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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 32, New Delhi, July 24, 2021

A tale of love, truth and victimhood | Prasenjit Chowdhury

Friday 23 July 2021



by Prasenjit Chowdhury

One Love, and the Many Lives of Osip B

by C. P. Surendran

Niyogi Books, New Delhi

Email: niyogibooks[at]


June - July 2021, 372 pages

ISBN-13: 978-93-91125-12-7

Rs. 695

# Fiction

‘This is my moment of truth. Kashmir’s too. Shaheed Osip Bala Krishnan. I shall redeem honour by throwing myself in the way of bullets fired by the Indian army. Someone will take a photograph as I leap, firing my last volley, at an army jeep, and win a Pulitzer. Your karma is another’s destiny. Elizabeth will eventually read about my epic heroism’. Just in case, you squirm in the thought that Osip might face the fate of Indian photojournalist Danish Siddiqui, whose haunting images of wars, riots and human suffering won global acclaim including the Pulitzer Prize in 2018, who was killed in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in line of duty, Osip is spared the fate, but not before he had to pay a heavy price for seeking out his love for his English teacher Elizabeth Hill. CP. Surendran’s novel One Love and the Many Lives of Osip B that dedicates itself to ‘the victims and their victims’ thus becomes the voice of some protagonists suffering persecution on whom the moral brigade has pronounced a death sentence – by exile and excommunication. The extended tale of victimhood claims many victims.

Who is this Osip B? He is short for Osip Bala Krishnan, christened so by his grandfather Niranjan Menon – ‘a great Communist leader in Kerala’ – a state perpetually in the cusp of a Revolution. According to the leader’s wife Gloria Innaley, her husband, as a Stalinist ideologue, was ‘a mass killer in his own right in his younger days, a champion of plots and purges; a proper Vohzd, a leader’, a past that must remain subsumed though. She had just written a best-selling hagiography on his consort (’A Revolutionary, In Retrospect’), now a 96-year-old fart, whom she passionately hates. Gloria thinks he was pretending to be an Alzheimer’s patient. But Osip finds out what accounts for his amnesia, on the bottom of which lies a horrible truth.

Osip is named after Osip Mandelstam, the Russian poet whom Joseph Stalin arrested and exiled, for the second time, to Siberia in 1938 – where the paranoid poet died of the tropical cold and starvation. It is not only that the Soviet press ceased to publish his work. For almost two decades, his name disappeared from print in the USSR. Was it a quirky nomenclature? His grandfather is haunted by visitations of his Stalinist past peopled both by Mandelstam and Joseph Stalin – ‘the muse of mass murder’ – all at the same time in his addled brain at Thrissur. ‘The poet and the persecutor, free-speech and force, the timeless two-in-one combination, the forked and yoked teamwork of the mind that informs our moment-to-moment metamorphosis and turns us victim, as well as the victor, in our daily lives.’ The persecutor and the persecuted stand as each other’s alter-ego.

How does the tortured memory keep flitting back? ‘That wormhole of a room, his study, where time stopped, moved back, and pitched forward’, Osip recounts of the lair of his grandfather at Thrissur, which remain stacked with the Pravda and Moscow News, the back wall of which is adorned with white photograph of the long Troitsky Bridge on the Neva in St. Petersburg, M.’s town. Both Osip and his grandfather shared folie a famille, a nongenetic delusional family disorder, a state of psychosis and hallucination. Since a fatal trip to the Soviet Union in the winter of 1961, ‘just in time to witness in person the unbelievable sight of Stalin’s exhumation from the special mausoleum and reburial under the Kremlin Wall’ that exposed him to epiphanies amounting to a trauma, he remains in a state of shock which, to Gloria, ‘the longest willed act in senility’.

Epiphanies are important. So are the parallels and the metaphors. M. saw a culture doomed to sure destruction, and a repressive barbarism, waiting at the gates. Stalinism flowered in a responsive soil. It did not only entail abject surrender to party line but sought to gain control over not just the bodies but also the minds of the population. It involved the whole apparatus of propaganda, literary censorship of everything written and printed, political control of education, research and scholarship and a total ban on all manifestations of intellectual individualism, heterodoxy or dissent. It thrived in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Mao’s China, Pol-Pot’s Kampuchea and Pinochet’s Chile and elsewhere. It exists in today’s India.

With vigilant groups on the rampage, thugs preying on ‘aberrant’ relationships, even legislating against it, moral policing on the rise, this is a Stalinism unleashed both by the Right and Left. As Osip B.’s writer friend Arjun Bedi, disintegrating under sexual harassment allegations, warns him for expressing subversive ideas: ‘Never articulate your theory outside these walls. They will lynch you. The Right will lynch you.’ He is not safe from ‘the Liberals’ either: ‘They will find some other reason. You are the type who will get lynched by one group or the other. One after another. Or together. The cow vigilantes as well as the cow eaters.’ The interweft of a complex construct that is India, the rise of nationalism and religious jingoism, cultural xenophobia, the oppositional narratives of Kashmir and Tibet vis-à-vis its human interface are fleshed out by the protagonists, each drawn out in full.

Thematically, the novel straddles around a complex story of love, the interplay of chances, of roots and rootlessness, individual freedom versus collective atavism. It holds every concept to ridicule, magnifies the dilemmas and never shies away from situations. For instance, the story does not dwell on the fairy-tale counterfactual of love between Osip, an 18-year-old boy, and her teacher Elizabeth Hill, a British woman, when Osip is taken to St George’s school, so that his grandfather’s psychosis does not seep into his soul. The novel takes the relationship to its grimy end that starts as a ‘mistake’ of Elizabeth’s conception and her fleeing to London, where Osip stalks her all the way to London and meets Krishna Menon alias Kris, whom she fancies and lives with, whom Osip discovers as his grandfather’s brother.

Osip’s friend Anand, his confidante and roommate in the school hostel, lives under ‘the dire shadow’ of Ms Yolanda Andrade, the school principal of St George’s, and Anand’s stepmother. Anand, as we first see him, is a godman in the making: ‘I am also developing a theory of wellness. Holistic Metaphysics. Helps you to resonate your frequency with that of the Universe’. Anand’s birth, the mother whom he never met and his parenthood are all shrouded in mystery like the ‘sin’ of Elizabeth. Anand had squeezed in an advertisement declaring Ms Andrade was dead, and the principal had come across her obit on a prominent newspaper, while she was travelling. It had merely informed her she had died of a ‘massive heart attack’, and that she was survived by her son, Anand Andrade. The sheer shock of the practical joke played on Yolanda and the resentfulness that might have guided someone to wish her death is salved by Idris, who as train attendant brought a timely cup of tea and massaged her toes to prove she was not dead.

Anand has no compunction seeking to fleece Yolanda further, as he needs seed money to buy a bike while Osip must have the wherewithal to go to London in the trail of Elizabeth who fled India. The sudden death of the school priest Father Roderick sets Osip to make a plan to dig him up and hold him to ransom. Anand gets Idris Abbottabad as his hatchet man: ‘He’s a part-time thief. Used to pass off as a train attendant. On the run from the police now. Parttime motorcycle mechanic, too. He is part-time everything.’ Idris did everything from digging up the body to wrapping it up and stashing it away, and putting it back in. The priest’s son called in to say that he had parted with Rs 5 lakh to a gang of corpse kidnappers, whom he suspected were her students.

When the enormity of the stratagem of two desperate souls is about to blow back at them, Anand and Osip part ways. Afraid to get caught alone in the act, Anand tries to blackmail Osip on his ‘illicit’ relationship with Elizabeth and its implications. Not exactly gaga over his anchorage (‘Why should he be proud of a nation that denied him a father and a mother?’) Anand goes to Dharamshala in his hope to become a millionaire godman. Two partners-in-crime, who drank and smoked, put in false obits, dug up corpses, were expelled from school, and fell in love with their English teachers, become adrift in trajectories universally inscrutable to human destiny.

It is this human destiny – a quirky mix of chance, probability and causation – that made Elizabeth take Osip once to an exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi on war and pogrom survivors on many theatres spanning across the World Wars, Partition of India, Kashmir, Korean War, Vietnam, Serbia, Rwanda, and Syria. One of the exhibits introduced Osip to Ava Lenk, who was in the Lodz Ghetto in the early 1940s. Poland, whom Osip’s grandfather met on his trip to the Soviet Union in St. Petersburg. At London, on meeting Ava Lenk Osip comes to grips with the past that so haunted his grandfather so as to silence him.

‘You could be in life-long exile or in the prison forever for little or nothing. How many must be in your jails for shouting a slogan or reading the wrong literature?’ Ava says this to Osip on meeting him again in London by a quirk of fate, which sounds so universally true irrespective of the context of totalitarianism, without one requiring to extend the obvious metaphors to India of today, dominated on the one hand, by the moral brigade smug in its sense of wokeness, led by Dev-Diya pouncing upon Arjun Bedi, a veteran journalist, for his putative acts of sexual ‘transgression’ with a pious mission for ‘a historical correction to be made in favour of the female gender’, the inquisitional ferocity of which is only to matched by the likes of Ram Yadav, a Right-wing uber driver representing India’s nationalist underbelly, whom Elizabeth first met on her way to a posh maternity clinic at Delhi called Kabuki until the final accosting of Ram Yadav on the fateful day by Osip that led to their final humiliation and eventual separation.

Upon inspection of Stalin’s excesses – Ava read out to him Mandelstam, in Russian (‘We all have a forbidden writer, you know’) took him one day, ‘just to see him squirm’, to Nadezhda, the poet’s wife, in Moscow, took him by train to Vtoraya Rechka, on the way to Vladivostok, where M. died in exile, back in December 1938 – that Osip’s grandfather was disabused of his notions.

At Dharamsala Wang defending the cause of Tibet and India supporting its cause for freedom, while Ananda expatiating why India should choose China over Tibet, while his accomplice Osip crying over individual freedom and freedom for Kashmir skirt on complicated issues on territory, space and aggrandisement. And if Osip and Arjun had to pay a heavy price for the freedom they chose in the final, fatal moment when Ram Yadav literary tries to de-sex Osip and threatens Elizabeth, we come to a horrible truth. ‘He is free to do whatever he wants here. His freedom comes from his readiness to commit the world to violence, to kill. He is the leader. And the mob. He is the citizen. And the State. The victim. And the victor.’

The role of Idris, sometimes as a train attendant, as a hatchet man, as Dr Hiteshwar of the ‘Himalayan Herbal Travelling Hospital’ in Dharamsala, and later as Anand’s assistant, alongside Anand as the yoga guru feted by corporate honchos with both an exe to grind with the nation is of poignant interest. ‘Would a man on the run, say, Idris, be proud of the country that lynched his father and denied him his god? A refugee in his own country?’ Anand inveighs, and in a spat with Wang asks: ‘Why on earth should I believe in your idea of a nation?’ The conmen and the godmen, the counterfeiters and the quacks promising magic cures for the many malaises that afflict us and feeding on our entrenched insecurities ring an allegorical truth.

Osip’s revolution is finally extinguished. Osip is a no-where man, doesn’t belong anywhere. ‘He is unable to be a member of a group and further its interests,’ Elizabeth says about him, to which Arjun exhorts him to be ‘part of the herd or not be heard’. For a living, the newspaper Osip works for, India Post – owned by Alok Jain, a business baron, who just by staring at a journalist can cause his cardiac arrest, or can dismiss one for swatting a pesky fly – Osip is forced to ‘help manufacture silence’ when the call is to offer a ‘Kashmir-version of truth’, a ‘reality so suppressed and self-censored — by rent, Uber, gas, love.’ It is the sad tale of compromise that resonates with us.

It is a roller-coaster of a novel where the characters course through warrens of ‘transgressive’ relationships, gender politics, nationalism, individual freedom and group rights, fake news, and power. The toxicity, the gall, and the vitriol, touch us all, as Osip in his fevered mind feels, like a ‘cobra hatching them in her folds licks our hands with her blue-forked tongue". It is a milieu dictated by psychoses such as androphobia, irrational fear of men, standing opposite to the term gynophobia, misandry vying with misogyny in a confrontational game of gender politics. It addresses the moral and ethical dilemmas of our times with a straightness and candour that makes a reader bare to the bone seeking to disabuse one of any pretension to prim righteousness. Dystopian but suffused with the purple prose of the poet-novelist, the novel is a gem of writing.

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