Bhog and Other Stories

Bhog and Other Stories
By Ankur Betageri
Pilli Books, Bangaluru, 2010
Hardback, 108 pp., Rs. 260
by Zafar Anjum

In Ankur Betageri’s debut collection of short stories, Bhog and Other Stories, the last story, Malavika, is about a Bangalore-based materialistic girl. The eponymous character, Malavika, is befriended by the narrator—a writer and a friend of the young college-going student. The writer shows that Malavika is confused about life.

Once Malavika and the narrator go to a hospital to donate blood. The doctor does not allow Malavika to donate her blood because of her having a low count of red blood cells. Malavika turns sad at this rejection and the narrator reads her a poem to cheer her up. She cuts him off in the middle of the narration and tells him that he should publish books and seriously consider writing novels. The narrator muses: “Only when a person’s capacity is expressed in the form of a product or a service can one give it the value of money—only things having money value can have any value. I realized that this philosophy was behind all her talk and action.”

Moreover, Malavika advises the young poet to exercise ‘emotional discipline’, implying that one should express oneself at the right places only, where ‘the expression’ could be monetized. In this story, Ankur is alluding to the marketisation of feelings and their commoditized modes of expression in our world.

Later on in the story, Malavika seems to suffer from a nervous breakdown. She can’t understand her own suffering. She meets up with the narrator. “Look, there is a deep lack of love in this world,” he consoles her. “Like most people who have adjusted themselves to the dehumanizing conditions of the capitalistic system even you have lost the ability to love someone with all your heart; to accept someone with all your being. While a small portion of your brain shows a little love and sympathy, the rest of your brain becomes busy calculating like a businessman.”

“Feeling is not our weakness—it is a sign of our humanity,” the narrator reminds Malavika. Obliquely, perhaps Ankur wants to tell us all about our materialistic madness and paranoia—our undesirable sufferings, the postmodern crisis of meaning in life. And Ankur should know it—he has a Masters degree in clinical psychology.

Like Malavika, most of the stories in this collection are about the dilemmas of life that characters in cities and villages face, until a transforming moment comes in their lives that imparts them a rare insight. The characters, and through them the readers, woven by Ankur in these stories are rewarded with epiphanies that somehow lessen the burden of life, for life invested with meaning becomes less painful.

Psychology, philosophy, and ancient wisdom form the framework for the screen on which Ankur throws his beam of imaginary characters that fashion his curious world. The resulting tales sometimes take strange, allegorical forms and depending on her taste, a reader could find it interesting or boring. In essence, his stories demonstrate the fight between the spirit and the matter. In The Source of the Stream, a character thus summarizes the modern man: “Modern man … (is) nothing more than an animated corpse—he has become a zombie. He is spurious, narcissistic, shallow and this has forced him to become sensational, for he can be nothing else…Sensationalism is the artificial spirit of the dead age. And if no one wakes up from this slumber of cynicism there is the unthinkable possibility of forgetting the very presence of Spirit, the Spirit in which is found the depth of our true joys and sorrows.”

Insights flow from one story to another in this collection of 14 stories. But all stories are not realistic. There are some fantastic stories too such as Atmaram Harbhaji and The Armour. Atmaram Harbhaji is particularly interesting—the main character is a man who was born in five bits and was lovingly brought up in a sack by his mother. This is a tragicomic story with the dark shades of Kafka and the linguistic inventiveness of Rushdie.

Ankur’s piece de resistance in this collection is the title story—Bhog. The story has been told in an old-fashioned narrative style which slowly grows in its power. It’s about a poor old man who prepares for the Bhog celebrations. Bhog is a ritual festival celebrated on the first Saturday after Deepavali to mark improvement in the family’s affluence and prosperity.

The old man, the story’s protagonist, has nothing to celebrate actually but he has to live up to the expectations of the villagers. As he painstakingly hews a dead tree to make firewood for the celebrations, he is met with the news of the death of his family’s dog. He uses the wood to make a funeral pyre for his dog, instead for his Bhog celebration. He gives in to feelings at the cost of his perceived prestige in the village. The story somehow reminds us of Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea (the struggle between the fisherman Santiago and the giant marlin vs. the struggle between the old man and the date palm tree). The image of the old man hacking at the unyielding date palm tree reminds me of a scene in Anusha Razvi’s Peepli Live in which an emaciated old man digs soil in an open crater. Given the setting, I had the feeling that a story like should have come from the pen of Munshi Premchand—it is so powerful.

Bhog is the most accomplished story in this collection of many insightful stories. Though the stories here are of uneven quality and they could have been better edited, each one of them leaves you with a thought or an insight. Overall, Bhog and Other Stories could be a rewarding read for those readers who want more than mere entertainment in their reading material.

An edited version of this review appeared in The Financial World, Tehelka’s sister publication dated 5 May.

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