I believe we are returning to the Dark Ages. The Dark Age of Liberalism. An age where the pressure to do what is correct is being implemented not by elected state representatives but by large groups with latent mob tendencies which is what actually happened in the Stalinist Russian state.
The novel draws a few parallels with that paradigm. In that State, groups turned against individuals. Everyone spied on each other. Everyone called out each other. Consider the recent Pegasus incident, where the government is alleged to secretly keep tabs on people. They shouldn’t do it, of course. But almost everything we do or say is already being spied on by big data. Tonight’s pillow talk is tomorrow’s shopping transaction. This is already a Pegasus world.
Sooner or later in a society, if the individual’s rights are not protected, we will come to respect no rights at all. Groups enforce; individuals break ground. This is especially true of the arts, where a certain amount of heresy and anarchy is the fount. The entire tradition of the arts, which offends and, in offending, expands the horizon of tolerance, is based on the revolt of the singular artist. Society can only follow. It is like asking a writer to dream correctly.
The novel tries to show how mobs, both of left and right persuasion, are doing it. In Osip Mandelstam’s prose works, you will see a boy-protagonist, for example, at odds with the mob. Mandelstam himself was isolated — he was an aberrant and a rather wayward if a beautiful man — in his time by his fellowmen. The short point is, as I said earlier, it is no longer the state versus the individual, as the novel seeks to illustrate. It is also state versus the group versus the individual.
A remarkable thing about Osip is that he is a teenager. Yet he has the wits of a man who has lived an eternity. The book doesn’t believe in the link between age and innocence or intelligence. What inspired the odds here? Does the novelist have a right to a reader’s faith? In one passage, Osip says he is weighed down by a ‘heavy sense of apocalypse’. Are we in that bad trouble?
Witlessness, not the wits, of an eternity.
It is generally a myth that characters speak their eccentric voices. Almost all of Hemingway’s characters — Lieutenant Henry in A Farewell to Arms speaks very much like Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bells Toll — speak the doomed romantic individualist’s voice. The guy who is going to heroically lose, and knows it even before he starts out. Or take James Joyce. Who speaks like Stephen Daedalus (in his teens) in the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in beautiful irony and metaphors? Leopold Bloom (in his late 30s) in Ulysses, that’s who. Joyce’s characters tend to speak, in fact, like Joyce in his head. Most Jane Austen characters speak and behave much the same.
Let’s get back to the present. Sex, violence, and graphic language are allowed for 16+. Indeed, the novel mentions in conversations that it’s perfectly fine for a 13-year-old boy to take a gun and go to war. Or join ISIS. Or work his ass off for making a living for him and his family. Or clear his IIT entrance exam. And they are all doing adult things and speaking the adult language for the most part. Boys watch porn at 10 these days. But if you make a teenage character in fiction feel, think and talk like an adult, the critics (not you, not you) will turn up with their fixed ideas from the MA literature classes and tell you about Voice!
You mentioned earlier the poem, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner. Nowhere does (Samuel Taylor) Coleridge say which colour or race or lineage he was. Does a sailor speak in metaphors and images? How old is he? There is just no backgrounding at all. Do we not, therefore, accept the character and the story as ‘exceptional’ in themselves?
Osip, a precocious boy with a borderline psychosis problem — thanks to his co-existence with his hallucinatory but domineering grandfather — is living many lives at the same time. The voices he hears (Stalin’s and Mandelstam’s — the persecutor and the persecuted in all of us; we are both victims and victors at the same time, aren’t we?) take him to another century, the one that his grandfather and his ideology created.
The books he reads (Mandelstam in Russian, for example) are a part of that burden of the ages. Don’t we all carry it to an extent or another? All those centuries of myths, icons, gods, values, and wars. We are all nuts partially because we are living the lives of the dead as well. We live all of the ages in any given instant.
Osip leads many lives because he really has no filter. In this respect, he is not an authentic figure, though authenticity is what he is looking for. So, though he is sharing the history of his grandfather, he is also a boarding school student. He is a lover. He is a bit of a poet. A criminal. A journalist. And a rebel. And a criminal.
His wits, which you mention, are at an end when he takes on the role of a young man running a house in Delhi with Elizabeth. He can’t light the gas. He finds it beyond comprehension that he must run along and get a bar of soap for Elizabeth. That he must collect water. Well, he can’t. He is not man enough. That’s why at that point, he flips, becomes just completely dysfunctional. The apocalypse that he senses in the air has come true.
Indeed, personally, I believe the world as we know it is ending. The uncertainly in the air, the lack of control people have on their lives, the universal anxiety, all are indicative of what we know in our bones: the end is here. It just appears very long.
Arjun Bedi, Osip’s mentor, and an iconoclast writer, with his sexist views on women and activism, sounds like someone who Twitter critics may label as ‘a contrarian’… Is this a political novel?
It’s political only because the characters engage with the themes and issues that snag them in the real world of their inter-subjective interactions. If Osip joins a newspaper and gets to know how it is run, the nature of its business, and the realities it spawns, they directly relate to his life’s journey. Arjun is a writer and a columnist. The women’s rights groups are against him. The cancellation — and the castration — that he undergoes are political; but it is also experiential. A castration of sorts happens in a milder parallel to Osip as well toward the end of the novel.
Osip’s only friend Anand and he both share a mutual sense of being orphans. The character Honey Kumar in your previous novel Hadal too was an orphan. Are you fascinated by the orphan condition?
Yes. The idea of orphanhood is synonymous with the idea of India in my head. Consider all the little children going around the streets begging. The orphan is not just a congenital misfortune. It is not just an accident of poverty, either, though that too it partly is. It is more.
One of the great orphans of Indian mythology is Karna, abandoned by his mother Kunti. That he found foster parents is just fate. But he never really outgrows that unwantedness. The late Vijay Nambisan says at the end of a poem (Madras Central) that he must now take ‘his unwantedness elsewhere’, which is why the poet is at that train station in the first place.
Karna takes his unwantedness with him everywhere he goes. Karna is perhaps the most existential character in the Mahabharata. He does not know who his mother is — until late. He has no idea who his father is. Or what his caste is. To which province he belongs. What his actual name is. He knows nothing about himself. It is identity crisis — and politics — at its most acute.
The India as reflected in my characters is down to the wire. There are no references. No emotional support. No address. No compass. Die. Live. Whatever. They are adrift, in search of their identities. It is not clear in the novel if Osip is Hindu or Muslim, a trope I can’t seem to get to rid of. A character coming unstuck in his own unknowableness. But Anand, Osip’s friend who grows up to become a fake guru, though an orphan like Osip, is not bothered. It is a kind of study in contrast. Of two people in the same sea. One is swimming toward the shore, the other is drifting deeper into the waters.
In the novel, Osip is a ‘maladjusted personality’, and therefore an unreliable narrator. But don’t we all have a great capacity for self-deception, error and misunderstanding? The reader is always unreliable…
Osip is unreliable — to an extent. The voices he hears are delusional. But so are other characters. Arjun does not believe he is a harasser of women. But society does. Dev and Diya, rights activists, believe they are fighting the good war. Yet they are careerists. Kris, Elizabeth’s elderly lover, believes he has arrived and does not want to be entangled in emotions, yet he is. Alok Jain, the news baron, believes he is not violent because that is what his caste is all about, yet he has no problem with the bloodshed of his profiteering. Gloria, Osip’s grandmother, rescues her husband from social and political neglect. Yet she knows she will be free and be someone of significance if only her husband dies.
These conflicts amount to unreliability. What they narrate is not how we perceive them. I am banking on the unreliable reader. His or her self-deception is the footnote to each chapter. But if only he or she realizes it!
You mention a ‘future we have lost’ and ‘our chance to atone’, and also that ‘we live all of the ages in any given instant’, which sounds like a great burden. Many carry this burden, at least when they speak, and view the current historical correction in favour of Dalits, blacks, women, and other marginalized as atonement. We are extremely conscious of history, the dead. Slapping a woman has a graver meaning than slapping a man in a relationship, because of the history of abuse women have had to endure. There is now a widely watched movie on this gravity of physical violence (Thappad). If all is not atoning now, how do we atone at all, to regain that future we lost?
Well, it is a complex question. But the simple answer is, we can’t regain that promised world. Somewhere (The Dyer’s Hand collection of essays), WH Auden talks about forgiveness as a way of redeeming the lapses we make; he is talking about compassion as an act of recovering innocence, redemption of time, by removing regrets. The way we are going, race, tribe, gender, politics, and money, we are dividing ourselves against ourselves. Soon we would be the primordial cell, evolution reversing itself, self-sufficient but solitary in our hate, which of course begins with ourselves, the battle that we can’t win.
(Joseph Antony, the interviewer, is a critic and writer)