Reviews / November 2012 (Issue 19)

Heroes without Borders: Anoop Chandola's In the Himalayan Nights

by Glen Jennings


Anoop Chandola, In the Himalayan Nights, Savant Books, 2012. 279 pgs.

Archi Rainwal, the first-person narrator of Anoop Chandola's novel In the Himalayan Nights, is a rationalist, a university professor of anthropology, a monogamist and an ethical (not a religious) vegetarian. Unlike his Brahmin father, he is comfortable eating with untouchables, and he does not believe in the literal truth of the Indian classic the Bhagavad Gita. Happily married to Tula, a fellow Indian-born academic, he has no prejudice against miscegenation. This puts Archi, a professor at the University of Washington, at odds with many fellow Indians living in America, who despise the idea of their children marrying blacks or Jews. He is from an educated elite—reinforced both through his caste status in India and his opportunities to study first in a Christian school in India and later a graduate school in America—but Archi wants education available to all.

He admires people from scheduled castes who advance in Indian society through secular knowledge, and he is critical of fundamentalist "godists" who divide or oppress people according to religious faith. Archi's American graduate student Marla coins the term PUDI (person under devout influence), and for both of them, many of the world's major problems—historical and current—are clearly the responsibility of PUDIs who have used religion (and religious nationalism) to foment communal violence and divide people. To Archi, sectarian violence within India and the partition of the subcontinent into the mutually hostile nations of India and Pakistan, are cases in point.

Archi tends to judge people according to their learning, agreeing with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living. He applies critical analysis, his deep knowledge of history and literature and his fluency in Sanskrit, Hindi and Garhwali to understand local culture, dispel misapprehensions and expose religious frauds. However, as a researcher into "the great subjective realities of human culture," he is aware that the observer-participant in the field "must watch carefully to ensure that in our thinking and in our behaviors, we don't alienate people on the basis of their superstitions."

In the Himalayan Nights begins with a powerful scene of divine possession, as the untouchable woman Goda dances wildly, puts a red hot ladle to her tongue as proof of possession and then flings the burning ladle at her bigamist husband. In her frenzy, Goda calls out in the name of Draupadi, common wife of the five Pandava brothers, heroes of the bloody battles against the Kauravas detailed in the Bhagavad Gita: "Five men took turns with me and other women! Why?! Tell me why! Tell me why the heroes of this war!" Her challenge resonates throughout the novel and history, as Archi, Tula and his students question the nature of heroism, the roles of polygamy and religion in society and issues of women's rights.

Back in his home city of Dehradun in 1977 to undertake field research into the "Holy War" dance of the epic Mahabharata, Archi has to navigate many treacherous roads in the Himalayas. As an American citizen conducting academic investigations in the sensitive area near India's borders with Tibet and Nepal, he has to deflect suspicion that he is either a CIA agent or a communist insurgent. While staying with his devout father in his luxurious Himalayan home, he must show due respect to his Brahmin family while also remaining true to his anti-caste beliefs. He hires untouchable drummers to perform the 18-day dance cycle, and he sits, converses and eats with these admirably skilled men, but he knows not to expect his father ever to join them, nor for the dancers to sing the praises of all the local people Archi admires. They will praise Lord Krishna and the warrior Arjuna, whom Krishna relieved of his depression on the eve of battle and who served as Arjuna's charioteer in the repeated slaughters of the Bhagavad Gita; and they will praise myriad other lords and warriors from the same ancient epic, men of the savarna or high castes who degraded women, caused war and who cheated, poisoned and murdered their political rivals; but they will not praise the living descendant of a man who oppressed their caste forebears, no matter how kind or prominent, nor a local Christian convert who provided education to children regardless of religion or caste.

Mixing with the majority Hindus of the region, but also with Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, converts of various persuasions and a few atheists, Archi searches for truth and understanding without causing gratuitous offense or enflaming prejudice. He also works closely with his two American graduate students, Marla and Jennifer, and balances their feminism and advocacy of animal rights with a contextualised understanding of polygamy and the local religious practice of bali, animal sacrifice. "Anachronism" may be the term he applies to Marla and Jennifer's criticism of the polygamous heroes of the Bhagavad Gita as "male chauvinists," but Archi often paternalistically refers to Marla and Jennifer as "the girls." Polygamy is a declining phenomenon in this Himalayan region as Archi, Marla and Jennifer conduct their research among the local people, but the two western women and their lesbianism introduce a relationship which is confronting to some members of the community. The revelation of their truth coincides with the dramatic climax of the 18-day war dance.

The core of Anoop Chandola's challenging novel of myth, politics, religion and culture is a complex interweaving of the Mahabharata war epic with local stories of people from Dehradun and its immediate surrounds. He relates the salient and sanguinary details of the mythological battles, including vivid descriptions of the drummers, dancers and the antics of the divinely possessed, some of whom are exposed by Archi's team as fakes. In alternating chapters, he focuses on tales of Garhwali people: judges, bullies, adulterers, soldiers, farmers, teachers, refugees and the Rainwal family itself. Blurring the line between field research and gossip, with numerous digressions into the past or to places overseas (especially America), Chandola intersperses chapters on Kaurava and Pandava conflict with contemporary tales of polygamy, poverty and dowry deaths. He blends tales of Indian kings and the destruction of armies with stories about Marla's film-star father in California or reflections on the Vietnam War. Chapters on Krishna, the Bhagavad Gita and the oral transmission of culture sit alongside expositions of Indian gurus commercialising Transcendental Meditation in the West.

Despite the informal manner in which he collects much of his field information, Archi Rainwal can never cease being an academic. His conversations with academic collaborators, government officials, local informants and his two graduate students often become mini-lectures, delivered or received during the intervals between the nightly performances of the war drama.

Archi admires the skill of the local drummers, untouchable men from a caste of Das (slaves or devotees) who have fashioned and refashioned the story of the Bhagavad Gita over many generations, and he is determined to trace their role in the great oral epic and to highlight their ongoing relevance. They praise the epic heroes in time-honoured fashion, without ever gaining credit as authors or originators, but they also beat their own drums and interpolate contemporary messages: "Follow the path of peace: Swap your position with your opponent's and then speak to each other." Archi refutes the notion of natural separation of peoples and instead focuses on the unity of the human race. He even traces the despised "gypsies" of Europe, the Roma, back to the untouchable Doma of India. Archi knows that religious division and racial apartheid are as destructive today as the battles between the Kauravas and the Pandavas in the Bhagavad Gita. From the loss of reasoning, we are all destroyed.

In a world of prejudice, superstition and oppression, the narrator's key insight is to "question everything and then develop change." The heroes of the Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita are famous kings and warriors, men with many wives and long lists of the slaughtered to their credit. To Archi Rainwal and to Anoop Chandola, however, the truly admirable people are the untouchable drummers who proclaim the path of peace, and the anonymous Garhwali women who hugged trees to stop deforestation. From their actions an international environmental movement was born. In the Himalayan Nights is a song to them, and a song for Tula, Marla and all those who love music and reason.

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