Nothing is Blue-review

 (This review is in courtesy Swapnesh Banerjee)

Fictional novels based on certain historical episodes or contexts and trivia have carved out their own niche in the literary genre in recent times. The most famous instance probably is The Name of the Rose. Closer home, Saradindu Bandypodhyay has enriched this area with his inimitable creations in Bengali, though it is rather surprising that the total literary output in history based fiction does not match the scale and complexity of Indian history. In this context, Biman Nath's novel goes a little way in redressing the balance by acquainting the reader with a slice of our buddhist past in the form of an interesting fictional narrative.

    The story primarily deals with the experiences of Ananda, a monk who comes to Nalanda from Bengal in order to study the scriptures at the most exalted Buddhist seat of learning. The order characterising the sangha system of Buddhism with its strict rules and monasteries is showing signs of brittleness, and is being undermined both from without and within. Sections of monks have become deviant, a fact which Ananda discovers from a source too close for comfort. Ananda himself is not a typical bhikshuk wedded to the monastery and its ivory towers. The rigors of monastic life has not stripped him of his sensitivity or emotions, and this is reflected in some of his apparent indiscretions of thought,. He is subject to the same urges as a normal young man, and his interaction with a young widow in a neighbouring village underscores the fact that the mind does not always rule his heart - though his focus in the end does not waver from his life's mission. Even in this interaction which starts out as a more elemental level than he himself would be comfortable with, Ananda shows his humanism and comes out with dignity. However, this  willingness to let himself explore the world more than allowed by the constraints of the monastery leads to his ability to consider and research ideas other than the established truth, In this context, he devotes his energies to finding out if the current calendars based on astronomical theories and observations are correct, the veracity of which would overturn the entire calendar of rituals in India. The disputed point in question is about the precession of equinoxes, which was been vehemently denied by the prevalent school of thought. His life takes a more significant turn however, as he becomes an attendant to the visiting Chinese Buddhist scholar Huen Tsang, and he soon graduates to being a favoured intellectual companion to the foreign bhikshuk. He accompanies Huen Tsang on his travels in India and stays back in Ujjain to learn about astronomy and mathematics from Brahmagupta, and more importantly attempts to find out about the researches of Khona, a lady mathematician from Bengal who was condemned for her attempts to usurp the powerful Varahamihira, many years ago. The character of Ananda rivets us and holds our attention throughout, for though his world is far removed from ours, we recognise in his travails and experiences parallels to our own lives, and indeed the foibles and challenges that we ourselves face in our modern world.

    Dr. Nath has indeed woven the tale quite skilfully and the twists and turns in Ananda's life juxtaposes well with the turbulent times through which Buddhism itself was going through - indeed in a way Ananda's life is a representative microcosm of the larger turmoil. The primary thread is about Ananda and different strands weave in and also disentangle with the main thread with a simplicity and ease that makes it an interesting narrative to read. However, this book is not a traditional historical 'whodunit', indeed people thrilled by bodies appearing at regular intervals will be disappointed from that angle. It weaves an intriguing tale but the intrigue is at a level broader than a set of individuals, though it is developed through the twists and turns in the life of its primary protagonist. This book paints a vivid picture of life in Nalanda in its last glory days, and as we follow Ananda in his formative years, we are slowly immersed in a world removed from us not only by the passage of the centuries but also from a cultural and more material aspect. In fact one of the key takeways from a novel set in a certain historical period would be a feel of those times, and the author succeeds in communicating to the reader a very real sense of life in Nalanda in fine detail and also uses somewhat broader brushstrokes give a context of life in eastern India. A significant aspect of the book is Huen Tsang himself. Though he does not play any dramatic part in the book (apart from a couple of philosophical debates) - his is a towering personality which encompasses the entire story. The author paints a word picture of the great Chinese traveller adroitly throughout the book and the reader is given enough nuggets to reconstruct the personality through his wisdom, learning, his puritanical attitude as well as his genuine affection for Ananda. We get the sense of man driven by his purpose of acquiring wisdom in the ancient Buddist religion and carrying with him those seeds back to his native land so that he can watch it sprout and grow in his own care, but who still retains his core simplicity and compassion even after his extensive adventures and travels.

    A note about the general structure and language of the book. One thing that strikes you is that the language complements the theme quite well. It is not overly ornate or lyrical, but has a certain richness which does grow on you. Metaphors, especially in description of certain natural features are quite pleasing, and some of them indeed do correlate very well and shows the author's command over this difficult construct. The overall impression you get is that of a style of writing that is not so profusely descriptive as Umberto Eco, but does enough in a rsoothing way to construct rather detailed impressions of the world he is trying to describe. Nothing is Blue similary does very well in providing skilful descriptions of diverse things - rather like pieces of cloth that is woven into the overall rich tapestry and I rather like this approach than having large paragraphs or lyrical passages devoted to aesthetic accounts. Nothing is Blue is a book that has a nice flowing language which dovetails very well with the style of storytelling and is an aspect that should be appreciated.

    This is the author's first literary production in a fictional novel form, as I understand. From a purely personal point of view, there are a few areas that I would like to point out where I felt that it could have been handled differently. In a way the story's rate of progression is bit skewed in my view. It starts off sedately and the reader is lulled into the world of Nalanda via Ananda and then later introduced to Huen Tsang. This theme is worked and expanded on for more than half the book, even as the reader is titillated with a sense of more dramatic events that are about to unfold. While this works upto a point, there is a feeling of expectation being a bit let down as you reach the middle stages and a bit beyond that. After that it picks up speed and then becomes more interesting as it approaches the end. In fact as you finish reading, you just get the feeling that it ends just a bit abruptly, it is as if you have savoured the starters and the main course which have exceeded your expectation but feel a bit let down in the dessert. In particular Ananda's friend (who is part of the deviant monks) is developed as an interesting character who could have had some more possibilities. Also the astronomical question that is posed is quite intriguing, and develops well in the later stages. However, it does not roll forward to a very satisfactory conclusion and leaves the reader (at least me) wanting more. Given the fact that the opening half starts off in a langorous fashion and the complexities involved in the whole storyline, another fifty pages would have been very welcome!

    All in all, Nothing is Blue is an intriguing novel which delights and surprises in equal measure. The historical context and characters provide a vivid backdrop to a well articulated storyline that keeps you wanting to both savour the current page and go onto the next one. It illuminates a portion of Indian history that is rather smothered amongst all the battles and king-lists and the author needs to be commended on choosing such an eclectic yet interesting landscape to base his narrative on. The short epilogue and appendix adds on to the authentic feel of the novel and reflects positively on the author's erudition in this topic. In these days of frivolity and superficiality, Nothing is Blue is a refreshing novel as it winds its way amongst the vistas of our ancient land and in the process produces a story that is compelling and an excellent read. Go out then, buy it and spend a couple of afternoons curled in your armchair with it. Trust me, you would not be disappointed.

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umapoems said...

Beautiful review of the book

umapoems said...

Loved your posts! search of interesting books to read and post:)

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The Wandering Gypsy said...

Nice review!

It was refreshing to read the posts in your blog :)