(This review is in courtesy Swapnesh Banerjee)
Fictional novels based on certain historical episodes or contexts andtrivia have carved out their own niche in the literary genre in recenttimes. The most famous instance probably is The Name of the Rose.Closer home, Saradindu Bandypodhyay has enriched this area with hisinimitable creations in Bengali, though it is rather surprising thatthe total literary output in history based fiction does not match thescale and complexity of Indian history. In this context, Biman Nath'snovel goes a little way in redressing the balance by acquainting thereader with a slice of our buddhist past in the form of an interestingfictional narrative.
The story primarily deals with the experiences of Ananda, a monkwho comes to Nalanda from Bengal in order to study the scriptures atthe most exalted Buddhist seat of learning. The order characterisingthe sangha system of Buddhism with its strict rules and monasteries isshowing signs of brittleness, and is being undermined both from withoutand within. Sections of monks have become deviant, a fact which Anandadiscovers from a source too close for comfort. Ananda himself is not atypical bhikshuk wedded to the monastery and its ivory towers. Therigors of monastic life has not stripped him of his sensitivity oremotions, and this is reflected in some of his apparent indiscretionsof thought,. He is subject to the same urges as a normal young man, andhis interaction with a young widow in a neighbouring villageunderscores the fact that the mind does not always rule his heart -though his focus in the end does not waver from his life's mission.Even in this interaction which starts out as a more elemental levelthan he himself would be comfortable with, Ananda shows his humanismand comes out with dignity. However, this willingness to let himselfexplore the world more than allowed by the constraints of the monasteryleads to his ability to consider and research ideas other than theestablished truth, In this context, he devotes his energies to findingout if the current calendars based on astronomical theories andobservations are correct, the veracity of which would overturn theentire calendar of rituals in India. The disputed point in question isabout the precession of equinoxes, which was been vehemently denied bythe prevalent school of thought. His life takes a more significant turnhowever, as he becomes an attendant to the visiting Chinese Buddhistscholar Huen Tsang, and he soon graduates to being a favouredintellectual companion to the foreign bhikshuk. He accompanies HuenTsang on his travels in India and stays back in Ujjain to learn aboutastronomy and mathematics from Brahmagupta, and more importantlyattempts to find out about the researches of Khona, a ladymathematician from Bengal who was condemned for her attempts to usurpthe powerful Varahamihira, many years ago. The character of Anandarivets us and holds our attention throughout, for though his world isfar removed from ours, we recognise in his travails and experiencesparallels to our own lives, and indeed the foibles and challenges thatwe ourselves face in our modern world.
Dr. Nath has indeed woven the tale quite skilfully and the twistsand turns in Ananda's life juxtaposes well with the turbulent timesthrough which Buddhism itself was going through - indeed in a wayAnanda's life is a representative microcosm of the larger turmoil. Theprimary thread is about Ananda and different strands weave in and alsodisentangle with the main thread with a simplicity and ease that makesit an interesting narrative to read. However, this book is not atraditional historical 'whodunit', indeed people thrilled by bodiesappearing at regular intervals will be disappointed from that angle. Itweaves an intriguing tale but the intrigue is at a level broader than aset of individuals, though it is developed through the twists and turnsin the life of its primary protagonist. This book paints a vividpicture of life in Nalanda in its last glory days, and as we followAnanda in his formative years, we are slowly immersed in a worldremoved from us not only by the passage of the centuries but also froma cultural and more material aspect. In fact one of the key takewaysfrom a novel set in a certain historical period would be a feel ofthose times, and the author succeeds in communicating to the reader avery real sense of life in Nalanda in fine detail and also usessomewhat broader brushstrokes give a context of life in eastern India.A significant aspect of the book is Huen Tsang himself. Though he doesnot play any dramatic part in the book (apart from a couple ofphilosophical debates) - his is a towering personality whichencompasses the entire story. The author paints a word picture of thegreat Chinese traveller adroitly throughout the book and the reader isgiven enough nuggets to reconstruct the personality through his wisdom,learning, his puritanical attitude as well as his genuine affection forAnanda. We get the sense of man driven by his purpose of acquiringwisdom in the ancient Buddist religion and carrying with him thoseseeds back to his native land so that he can watch it sprout and growin his own care, but who still retains his core simplicity andcompassion even after his extensive adventures and travels.
A note about the general structure and language of the book. Onething that strikes you is that the language complements the theme quitewell. It is not overly ornate or lyrical, but has a certain richnesswhich does grow on you. Metaphors, especially in description of certainnatural features are quite pleasing, and some of them indeed docorrelate very well and shows the author's command over this difficultconstruct. The overall impression you get is that of a style of writingthat is not so profusely descriptive as Umberto Eco, but does enough ina rsoothing way to construct rather detailed impressions of the worldhe is trying to describe. Nothing is Blue similary does very well inproviding skilful descriptions of diverse things - rather like piecesof cloth that is woven into the overall rich tapestry and I rather likethis approach than having large paragraphs or lyrical passages devotedto aesthetic accounts. Nothing is Blue is a book that has a niceflowing language which dovetails very well with the style ofstorytelling and is an aspect that should be appreciated.
This is the author's first literary production in a fictional novelform, as I understand. From a purely personal point of view, there area few areas that I would like to point out where I felt that it couldhave been handled differently. In a way the story's rate of progressionis bit skewed in my view. It starts off sedately and the reader islulled into the world of Nalanda via Ananda and then later introducedto Huen Tsang. This theme is worked and expanded on for more than halfthe book, even as the reader is titillated with a sense of moredramatic events that are about to unfold. While this works upto apoint, there is a feeling of expectation being a bit let down as youreach the middle stages and a bit beyond that. After that it picks upspeed and then becomes more interesting as it approaches the end. Infact as you finish reading, you just get the feeling that it ends justa bit abruptly, it is as if you have savoured the starters and the maincourse which have exceeded your expectation but feel a bit let down inthe dessert. In particular Ananda's friend (who is part of the deviantmonks) is developed as an interesting character who could have had somemore possibilities. Also the astronomical question that is posed isquite intriguing, and develops well in the later stages. However, itdoes not roll forward to a very satisfactory conclusion and leaves thereader (at least me) wanting more. Given the fact that the opening halfstarts off in a langorous fashion and the complexities involved in thewhole storyline, another fifty pages would have been very welcome!
All in all, Nothing is Blue is an intriguing novel which delightsand surprises in equal measure. The historical context and charactersprovide a vivid backdrop to a well articulated storyline that keeps youwanting to both savour the current page and go onto the next one. Itilluminates a portion of Indian history that is rather smotheredamongst all the battles and king-lists and the author needs to becommended on choosing such an eclectic yet interesting landscape tobase his narrative on. The short epilogue and appendix adds on to theauthentic feel of the novel and reflects positively on the author'serudition in this topic. In these days of frivolity and superficiality,Nothing is Blue is a refreshing novel as it winds its way amongst thevistas of our ancient land and in the process produces a story that iscompelling and an excellent read. Go out then, buy it and spend acouple of afternoons curled in your armchair with it. Trust me, youwould not be disappointed.
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