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Review: One Love and the Many Lives of Osip B by CP Surendran

Poet and fiction writer CP Surendran’s new novel is best described as a mirror held up to our times. In it, a student falls in love with his teacher and pursues her relentlessly. That is Osip B’s one love – his English teacher Elizabeth Hill at the fictitious St George’s Residential School, Kasauli. A fortuitous sexual encounter leads to Osip’s obsession. We learn from the narrative that it was an impulsive action on Elizabeth’s part. She does not believe in romantic love and is apprehensive about getting emotionally attached. Towards the middle of the narrative, she berates Osip over his conception of love:

“It makes you feel like eating ice creams and makes you miss your bus, but wars still happen. As do riots and arson. Love! Love is not peace, do you see? Everyone loves at least one other person. And still there is so much violence. They all have loved and would kill other loves…. Do you understand? It is better to be young and not loving.”

371pp, ₹695; Niyogi Books

When she suspects that she is pregnant with Osip’s child, she flees, and he pursues her – first to Delhi and then to Oxford. Finally, they reunite as lovers and return to the city in the height of summer. Then things go completely wrong as karma catches up with Elizabeth.

This love obsession, pursuit, fulfilment and falling apart form but a mere thread that holds together portraits of contemporary realities – a national narrative fraught with greed for power and the abuse of it, insidious divisive policies, manipulative media houses invested in everything but journalistic values, and godmen propping them up, among others.

And then there is the spectacle of liberalism under attack from all sides – the Right, the Left and the Centre. In the words of Arjun Bedi, the septuagenarian whisky-guzzling poet-turned journalist, an all-weather mentor to Osip:

“Never articulate your adolescent theories outside these walls. They will lynch you. The Right will lynch you… The Left too. They will find some other reason. You and I are the type who will get lynched by one group or the other. The cow vigilantes as well as the cow eaters. If neither, then the State. You and I must offer to each other the solace of affirmation, so hard to come by in these times of universal fear that each heart harbours for the other.”

Ironically, this senior journalist is the subject of a #MeToo campaign, which he finds himself in largely through his pieces written long ago (and one instance of drunken exhibitionism). Towards the end of the novel, his long-neglected, cancer-patient wife tears off his façade to reveal his contrite, perplexed face.

The real protagonist of the novel, however, is the perpetually bedridden Comrade Niranjan Menon, Osip’s adoptive grandfather. The novel operates superimposed on the looming presence of this patriarch. There are references to him or quotes from him on every other page. Nicknamed “Bolshevik Menon,” he is seemingly in the clutches of Alzheimer’s.

On Niranjan’s visit to the USSR in 1961, his witnessing of the exhumation of Stalin and the attendant revelations of the dictator’s inhuman acts force him into a numbed silence. On his return, three years later (he was imprisoned for having spat on Stalin’s bust in revulsion), he tells Gloria Innaley (literally “Yesterday” in Malayalam), his wife: “They are knee-deep in the blood, the black Marias, the mysterious phone calls, the back-to-back funerals. The State, The Party. The Mob. It’s all true. Thank God he’s gone, and Khrushchev is in”. It is this Niranjan who names Osip after Osip Mandelstam, the celebrated Soviet dissident poet who died during Stalin’s Great Purge.

Poet Osip Mandelstam who died in Stalin’s Great Purge. The central character in the novel, Osip B, is named after Mandelstam. (NKVD / Wikimedia Commons)
Poet Osip Mandelstam who died in Stalin’s Great Purge. The central character in the novel, Osip B, is named after Mandelstam. (NKVD / Wikimedia Commons)

Osip and his grandfather share a rare psychosis which results in the boy being separated from Niranjan and sent to St George’s. The affliction causes a multiple personality syndrome or “many lives” in Osip. Having soaked up Niranjan’s stories, he experiences eras in history as if he has lived through them. Even Elizabeth taunts him saying he has several old men within him. His interior monologues are mostly muddled, with visions from the past, or history, invading his consciousness. While in Delhi, in pursuit of Elizabeth, his drunken hallucinations mixed with his illness and visions of a single Leader, projected on hoardings and signage everywhere, crushing citizens in the steel embrace of unification, fill the reader with a familiar sense of foreboding.

Niranjan – the main leitmotif of the novel – serves as a metaphor for the Communist Party’s inception, growth, and eventual ossification. Hyperactive in his young days (having personally eliminated 23 Party enemies), he undergoes a catastrophic trauma around the dichotomy between ideals and practice and lies moribund, like the embalmed body of Lenin in what was originally the Lenin-Stalin Mausoleum (Stalin’s body was removed in October 1961) in Red Square, Moscow.

Author CP Surendran (Courtesy the publisher)
Author CP Surendran (Courtesy the publisher)

Apart from all these characters, there are the stories of Anand and Idris, Osip’s friends and accomplices, and others. The action includes a ludicrous instance of corpse-lifting for ransom, the lynching of Idris’s father for dealing in beef, and the influential politician Andrade exploiting Sangita Ering, a gullible tribal woman from the Northeast, who bears his illegitimate son, Anand. The novel’s actual story is of orphans like Osip, Anand, and Idris, with their identities perpetually in question, living through the angst of these uncertain times.

CP Surendran confronts the stark realities of the present through dark irony, farcical narrative strands and caricatures. First and foremost a poet, his language is tight and lyrical at once, and he works around metaphors and archetypes. Alliterations and assonances can be spotted in his prose. His pithy reflections and meditations on the times we live in, as the voice of the speaking subject or as that of a character, bring us to a realisation of what is happening and what will happen. But do not call this a dystopian novel. It is not a negative projection of the future. It is a witnessing for posterity.

AJ Thomas is a poet, author, translator and former editor of Indian Literature, the bi-monthly English journal of the Sahitya Akademi.

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