Review of Zero Degree by Pallavi Rao

On Charu Nivedita’s ‘Zero Degree’ (Trans. by Pritham K. Chakravarthy & Rakesh Khanna)


NOTE: This review quotes some adult content and contains text that may be offensive to you. Please do not read further if you’re easily offended by dirty language, bodily functions or graphic  descriptions of sex. Also, this is a LONG review, so you may want to make some time for it.

If you are now compelled to read on even more, I like you already. 🙂

This novel gave me nightmares, literally. And I’m not entirely sure that’s a bad thing.

First, remember everything you are told and have believed a novel is, particularly the Indian novel. Some things on the lines of:

  • A novel is a work of fiction.
  • It contains several common elements such as character, plot, narrative.
  • It explores what is loosely called the human condition.
  • It  may sometimes be an instrument for social change.
  • It is a socio-political reflection of its times.
  • It entertains, informs, educates, etc.

Much of what we have read as fiction as school students or in libraries comes under this umbrella. When you look at it from the Indian context, the Indian novel – particularly in English – has barely strayed from these accepted norms. The novel as realist fiction has remained a universally acknowledged truth in our reading culture. The biggest names in Indian fiction have been accepted as social commentators.

It’s surprising, unnerving and exciting then to see an Indian book that seems to defy any of these conditions.

Of course, postmodernism has evolved in the past century in Western writings in numerous different forms and ways. Europeans such as Calvino and Perec began revolutionising the 20th century novel in numerous ways. But, the forms that come closest to Nivedita’s style are probably the Latin American magical realists/fabulists such as Octavio Paz, Borges, Cortázar and Alejo Carpentier. Nivedita actually uses some of these writers as intertextual references. But Zero Degree is one of the newest forms of the novel in South Asia, very unlike Rushdie’s simplistic magical realism with its literal, very obvious allegory.  I’ll try to explain more below.

Zero Degree  was first published in 1998 but only translated into English by Pritham K. Chakravarthy and Rakesh Khanna in 2008 by Blaft Publications (they’re revolutionary, and I don’t say that lightly, because I’m reading some of their other published work and it’s exciting). Zero Degree has not been widely reviewed, but considering its odd structure, fluctuating language and abhorrently violent imagery, this is not a novel modern India would be comfortable with. So I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this penetrating book has managed a cult status of sorts in the Tamil literary scene, and in Kerala too.

And the novel is penetrating. Whether it’s the  graphic sex and rape scenes, or the level of profanity or the ideas buried under lines and lines of puzzling, sometimes unpunctuated text, the entire effect is haunting and inexplicable.

Let me attempt to sum up the basic  narrative: One of the main characters is an author Muniyandi, who seems to have written a book about a revolt by the Santhal tribe against money-lenders; this book is then reviewed by a reviewer cryptically referred to as Ninth-Century-A.D.-Dead-Brain; then there is Surya, a biographer of Muniyandi’s; and Muniyandi, who at some point attempts to edit Surya’s biography of his life; then there is Misra, a wandering character from Nivedita’s previous book Existentialism and Fancy Banyan, and then Charu Nivedita himself who makes an introduction at the beginning seemingly explaining each of these narrators. There are also several numerous peripheral female characters who narrate their own stories in between the other mini-narratives.

The “I” that appears at the beginning of this novel refers to me, Charu Nivedita, the author. But there are actually several other “I”s responsible for the book. First of all, there is Surya who wanted to write a novelization of the life of Muniyandi, and dedicate it to his daughter, Genesis; he made pages and pages of notes, and pasted in lots of clippings from the daily newspapers. Then there is Muniyandi himself, who later went through Surya’s notes and made all sorts of corrections and revisions. But this material alone could  never have been organized into a complete novel. In the tangled mess, it is often confusing who the “I” refers to — sometimes it is Muniyandi, other times it is Surya, other times it is simply lost in a fog.

(Beginning of Chapter 2)

The novel is structured using various styles – newspaper snippets, prose poetry, phone conversations, interviews, bulleted lists, questionnaires, diagrams and all sorts of  minor stylistic deviations, such as whole chapters without any punctuations.

Each chapter though poses a new conundrum – we are not entirely sure who the narrator is and in what chronology these events are occurring. The effect is meant to discombobulate you.

  • Do you think it is necessary to read the Latin American novels mentioned in this novel?

Yes [ ]                            No [ ]

  •  Do you believe this will be an important Tamil novel?

 Yes [ ]         No [ ]

(Note: You can wait to answer these questions until after you have finished reading the book.)

The overall effects of these ideas is that instead of the discourse we expect the novel to initiate, it seems like the novel is in dialogue with itself, even as it occasionally addresses the ‘Lady Reader’. The concoction of several narrators, each of whom is a writer in his/her own way highlights the author-reader relationship in many ways.

It’s hard to condense my impressions of this novel without lapsing into the usual adjectives like ‘transgressive’, ‘postmodern’,  ‘original’ and the verbosity that reviewers often hide behind. This is a hard novel to read; each time you think you grasp where a thread of the narrative is heading, it twists and you are bewildered again.

One of the most significant aspects of this book is the interspersion of fact with fiction. Along with that confession by ‘the author’ in the beginning of Chapter 2, several of the narratives carry descriptions of factual revolutions and wars with real statistics. This is unnerving, as you are suddenly thrust into the context of the Rwandan genocide or Pizarro’s massacre of the Incas in Peru or the Srebrenica massacre, all through the eyes of the many narrators.

Another method Nivedita uses to discombobulate the reader is the random name-dropping of several authors from across the world, in particular Latin American authors in Spanish. Such as in this excerpt:

Omega changes into alpha or beta or gamma or whatever the last letter is what is the end what is doing the writing algunos aspectos del cuento Muniyandi’s omega is followed by Nano. Nano’s omega is followed by Aadhi, Aadhi’s omega is followed by Chromo…


In the days when Muniyandi was a part of the literati scene, a theatre troupe from Mexico visited Chennai and asked if it was possible to meet him; was he in the nation? To which Surya responded, what do you mean by nation? The Mexican troupe replied, if he were a writer in our country, he would either be living in exile, or he would be an ambassador.

Octavio Paz resigned as his post as an ambassador in New Delhi in protest against the shootout during a student demonstration at a Mexican university twenty-seven years ago. Elena Poniatowska write about that incident in her novel La noche de Tlatelolco. The dictatorship came to an end.

Our authors have no identity of their own. They are either government clerks or the owner of petty shops, and write in their idle time at work. In a reader’s forum of about 180, there are no women, not even writer’s wives. So judging by this standard, we figure Muniyandi too must be a clerk at the Mount Road  Post Office, said Nano to the Mexican troupe.

It was only after hearing this that Muniyandi quit his job as a clerk and became a wanderer.

(All emphases are the author’s.)

I cannot explain to you how strange it is that I had just read Cortázar’s 1963 lecture in Cuba, Algunos  aspectos del cuento (in Spanish, that too) just two weeks before starting Zero Degree not having any clue that it may get a mention in the book, and I am sometimes convinced some sort of supernatural interconnectedness of texts seems to exist with all the books I have read in my life.

Charu Nivedita’s name-dropping of several Latin American writers is indicative of the kind of novel he wants Zero Degree to be. That divide of fiction and reality, the divorcing of writers from their political stances is a major issue he wishes to elaborate on. In addition, the mention of Carpentier brings to mind lo real maravillosa, the essay that suggests that Latin American history and geography are so unique that they appear fictitious and magical to the outside world. Again, Nivedita seems to blur that line between fiction and reality, and almost seems to suggest that the same exists in India, with its historical and mythological symbols trespassing on every aspect of daily life through temples, rituals, superstition and orthodoxy that have created a heritage of oppression and abuse.

The mention of Cortázar’s lecture is also equally significant. In this talk, Cortázar referred to the fact that he had been rendered a ghost because of the banning of his writing in several Latin American countries. He then went on to talk of the form of the short story, referring to several of its masters such as Poe, Kafka and Katherine Mansfield, and how the structure of the short story worked when it transmitted a certain shock to the reader, a moment of revelation. Though Cortázar mainly discussed structural aspects, he clearly built on his point to strike home the necessity of building a political culture through storytelling. Cortázar also emphasised something like an ‘artificial’ storytelling that is meant to dislodge the reader from his/her everyday world. All of this is highly notable in light of both the form and content of Zero Degree. It seems like a collection of short stories most times, and mimics that shock and jolt wits its facts, language and imagery.

Which brings to the next highly debatable aspect of Zero Degree – the ‘pornographic’ status it has acquired. Nivedita has been compared to Bataille for his consistent scatological and sexual preoccupations. I don’t refute any of that. I also am not particularly perturbed by  it, considering we live in a sex-saturated mediascape. So, the inclusion of occasional shocking and disgusting imagery serves a point on some level. For instance, this scene:

It was after an unfortunate incident at a prostitute’s house that Muniyandi started the habit of making eighteen copies of all his texts. When he was in her room, he asked her, as he usually did, what her name was, and continued on with “Do you like Pichamurthi?” At which she demanded, “We both know what you’re really here  for, why would you ask me a question like that?” To which, of course, he said, “Besides all that, I thought if you had read Pichamurthi, we could have a discussion  about literature.” The prostitute had immediately asked, suspiciously, “Are you a literary person?” To which Muniyandi smiled shyly and replied, “Yes.” In a blink, the prostitute sat on the bed, raised her sari, and pissed all over the bag Muniyandi had placed there. For a moment Muniyandi just stood stunned. Then he yelled, “You bitch! What have you done? In that bag is my handwritten manuscript for a novel that will someday be translated into French and appreciated by the most intellectual minds of the world! You have destroyed that unique creation by pissing on it! Are you a paid coolie for the Marxists?” (After this, Muniyandi forgot his lines.) She yelled back, “Dey, you literary fellow, take your bag and scram, or I’ll piss on you too,” and Muniyandi ran off with his piss-soaked handwritten manuscript, and after that, he swore on the bag that forever onwards he would always make eighteen copies of everything he wrote.

It is very easy to look on this as an allegory of what Tamil Nadu is doing to its writers (and their manuscripts), but what’s also interesting is the number eighteen and its Hindu spiritual significance – the Bhagavad Gita has 18 chapters, and the Mahabharata of which it’s a part of, has 18 books. This is made significant because the epigraph at the start of Zero Degree quotes from the Bhagavad Gita:

Reason, wisdom, lucid thinking, tolerance, truth, temperance in thought and body, pleasure, pain, destruction, fear,  courage, non-violence, equality, contentment, renunciation, charity, praise, disdain — all human qualities begin with Me.

— Bhagavad Gita, 10:4-5

So, of course, if you’re a religiously inclined, this will seem blasphemous.

To me, neither the fucking, the pissing or the shitting is nearly as shocking and disturbing as some of the narratives of the women in Zero Degree. Neena, daughter of Fuckrunissa (of course, her name has to be spelled that way in Zero Degree) is brutally raped to exorcise her of  ‘spirits’ and narrates her story to another of the narrators. Avanthika, Surya’s lover writes him a ‘love letter’ detailing a lifetime of abuse suffered at the hands of parents, sister, husband and society. Nivedita addresses trivial domestic disputes with as much gravitas and detail as the Lankan Tamil genocide, equating human cruelty at all levels. I wish I could burn the memory of his passages out of my mind, despite knowing that they are most likely factual atrocities.

But even as you read the horrific things, Nivedita also brings in some poetics:

Genny, go and touch the stretch marks on Aarthi’s stomach. I want to kiss your fingertips while they linger there, caressing the roots of time.

Towards the end, the chapters disintegrate into poetry, almost as if they are no longer able to communicate in straight sentences and need to hide behind rhythm and metaphor. Not all of the poetry is good, or of literary standards, but perhaps that’s the point. It’s the form now, and no longer the meaning that holds any value.

A comment on the translation – Tamil readers have commented that the language in the original shows far more diversity in tone and dialect. Nivedita also skilfully managed to author it as a lipogrammatic novel in Tamil, but the English translation cannot accommodate the Oulipian technique, and certain changes have had to be made. To give the translators full credit though, the difference in each of the chapters (and voices) is still evident.

Reviews of Zero Degree on the Internet are vague and burdened by adjectives and flowery metaphor – have a look atthe Tehelka review and one more rambly appreciative one by this blogger.

There is a lot of rage and disgust directed at Nivedita online regarding his style and his success, suggesting that he’s standing on the shoulders of some heavy Spanish giants and their ideas, and therefore, undeserving of being considered a  Tamil literary star. I don’t understand the linguistic hegemony Tamil is involved in most of the time, but in this case, it seems more like moral outrage than anything else, and that is just unsupportable. I understand that another postmodern Tamil writer Jeyamohan has also criticised Nivedita’s style on the same vein, and this is a good thing – not for Nivedita, I’m sorry – but the fact that any literary culture in India has reached the stage of arguing out ideas, form, content and expression. I’m thinking Tamil literature is way ahead of most other literary traditions in India I am familiar with, so that makes me optimistic. Especially through Blaft.

Also, I have never been a fan of  postmodern literature; Calvino annoyed me and Perec made me quit halfway. So I am very surprised by the fact that I am vastly engrossed by Zero Degree. It may have to do with the fact that it’s culturally resonating – I am part Tamil on my mother’s side and understand some of the non-translated stuff scattered in between. Or maybe it’s just that I tried harder, I’m not sure. The Latin American postmodernists though, preoccupy me, and that may be another reason.

So, final thoughts – should I recommend Zero Degree to the average Indian reader? Probably not; it would be a waste as I think this novel is decades ahead of its time. Is it what we usually call ‘a good read’? Nope. I don’t know what kind of read it is, apart from difficult.  Is it an important book of our times? Hell, yes.

Is he really the Indian Bataille? I can’t say; I think that’s limiting.

But on a more personal note, I was 16 when I first read The Metamorphosis by Kafka. It was the first thing I read without any knowledge of theory, tradition, or even its own cult status, and it left a gouging impact on my mind. I have never been able to articulate what reading Kafka does to me, and there are a handful of writers who leave that sort of terror in my mind – Krzhizhanovsky is another one, so is  Borges and so is Bulgakov. I have a strong, strong feeling, Nivedita may join that list, if only more of his work gets translated soon. Or I start reading in Tamil, which I should have done long ago anyway.