Sudhin N. Ghose
And Gazelles Leaping | Cradle of the Clouds
New Delhi: Speaking Tiger. 2017
ISBN-13: 978-93-86338-22-8 | 978-93-86338-25-9
Pp 207 | 282 || ₹ 299 | ₹ 350 (Respectively)
A combined review
Where the worlds revolve like ancient women
It is a rare literary achievement for a novelist to retain relevance over a century after peaking with an oeuvre that has never been accorded the critical and popular recognition it deserved. Sudhin N Ghose has largely disappeared from the annals of the more noted Indian English novelists, while his own contribution to the aesthetic development of the genre has been overshadowed and undermined. His quartet of novels chronicling the growth of an unnamed narrator remains his lasting achievement, and yet that too has been lost to obscurity. Despite being one of the earlier novelists whose work brought together a sense of Indian Romanticism, the narrative-picaresque, and the bildungsroman, Ghose’s quartet, as for most of his corpus, has been away from the literary scope of popular readers who have read comparable works by the likes of Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, and even Ruskin Bond. The present review is of the first two novels in Ghose’s untitled quartet, titled And Gazelles Leaping and Cradle of the Clouds respectively, in their reissued formats by Speaking Tiger.
What is especially endearing about Ghose’s novels is the essential Indianness, the local colours and the flavours that speak of a familiar place for most Indian readers irrespective of generational differences. In fact, a reader may be hard-pressed to identify with a fair amount of accuracy the chronological period that Ghose has written about. It is ambiguous in the truest and the most poignant sense of the term, creating scenes and landscapes that transcend time. Ghose’s imagination is highly subjective and replete with Romantic accents. And this Romantic sense of breaking the tenuous inhibitions between the individual, her/his place in society, and the spatial location of the individual gives his novels a strangely endearing character. This narrative vision which is displayed in the two novels evolves from a simplistic and childlike gratuity at existence in And Gazelles Leaping to one which is more mature and reserved in Cradle of the Clouds.
The two novels narrate the first phase and the growing up of an unnamed narrator. Less of his exploits than the story of his attaining enlightenment from the timidly founded shackles of being a foundling. Orphaned or abandoned, the protagonist is shown as growing up in a school for underprivileged children, and the travails of the simpletons who inhabit the periphery of his growth into an adult. The palette of Ghose sufficiently considers the wide plethora of characters and even non-characters, which include a wide variety of pets, an elephant, and even an anima-morphised bicycle. The sheer range and virtue of Ghose’s imagination brings the peripheral into sharper focus than can be found in the works of most other novelists invested purely in character development. Ghose’s novels are intensively populated with locales and people, and it is inordinately difficult for the casual reader to locate the exact theme in his novels, as Hiranmoy Ghoshal had aptly summed up in an early review:
Those who look for a particular milieu, some definite geographical area, or the development of a clear-cut theme, or even the unfolding story in Sudhin Ghose’s novels will be baffled. There are scenes from Calcutta, Chandernagore, the countryside of West Bengal, the Himalayas and their foothills, but it would be sheer folly to regard them as pages from Baedeker. The same applies to the men and morals and the flora and fauna of India as described by Ghose. Ghose possesses, however, an uncanny gift of catching the spirit of places and people (Hiranmoy Ghoshal 284).
The novels chronicle the bildungsroman of the unnamed protagonist/narrator who grows from his typical childlike naîveté to a stage of deep but impersonal wisdom. Ghose leaves the furthering of the trajectory of the hero’s development to the remaining two books of the quartet, but the first two books provide ample fodder for the imagination of the prospective reader, and stand as testament of and for themselves as individual literary units.
The first of the two novels, both in sequence and also chronologically, And Gazelles Leaping, is replete with a plethora of characters, situations and scenarios that showcase the author’s acute sense of narration. Despite the multitude of other probabilities, it is in fact in the descriptive passages that the reader will find the true beauty of Ghose’s deft manipulation of language. There are passages of exceptional and particular beauty, such as the nighttime recollection that Ghose accords to the childhood musing of his unnamed narrator hero:
[We] were not quite so foolish as to forget that a boy could be home-sick. […] at night, before dropping to sleep, I would long for the familiar touches of my native village: the lullaby of the evening breeze to the yielding bamboos; the shrill chores of the sleepless cicadas; the haunting strain of the goat-herd’s reed-flute; the unending dance of the fire-flies; the soothing fragrance of the tuberoses and hasnuhanahs; the lingering moon over the thatched cottages, and the star-dusted sky of sapphire and amaranth…. (And Gazelles Leaping, 19)
The images are delightful as they attend to the synaesthetic (sense impression from physical stimuli) by creating a vivid word picture of the night as it would appear to the child, or to the other children as well. Ghose explores the vision of the child with the rigour of a psychoanalyst which makes it further convincing when he decides to probe into the mind of the adult protagonist.
There is a statement on aesthetics that sums up Ghose’s stance on the aesthetic unity of the fiction when he discusses the attainment of Urvashi in the section “In Quest of Urvashi” in And Gazelles Leaping:
It is the quest for Urvashi, the search for Beauty, that is to say, which is the main purpose of human life. It alone distinguishes a man from an ape, from a gnat, from an ant, and from an elephant. Beauty like lightning tempers the steel but it burns up the dross. A vision of Beauty is the same as a glimpse of the Sublime. It creates an emotional upheaval. Man is incapable of facing the sublime without being overwhelmed. The greater the intensity of his experience, the greater is his emotional upheaval….
(And Gazelles Leaping, 204-5)
A closer reading of the passage is essential as it reflects Ghose’s own aesthetic concepts more acutely: the object of true beauty, even in narrative form, would be too obscure and difficult for the individual to comprehend and partake in. Therefore, the essential nature of beauty is akin to the sublime, the (almost) incomprehensible.
Ghose switches his tone and narrative style exponentially to draw the reader’s attention to the rapidly maturing mind of the narrator in Cradle of the Clouds. Unlike And Gazelles Leaping, where the reader encounters childlike wonder at the sights and sounds of the world, in Cradle of the Clouds the more poignant imagery is left to be encountered towards the end, when the narrator has undergone significant changes in his personal philosophy. It is at this juncture that the most pictorial images of the book appear:
The landscape spread before me, silent and serene. Darkness enfolded my familiar Red Valley and my beloved Blue Hills in mystery and majesty. The hours advanced and the depths of the vault of heaven grew darker—it changed from indigo blue to deep amaranth. The stars flashed brighter. The constellation commonly called the Plough fascinated me. Some know is as the Seven Sages
I watched the heavenly bodies and smiled. I was no longer the puny boy, afraid of watching the stars in their course. I was an altogether different being: a young man fond of them and proud of telling their tales. I knew them well—the brighter planets and the shining constellations. I was never tired of gazing at them and repeating the stories of their birth. They kindled my imagination. They told me of far off events unrecorded in any history book.
(Cradle of the Clouds, 275-76)
The second novel of the quartet has decidedly lesser pronounced picturesque passages, but the intention of the novelist is to move from a narration of the macrocosm to a narration of the microcosm. The wide-eyed child would absorb the world with wonder, whereas the youth is sceptical, and looks more inward, more at the minuscule than at the universal. The novel consequently promotes a binary vision, a narrowing of the sights, that adapts the reader more successfully to the tunnel vision of any person during her/his growing years.
Shyamala A Narayan, one of the few critics to have written at length on the works of Ghose, has aptly estimated the various influences and elements in his fiction:
“Sudhin Ghose was the first to introduce the poetic tradition of India into the Indian English novel—Sanskrit, ranging from Jayadeva to the maxims of Bhartrihari, Bengali songs, not only the famous Tagore but the less known Ram Prasad, the folk songs and proverbs of the Santal Parganas, and the parables so common in the Upanishads, Puranas and the Mahabharata. He does all this not by quotations from an unknown (to the English reader) language, but through sensitive translations. The forms of his novels are completely Indian, and his technique points the way to an Indian tradition of novel writing, as yet followed by no one else” (103).
Ghose’s works hold tremendous importance for students and readers of Indian fiction in English. Oft overlooked, and seldom discussed, Ghose charted a trajectory in the pantheon of Indian English literature that had been innovative and endearing at the same time. Following a long period of neglect in popular circles, Speaking Tiger’s reissue of the seminal works emboldens the experimental readers to wade into territory that was most likely unexplored thus far. Beside the wonderfully designed and presented books, the content itself is remarkable enough to deem the books prized positions in the bookshelves of readers of Indian English fiction/literature.
Ghoshal, Hiranmoy. 1956. An Indian Tetralogy: Four Novels of Sudhin N. Ghose. Books Abroad Vol. 30, No. 3 pp. 284-286 http://www.jstor.org/stable/40038840
Narayan, Shyamala A. 1985. ‘Sudhin N.Ghose,’ in Perspectives on Indian Fiction in English, edited by M.K. Naik, New Delhi, Abhinav Publications.