Reviewed by Shikhandin
Author: Priya Sarukkai Chabria
Publisher – Zubaan Books
Pages: Hard cover 285
Price: INR Rs 595 / $25 / £19
In 1897, the French artist Paul Gaugin, who had relocated to Tahiti some years earlier, painted his masterpiece – a wall sized fresco-like oil painting, in which flowed the summation of his ideas through the medium of sensuous Tahitian figures against lush Tahitian backdrop and motifs. He titled it in French, the English translation of which reads: ‘Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?’ These are existential questions, asked by humans down the centuries. Poets have asked through poetry, story tellers or minstrels have sung of those who cried out to the wheeling universe. Philosophers have pondered and mathematicians have tried to solve them through equations. Priya Sarukkai Chabria, in her richly textured novel, has written about one who seeks answers to similar questions. Her quester though, is a clone.
The subject of clones with heightened sensitivity has been treated in literature before, and also rendered into cinema. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, made into a movie of the same name later, is one of the most thought provoking and based on Earth. An earlier novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick in the late 1960s, renamed Blade Runner, was made into a movie by Ridley Scott in 1982. Other novels and movies too have dealt with clones, mostly in far off space colonies and space ships.
Sarukkai Chabria’s novel evokes luscious images, even as the narrative throws up unsettling theories of the future of humans. She comes across as a demanding writer, one who expects her readers to be informed and attentive. Her prose urges closer scrutiny, heavily embossed as it is with imageries culled from myths, legends and history. The reader has to know the sources, or at least be curious enough to find out, or else be left bereft of the contexts of her narrative. The extensive use of esotericism in her novel is both its strength and a weakness – the former as it adds layers and dimensions to the story; the latter, because the profusion of references and allusions, imageries and motifs, draws the reader in too deep into specific portions, slowing down the pace, and yet one must read on for the tale hasn’t ended, making the book exhausting at times. It is a relief therefore to know that the plot of Clone is fairly straightforward.
In Clone, our earth of the far future is a dystopia populated by beings who have descended from humans but have evolved, altered, mutated and cloned themselves and their surroundings to such an extent that nothing natural remains in the civilised and inhabited world. At the top of the hierarchy stand the originals who live for hundreds of years, and are served by clones of themselves along with other clones of various categories created to fulfil specific jobs, as well as artificially created creatures like Superior Zombies, Firehearts, Gladiators, and a menagerie of animal forms. All bear allegiance to the Global Community. Everything is monitored to ensure the well-being of the Global Community. Nothing is left to chance, and any aberration from the norm is dealt with peremptorily, without mercy.
The protagonist, Clone 14/54/G, is a fourteenth generation female clone, an efficient, diligent worker. She believes like everybody else that theirs (the Global Community) is an open society, where everyone from the originals right down to the lowliest clone has access to information, and that nothing is prohibited. But beneath the skin of this placid acceptance, something has ruptured. She has begun to remember. She doesn’t recognise the memories, for they come to her in the shape of visitations. Yet, these are not dreams. They are lucid visions in which she plays a role either in human or animal form.
Clones are not supposed to have either visions or dreams. The sense of self is not permitted in clones. Also, they do not have access to memory. 14/54/G has no one to share either her visions or her concerns with. She feels lonely and starts keeping a diary, which she keeps hidden in a cell-chip in her system. She senses she will be eliminated if her secret becomes known. She realises that this warning thought in her circuitry is an aberrance. Clones are not supposed to have desires of self-preservation. In 14/54/G’s own words, “At best I am an in-between species who does not know the time span I have left.” It’s an oddly structured thought. But our clone is given to such oddness.
She asks strange questions of herself. “What went awry in my cloning process? Or was there a deeper more pervasive malaise? From where had this word malaise – suggestive of poetry and unfathomable quandary – sprung? …Am I composed of multiple selves, like the corrupted multiple version of the religion?” The religion refers to the Hinduism practised during our present times. What is happening to her? Or more pertinently, looking back at the Gaugin painting, one needs to ask, “Where is she from? What is she? Where is she going?”
As 14/54/G wades deeper and deeper into the anomalies that are secretly rocking her existential boat, the visitations increase, and she observes changes, what she perceives to be mutations, occurring on her perfect clone body. And then, she discovers that she is not alone in her quest, but is in fact a crucial cog in a wheel that was set into motion in the long past, when her original (whose name she cannot fully comprehend in her visions; instead is left with only the first syllables Aa-Aa) still lived. She, along with her fellow conspirators, must solve the mystery, even if it destroys them.
Sarukkai Chabria’s narratives of the visions are separated from the general flow of the novel; they are set in italics, whole chapters of them. The pages often read like sheer poetry. In one of the early visions, where 14/54/G is a wolf-dog for example, “With torch in hand, Vrikama races through the narrow streets that squeeze the heart and shut the sky, and burns it down till the sky descends from the flames to the sweet earth again. Hissing like tears the town burns down, hissing like curses we speed through the ruins, hissing with grief the survivors lie crumpled.” It is difficult to let go of Sarukkai Chabria’s writing. The book is mosaicked with pieces like this, which makes one stop and chew, slowly, inhale slowly, so as not to miss a single grain of beauty in the sentences. I have mentioned earlier how this is both a strength and weakness, though even the weakness pales in the light of the delicate beauty of her prose.
The chapters describing the visitations in detail make up an important section of the book. Through her DNA, from her DNA and by her DNA, 14/54/G receives visions of her previous avatars. So in one she was a parrot who loved her mistress like a lover. In another an avaricious body guard. In yet another, the fish that swam through the great flood – and here is another Hindu lore turned around on its head, smashing the idea of salvation to create disillusionment – “There is no dualism. Ultimate reality is not bliss but horror. There is only horror. Unifying horror. Within. Without. Horror.”
In another visitation, Clone 14/54/G was an acolyte in a monastery, possibly around the reign of the Gupta period emperor Harsha Vardana. Sarukkai Chabria makes no references to him, but if it was during the era when I assume Nalanda University reached its peak with students coming in from other countries, one can assume it to be so. In yet another 14/54/G was the mad woman of Dauli, as I already mentioned. And finally, she was Trichaisma, the wolf-dog during the Aryan invasion of the Indus – the crossing of the Sindhu River into the land of the Dasyus.
Reading the section on visitations is like walking through a hall of magic mirrors, at the end of which one must return to the novel and its narrative, which is like emerging into hard bright sunlight, our clone’s dystopia being the breath-taking and harsh reality of the world that Sarukkai Chabria has created. This novel is not easy to describe, especially with the weight of the visitation sections embedded in it. The book is more than speculative fiction. It is the kind of fiction that is birthed in humanity’s deep rooted angst, distilled from its various dystopic epochs, sutured with mankind’s technological advances and theories and steeped in ancient ideology.
Clone is a warren of ideas, of philosophical ponderings, of warnings, and questionings. However, every book must have a core from which the story flows. In Clone it is this: The denizens of Earth have wilfully discarded memory, the kernel of which is humanity. But can memory be truly discarded? Can civilisation be lobotomised?
Since Sarukkai Chabria is a poet herself, only the words of another poet can best express her novel’s core. I quote from Zeina Hashem Beck’s poem “Ghazal: With Prayer” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org):
In the museum of memory, the missing
They shoot out of the tiles like grass blades
damp & new with prayer.
Coming back to the questions the novel throws up or the ‘core from which its story flows’, it is up to her protagonist, who is hardly human to seek the answers, and thereby carry the novel through. It is this search that guides the structure of the narrative, holds the story together in spite of the many literary distractions tossed up by the writer. Clone is not an ordinary book of speculative fiction. The book is intimately woven with many thoughts and ideas that provide fodder for the thinking and seeking reader.
While many of these ‘distractions’ are sombre, and at times downright dark, some have the lightness and absurdity of an Alice in Wonderland kind of scenario. For example, in the chapter where 14/54/G is at the museum, there is a quaint encounter with a pair of Firehearts, poetic creatures that exist to extract truth, Couplet and its partner Blank Verse. They find14/54/G’s advice and observations helpful, so Couplet says to her: “Dear Clone, for being helpful we grant you three wishes, not that they will come true. But wish, nevertheless.” Such scenes provide some relief, space in which to smile or have a quiet chuckle.
What is surprising about Sarukkai Chabria’s prose is that despite being thick, almost sticky with allusions and laden with poetry, the novel maintains a steady pace, prompting me at times to back up and double track my reading, because as I said earlier, her sentences demand scrutiny. To understand this better, visualise the reader as a hound following a scent; the reader may have to loop around the path while progressively moving towards the target.
Clone is an immensely engaging and satisfying book, commanding alert perusal and demanding intelligent interaction from its reader. To sum it up, in order to be Priya Sarukkai Chabria’s ideal reader, at least in her novel Clone, one must be like the response to the questions in one of her ‘Visitation’ chapters:
What is lighter than scum, but more armoured than a warship?
What is more ruthless than lightning, but more pliant than river grass?
Hungrier than a crane but more devious than a crab?
The mind of an intellectual.
Shikhandin is an Indian writer whose story collection Immoderate Men was published by Speaking Tiger, 2017 (http://speakingtigerbooks.com/books/immoderate-men/). Vibhuti Cat, her first children’s book, was published by Duckbill in 2018. Shikhandin’s prose and poetry have won awards and accolades in India and abroad; she has been widely published worldwide. https://www.amazon.com/author/shikhandin