Sins of Syntax – Reading Zero Degree by Minu Ittyipe
The novel begins by addressing The Lady Reader and it suggests, that as she begins reading the text of Zero Degree, she maybe up to anything—working, having sex, fantasising, chanting, screaming with labour pain etc…etc.. As Charu Nivedita spews his critique, or a disguised critique of magic realism that is undergoing an existential crisis—it gets a wee bit complicated here—one witnesses the throes of one literary genre while it is getting converted into another. What ever Charu Nivedita likes to call this form of writing it is far from boring. It is a laugh riot and you are sucked into the novel not knowing how to tackle it. I am warning you that there is no easy method to read this, you will get lost in the sea of ideas and words and there is no looking back. Don’t bother to go back to unravel things—I suggest you just flow with the words. Then it gets more complicated—the existential crisis of the author gets intertwined with the existential crisis of the genre and that gets intertwined with the existential crisis of the characters of the novel and all this
gets reduced to absurdity. Oh god that’s another genre. Let me quote from the book to try and make you understand the complexities of dealing with this novel. “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 novelisation 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 daily newspapers. Then there is Muniyandi himself, who later went through Surya’s notes and made all sorts of corrections and revisions.” That kind of sums up what you are going to encounter.
Halfway through the novel, I throw up my hands and cry that things are quite inexplicable. Punctuation marks, grammar and sentence construction are given the miss, to deliberately create chaotic chapters. The narrative is interrupted by newsreports, critiques on Latin American novelists and reports about Africa without any manners. Yes, without any manners, I would say, because I want to cling to the last vestige of sanity—grammar and manners. I am not the only one who accuses the writer of a certain madness. “I think it would be a good for you to see a psychiatrist, said a Lady Reader.” To which the writer replies, “Lady Reader, if there was a psychiatrist who would do me any good, then he would also be able to eradicate starvation, famine, corruption, exploitation, megalomania, and jealousy, he said, vexed.” I am now beginning to understand why the first writer Muniyandi was killed or said to be killed by the words that he himself created, “he wrote these notes in reality the words themselves wrote this novel as is borne out by the fact that the characters attempted to kill the author….”
As in all experimental novels, the first time a reader attempts to read it, he is astounded, and then it grows on him. So does Zero Degree—it is a brilliant novel that was written in Tamil much ahead of its time. We had to wait for Pritham K Charavarthy and Rakesh Khanna to translate it and Blaft to publish it ten years after it was first published.