The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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An Escape into Silence By Bhaskar Roy, New Century, Rs 395

Much as Bhaskar Roy may have tried, Bappa, the central character in An Escape Into Silence, has only the pretensions of greatness with his feet deep in the sludge. He is a student in Calcutta during the watershed of political awareness just after the end of the Congress-declared Emergency.

Bappa, a poet in the making, drifts through various influences. The influences include a wealthy father whom he can barely tolerate, left wing netas, a lecturer with nonconformist habits and a bevy of women. That he apparently writes good English verse is the reason why various influential people manipulate him to their convenience. The plot of the novel is about his passage through these influences and his final grooming as a student union leader of his college.

The tale is told not only on the streets of Calcutta, the classrooms of its colleges, scholars’ homes and poetry reading guilds but trips to the suburbs as well. The inevitable adda or talkathon sessions as a means for free expression are also in evidence as a site for developing political consciousness. There is, for effective contrast, a description of the elite rich with business meetings and lunches in palatial suburban guesthouses together with wonderful cuisines.

The tale also touches on the family life of various people that Bappa encounters. These descriptions are effective in portraying the inner strife that exists within them and the various choices they make. And it is here that Bappa develops his individual perception of idealism, which culminates in a rebellion with its inevitable skirmish.

The ambience of the period in which the story is set is one of fear and uncertainty. The aura of the Naxal movement provides a poignant addition. This is through the memorial plaques of some of its leaders. Bappa’s psyche is moulded when he gazes on the plaques of these leaders killed in encounters. It cannot be said that he became a leader in the true sense of the word, but he does manage to get seduced by a number of women.

There was a great scope of elaborating on the mindset during that period, the marriage of convenience between the left and right wings of the polity, the haunting presence of the extreme left and the continuous socio-economic debate that is characteristic of the state.

There were also many opportunities of adding a different flavour to the story by touching upon the customs, beliefs and practices of the average citizen of that era. Calcutta, including its suburbs, of the Seventies is an absolutely fascinating landscape to work with. Roy attempts to add all this to his canvas but the effect is unfortunately putrid. This is due to very poor prose — a result of shoddy translation of vernacular.

The defect actually lies deeper than that; it has to do with the characterization of the persona itself together with the strong and seedy sexual content. The use of brown milk sweets as a crude innuendo and the description of a middle-aged woman squatting on newspapers to depilate herself stand as small examples. When the result is such sloppy writing, one feels that this story about our hero was best left unsaid.

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