By Sanjay Bahadur
Atria Books (Simon & Schuster)
June 30, 2009
It is so dark now that Raimoti can barely discern the features of the strange creature that was once a sturdy young man. He tries to get closer to the dim form, but it hears him and lops off. . . Ahead is a black lake, and the creature is hunched over the edge. He glares back at Raimoti and swiftly slips into the still waters. There are no ripples. . . Suddenly, the level of the lake rises so rapidly that he leaps back. The cavern echoes with manic laughter, and a watery shape gushes out to lunge at him.
No, that's not Gollum. It is the Beast of the mines, a furious, subterranean wraith that haunts the imagination of Raimoti, an old, experienced miner and part-time mystic. The Beast is the one thing that plagues the otherwise ethereal Raimoti: it is the fear all miners share as they daily enter their dangerous workplace. No hazard is greater than the lake above them, with the everpresent threat that it will burst through the walls and ceiling and flash-flood the underground labyrinths of the Bagdihi coal mine. Safety standards certainly exist, but the distant Powers That Be are more than willing to shave a bit here and there in an effort to conserve costs and increase production. Near the Indian city of Dhanbad, engineers at Bagdihi - with the approval of their superiors - naturally saw fit to narrow the barriers that held back the waters in an effort to extract more coal. The result was a calamity that claimed thirty lives.
Witnessing the disaster and the aftermath first-hand, as well as the bureaucratic callousness that preceded it, was Sanjay Bahadur, director of the Indian Ministry of Coal from 2000 to 2004. His debut novel The Sound of Water (released today) is a fictionalized account of the events that unfolded at Bagdihi in 2001, told from myriad individual perspectives. It opens up with a passage from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." I knew right then that I was going to like this book.
That bit of Eliot also indicated from the start that The Sound of Water would not be what I had expected. I had thought it would be more of an immediate, hard-hitting retelling of the facts as they occurred, akin to what you would receive from a journalist reporting from the scene. Instead, it is a genuine novel that explores themes of humanity and transcendence, and features a strong cast of distinct characters. It begins with Raimoti's visions of life and metamorphosis and ends with a pampered lobbyist who glances briefly at a faxed report on mine conditions in Bagdihi. Along the way, the story is told through Bibhash Mukherjee, a burned-out district manager estranged from his family and resigned to his lot in the coal country boondocks; Dolly, Raimoti's vain and voluptuous sister-in-law, best described as the Indian equivalent of "white trash"; Birsa and Arif, miners with similarly violent pasts who are far too alike to ever get along; Pandeyji, Bibhahs's simpering, sycophantic boss; and assorted others. The mine disaster itself functions more as a common thread binding together these representatives of the different strata of modern Indian society.
In other words, The Sound of Water is not simply the fictional recreation of a real-life event. It is a study in humanity and how we interact with, and are shaped by, our external surroundings. Fiction dealing with protagonists in brutal environments - such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky, and Dan Simmons's The Terror - have often dealt with humans confronting alien terrain; here, however, Bahadur depicts people in their own native land and asks us instead to consider the psychological effects of an exploitative system in which men can force other men deep into the darkest pits of the earth for long hours and low pay. According to Bibhash,
These mines are incubators for spawns of the devil. They breed dark thoughts, nurture anger, and spit out men - more creatures than men, more bestial than creatures - of suppressed violence. What dreadful power causes this? What twisted hands - what squirming brain? With what angry intent? Bibhash wonders hysterically, his mind fast losing its grip on reality. Metaphysical questions of some dead poet flit around randomly in his head like burning fireflies. Who is the Beast that forges such things?Of course, there was violence and barely-repressed rage already in Birsa and Arif's lives, long before the mines, resulting from a combination of poverty, political upheaval, and overall helplessness in the face of catastrophes such as bad crop seasons, rapacious moneylenders, and abusive home situations. The willful blindness of Pandeyji and Karna sahib (a Hindi/Bengali term of respect), on the other hand, illustrates the mind-numbing narcissism that can grow out of having too much power. Raimoti's spirituality may offer a kind of alternative to fury and apathy, but not necessarily a good one. At the end of the day, he is basically a burnout with a gift for eloquence and finding uses for herbs. Even Ghosh da, avowed Leftist labor leader, is really just a political farce seeking the worship of the miners he barely respects, exploiting, in his own way, their already-difficult lives.
Both the psychological aspect of The Sound of Water and the religious component greatly enrich what could have easily been a straightforward disaster story. The back-and-forth between Raimoti and Arif in chapter seven is a worthy read on its own. The novel is not without its flaws, however. Bahadur's vivid, descriptive prose occasionally gets a bit purple, while his literary influences (much as I love Eliot) are sometimes too apparent ("There's only water. And waiting pearls. Or are they eyes?"), and I feel he could have been a bit more original. Mostly I was slightly put off by the character Dolly, the only prominent female other than the brief snippets of Raimoti's niece Tina. Although Bahadur attempts to give Dolly a fully-drawn background to explain her present personality, she nevertheless comes across as a mere caricature. She is loud, crass, materialistic, and highly sexualized, using men only to suit her needs. Dolly is said to be from a matriarchial culture, and her grandmother, it is mentioned, actually hated men due to a past love affair gone bad. Yes, several male characters come across as thoroughly unlikeable, but I felt Dolly's character bordered on sexist. Or am I just being too sensitive? Tina is portrayed sympathetically, but Dolly bothered me.?
Despite these drawbacks, The Sound of Water is a powerful but quick read with broad appeal. I liked it and can imagine most readers enjoying it as well. Bahadur is eloquent and multifaceted, touching on a variety of themes within a rather short book, making for an absorbing, well-rounded story. Currently long-listed for the Man Asian Prize, The Sound of Water is a worthy debut novel that comes recommended.
At first I wasn't sure if The Sound of Water was translated or not, but apparently Bahadur did write it in English. I initially thought that was rather odd, since he was apparently aiming at an Indian readership as well as an international one. But then I remembered my buddy Arjun from college, a second-generation Indian-American who grew up speaking only English because it was the sole language his parents, who hailed from two different parts of India, had in common.
(Also: I know I shouldn't be lumping Israel, Japan, and India all together under the blanket term "Asian literature," but I'm trying to avoid having a huge category list.)