Wading through streams of reality and dreams

Wading through streams of reality and dreams

Wading through streams of reality and dreams

More telling perhaps is Salman Rushdie’s grandiose endorsement of Dasgupta’s talent on the back cover. He calls Solo a ‘novel of exceptional, astonishing strangeness’ and Dasgupta the ‘most unexpected and original Indian writer of his generation.’

So when you turn to the first chapter, pregnant with expectation, you encounter the sweaty, blind and heavily breathing Ulrich who has woken up in the dead of the night thanks to the world that is still “squawking” around him. His flat in Sofia is no refuge for this old man with too many memories; for it’s a city where modernisation is stomping around even in the middle of the night in the form of screaming drills and floodlit stadiums.

His body is no longer his and for him, the kind neighbours who look after him remain vague and unreal. Real is his mental laboratory where he brews his memories. Obviously there is a lot to remember. And a lot more to imagine.

Dasgupta looks back on the 20th century from a place where one would hardly think of standing to look back — Bulgaria — sometimes Asia, sometimes Europe, but always unstable.

Part One titled ‘First Movement’ is a back-and-forth recollection. Ulrich’s is a life interrupted. His budding musical talent is silenced by a strict father while his mother looks on in ‘philharmonic sadness’; his chemistry studies are cut short brutally by poverty; his best friend executed amidst anti-communist sentiments; his marriage a failed venture and his son, a snatched-away dream.

His unremarkable life is narrated almost musically in startling language but by the end of Part One, the readers begin to get no sense of what Rushdie was referring to when he called this novel strange and unexpected. It is a moving story yes, told beautifully and Dasgupta is relentless in his metaphoric imagery. There is Ulrich’s mother whose “submerged agonies were a form of silent compact”; his friend Boris’ fingers form into “deadly beams of coherence” when he speaks...the chapters too have chemical elements as titles as an obvious tribute to Ulrich’s unconsumed love for the subject.

Only when Part Two opens does the unexpected and strange emerge. Even the chapter names are well, strange — ‘Narwhal’, ‘Dugong’, ‘Manatee’ being some of them. Here we follow the stories of three young protagonists, prodigious and handsome Boris, raised by a grandmother and taught by gypsy musicians; gutsy, sexy and ambitious Khatuna and her brother and poet Irakli who is suicidal and strange. (Sorry, there is no other word for it.)

The three meet in New York and unsurprisingly, Ulrich walks in and out of their busy, kaleidoscopic lives. When Ulrich meets his old love during one of his travels (or daydreams?) she does tell him that this is all a dream to which Ulrich enigmatically replies that it is not just a dream and there is “far more to us than what we live.”
Undoubtedly Solo is a difficult novel to deal with. It requires the reader to concentrate hard and plunge through undistinguishable streams of reality and dreams but the concentration does bear fruit. There is a humming music in the novel and in its narration of the life of what the world would label as a ‘failed’ man, it succeeds in upholding the kind of arousing compassion that is essential to enable us to understand a world “that has itself become nonsense.”

Almost at the end, Ulrich tells Boris, “In the future, you’ll live astride the line separating life from death... for then judgement falls away, and there remains only the miracle of being.” Dasgupta seems to be telling his readers to do that as well — leave aside judgement and feel the miracle of being.

Rana Dasgupta
2009, pp 357, Rs 395

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