Cold Peace, Hot War

Book: Bali and the Ocean of Milk

Author: Nilanjan P Choudhury

Publisher: Harper Colins

Pages: 306

Price: 199

Year: 2011

 

Genre-bending fiction, like a purana on modern politics narrated by a cynical, urban dilettante

Sailen Routray Bangalore 

Even a morose and taciturn person like this reviewer was caught giggling in the oddest of public places while reading Bali and the Ocean of Milk – it is that lip-smackingly good fun. The novel begins with a preface that follows the oldest trick in the trade: an offering of the novel by the author as a history birthed by someone else, in this case a “shy” Indian scholar. 

The story takes place in China near the border with India, during an unspecified period of time in the past, with apparently a non-Indian cast of characters. But the names have been sufficiently “Indianized” by the “shy” scholar. The story reads like an updated version of one of the puranas, and the narrator’s voice is that of a cynical, urban dilettante. . 

The devas and asuras are locked in an uneasy cold peace when machinations by factions from both sides result in hot war. At the centre of the narrative is that well-known old story: how the churning of the ‘ocean of milk’, to make it yield amrit (‘nectar’), had led to a tug-of-war between the devas and the asuras. Indrah led the devas and Bali led the asuras. Most of the events in the novel take place over little less than a year and the story moves at a brisk pace. 

It’s a tale that is, in many ways, genre-bending. One can see it as a political thriller set in puranic times. But it can also be read as a purana set in the rough and tumble of politics in historical times. The world of devas and asuras has an uncanny resemblance to the 20th century ‘politics’ of concentration camps, religious fanaticism, and power play. It is also self-consciously ‘filmy’; the trinity in the novel has the names Sambha, Viru and Jai. And Viru’s consort is named Vasanti. 

The dialogues are crisp and well-written. Often one feels like one is reading a film script rather than a novel. And most of the book is seriously funny. 

Devas and asuras are locked in an uneasy cold peace when machinations by factions from both sides result in hot war

A large part of the narrative depends on the ‘supernatural’. But this seems ‘normal’ as the novel continuously plays obeisance to the narrative conventions of older Indian forms, where ‘action’ itself is an agent of its own and does not need ‘realistic’ conventions to propel it forward. 

The characters are allowed very little interiority. To put it crudely, most of the characters act, they do not think. We are allowed very little privileged access into their ‘inner lives’. As a result, most of the characters – even central ones such as Viru, Indrah, Bali and Avani – are stereotypical, one might say filmi. But this ‘filmi-ness’ of characters turns out to be a strength, not a weakness. 

Perhaps the most memorable character of the novel is the asura queen, Avani, who outshines everyone else with her sheer tenacity and unselfconscious courage. 

The book is nicely produced, and for a volume of its size, attractively priced. We expect another novel from the author soon, and it better be as humorous and genre-bending as this one.       

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2012