A Mortuary of Stories: The Postmodernist Psychoticization of Narrative in Sandipan Chattopadhyay’s Dhangsher Modhye Diye Jatra
If the neurotic inhabits language, the psychotic is inhabited, possessed by language.
—Jacques Lacan in Seminar III: The Psychoses, 1955-1956 (1997: 250)
In his essay ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, Fredric Jameson refers to schizophrenia as one of the “ways in which the new postmodernism expresses the inner truth of that newly emergent social order of late capitalism” (Jameson: 1998). A schizophrenic dislocation of the spatio-temporal coordinate characterizes the postmodern condition and it is here and elsewhere that Jameson makes use of the Lacanian notion of the psychotic as being on the other side of language and schizophrenia as a kind of language-disorder. Following Lacan, he defines schizophrenia as a “breakdown in the signifying chain” (1991, 26) Jameson seems to be fascinated by the linguistic trajectory of psychosis propounded by the French psychoanalyst. When the signifying chain of language collapses, the psychotic is exposed to the experience of “pure material signifiers” (1991, 27). It is this materiality of the signifier that makes his narrative self-reflexive, very much like the ‘metafictional’ style of postmodern tales. If schizophrenia or psychosis has an abortive impact upon language, it is bound to have a similar effect upon storytelling. What I would like to explore in this paper is the possible impact of psychosis upon the postmodern condition of the narrative and how the narrative of the ‘schizo’ in a postmodern novel like Sandipan Chattopadhyay’s Dhangsher Modhye Diye Jatra [A Journey through the Ruins, published in 2004] contributes to the generic determination of the text. The schizophrenization of the narrative in Sandipan’s text works both at the stylistic level of avant-garde experimentation and the clinical-pathological level in the sense that the novel presents to us the tattered sickbed story of Achintya Ghoshal from a mental asylum. It is a story told in an inside-out way from the point of view of the psychotic where the storytelling techniques are variously affected and impeded by the psychotic’s aporias in memory and logical sequencing. It is by way of this anti-narrative, proceeding only through odds and ends that Sandipan crafts what I would call a “narrative whodunit” or a narrative about the murder of the conventional narratives of realism and representation. This is how he plays around with the genre of the ‘detective novel’ or the ‘murder mystery’ and bridges the high art form of a post-stream-of-consciousness novel with the kitsch of a detective story. This unification of the high and popular cultures is replete with a typically postmodern propensity.
Along with science-fiction, the whodunit happens to be the genre, which has been subject to a lot of postmodern experimentation and appropriation in the western literary world from Borges’ story ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ to the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet, from Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose to Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red and so on. It is the strictly rationalistic structure of reconstruction essential to the conventional whodunit which has made it a soft target for all the anti-realistic and anti-representational attacks of the postmodern. Michael Holquist calls this a tradition of “Metaphysical Detective Stories” in the post-war European fiction. Holquist notes Joseph Wood Krutch’s statement that “Poe invented the detective story that he might not go mad” (2001: 78). In case of Sandipan and much of the western Postmodern tradition, the subversion of the whodunit brings back the phenomenon of ‘madness’ into the genre. Here it is a certain kind of ‘madness’ that bores holes into the impeccable logicality of the whodunit.
Sandipan Chattopadhyay has always been interested in criminal psychology. In novels like Shwarger Nirjon Upokule [On the Shores of the Deserted Heaven, published in 2003], there is a strong presence of the theme of crime and it is the criminal’s point of view that seems to grip the writer. The novel titled Esho Nipobone [Come into the Nipobon, published in1994] clearly subverts the classic detective novel. Sandipan completely de-romanticizes the detective, making a joker out of him and it is the murderer who emerges as the real protagonist of the story. In both these novels, Sandipan offers us a gendered insight into female criminality in an implicit critique of the patriarchal system. I deliberately choose Dhangsher Modhye Diye Jatra for it is a much more tangential crime-narrative. Unlike the other two aforementioned novels, there is no unambiguously real murder that takes place here. The theme of crime is treated almost in an exclusively metaphorical manner in terms of a slaughter of the realistic narrative at the hands of psychosis: the symbolic killing machine here. It is in this way that the avant-gardist anti-novel is made to intersect with the popular whodunit.
As opposed to the populist equation between ‘madness’ and meaninglessness, Lacan makes the crucial point that the schizo’s world proliferates with meaning. Meaning is like a dangerous multi-headed monster in his psychic universe. Jameson notes: “For Lacan, indeed, the world of the schizophrenic is quite the opposite of meaningless; if anything, it is too meaningful; each instant, like each signifier is a closed and full meaning in itself…” (2008, 74) It is this disjunctive and yet proliferating ‘play’ of meaning that makes the schizophrenic’s world akin to postmodern narrativity. As a self-proclaimed “na-lekhak” [“no-writer” or “anti-writer” or “non writer”], with a clear non-mainstream and little-magazine background, Sandipan always experiments with the novelistic narrative and his maneuvers are essentially subversive in relation to conventional narrative. In the post-independence Bengali literature, it was Sandipan who set forth the tradition of the ‘anti-novel’, to be radicalized by the likes of Subimal Misra later. As a tiny preface to his novel Ekhan Amar Kono ashukh Nei [Now I have no Illness, published in 1976], he writes: “Gadya shahityake ja dobay ta holo narrative style. Ekhane ta nashta karechhi. Ebang kata antarikbhabe oi dhangsho kara hoyechhe ta lakhya karte bolbo” [“What slumps prose literature is its narrative style. I have trashed it here. How sincerely I have destroyed it is the thing to notice”] (2006, 12). In his last novel Dhangsher Modhye Diye Jatra, Sandipan comes back to destroy the linear narrative one last time. As the title suggests, the novelistic journey is conducted through the shambles of the narrative.
Dhangsher Modhye Diye Jatra loosely follows the tradition of the sickbed novel which Sandipan had previously used in Ekhan Jiban Anek Beshi Shatej Shasthe Bhara [Now Life is a lot Healthier, published in 1993]. It boasts of the last scribbles of Achintya Ghoshal from a mental asylum in Dubrajpur, rather euphemistically titled ‘Amalendu Bodh Niketan’. Achintya hardly has a clear idea of his identity and he remembers his past only in the form of scattered jigsaw pieces that he can never really put together. Sandipan begins the narrative at a point which is outside of Achintya Ghoshal’s writings. In a brief dialogue inspired by an anonymous oral narrative, a female patient in a state of coma thinks she has reached heaven. There a voice asks her the most fundamental question about her identity. Each time, she answers it with reference to worldly relations like the wife of x or the mother of y and z, only to get an answer from the voice that she does not know herself and she has never really tried to know. It is on this fluid note of postmodern identity that the novel begins and from the first chapter, we are inside the sickroom of Achintya Ghoshal and his schizoid consciousness.
Mathematical questions regarding the exact measurements of the room and the faint memory of school arithmetic trouble Achintya at the outset and his absolute failure to read letters during an eyesight and comprehension test haunts him. His is a self-conscious narrative, charged with a deep sense of urgency due to impending death. It is a dying narrative of ‘madness’ where a manic play of memory takes him back and forth in time and space. The only other he seems to recognize is his guard cum attendant Hembaran, who in moments of extreme schizoid bipolarity, becomes Alfred Raul Hembrom, a different person altogether. He often ghosts Hembaran’s voice and is acutely aware of Hembaran’s ‘introjection’, so much so that one starts to doubt the very objectivity of his existence: “Hembaran amar guard. Are shala, tui kakhan shediye geli amar madhye. Bhoo-bhoot kina jante habe…” [“Hembaran is my guard. What the hell! When did you get inside me? Are you a ghost or what? I need to know] (339). This is how psychosis closes the gap between the self and the other and with no logical link, the narrative immediately jumps into an unfinished oil-painting of Achintya. In narrating this painting titled “Neel Dhankhete Eka” [“Alone in a Blue Cornfield], Sandipan powerfully underscores the impossibility of expressing the subtleties of linguistic meaning through the visual language of colours on the canvas. The cinematic technique of “montage” is evident in the repeated expression “cut to” and the narrative provides a critique of visual identifications: “Ei ‘tahole to shabi mone porlo’—ke tumi tumar canvas e phutao he. ‘Dikchinho-nai dure’-tike tukun kachhe liye aso go babu…” [Sketch this ‘see, how all memory returns’ in your canvas. Can you do justice to it? Try to communicate the expression ‘vast and immeasurable distance’ through your painting. Can you do that?] (341). Sandipan then goes into a ‘pastiche’ of a bestial fairy tale involving the dialogue between a mouse and a cat but he again seems to appropriate the genre. The mouse wishing to commit suicide puts his head inside the half-open mouth of the sleeping cat. He remains waiting for one of the boys from the nearby blind school to trample the cat’s tail so that she closes her jaws in reflex and the mouse gets killed. It is in this way that the popular form of the children’s fable is undercut by a serious existential import. One of the three endnotes of the novel reads: “Eman kono text hoy na jar sub-text nei” [“There is no text without a sub-text”] (371). There is a proliferation of the sub-text throughout the novel and it almost ends up destroying the text itself.
Achintya claims that he is Shomnath and there is a shroud of mystery around something which happened in Hardwar. Achintya cannot recall what happened there. To the counselor, Achintya does not say anything but he admits to Hembaran that he killed his wife in Hardwar. The schizophrenic dislocation keeps us in the dark whether the place is an asylum or a jail or it may well be that Achintya has been subjected to psychotherapy in the process of a trial. Sandipan maintains this Kafkaesque ambivalence. Achintya uses the word “murder” repeatedly: “Murder –furder bhebei egochhe ar ki. Police e ja kare. Kintu praman karte parbe ki. Shakhyi pabe ki. Hun, hubbaba, e-murder she murder noy. er praman nei. Lasho paoa jabe na” [“They are proceeding with the assumption of something like a murder. Just like the police. But can they prove? Will they get a witness? Hehe, this murder is not the murder you take it for! There is no evidence. Even the corpse cannot be found] (345). The flux of amnesia and anamnesis constitutes the metaphorics of this murder where like a dolphin, a corpse surfaces in the infinite ocean of consciousness but then it dives back into the water in a moment. The psychotic narrator compares himself to a sand watch where there is a constant constitution and de-constitution of motifs in memory. Images come and go with a randomness of their own. The image of Achintya’s intercourse with Neela slips into his brother Ani’s childhood obsession with Mamman, an elderly widow, resulting in her suicide—another image-corpse in the pond. The fourth chapter, dealing with a chance encounter between Achintya and his school senior Hemantada is a clear case in point. Hemantada recognizes him after a long time in the train but Achintya does not. At the time of composing the sickbed narrative however, he does recognize his senior pro. At this point, one suspects if Achintya’s obliviousness is deliberate. Does he intentionally not recognize Hemantada? Sandipan’s narrator again uses the metaphor of murder: “Hemantakumar Sener lash ebhabe ami chhunre dilam Gangar buke” [“This is how I threw Hemantakumar Sen’s dead body into the water of the Ganges”] (349).
Achintya credits Hembaran as his only informant, the sole source of his knowledge. He is the one who tells him all these contradictory and conflicting back stories. Hembaran’s existence however remains in a state of suspension between the objective and the subjective. In the mean time, his younger brother Ani or Anindyam Ghosal who lives abroad keeps writing letters to Achintya, planning to provide better treatment for him and revive his studio by mounting all his paintings and putting up a great exhibit. These letters are not opened by Achintya and he repeatedly refers to the unopened envelopes lying on the table. He does not open them since he thinks he is Shomnath while they are addressed to one Mr. Achintya. This is where Sandipan’s narrative goes inside-out and creates a suspended interstice between the inside and the outside. The schizoid split is sensed as the contents of these letters are given in separate chapters inside the novel though the narrator denies having opened or read the letters. This dédoublement dramatizes the psychoticization of narrative. These epistles create an intertextual link with Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo from Saint Rémy asylum since Ratanda, a common friend of Ani and Achintya compares the former to Van Gogh’s brother. Sandipan’s narrative also uses a loose translation of a Van Gogh letter of May 1890 as an inset intertext and it is this letter which wholly constitutes the 8th chapter. Van Gogh’s narrative only reiterates the idea of ‘madness’ and the epistolary exchanges between Van Gogh and Theo also activate the sphere of writing. We are back to a writing of madness, as it were. When the counselor shows Achintya a photograph of his along with his mother, brother and wife, he resorts to the same metaphor of death which subtly merges with a virtual death of the photographic narrative: “Shesh. Mritora shesh. Shudhu ora keno. Ghatshila, Shubornorekha, shurjasto shabai to mrito. Shabai shesh” [Finished. The dead are finished. Not only they. Ghatshila, Shubarnorekha, sunset—all are dead. All finished] (353).
In chapter 9, in conversation with the elusive Hembaran, Achintya confesses having killed his wife in Hardwar but whether this is a real murder or a psychotic’s delusion or better still a metaphorical murder of the husband-wife story remains undecidable. In a brilliant passage, Achintya unravels that he has thrown all the corpses into the ocean after tying heavy stones to their bodies, making sure that they never re-surface. The bodies are then nibbled by the sea-fish and get surfaced only as unidentifiable skeletons. Achintya claims to have always identified them but as long as others do not, he is safe: “Hemantadar lash, chinte ki parini. Bhul hoyechhilo? Keu hoyto bheshe uthlo 40 bachhar pare. Sheo chine nebo. Ke, kabe, kothay bheshe uthbe bala ki jay? Amake tar na chena niye katha” [“Hemantada’s corpse; did I not recognize it? Someone may re-surface after 40 years. But I will surely recognize him. Who can tell who re-surfaces when and where? All is well as long as he does not recognize me”] (361). As we can see, towards the end of the passage, there is a clear suggestion that the ocean here works as a metaphor for the aporetic consciousness of the psychotic where memory-motifs or potential stories are like corpses oscillating contingently between surface and depth.
Chapter 11 reads like a backhand invocation to author, the almighty to come and steady the narrative ship in doldrums. It tells the readers that it was the omniscient third person author who had enabled them to read Ani’s unopened letters. As promised, the author comes to the rescue by introducing the all important heroine in the 13th and final chapter. The Van Gogh narrative corporeally enters into Achintya’s story when Van Gogh’s chair, as painted in one of the paintings done in the asylum, is seen in Achintya’s room all of a sudden. Soon after, in comes a mysteriously silent female figure. The conversation between Achintya and the lady reveals a secret affair he had with her before his marriage. She had become pregnant and Achintya had paid six thousand rupees to abort an already formed placenta of 4 months. After a long hiatus, she returns to the married Achintya after the death of her husband in a bike accident. In this dialogue, her predominant metaphor is again one of death and murder: “Khun kare rekhe gele. Athacha dash-dashti bachhare ekbaro lash dekhte ele na. Criminology te e-ghatana naki khub rare?…” [“You killed me and yet did not come to see the dead body even for once in an entire decade. This is supposed to be very rare in criminology. Is it not?”] (369). She reiterates the metaphor: “Khun hote ashbo bhebechhilam tomar kachhe. Kintu kar kachhe ashbo? Party to niruddesh” [“I had thought I would come to you in order to get killed; but then where do I come? The party itself was intractable”] (370). It remains a question whether Achintya had really killed his wife in Hardwar for the sake of this mysterious lady. The episode ends on a high with the vows of Achintya, the painter as he is all set to turn her into an abstract image. She wants him to paint something like ‘The Birth of Venus’ by the great Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli but he would like to turn her into the nude lady of Francisco Goya’s ‘Naked Maja’. Achintya thus chooses Goya’s unknown model over the divine figure of Venus. The episode ends on this note of transfigurative aesthetic ecstasy. The episode is designated as a story within the story and its relation to the larger frame narrative remains indeterminate. The schizophrenization of the narrative leads to a postmodern feature of the narrative which is called “metalepsis”. It blurs the distinctions among the various narrative levels. The unopened yet narrated letters and the authorially summoned heroine’s episode are instances of this. The novel however does not finish with the death of the narrator. After the end of the story within the story, there is a tiny appendix where Hembaran comes back to tell Achintya very briefly that the room is only vacated when the occupant dies. In spite of a series of deaths in the room, the room as a pre-ordained locus of death even postdates the deaths: “Amar age je chhilo she more gechhe. Taro age chhilo keu. More gechhe. Ei ghare amar age jara chhilo tara shabai more gechhe” [“The one who lived here before me is dead. There was someone before him as well. He is dead as well. All those who lived in this room before me are dead”] (371).
The climax thus offers a pastiche of the contrived closure of realistic narratives. The role of the author in solving the plot riddle casts him in a subtly ironized role of the detective. Sandipan, in a true-blue postmodern way, highlights the constructedness of representational narrative by giving it a self-consciously forced closure. The anti-narrative simply goes on without closure and thus the final image suggests an interminability of the sickroom as a locus of death and Hembaran’s voice as the voice of the schizoid other. In this “narrative whodunit”, if psychosis is termed the killer, the one who turns out to be a mock-omniscient detective is the figure of the author. This is where Sandipan’s novel seems to become a dialectical rejoinder to the Barthesian thesis of the author’s death as it ironically reactivates the authorial position almost like Italo Calvino’s novel If one a winter’s night a traveler. I would like to end this paper on a more general note here, pointing to the problematic phenomenon of literary schizophrenia i.e. a literary author or narrator trying to inhabit the position of the schizo. There is a problematic conflict between the stylistic and the clinical dimensions of literary Psychoticization. An author or a narrator can only doctor his text by way of a schizophrenic pastiche. He only ghosts the psychotic. The schizoid ghosting cannot make him a real schizo and Sandipan, I think, is honest enough to admit this when he resorts to the rather anti-postmodernist author power to punctuate the psychotic aporias of the narrative. The author as the master-detective returns to catch the psychotic murderer of the narrative and the process of narrative destruction acknowledges its deconstructive counter-grain.
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