Dick Wants (to be) Cunt

Dick Wants (to be) Cunt

Charu Nivedita’s Zero Degree

CHANDRA SIDDAN

Zero Degree is a pool of ejaculate, in which spermatozoa of competing perspectives desperately pullulate and thrash about romancing that glorious egg, your mind. No sooner than a few pages in, the reader is overwhelmed by a sea of words rising neck-deep, higher, through which the writer’s head bobs up sputtering more urgent words, endless words, chained close, forming a snake, rather an endless dick, like the one wrapped around the shoulders of one of his characters. Oh, hear that? The dick head is insisting that this book I hold is his ejaculate, his cum, his man juice: a result of masturbation, of copulating with his own shadow. ‘Here, smell my word. Can you smell my blood in it? Can you taste it?’

I close my eyes to do justice to his lonely exertions. When I open them he has donned a Helene Cixous mask, intoning: ‘Erase the difference between me and you.’

Zero Degree (1998) is a hydra of a novel, each head clamouring its own narrative, fighting against erasure, characters appearing and disappearing at a psychedelic rate, threatening its own boundaries, the patchwork fraying right before your eyes under the stress of its polyphonous ambition. It is perhaps best approached as a cross between a novel, a collection of stories and an epic poem, its thematic range encompassing… oh, I hear you groaning ‘oh god, epic poem’, but trust me, it is one where the fun never stops. It is full of jokes, many pretty macabre. But then the names Charu Nivedita drops should be enough warning: Henry Miller, George Bataille, Kathy Acker (the English translation is dedicated to her), and a number of Latin American authors. Nivedita places himself firmly in the counterculture of the global literary world wearing his pretentions on his sleeve. There, spit on him if you must, and he (or Muniyandi, the closest resemblance to Charu in the book) stands with his mouth open, already spat on by a number of characters.

Here is a book that was written for me: a lady reader! The very first chapter is addressed to me, or you. And we also appear as a character in the book critiquing one of the narrators. It is a dick novel justifying itself to the cunt reader. Let me simplify: in a book that is nearly half the time about itself, a host of narrative masks tell a number of stories in different voices and styles. This master scheme allows the book to rush any subject on earth with the trepidation of a fool, slash at literary nationalisms/parochialisms, grieve at global genocides, muse on the origins of time, space and life, double-back to Tamil soil on why Tamil women have eschewed the sari for the salwar kameez and take recourse to pornographic phone chats.

But amidst newspaper reports, interviews, letters from Rwanda, descriptions of torture sessions in Tamil police stations, recipes for charms, book reviews, film songs and guided instructions for successful masturbation to middle-class women, in Chapter 21, a character, a lady reader (you!) says, ‘Just where is this story headed?

A proper story needs characters, and character development!’ To which the author, or at least one of them, throws up his hands: ‘But who will create them? I live in a godless world. I live in a world full of injustice . . .’ and points to baby chicks carried away by kites, male crickets falling dead upon mating, and other such magnitudes. How can he be a god of this world you are complaining about? In fact he is dead. And, as on earth, in this novel chaos reigns.

All the same, there is some overlap and occasional coherence in terms of characters and their stories even if they seem like simple devices to drag you through the textured gunk of (predominantly) Tamil underclass existence. Plots rush along presented in shorthand with nary an attempt at bourgeois, finely crafted good-writing. It is not so much characters that matter here than certain broad thematic concerns which include: women and pain, prostitution, the impotence of writers, the body and its infinite vulnerability to the whole gamut of sensations from orgasm to torture, the abuse of the poor by the poor and those above, the degraded and demoralized body politic, the human impulse to genocides, the expendability of life in nature, all cemented together with a good quantity of smut.

Let us start with the male narrators grabbing each other’s pens, bad-mouthing and furiously editing one another: Charu Nivedita, who editorializes; Surya, who editorializes and writes the master narrative (which is apparently a letter to his daughter); Muniyandi, who makes corrections in Surya’s notes; Misra, who committed suicide in page 144 of Existentialism and Fancy Banyan, an earlier book by Charu Nivedita; and a ghostly ‘Ninth Century Dead Brain’. And there are also Fuckrunnisa, an ethereal courtesan; Nina, her daughter who descends from gutter prostitution to marriage rising again to prostitution; Avanthika, Surya’s lover; a Rwandan theatre actress and Riyyo and Kiyyo, science fiction authors. Misra’s Hindi, Muniyandi’s English and Surya’s Tamil notes are interpolated by Charu, who invites his lady reader to add to the growing patchwork of inauthenticities. Surya apologizes to daughter Genesis that the chapters have got shuffled and that may be because he loves Misra and hates Muniyandi. It works to read chapters at random. In fact, this book would make a good interactive, online novel which infinite number of people could add to and edit. Let’s call it ‘Zero Degree Live’. (The Sahitya Akademi should do something about that.) But it helps for the sake of coherence to see the whole novel as a letter from Surya to his daughter Genesis, a legacy of an impoverished self-exiled father to the feminine future.

Initially the narrative is dominated by the degraded state of the body politic, be it Tamil, Indian, Peruvian or Rwandan. Notes from Misra’s historical novel about the long-standing mutual butchering of Kasarmenians and Karmenians trails into two streams of narrative: one a trading of insults between two film actresses and the other a report on bonded labour. ‘When the villagers protest the police are called, false charges are filed, and the village women are raped. Of course if I continue to write like this you will call it newspaper reportage. But you celebrate an American who does the same as a writer of New Journalism.’ This last must be Muniyandi because another writer (Ninth Century Dead Brain) pipes up to critique Muniyandi’s novel, which celebrates the looting of a textile showroom in Nagercoil as a modern-day Santal revolution. ‘Muniyandi does not seem to grasp the difference between righteous rebellion and everyday poverty driven crime,’ he points out, pitying the shop owner who is a father of nine and the policeman who died during the atrocities.

Besides stylistic prestidigitation, what might these constantly changing masks between the male writers be good for? For ensuring diversity of voices and opinions, of course, since we also find out in a third account (by Surya or Charu) that the textile shop owner has many beedi factories where bonded children work for nine rupees a day. We are told about the slavish conditions of their work, and the reareasons of their pledging: wedding expenses or temple tourism.

The women’s narratives, however, are not mutually competitive – instead they reiterate a relentless history of pain. Some pleasure too, but mainly pain. Let us take Aarthi, for example, Surya’s sister, whose ongoing fights with her husband, the unsuccessful pickpocket Kamalnathan and her mother-in-law-cum-aunt, Kamachi. His unrequited love, their poverty and endless fights are only relieved by the kindness of Papamma whose liquor-running business runs dry when prohibition is lifted. Here is a view of poverty sans any fig leaf – poverty not just of money but also of kindness or any liberating vision. A homeless pregnant Aarthi goes looking for her parents, who accept her back, but fights ensue between the families: ‘May you be ruined! May your daughter become the whore of this town! May your womb rot’, etc. A cure for bourgeois high-mindedness.

It makes sense to see Zero Degree as a storming of the Bastille of high-mindedness, particularly Indian high-mindedness, which, you will agree, is pompous to the extreme. It is a fall, an orgiastic descent into base materiality (if I may take recourse to Bataille) of life. The poor, lacking any alibi or pretensions to higher truths and transcendent realities, descend without end, but I must add, without the revolutionary moment anticipated in Bataille, which unleashes the radical expenditure of the poor seizing the wealth of the rich. Is this a deep philosophical flaw of the book Zero Degree or a realistic cynicism of the author in the face of the afore aforementioned demoralization of the body politic? The endless self-parody of the wretched underclass and the lower-middle class, the dehumanization of the poor by poverty and by those above spitting and shitting on those below… it is an acknowledgement of the cremation grounds we are on without the call for action. The acknowledged homage to Bataille, in the story where Deepti, a middle-class woman, is seduced and killed by presumably Muniyandi, is definitely problematic. He risks losing his lady readers there most of all… but it is perhaps best to see the provocations rather than the imperfections. This is a dick written book and one where the dicks love the cunts but I am waiting for a cunt written (or a genitally diverse) answer to Zero Degree. Let’s hope to see a few examples in the next decade!

(Talking of the gendering of authors, when I went to meet Charu Nivedita I was expecting a woman I’d want to snuggle close to, a shoulder to put my head on, a soul sister. The book had just exploded upon my consciousness like an incendiary love letter that had changed everything. I was so excited! But he was a man. I forgave him, though. We whispered of Bataille, Acker, Cixous. He showed me his scar from the rape of the surgeon’s knife… and I remembered the book itself, a hardening shell of an oozing wound constantly threatening to crack… and we melted into a pool of love.)

To celebrate one of the best Bataillian moments in the book, ‘the bastard will fall sick excrete deteriorate further when will you die donkey you dirty bitch Mudevi unwashed Mudevi bitch in heat working through the day singing and dancing when he arrives he will start to dance and oh what a dance he’ll put her on his head and twirl ecstatic demented frenzy they will melt into each other like sugar cubes what’s this? Why did these lines intrude into the story, only to generate confusion? Forget it.’ If there is any hope for humanity caught in the nets of misery it is in such eruptions of sex, gesturing towards that ever present zone of sovereignty.

Claiming equal space in the novel, however, is torture. Both men and women undergo a variety of it without any hope of escape from the materiality of existence. Whether it is what the Hutus did to the Tutsis or what the Tamil Nadu police do to comrades in Tamil prisons or events of Avanthika’s life that include exorcism through rape, beatings while pregnant and repeated D&Cs.

To pick up Aarthi’s story, she succumbs to the love of a neighbour whose upper-caste upper-class family humiliates Aarthi’s retired schoolteacher father and drives the family out of town to Aarthi’s aunt’s village, where her father attempts suicide in shame. ‘But, of course, he failed in that too.’ Long story short, Aarthi abandons her son and takes to prostitution in Trichy, where she proudly shows family photos to customers. ‘Somehow this reached her uncle, who sent rowdies to chase her out of Trichy.’ If the story ends there it is not because things reach an unplumbable low – there is no such thing – it is simply because Aarthi has disappeared from the radar of even the most fervent researcher.

The impotent author grieves: ‘I was no help to her. How her heart must be grieving, as so many strangers lay their bodies on top of hers.’ The impotence of writers and writing is at the heart of Zero Degree. Muniyandi is called a eunuch by the fortune-teller’s parrot and his manuscripts get pissed on by an angry prostitute. Words disappear at a rapid rate. ‘Like ink on blotting paper, the past dissipates from the pages of my memory . . .’ Why write then? Why indulge in this cry of protest against history, human nature and nature itself? This scream of anger and despair with nothing to stand on?

The narrators of Zero Degree are simply doing what a character called Kottikuppan did while escorting children through the cremation grounds: keeping up a chant of words to keep their existential angst at bay. Perhaps that is why we write and why we read. It is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Ariadne’s thread in the labyrinth. These are hasty notes of reminder that we keep writing to remember who we are.

In some accounts Genny, the recipient of this novel-letter, is alive and separated from her father by a cruel mother. In another she is born dead. A father’s immeasurable love denied personal expression spends itself on poems, stories and letters. Appropriately, a patchy novel at war with itself precipitates into a shower of poetry, while the misanthropic Himalayas-headed author doubts everything but the truth of his love. Daughters have a special place in this book. Avanthika too says she could not have survived but for her daughter Nitya. Daughters unlock that wealth of love that makes the unspeakable horrors of life not only bearable, but necessary to acknowledge. To echo what was said earlier, it is an abdicating father’s legacy of a violent past to the feminine future.

The novel ends in mid-sentence, almost. Like Fellini’s Satyricon. In other words, there is no ending. You can dip in anywhere, read the chapters at random or backwards, not even finish it, for it will have done its damage. For a novel this slim it is many novels in one, sampled in fragments, a shattered sphere, each shard reflecting a different world, a Borgesian Book of Sand with neither beginning nor end.

***

Courtesy: 50 Writers, 50 Books – The Best of Indian Fiction; HarperCollins

Advertisements