No forest for vanaprastha

Sumana Roy | Updated on April 26, 2019 Published on April 26, 2019

Loss of habitat: The concept of vanvaas — literally ‘living in the forest’ — was also related to vanaprastha, ‘going to, or retiring in the forest’   -  ISTOCK.COM

When the time comes to retire from the material world, we won’t have a place to go

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s new novel My Father’s Garden comes to us in three sections: These are called ‘Lover’, ‘Friend’, and ‘Father’. It is perhaps not a surprise that in this novel about a young man looking back at his adult life, these three sections are devoted to men, young and ageing, who are in the process of evolution themselves. The ‘garden’ of the title comes to us only in the final section, and for a reader such as myself, the title acts a bit like a teaser — I wait for the arrival of the garden. The wait is almost akin to waiting for a garden to grow — as if the writer has planted a seed in the title that will grow into our eye only by the time we come to the book. In this is the creation of a new kind of time, though I am hesitant to call it narrative time.

Let me explain. The novel, written in first person, takes us, almost in a picaresque manner, through the narrator’s adult life. As per the demands of such a form, minutes and months and years must be condensed into a phrase or half a sentence, and because of the process of selection and omission, much has to be left out. Art and its sense of time allow these falsehoods — years from the narrator’s life as a young medical student have been condensed into the first 62 pages. But will nature and its particular sense of time allow that? And hence the two kinds of time — time in art and time in the garden.

This is a novel about a man looking at men — ‘lover’, ‘friend’, and ‘father’ are used as shorthand for titles of sections, but they are actually studies of men taking on roles, fighting choice and necessity, not finding a home in either. The narrator writes about them as an artist draws sketches of models in art school. There is a reason I make this analogy — like the painter in art school, the narrator is an apprentice of life. Moving through the three sections, in this genre that has come to be quite unimaginatively called ‘autofiction’, I sense a movement that comes to me from the title. The young narrator and his young lovers of the first section, the middle-aged Bada Babu of the second, the retired father of the third — there is an arc there that keeps coming back to me long after I’ve finished reading the novel. It’s an arc that I’ve encountered before, but I cannot remember where. Not until I return to a poem that’s been on my bedside table for some time — Subhash Mukhopadhyay’s The Son’s Gone to the Forest, about Rama’s vanvaas, his going to the forest. The Bengali poet reminds us of the curse of young Shravana’s parents on Dasharatha for killing their son, and relates it to Rama’s exile in the forest.

It struck me then how the concept of vanvaas — literally ‘living in the forest’ — was also related to vanaprastha, ‘going to, or retiring in the forest’. It is the third stage in the Vedic order of life, after brahmacharya (bachelor/student) and grihastha (married householder). The structure of Shekhar’s novel, with its young medical student living his brahmacharya life, followed by the householder Bada Babu’s, eventually leading us to the father in his garden, a garden of his creation, the vanaprastha, a retirement from worldly life. What Shekhar is giving us is, therefore, a sketch of the relocation of the structure of Vedic life to a complex modern life, with its flab of distractions and complexities.

Vanaprastha demanded a vana, a forest, as did vanvaas. But where are the forests today? The narrator’s grandfather was the headman of his village, ‘which included forests, grazing areas and paddy fields’. “In Kessorepur, the jaher was a plot of land, common to everyone, where farming was not allowed. The cutting of trees was forbidden and they flourished there.” After being betrayed by the social world, the father “bought a plot of land in Ghatsila on which he would build our house, and the garden that would become his refuge and escape”. “My father had a vision for the jaher. He wanted it to return to its original form, a dense, orderly forest... No jaher is complete without flowering shrubs and so some of the wild lantana bushes were uprooted and replaced by hibiscus and other plants... In a way, this was the first garden that he created.”

When the narrator asks his father where they could grow a sal tree in their garden, he says that the soil needed to grow it is to be found only in “our jaher”. My Father’s Garden, at that point, becomes a parable for the damaged ecology of our world, and how the curse of individualism necessitates that we create our own gardens, recreations of the primeval forest. For we shall all need to take vanaprastha.


Sumana Roy is the author of How I Became A Tree; Twitter: @SumanaSiliguri

Published on April 26, 2019
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