What do you call a book that is unparalleled in its use of linguistic violence and written at a time when the country faced its gravest political period? Definitely not a saga. It is surprising that the late O V Vijayan chose a tame title for an otherwise heavily sardonic work. The Saga of Dharmapuri cannot really be reviewed; nothing beats the first hand experience of reading it.
Written during the infamous Emergency but published–as he himself says in the preface–when it was lifted, this book is a must-read for those who want to understand Indian political machinations in those days. Laced with extremist satire, the book opens with the King farting loudly while anxious courtiers look on. This is followed by his defacation, which they collect. By the third or fourth page, you are disgusted: this is precisely where the novel’s appeal lies. It doesn’t let you go.
Dharmapuri gradually unfolds. Those seeking real-life parallels can easily substitute Dharmapuri to Delhi, the King to Nehru, and the people with the Red book to…. well, I don’t have to spell it out. Dharmapuri is peopled mostly with pimps, whores, decadent ministers, corrupt administrators, sycophants, giogolos, and perverts of every tinge: a doctor (?) even has intercourse with a dead body. Mothers routinely sleep with other, mostly powerful men while their children are allowed to look at the act.
Horrifying as it is, a redeemer is indeed in their midst. Siddhartha, modelled after the Buddha brings the message of love and peace. Vijayan superbly balances his narrative betwen the comprehensive political and social decay as well as the tiny but sure stirrings for change that Siddhartha symbolizes. Siddhartha never confronts the king, never incites revolt, almost always working with people who know things are wrong, who aspire to rise above the moral morass but are clueless about the way.
The Saga is rich both in political overtones and symbolism. The courtiers that collect the king’s “turd,” in turn distribute it to children who wait for it with plates which they in turn bring home for the family to eat: the younger generation eating the shit of its predecessor. What’s more, this shit-eating is done wantonly. The duplictious king who takes money both from the “imperialists” as well as those from the Red country just about summarizes what the Non-aligned Movement stood for. Then there’s all sorts of shady pacts his ministers and courtiers carry out with other nations, symbolic again–and proved now by the Mitrokhin papers–of the near-total degeneration of the 70s.
The language is extremely crude. I can only call it the linguistic equivalent the monstrous movie, Caligula. Disturbing, but perhaps appropriate for the subject. And required reading.