The curious case of A & D: The nature of Authorship in Vaid’s fiction

Posted: July 25, 2010 in Uncategorized


 Pre-text

In a curiously compelling characteristic of Roland Barthes’ 2,291- word text The Death of The Author, the word ‘Author’ surfaces on thirty-one occasions, with capital ‘A’ capturing as many as eighteen instances, and considering the tone and tenor of the text it can be reasonably assumed that he used small case at remaining places without intending to undermine the authority of capital A [1].  So we have a theorist, who refers to an entity with a reverential capital letter (‘Author’ acquires greater respect on printed paper than ‘author’) and then denounces her authority. Note, those wishing to refute god use ‘g’, not ‘G’. 

***

Barthes uses two broad arguments to mount the much-mouthed missile of the last century on literary creator. First, every text (he uses the neutered and neutralised nomenclature ‘text’ instead of potent and pregnant ‘literary creation’ [2]) is a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centres of culture [3] and hence cannot be attributed to a single author; second, absence of an authorial voice in a text.
Before we examine the legitimacy of these propositions in the constitution of Krishna Baldev Vaid, interesting it is to observe that while Barthes asserts the inevitable presence of earlier works and cultures in a text, he neither admits nor acknowledges the authoritative stamp of his predecessors on his work.

Much before the edifice of intertextuality and consequent birth of the reader came to be based on the assertion that the reader, guided by his intertextual memories, converts a work into an ‘open text’ , reading, in fact and in effect, was termed a function of reader’s memory and experience.
Taking the baton from Mikhael Bakhtin who called the novel polyphonic [4], Julia Kristeva coined “intertextuality” in 1966, two years before Barthes, explaining a text in terms of vertical and horizontal axis, the former joining it with other texts and the latter the reader with the text [5].
Even if we were not told by the Frenchman, who does not express gratitude towards the Russian, memory and external references constituted the epistemic epicenter of a person’s comprehension of a literary work, though that wouldn’t warrant concluding the ‘death’ of its creator.

*** 

Two opposing forces, centripetal and centrifugal, simultaneously operate on a work, generated by its inherent strength and a reader’s memories, respectively. In Vaid’s oeuvre, one witnesses almost absence of the centrifugal force due to the inability of the reader to locate her memory and she is dragged along with a formidable gravitational pull towards the centre of his novels, which assume the form and magnitude of a black hole (One of his novels is named Kala Kolaj) — an all-devouring space of no return. 

Does it mean I am incurable and if I know I am how come I haven’t experienced the Emptiness akin to Emancipation and I if won’t ever does it mean I am insensitive and if I am how come I can’t cut this Wertherism out but does it mean I have reached a point if it can be called a point if it can be called reaching. (6)

What makes Vaid’s fiction a near-impregnable fortress, refuting Barthean proposition, are not his unyielding monologues or unrelenting metaphors, but the absence of signposts by which a reader locates her way through a work. The prevailing instruments to unlock and uncover a work — characters, plot, story, dialogue, conflict, various ‘isms’  — are either absent in him or at variance with their usual forms, formations and formulations, as he challenges and subverts literary norms, grammar and syntax to construct his narrative.
He does narrate a story, but its strands are so minute and fragile that touch them and they disappear. He has characters, but one is highly unlikely to witness even their faded facsimile in life or art. Bimal, the old man of Dying Alone, the middle-aged man-in-waiting of Dard La Dava do not ruffle even the faintest corner of a reader’s memory. Their obsessions are unflappable, idiosyncrasies unpredictable, movements undetectable. They defy definitions, reject conclusions. Try confining them in a bracket — unconventional, mystic, cynic, eccentric — and they break out the next moment by sheer force of inquisitive negation.

Question, negation and counter-negation decide and define Vaid’s work. He questions every phenomenon, everything visible, invisible, known, unknown, noun, pronoun, adjective, verb, adverb, proposition, conjunction and as he appears reaching an answer, springs up another question by challenging the solution itself. If this corresponds with the Adwait’s Neti Neti, wherein a seeker reaches the final truth by denying all what comes his way; it also marks the quest of a scientist, who in his relentless urge to experiment is not averse to refute his conclusions.
Confronting himself and his prejudices in a closed home or on a deserted road — the other is virtually absent in his work as his narrator is his own other (we shall approach this other soon) — his protagonist appears to be a primeval seeker in meditation or a scientist immersed in experimentation, hence, to denote time uses phrases like since agesepochslong time passed

Vaid doesn’t have the final solace of a mystic or a scientist though. A creative artist, he revels in questions and never gets satisfaction of reaching any solution. Every affirmation remains a negation, and leads to a new question.

I think that words are not my enemy that word is not my enemy that word alone is not my real enemy that what I say whatever I say that what I can say that whatever I can say that I can say nothing nothing at all no this is wrong absolutely wrong no this is also wrong…. [7]

Self-doubt and negation are visible in other writers too, in Vaid they culminate into an epistemic enquiry — the limitations on our knowledge and irredeemable inadequacy of our cognitive abilities. His protagonist reminds of a person who knows more than he can tell [8], and his entire quest is to retrieve his knowledge in exact words that have always eluded him.
His inquiry, like that of Ludwig Wittgenstein, is essentially linguistic. If all philosophy is critique of language[9], then for Vaid, all writing is the critique and search of the right language to express his universe, and precisely therefore it’s not the language that speaks, as Barthes claims, but Vaid the Author expresses himself through the language. Vaid sure does not precede the language, but he is not produced by it either. The language, admittedly, is given to him a priori, but his Authorial bodh (consciousness) takes it to the extreme few are capable of.

****

Wit is an important tool of this quest. He challenges and teases your perceptions, and never ceases to throw imperceptibly funny and mischievously witty alternatives to your cognition even when he is searching for answers.

 This  house looks like a bloated monster. That I’ve been dying alone in it for decades is not unusual in this place. Everybody my age dies alone here. Like the old woman next door. The exquisite woman next door.

Perhaps I should ask myself why I have dragged in the old woman into all this. Well, I am asking. I answer I get is why not. I am ever surprised by any of my answers to any of my questions. At my age only bastards desire surprises. I should right here. There is no fun any more in flogging every dead sentence. There never was any. I have stopped. 

I must have come into this monster of a house centuries ago. It seems I have died numerous deaths since then. But the memories of my life before I came here are still alive and around. Like old dogs with their odours. There was a time when I used to mistake the stink for fragrance. Dogs do not have long lives. I shouldn’t have compared my memories to dogs.  [10]

These words baffle a reader, leaving her dislocated and disarmed. What to make of an Author who uses the metaphor of sick dogs for nostalgic memory? Which tissues of which culture speak here?
Does not it mark the downright departure from prevailing modes of reading, hence the Barthean hypothesis, and thus prompting us to take this Author on his own terms?
To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on the text, Barthes declares, adding there is nothing original in a text. The assertion could be perfectly legitimate with writers, whose works suffer from a cumbersome creative lineage; but can one read the inventive metaphor of sick dogs for memory without asking — Who is this Author?
There could be certain works, Barthes ignores, whose authors by their sheer authorial force remain ingrained with their persona within their works.
The Frenchman is rightly apprehensive that the ‘discovery’ of the author can close the text by proclaiming it as explained, but his concern is exaggerated, possibly misplaced, as a work need not get closed with the establishment of its author. A reader CAN still interpret it in myriad manners, which may well be at variance with what the author desired ( in fact, one has no method to discover the author’s intention); but that wouldn’t conclude the author’s death. For, an interpretation or decoding of a work presumes the creator’s existence, and if the work shuts out external references, demanding its metaphors be read on their own terms, one is necessiated to locate its author.

***

Vaid’s metaphors if establish a restless search for the right word, they also underline the irony ingrained in his work and the consequent and conclusive chasm among action, recorded word and meaning.

If, when learning a language, speech, as it were, is connected up to action, can these connections possibly break down? If so, what means have I for comparing the original arrangement with the subsequent action? [11]

Nowhere one finds this breakdown of the bond between action and speech so overwhelming and helplessness of the seeker-speaker so haunting than in Vaid’s works.
But aren’t we told that epistemic quests are usually dull and dour? Why does a seeker indulge in wit? It serves two purposes. First, it establishes his narrator as an archetypal mischievous Indian seeker, not a stoic or dour Christian saint. Second, reflecting his quirky take on the world, it underlines the inherent irony of this cosmos.

He, significantly, uses negation and irony both as ontological and narrative tools; his tales build and move as his narrator-protagonist goes on to question and then deny his observations, converting the novel into an epistemic adventure. Of An Old Monk. Located in a cave or cage. Performing imperceptible actions, uttering incomprehensible words, doodling impalpable figures.

Sentences sans verb extending into paragraphs into pages accentuated and punctuated by endless series of epic similes complemented and cohabited by rhythm and music even in roughest of the syntax, his questions take unexpected, unexplored routes, become more baffling with each sentence as he devises seductive similes, mesmeric metaphors and addictive alliterations to phrase and paraphrase his queries — and ends up without any answer.
His irony thus becomes overwhelming, all-annihilating, Kierkegaardian swallowing of its own tail, underlining the permanent disjuncture between the visible and its meaning, and the emptiness of action.

The question may be raised…Ah! This silly clause has revisited me after a long time. I shall punish it for its return by repeating it to death. Whenever an old forgotten clause or word or a metaphor recaptures my pen, while I am ungaurded, I feel as if an old forgotten friend were trying to embrace me. I feel pleased as well as nauseated by this cloying fidelity. I cherish my lust for my language. People of my age generally feel compelled to cling to God. I am clinging to my language. Even though my innermost desire still is to cling to nothing. Since I have this desire, I cannot free myself of this desire. I am well aware of this tautology. [12]

Note the irresistible desire to transcend, despite being aware of its impossibility. His narrator knows the final frivolity and futility of all explanations and motions, but still remains in a perennial search of exact words as his narrative chases and confronts irony to its final frontier.

****

What further sets him apart is the D. A crucial protein of his oeuvre’s DNA, possibly also of his personal DNA.
Vaid’s quest is furthered, again both on ontological and narratorial planes (He deftly employs literary tools for both purposes), by an overwhelming presence of the ‘other’ — the Doppelganger — an apparition that trails, questions and denies his narrator. A metaphysical entity asserting itself, the D is the opponent of his narrator. The D is neither the villain, nor the anti-hero, it’s the post-hero.
Who is D, like Kafka’s cop in the head figuring in almost every work of Vaid? A modern equivalent of soul? The consciousness (aatm-bodh) of the hero? An inevitable recluse of a modern atheist Author, who refuses to accept supernatural entities like god and soul, but is still haunted by their presence?
Vaid realised that to portray the irony of a modern man he needed a different narrator, who not only knows what he knows and does not know and cannot know, but also knows, and hence suffers from this knowledge, what he knows and cannot make the entire world know; who with all his secret sins and shortcomings is the only person capable to view himself in absolute gaze and hence the only one to judge or evaluate himself.
Confronting his irredeemable and irreparable incompleteness and simultaneously relishing his incurable and invincible idiosyncrasies, this narrator could have been complemented and cohabited only by D — an apparition hovering around him, never leaving him alone for a moment.

***
Another puzzle that grips the reader is the pulsating life in his works with all its obsessions and cravings. How can there be a narrator, meditating in desolation, who is in search of knowledge but does not renounce the world? His concerns are metaphysical, but metaphors to mark these musings musical and deliciously corporeal.
Why is a monk in a quest often seen playing with his gentials, manipulating a matrix of mercurial and mischievous metaphors for his motions?

When it becomes imperative or impossible to straighten out an awkard analogy or caress a sulky sentence or rid a period of its pride —- I have not been able to discard my habit of saying the same thing in at least three different and defective ways; will I ever? — instead of scratching my skull or dragging my feet about I let my hand loose in my private jungle. It is not much of a jungle now and my hand gets no immediate rise out of it. But as my fingers play with the undergrowth I sometimes sense a surprise in that neglected area. More frequently, however, I am reminded that my pubic region has become as soggy as my skull, that soon it will become as bare too, that soon my limp lord will look as bald as my head.

The question may be raised: But why don’t you play with your other toy? My answer is: who says I don’t, for I do, all the time, while writing as well as writhing. When I am not playing with it, I’m staring at it as I sit on my haunches with my head hanging between my knees — like an old dog asking its older master: which one of us is going to go first? I must add that I never get any answer from it as it continues to stare at the floor. [13]

Vaid is accused of being vulgar. He, in fact and in effect, subverts sexuality and creates a post-sexual universe, wherein the protagonist mocks at and parodies sexual inclinations. Compare his escapades with Mahatma Gandhi’s experiments with truth, also termed eccentric by the uninitiated, and one finds a mischievous monk in a quest, who plays and teases with his body and sexual desires only to overcome the overpowering ennui (another of his major thematic occupation) — with all his alliterations, pun, similes intact.
Note this parody of Hindi novelists’ desire of an ideal woman that overturns sexual politics and exposes hypocrisy by inverting the language:

 Let me give you my specifications then. I want a girl whose eyes are askance. And her front full. I want her breasts to be hard. Like rocks. At the same time soft. Paradoxical protuberances. I will test them by breaking almonds on them. Her trunk should remind me of a Hindu temple and her torso of a Muslim mosque. I want a girl like Sita. I’ll test her fidelity by disguising myself as a deer. She should know her Kama Sutra and Ananga Ranga. I’ll be happy if she is competent enough to open an International School of India Erotica. She should be a saint during the day and a nurse at night. I mean a wet nurse. Suppose I tell her to squat and piss on the rug in front of company she should do so without a moment’s mental hesitation. I don’t want her to be tight-assed. At the same time she should not be too wide in her hips. That’s what is wrong with the Anglo-saxon sexpots. [14]

His details don’t tickle or titillate, instead suggest that his narrator uses Kama for liberation, follows Pravritti Marga. Interestingly, in most of the sexual references of Vaid’s work, the hero is seen amusing himself alone and only exceptionaly in copulation.
Why does he convert an essentially copulatory act into one-person’s game? It cannot be deduced that he is afraid of women, considering their lots of mercurial references not just in his fiction but diaries too. ( His diaries are crucial also to counter Barthes’ another proposition who speaks through a character in a work — the author, the character or someone else.)

Some women loved me with such madness and hated my work with such intensity that I get surprised how I got along with them for long…On many occasions I tore myself apart in an attempt to find all women of the world in a woman and one woman in all the women of the world and concluded that like other infinite attempts this attempt is also futile.  [15]
A diary entry when he was in twenties and staying in hilly town Ranikhet for writing his first novel Steps In Darkness, refers to his wife Champa — If Champa were here, each corner of this forest would become our romping ground. [16]

Even as he describes ‘his women’, he is not blinded by the final futility of copulation. Not for a moment his irony takes leave of him.

Does it relate to his attempts to remove the ‘other’ from his work, considering the D, his sole companion, does not let him remain alone or with any other person? We can believe that the self-appeasing acts of the narrator aim at the search of a self-contained existence.

***

Returning to where we begin, two opposing forces, simultaneously operate on a work. In Vaid, one encounters almost absence of the centrifugal force.
In a distant comparison, marking an ‘opening into his texts’, it can be said that Joyce, Dostoyvesky and Beckett, not to forget the Hamlet, also develop their narrative through monologues, the Irish-Frenchman has dark humour too, and these have been among Vaid’s favourites too, besides the master Henry James, from whom he learnt the craft of inculcating point of view in a narrative. And that they did constitute the tissues of quotations drawn from innumerable centres of culture.
Of greater significance, however, is not the question if these tools are visible in other writers, but how does Vaid employ them, and a realization that in his works they appear unalloyed and pristine. Vaid does look up to the past masters but charts his own path, his work is not contaminated or alloyed by outside influences, does not evoke memories and past references, and he remains the sole Author of his universe.

After settling that intertexuality doesn’t hold water in majority of Vaid’s oeuvre (except in a few like Badchalan Biviyon Ka Dweep written with a clear intention to emulate the Kathasaritsagar), we now move onto Barthes’ another contention — the authorial voice. That since it is impossible to ascertain who speaks in a text — the narrator, the hero, the reader or the culture, the writer cannot be credited with the work.

In Vaid’s works, there are two clear evidence to establish his Authorship: the uniform and unvarying narratorial voice through his work and the striking similarity between his diaries and fiction.

The tone and tenor, cadence and countenance of his narrator remains almost the same in his stories and novels from Mera Dushman to Pita Ki ParchhaiyaanUska Bachpan to Maya Lok. The doggedly fixed gaze, cruelly focussed viewpoint, epistemic concerns, use of irony as a tool, the presence of the D, subverted and inverted syntax — these elements irrefutably suggest the working of a single mind. An inherent strand runs through the entire oeuvre, presuming the existence of an unshared and unalloyed voice.
If Vaid wrote a single novel, say Maya Lok, identifying his voice could be nearly impossible; if he spoke in many tones through many characters like Dostoyvesky, locating his personal voice could have been extremely difficult; but if there is only one voice, clear and loud, affirming and asserting the Authorship word after word, sentence after sentence, Barthean proposition stands no chance and one would accept that this uniform voice emanating from his works must be of the same person —- the Author.

Barthean hypothesis that writing is a neutral space where all identity is lost could hold true in cases where an author doesn’t want to assert his identity, maintains an absolute distance from the narrator, takes all possible steps to obliterate his traces from the work, keeps the narratorial voice distinct from his own; Nirmal Verma for instance, in whose novels and essays lies a distinct gap, in the former he comes across as an inventive story teller, in the latter a profound civilizational critic; or the God-like Joycean narrator paring nails in a corner; but certainly not with Vaid, who not only seeps and peeps through his words be it his tales or journals, but a major element of whose craft lies in making the narrator his own self and the D his own D. [17]

Barthean assertion that an author takes birth with a text and does not precede its existence does not apply to the Author, who in his journals writes extensively about the struggle he underwent to achieve the point of view writing his first novel, when he confronted Henry James and strived to move away from an omnipresent narratorial voice.

Before achieving the final draft, like my other works Steps In Darkness also became a victim of wrong or false beginnings. The biggest challenge and confrontation I faced were in deciding and following the point of view. The first incomplete draft lacked a definite point of view and “I”, my omnipresent narrator, moved in and out through unrestrictedly through all characters and spoke whatever struck his tongue and showed whatever he wanted.

For the first time in my life I worked with absolute passion in Ranikhet and there I had the “epiphany” that the narrator of Steps In Darkness should neither be the omnipresent “I”, nor young Biru, but the kid Biru. Steps In Darkness contains many seeds of my future works.  [18]

A fledgling Author struggling with narratorial voice — To deny him Authorship is to deny the word its fundamental right to exist.

Cruel economy, mischievous metaphors, addictive alliterations, instinctive irony, ability to locate humour amid darkest situations, ruthless concentration on point of view —- the defining features of his writings can be traced in the meandering gaze of Beeru, the hero of Steps In Darkness.

His diaries are full of ontological moorings on writing and life — the text and texture, concerns and concepts of his journals echo through his novels. At many instances, difficult it would be to distinguish between a novel extract and a journal entry.

The real support I will obtain, do obtain from the belief that my all endeavors would remain almost futile, all desires almost deficient, that all endeavors go almost useless, that no success would console me, living without any consolation is probably my destiny. [19]

I have no particular interest in anyone. I have no particular interest even in myself. Except work only ennui and women attract me. Body and soul of women; those many questions emerging out of ennui whose Cross I carry around —- death, life, god, absence, grief! Women with soul no longer around, difficult it is to chase a mere body. Work and ennui, hence, only remain for me. [20]

My ideal writer —- who writes only that without which he cannot live, who does not speak at all, who prefers language over subject, who is ready to die over his every sentence, who constantly suspects his status, who is sombre but never worldly, who is always aware of death.  [21]

—-

The question may be raised —- even if it has been before: Why do you keep filling these notebooks? My answer would be — even if it has been given before: What should I do instead; what can I? This answer is rude and unsatisfactory. Also ambiguous. Also dishonest.

One reason is that it helps me to pass the time. Just as some other equally absurd occupations do. I can, if I like, call this whole process, my dedication to the word. Or my version of the raid on the inarticulate. I can degrade my absurdity with obvious allusions. My major reason, however, remains, that it helps me to pass the time. Or kill it. I know that time is neither passed nor killed.

I am irredeemable wordmonger. Which is another indication of my basic ordinariess. Paradoxically, also, my only medium of rising above it. Just as some people are fond of their private parts, which they take to be marvellous, or of caressing their private experiences, which they take to be singular, I am fond of fondling my private words.

The question may be raised: Do you really think it is necessary for every old exile to keep a record of his wrath and writing? My answer would be: Nothing, perhaps, is really necessary but, after a certain limit is reached or crossed, it helps to pretend that one’s addictions are necessary. [22]

Note the similarity among the above extracts from his diaries and a novel. He comes across as the Author-Monk at both instances, his writings metafiction-meditation, carrying an unflinching, unflappable and unassailable faith in the word, that the word alone can take him to salvation.
Linguistically, Barthes would stop us, the author is never more than the instance writing, just as I is nothing more than the instance saying I: language knows a ‘subject’ not a ‘person’.
Precisely here, accompanied by his stylistic struggle and existential endeavour, Vaid with his assertive personal presence can be read as the ‘subject’ of his works —- he eavesdrops on every word someone else says about him, he looks at himself, as it were, in all the mirrors of other people’s consciousness, he knows all the possible refractions of his image in those mirrors. [23]

Performing at the pinnacle of self-consciousness, Vaid who repeatedly asserts his presence and existence through his works, speaks through his words, whose writings ponder over and at times parody the writing process; by no hyper-stretch of literary imagination can such an Author be considered ‘dead’ or existing ‘not preceding his works’. He remains enshrined in his works, his narrator in his cave, seemingly still and motionless, only to become alive and animated as you approach him. Pouncing on you with a formidable force at first, like the Fasting Artist, but, soon calming down to narrate his adventures with art.

***********************

1. This piece also uses both ‘A’ and ‘a’ for the author — ‘A’ to denote Vaid, and ‘a’ as a common noun. This distinction, nevertheless, was not possible in Barthes — he did not build his case around a particular author, and was not expected to show reverence for this species either.
2. The impact of replacing ‘literary creation’ by ‘text’ can be a separate topic of enquiry, especially considering the growing use of the Barthean terminology by writers.
3. Images, Music and Text by Roland Barthes.
4. Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics by Mikhail Bakhtin.
5. The Kristeva Reader.
6. Bimal In Bog. (Novel)
7. Dard La Dava. (Novel)
8. The Tacit Dimension by Michael Polanyi
9. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein.
10. From Dying Alone (Novel). This extract is not in continuity, the sequence has been changed.
11. Philosophical Remarks by Ludwig Wittgenstein.
12. Dying Alone.
13. Dying Alone.
14. Bimal in Bog. This extract is not in continuity, the sequence has been changed.
15. Uske Bayan. (Diary). This extract is not in continuity, the sequence has been changed.
16. Shikast Ki Awaaj. (Prose pieces.)
17. Is D a mere fictional tool or an actual phenomenon which Vaid experiences day and night, and all his writings are an attempt to confront this overbearing entity? PB Shelly’s writings also suggest he had encountered his doppelganger.
18. Shikast Ki Awaaj.
19. Khwab Hai Deewane Ka. (Diary)
20. Sham’A Har Rang Mein. (Diary)
21. Khwab Hai Deewane Ka. (Diary)
22. From Dusra Na Koi. This extract is not in continuity, the sequence has been changed.
23. We gratefully use this expression from Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics, which originally referred to the Russian master.

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Comments
  1. C. Mandal says:

    Interesting article. Thank you for posting and sharing your analysis and views.

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