& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Rang Mahal –Tahir Aslam Gora

Rang Mahal
Fiction by immigrant writers is an established genre in all major languages globally. It is a genre that has evolved and matured over the last three decades but has been in existence for much longer. It includes both narratives about the past linked to the writer’s place of origin, and about the present linked to the writer’s new home. 

Writers often romanticize the past and view it with nostalgia that is nothing but selective amnesia. And it would stand empirical scrutiny to also say that in this genre the depiction of the present is uneasy and one that is often nothing more than an elaborate annoyance at their circumstances which primarily stem from and depict loneliness, and a yearning for a sense of belonging.

Often, immigrant fiction is indistinguishable from one another – the thematic treatment is similar, the storyline is a near replica of countless other works. While the content is boringly analogous, the form is formulaic in the structure and treatment.

It requires uncommon skills as a writer to create something that is both exemplary and unique within the parameters of the immigrant genre. Tahir Gora’s Rang Mahal is that uncommon work of fiction that succeeds in creating a world that is both known, experienced and lived by all of us, and yet is a very strange place.

Tahir Gora
Gora’s novel challenges common percepts of fiction on all its fundamentals – there is no plot, there is no linearity, no continuity and no conclusions; there is a cinematic depiction of the external surroundings that at once stimulates one’s senses – the reader experiences smells, colours, taste and touch in all its sensuousness as well as its coarseness. 

The narrative also dwells deeply into the thought processes of the characters, revealing a subliminal depth and liminal uncertainty.

Gora’s characters are sophisticated and yet raw, uncouth, seething with passionate anger. Their anger is directed more against themselves rather than at the world. This anger has its roots in the utter hopelessness that they experience as individuals (not necessarily as immigrants) who find themselves in situations that they help create but also wish to quickly and permanently escape from forever.

The lead protagonists of Rang MahalSahjaad and Sayaka - are progressive human beings who have left behind a place that was alien to them and their thinking. Their hope that they would find their roots in a new place is constantly belied and they remain alienated in their new home. Superficially, they find home and companionship and sex but their search for roots and for a place they can call home remain unfulfilled.

There are many aspects about Rang Mahal that are significant in the context of emerging trends in the immigrant literature genre and should be analysed and discussed for their path-breaking and bold innovation. However, I want to focus on the notion of alienation that the work so plaintively depicts.

One of the most poignant scenes in Rang Mahal is when Sahjaad finds himself alone in a park in a small suburban locality near Hamilton. It is a predominantly white neighbourhood and Sahjaad feels both unwanted and threatened to be stared at inquiringly. It is not an uncommon scenario in large parts of Canada, where except for a few large cities many areas continue to have a predominance of the white population.

In fact, Dionne Brand in her memoirs A Map to the Door of No Return – Notes to Belonging recalls her experience as the only non-white person in a Northern Ontario town where she settles temporarily to focus upon her writing. Her sense of being an alien is acute; everyone around her pretends that she is no different, even she pretends too, but everyone, including her, knows that she is very different and that the difference cannot ever be bridged.

At another point, she observes, “Multiculturalism is relative to the state of white fear. So is empathy.”

She writes, “…here I feel that I do not share the same consciousness. There is some other rhythm these people grew up in, speech and gait and probably sensibility….I have been living out here in the bush for two years now. This place fills me with a sense of dread but also a mystery. I fear the people more than the elements, which are themselves brutal… This is country where people mind their own business; they are as cold and forbidding as the landscape…”

Tahir Gora's views on fiction

In Sahjaad’s case, he turns his gaze inwards and reaches a startling conclusion. He claims that while other ethnicities and races find acceptance in an alien land, Pakistanis and Muslims are not accepted as naturally as the others are, and are considered ‘creatures from another world’. And the root cause of this absence of acceptance is because Pakistanis and Muslims themselves consider that they are creatures of another world.

He realises that it is always the immigrant who has to make all adjustments.

In her essay Imaging Homelands published in Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss, edited by Andre Aciman, Bharati Mukherjee categorizes the act of leaving one’s home country and adopting a new country thus: Expatriation, exile, immigration, and repatriation. Of all these categories, it is only the immigrant who is tolerated.

This is because the expat doesn’t need the approval of the host. The exile couldn’t care less. The expatriate is always the enemy, often overtly termed so by the establishment. The immigrant is the most loved because she is willing to be the charwoman. Despite being qualified as a medical librarian. It’s the immigrant who changes herself and yet retains her identity, to ultimately change her new environment.

Rang Mahal’s woman protagonist Sayaka epitomises these virtues and an amazing ability to accept her constantly changing circumstances.

Gora's novel is replete with breathtakingly straightforward postulations in the novel that are original and controversial. Unlike other works of fiction in this genre, Rang Mahal doesn’t find too much of a difference between the home of the past and the present. There is no imagined homeland here.  The place of birth (janmabhoomi) is as vile a place as the place of choice (karmabhoomi).


Let me conclude by repeating what I said earlier: There are many aspects about Rang Mahal that are significant in the context of emerging trends in the immigrant literature genre and should be analysed and discussed for their path-breaking and bold innovation.

Read an earlier post on Rang Mahal here: Tahir Gora's Rang Mahal

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