Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Looking Through Glass by Mukul Kesavan

They say, fiction triumphs where history and historiography meet failure. True enough. Through imagination and innovation, fiction tries to recreate those stories which are of little concern to historians - for history is not much but a political chronology, or a tale written about civilizations lost to time, or a record of battle won and lost. However, fiction is different. Fiction  seeks to carve out stories where to a non-curious, non-keen eye exist none. Even better is the experience when you see the confluence of a historian and fiction writer of great merit, as I happened to notice in Looking Through Glass by Mukul Kesavan. Mr. Kesavan is a professor in the Department of History in my university itself, though I never have had the good fortune of meeting him. I know it clear in my head what I have to say upon coming face to face with him - a simple thank you for giving me the best magical ride through the devastating annuls of Indian pre-independence history, from a post-independence vantage point.

Looking Through Glass is a novel that looks to recreate history, though not in a manner as simple as you would deem. The narrator, on a journey to Benaras to immerse his deceased grandmother's ashes in the holy Ganges, finds himself fall off a bridge into another time zone. He falls into the year 1942 from India of the 1980s and begins an amusing, but revealing tale of inevitabilities that were taking place in that period of struggle, where divisive tendencies had not only taken firm root, but were also raising their heads at ugly junctures in public and private life. The narrator, a Hindu, stays with a Muslim family - with a story and history of its own - passing off as an amnesiac. He almost acquires the role of the man of the house, till he starts on his way to Benaras, joining an anti-British rebellion en route. His travails in Benaras include meeting and dealing with a aspiring porn-film-maker, and rescuing an unwed, pregnant girl, Parwana - all this while being under the tutelage of a local wrestler giving regular sermons on the importance of celibacy for conserving strength. His journey continues to Delhi, Simla and perhaps back to Delhi (has been long since I read this beautiful work of fiction) - spanning the most crucial years of political wrangling regarding cartographic surgery of India and on ground violence devouring the peace of entire communities to forever leave them embittered. All this, being seen through the surreal lens of a photographer, who is an anachronistic observer in the setting.

This novel makes use of the technique of magic realism in a rather sudden way, at the very beginning. Its is not a very simple narrative, for it is a fusion of genres of fantasy and historical fiction. The novel is rich with rhetorical ploys where the author, in essence a historian, is conveying his hardened perspective on India's historical development to his audience, perhaps focussing on giving voice to the one community whose collective opinions had been drowned under the persuasive influence of its leader toeing a rigid separatist line. These tendencies of the author are distinctly noticeable in the way he creates his rather strong characters, ordinary citizens, supporting ideas which are in contravention of what was historically ascribed to them.

Mukul Kesavan
This novel doesn't stop at being a fantastical lesson on history. Besides telling you plainly that independence as partition were affairs larger than the exchange between Congress and the Muslim League, it also encompasses other interesting sub-plots, one of which is crude kind of sexual comedy. This is made visible in the section about Gyanendra, a film-maker aspiring to remake Kama Sutra, victimizing a woman, who can also be looked at as a victimizer in a way. One can, of course, not forget the fact that sexual violence was inextricably linked to the physical violence in the years leading up to Partition. By evoking lesser known streams of ideological thoughts on the idea of India and its various communities, the novel also makes a sincere attempt at political rewriting of historical facts. For throwing light on all this, the narrator has made use of flashback as well as flashforward. He has both, the retrospective and the prospective tools of analysis in his hands, because he picks up a nameless protagonist who has fallen into the lanes of history from a very contemporary reality. This narrator is in a position to see people struggle, but by the virtue of his temporal vantage point, sees how futile these struggles are because he knows precisely what turn history will take.

Lastly, the novel is so dearly loved by me because of the lightness of tone with which the author is able to convey the seriousness of matter. It is a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable novel, which does not leave you sombre or depressed. And this is not to say that it is not hard hitting, or that it does not send its message home. 4.5 stars from me, and absolutely, highly recommended!

Book Details -
Author - Mukul Kesavan
Publisher - Penguin India and Ravi Dayal Publishers
Published - 1995
Book Source - Part of a course on 'Literatures of the Indian Sub-continent', Department of English, JMI
Genre - Historical Fiction/Fantasy Fiction
Price - Rs. 325
Pages - 378


  1. Your blog is source of my knowledge of recently written books....thanks for writing such a captivating review. Now I will have to read this novel as at least it is related to my city Varanasi....

    1. It is a wonderful read - you should take out time and read it at leisure, absorbing the hidden motifs of meaning.