Roma Putri Ke Naam [To Roma Daughter]
Written by Dr. Shyam Singh Shashi
Reviewed by Dr. Jitendra Kumar Sharma
Manu Joseph, a best-selling Indian writer and Times of India Short Story Panelist, “hates genre”. Dr. Shyam Singh Shashi’s “possibly first and last” Hindi novel defies form but then to twist Alexander Pope’s famous couplet, “For forms of writing, let fools contest/whatever is written best, is best”.
Marshall McLuhan, the iconic media thinker and my Guru at University of Toronto once pointed out that there is no unifying principle for the contents of a newspaper except the date printed on it. Yet the reader remains glued to it. Roma Putri Ke Naam is a sort of pastiche that engages the reader with its variable form and content like a musical composition consisting of a series of songs or other musical pieces from various sources.
The opening chapter or rather episode starts with a letter in which the writer asks the Roma daughter, “what I should call you, goddess of beauty, white foreign lady or an Indian-origin Roma daughter!” The reader may well ask: what shall I call this book? A novel, anthro-sociological report, travelogue or something else? Who knows, the writer may have unwittingly invented a new form or genre for those who seek a form in every piece of writing.
The point is, Roma Putri Ke Naam makes an interesting reading, even though, it is an amalgam of epistle, diary, autobiography, travelogue, anthro-sociological investigation, film and literary criticism, newspaper reports, oped-articles, editorials, memoirs, notes, anecdotes, essays, short story, transcript of radio and television interview, email, self-reflection, poetry, observations on paintings and painting exhibitions, discussion on relationship between painting and writing, and commentary on current affairs, presentation at seminars and many other things. It is an engaging, bitter-sweet narrative where fact and fiction commingle freely and “writer” himself is the chief narrator, protagonist, observer of events as they kaleidoscopically pass from 1980’s to 2012…. Even some living susceptibilities like Prime Minister Modi, Serbian Minister of Roma Affairs, [foreign names in Hindi are spelt differently in the novel from how they are spoken in English, therefore, the reviewer is avoiding giving their English equivalents here lest he misspells them] a prominent Belgian Roma publicist and rich Mexican hostess appear without wearing any fictional garb.
Dr. Shashi’s short preface sets the tone of the novel and hints at its outcome. He wants to emulate Mahapandit Rahul Sankrityayan who has been called the Father of Hindi Travelogue, who gave it a literary form. Dr. Shashi regrets that he could not be a “full time traveler” like Rahul Sankrityayan. In fact, Rahul was a vital, existentialist living being capable of going against his grain. Rahul made his choices and paid full price for it. The writer of the novel is a middle class government servant. He has the creative spark but not the capacity to face uncertainties of life like Rahul, the tireless traveler. Nor can he make his own choices to authenticate his existence. Even, Cathy, the Roma Daughter is freer than the writer; she can come and go anywhere anytime and stay in expensive hotels or with friends or in Ashrams as she likes because of the largesse she gets from her “gentleman husband” who no longer loves her but generously finances her international jaunts. The writer, though well-off by Indian middle-class standards is handicapped both in terms of money and time. He has to depend on fellowships, travel grants, invitations, airline tickets and abide by restrictions and strings attached to such assistance from government and non-government organizations. For these reasons, there is a sense of lack of fulfillment of life’s ambitions in spite so many honours, awards and prizes the writer has won. This tone of regret and the writer’s self-consciousness about aging and reaching his seventies suddenly and his inability to live like Rahul or Cathy pervades through the novel.
If the first chapter is like a panning shot of a documentary, the second chapter closes-up on Roma daughter whom he calls Cathy and her awe-inspiring paintings of Hitler’s holocaust notorious for the mass murder of Jews. Cathy’s paintings, however, highlight the mass murder and torture of the Romas who had faced the same fate as the Jews but history seems to have just bypassed them. In this chapter, the writer establishes a bond with the Roma painter Cathy especially and with the Roma community, generally. He gets horrified by Cathy’s paintings that bring alive the scenes of Roma holocaust. He finds her paintings crying and shrieking as they depict horrors and hysteria of history. He is writing a letter about these paintings and questioning the painter: Can’t she make some other kind of painting, a painting projecting the ‘total man’, in whom inheres truth, piety, non-violence, compassion and love? The writer does not get answers to his questions as the painter remains engrossed in organizing her art exhibition. He gets confused; he hates painted colors yet he loves them because Cathy perhaps.
The same letter introduces Roma Daughter as a painter who often comes to “Barothan”, that is Bharat, a country of Ram Ravans, infested with “corruption”. The painter gets put off by men and women of Barothan each time she comes here only to return to her native Germany with “bitter-sweet memories”. The writer tenders a fatherly advice that Roma Daughter ought to accompany her husband because criminals are mushrooming in India and even foreign ladies face “murder and rape”. He also compliments her for her being “bold”, capable of self-defense, much loved by his family and respected by his friends. Buried in his “document” is “nomadic pain”. He seeks her “response” to what he calls “his pen’s last journey”. The writer wants to write about the art of painting but the paintings he sees put him in a dilemma. He wants paintings that would make the world look like a family, project the ideal of vasudhaiv kutumbkam [Entire World Is One Family] as the rishis or seers of Bharat, that is, India, saw the world. But the paintings he sees in Europe are distortions of man; he makes acerbic comments on Piccaso, Fida Hussain and other modern painters. The novel, among other themes, touches upon the interaction between Cathy the painter and narrator, the “writer of the novel,” and also on the relationship between the art of painting and the art of writing. In fact, he, the writer is drawn toward Cathy the painter because she wants to create paintings that would speak about that which the writer’s million words cannot tell. The ‘whole universe gets articulated in a single painting”, so perceives the writer who gets more and more engaged with and engrossed in Cathy’s paintings.
Chapters 3 to 33 offer a moveable feast of events as the writer recalls his national and international travels and his encounters with nomadic tribes, especially the Roma he meets in Germany, England, Yugoslavia, Mexico, USA, Canada, mostly modernized and belonging to the chattering class like himself. In the Himalayan region, however, he meets cattle-breeder tribes of Gujjars who are Hindus in their ways of living and Muslim in their ways of believing.
Increasingly conscious of aging, his existentialist angst comes out in the last and final chapter. More than Cathy depending on the writer, the writer becomes dependent on her. Perhaps, she has not returned to India and no longer needs the writer to get her paintings released from the custom and excise bureaucracy at the Indian airports. It seems, he had become used to her. He needed her for continuing his writings on Roma and her Roma art. Has she stolen away his inspiration and strength of his pen? It is for the reader to answer such questions. Writer’s pen has lost life and movement, the reader learns toward the end of the novel. He can no longer write. In lieu of the Great Roma Novel he had dreamt of writing all his life, he has offered a cluttered description of events of his own life in which Cathy and Roma figure more and more intensely than his own milieu , friends or himself.
He has received innumerable honors, prizes, fellowships but they are all recognitions from the government and not society. What irks and aches him even more is that these recognitions are not from his peers. Perhaps that one big Roma novel would have fulfilled his life’s ambition of being recognized by other writers rather than ‘sarkar’ or government but it could not be!
In spite of the writer’s complaints and regrets, irrespective of academic discussions and intellectual observations on art exhibitions and critiques of society and literary milieu, Roma Puri Ke Naam is a book of experience rather than a book of knowledge. Human interest prevails over academic and journalistic content of the novel and sustains the narrative. Just as the author is in a dilemma as to what name he should give to Roma daughter so is the reader, at the end of the novel, and wonders what should he call this engaging narration.
What is there in a name? Dr. Shashi’s pen shows no signs of aging. He retains his poetic verve and vigor and weaves a story about himself and his Roma that flows like a sinuous river with many a bend and many voices! This is confessedly his first novel belatedly written. This reviewer hopes it will not be his ‘last’, as he confides in the reader. His writing style is, what Roland Barthes might call, Writing Degree Zero and lends a bourgeois universality to the middle-class intellectual life portrayed in the episodic concatenation of events, ideas, conversations, comments and reflections.
Roma Putri Ke Naam ends with “You too Brutus”, a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar which turns and transforms life’s innumerable regrets and remonstrations into life’s ultimate betrayal.
Empson has identified seven types of ambiguities that poets and writers resort to for making statements with multiple meaning. Reader is left cogitating whether the writer, the protagonist of the novel, betrayed life or life betrayed him. He wanted to be a sanyasi and had made a pact with his childhood friend and classmate to renounce life but in the moment of truth he cites circumstance and responsibility as the reasons for giving up the path of renunciation and forgets his childhood friend or whatever happened to him. This is a spiritual level of betrayal.
At a personal level, the writer hints at Cathy, the Roma Daughter, having departed from his life and consequentially, his pen stopped flowing!
Wiliam Empson’s number six AMBIGUITY is a statement when the writer “ says nothing and the readers are forced to invent a statement of their own, most likely in conflict with that of the author.
The ending is thus the most effective part of this ‘novel’. The writer of Roma Putri Ke Naam borrows William Shakespeare’s famous quote from Julius Caesar, Et tu, Brute? But does not complete the full quote, “Then fall, Caesar”. Obviously, a bourgeois, middle class hero can neither fully rise nor fully fall. Therefore, the incomplete quotation from Shakespeare has a puzzling effect on the reader. He has to make his own guess about the meaning and significance of the novel as well as its ending. The relationship between Cathy and the writer remains incomplete, ambiguous, and enigmatic just as the writer’s novel is confessedly not what he wanted it to be!