Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Fifth Man by Bani Basu: book review

The Fifth Man by Bani Basu, translated from the Bengali original by Arunava Sinha
Review by Divya Dubey

[Published in the Asian Review of Books]

Bani Basu is one of the most prolific writers in Bengal – a recipient of the Tarashankar Award for Antarghaat (Treason), and the Ananda Purashkar for Maitreya Jataka. She has
also received the Sushila Devi Birla Award and the Sahitya Setu Puraskar. It is a pity that her work has not been more widely translated.

It is with pleasure, therefore, that one opens Arunava Sinha’s translation of Pancham Purush—rendered as The Fifth Man—a story that revolves around several characters with interlinked pasts, each of whom carries secrets, hopes and fears.

This highly complex novel threads together several themes: from unrequited love, frustration and lust that form its backbone to ideas about motherhood and widowhood, limitation and liberation revealed obliquely through portraits of the women characters.

A crucial feature of the book is a rich cache of classical and literary references and allusions. The author draws liberally from religion, cinema (particularly Bengali cinema), history, mythology and other eclectic sources. Greek and Roman myths are as much a part of it as their Indian counterparts. Constant references to Shiva, Parvati or Kali, for instance, are deeply symbolic, as are references to Venus or Proserpine. There are specific references to the poet Yeats and passages so reminiscent of Frankenstein (‘a tree felled by lightning. No leaves, the branches fallen off, only a black trunk with the ancient remnants of leaves and boughs on its gnarled surface’) and of the sexual tension in the Marabar caves section of A Passage to India that one can’t believe they are merely coincidental.
While the former half of the novel highlights the main characters trying to deal with past demons, the latter half of the novel centres round a trip they make together to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves, famous archaeological sites near Aurangabad, Maharashtra. The paintings and sculptures reflect the life of Buddha and his previous incarnations (known as Jatakas). They are also known for their candid depiction of the human body portrayed with grace and elegance.

Six middle-aged protagonists form themselves into a variety of triangles right from the beginning. Aritra, a self-proclaimed poet, met his wife Neelam when they were both students of Dr Mahanam Roy at University. The novel kicks off when Esha, whom Aritra spurned in University, shows up eighteen years later for a visit. They are joined by Mahanam (who comes to notice a physical resemblance between himself and Neelam’s teenage daughter) and another couple Bikram and Seema, the former a somewhat smarmy character and the latter an avatar for the proper Indian wife.

In this sexually-charged atmosphere, barring young Pupu (Neelam’s daughter), all the others squeeze themselves into a car for a trip to Ellora. This is where one of the principal themes of the novel is highlighted:

The interiors of the car smelt of middle-age desire. It was redolent in the air […] Everyone – at least, most of them – could indistinctly sense a powerful sexual whirlwind willing itself within them. Aritra felt a strong desire for Esha. Seema wanted her husband […] Bikram wanted Esha if possible, or else Neelam […] Neelam wanted Mahanam. Mahanam did not want anyone in particular […] Esha wanted Ajanta, complete with all its nuanced shades of historical, mythical, artistic and human form and colour.

In fact, almost a third of the book is dedicated to the marvels of Ajanta and Ellora accompanied by numerous myths or history associated with them. Detailed discussions of many Jataka tales reflect the novel’s premise besides the characters’ state of mind. For instance:

Arunava Sinha
Esha stopped in front of the image of Princess Krishna […] Dark-skinned. Downcast eyes. How had the Buddhist artist learnt of such depths of despair? The melancholy of Avalokiteshwar was not the same as this suffering […] ‘Look Ari, how miraculous this grief is. It pervades the entire cave.’
All three women – Esha, Neelam and Seema – achieve their moments of enlightenment in their precincts.  Early on in the book, Esha makes a comment about the Indian society in front of Neelam, ‘Many parents get their sons married because they need a high-class maid.’ Later on Seema is shown as a flesh-and-blood example of this fact before she is exposed to eye-opening conversations and ideas in the company of the other two older women and gains maturity through new experiences. Occasionally though, an excess of abstractions or academic discourse can be a bit trying.

Basu’s canvas is pretty wide. Nor does she hesitate to acknowledge human beings as essentially polyamorous creatures; contentment at any stage of life is impossible. Esha is an embodiment of all of these. Besides the three men in the book over whom she wields power, the fourth – her husband – is an absence. The significance of the title is revealed literally on the last page. It is a novel that invites several readings, and in each promises to reveal new layers.

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