By Mitali Chakravarty
Author: Joginder Paul
Translated from Urdu by: Sukrita Paul Kumar & Hina Nandrajog
Publisher: harper Perennial
Blind interfaces between being a thriller and a symbolic multi-layered novel. It starts in a home for the visually impaired and soars into the political and social arena of the world in which we live. Mr Joginder Paul, the author, based this story on his experiences in a blind people’s home near Nairobi during his sojourn as a teacher in Africa. In the book, he has relocated the home to India and the inmates are Indians.
Through the course of his narrative, he highlights the struggle faced by people with vision and without vision. He uses ‘sight’ symbolically to contrast physical, moral, intellectual and value-based vision. Some of the blind have a ‘third eye’ with which they can sense the world around them. Some of them are excellent craftsmen and have ‘eyes on their fingers’. The blind are so attuned to their condition that they fear external sight. Being free of vision gives them a sense of freedom in their interactions with each other and with the world around them. One of them, a basket weaver, claims, ‘… if my eyes begin to see, my fingers will go blind.’ When an inmate regains sight, he loses his sense of orientation. He feels threatened that he will be turned out of the home, the only shelter the blind trust.
The beautiful blind Roni finds herself in a brothel when she leaves the security of the home. Eventually, after a brief marriage with a man with sight, she is compelled to re-seek the shelter of the home. Roni, who has ties with at least five men through the narrative, finally marries an inmate of the home, Sharfu.
Unfortunately, Sharfu steps out to buy barfi for Roni, stumbles on an abandoned dead body, and, unable to convince the police of his innocence, he is taken into custody.
The blind are alarmed at the hanging of an innocent trade union leader. In reaction, Kalia, an inmate of the home, turns down an eye donation, declaring,
‘He who can see is hanged to death!’ Baba, the man who runs and owns the home, regains his vision at the start of the story but continues to feign blindness. He joins politics, gets involved with a foreign agency and reports to a villainous guru. The plot lures Baba to the Rajya Sabha, the Prime Minister’s home and to a world of power and glamour. From this part the novel reads like a thriller.
The author expertly juggles the worlds of the blind and of those with sight till there is a ray of hope when Baba literally regains his inner vision. The novel deals not just with the inability of some people with eyes to see the reality but also touches upon broader socio-political themes. That we fought for freedom and then enchained ourselves to greed, money and power is very well brought out; that women are abused by men and that they themselves are the ones who accept or exploit the situation is highlighted through the stories of the blind women.
In the course of writing this book, Mr Joginder Paul had himself blindfolded for a month. Despite the symbolic statements of his characters and their complex natures, the author has excelled in bringing them to life. The mastery of story-telling is evident. However, I wonder at the realism of the plot. Do the blind in the real world not want vision because they feel threatened by the evil that sight might induce? Is the real world as bleak and murky as portrayed in the novel?
These are questions I ponder at the end of the book, but what is a good book if it doesn’t make you think.
The bleakness portrayed in the novel is lightened by Mr Paul’s humorous handling of situations and characters in the Dickensian tradition. The narrative is smooth and lyrical and words are used with precision to bring the characters to life. The translation is superb and has blended well with the ambience. It has drawn on the mysticism and poetic quality of Urdu to enhance the nuances of the characters and situations to readers in English. I would regard this book as an excellent and thought-provoking read.
Mitali Chakravarty writes essays, short stories, poetry and reviews. Her bylines have appeared in The ‘Times of India’, ‘Pioneer’, ‘Statesman’ and ‘Hindustan Times’. Her poetry has appeared as part of two anthologies, ‘In Reverie’(2016) and ‘An Anthology of Indian Poetry in English’ (1984). She has a book online, ‘In the Land of Dragons’(2014, ISBN; 978-1490704333). She blogs at 432m.wordpress.com