Who was Buddha? A historical figure about whom much is known, thanks to the writings of his devotees. An object of reverence. An abjuring prince. A man.
The last of these may be the most difficult to prove. For if Buddha’s following has survived the millennia, it is only because he was perfect—not, in other words, a man at all.
Or is it possible that this man— perhaps history’s most famous stoic—was kept hidden, in the folds and involutions of the public pronouncements in which he cloaked himself, vast emotional registers and intimate personal contexts? This hypothesis animates The Dhamma Man, a fictional life of Buddha by Vilas Sarang.
In faith: Monks pray during a ceremony to mark Buddha’s birth anniversary in China. China Photos/Getty Images
Where the historical record falls silent, Sarang detects meaningful lacunae in the accepted narrative of Siddharth Gautam (as spelt in the novel). He has a poet’s ear, attuned to strangulated emotions.
The Dhamma Man looks closely at the time in Siddharth’s life when, as a wandering sraman (mendicant) in search of insight, he struggles to escape the bonds of family and princely caste. Sarang paints a portrait of a man of iron resolve who cannot quite forget about the son he abandoned at birth, of a sceptic impatient with received wisdom, and of an uneasy diplomat.
All the while, Sarang hews to the recorded facts with Boswellian faithfulness. Yet to the questions that might preoccupy the “straight” biographer or intellectual historian, Sarang devotes no consideration whatsoever. Siddharth’s concern with dukkha (suffering) as the central condition of life—the inevitable result, he will later teach, of birth—is presented not as an evolving theory, but as an idée fixe carried from the cradle, the leitmotif running through all of Siddharth’s experiences.
Alert to historical confluences, Sarang notes contemporaneous developments in Hindu thought issuing from other great souls. He illustrates compellingly the illicit appeal of private audiences with certain renowned teachers, who were then developing what became known as the Upanishads (the word itself means “to sit down with”). And plotted on the map in close proximity to Buddha’s peregrinations are the travels of Mahavir, whose enduring and largely local influence is contrasted with Buddha’s vast but diffuse following.
The philosophical survey suffers, however, from anachronistic and pedantic digressions on “Kierkegaardian leaps” and “Dantesque” journeys. Sarang is no adherent to Buddha’s counsel of self-discipline; he is, however, the former head of the English department at the University of Mumbai.
The Dhamma Man: Penguin India, 171 pages, Rs250.
The Dhamma Man’s narrative framing proves equally dissolute. At first, the characters take turns speaking casually, as if these events were not historical but, Rashomon-like, a matter of ongoing debate. Much of the imagery from Buddha’s time survives to the present day: The spokes of the sugar-cane press remind one character of those of the bullock cart. Time truly is a wheel. The effect is frequently charming. But it is only a matter of time before an omniscient narrator emerges; then the voice that can only be described as Sarang’s own hijacks the page.
Fragmentary narratives accompanied by jarring shifts of perspective have marred many an approach to Buddha’s life, as though a direct recounting would have been somehow inadequate to the task. Take Pankaj Mishra’s An End to Suffering, which chronicles the life of Buddha alongside other, more intimate portraits. Another fine example is the delightfully modern silent film The Light of Asia (screened two years ago at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, or NCPA, to original musical accompaniment), which reverently depicts Siddharth’s life story before making a quick segue into an infomercial for Raj-era luxuries.
At its best, The Dhamma Man is reminiscent of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, which is narrated at turns by a coin, a coffee cup and a drawing of a horse. Pamuk’s inspired forays, however, borrowed the form of comic monologues delivered in the bohemian coffee houses of the Ottoman period. Sarang’s style is, one feels, sui generis.
Sarang himself is keenly aware of the complaint. His progress from Karwar, in Malwan—where he spoke and read only Marathi until graduation—was astonishing. He has called himself a “questionable sort of Marathi writer” in so far as his Marathi stories are often translated from their original English. From other quarters, his English prosody has been impugned. One feels his weariness at having weathered the battles of so-called vernacular writers, only to emerge into this brave new world of MFA-honed, polished, Americanized prose.
Sarang has dared more than most. His short stories can be both genre-defying and stupefying; their psycho-sexual flights of fancy include, in an oft-cited instance, a parable of an island in which all women are divided at the waist. In his essays Sarang has sung paeans to what he calls the “guerrilla” methods of the short-story writer.
It hardly bears pointing out that a novel, even a brief one such as The Dhamma Man, is a different sort of undertaking. It is not a hillside ambush, nor even a lengthy campaign. It is relentless, total warfare. Like life itself, it is a battle to the death. Sarang doesn’t appear to have the stamina for it.
In six words: A novel look at the Buddha
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