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Laughter in the Dark

Vilas Sarang’s bilingual modernism

Death recurs in Vilas Sarang’s fiction as punctually as in a flowering tree. It enters the story through everyday objects, rituals, rooms and corpses. Handcuffed to this bleak universe is Sarang’s phenomenal comic vision, that mocks what he creates and makes death a difficult joke: hard to decipher and harder to laugh at. But a writer’s death is different. It makes us turn to him or her in the way that we turn to the funnel of light coming from a projection box. For a moment the projected image, the literary text in a writer’s case, is forgotten, and the source that lights up this image becomes of greater interest. If the writer is Indian, however, and his major output has been in the genre of the short story, there’s hardly anyone facing the screen, let alone turning away from it.

When Vilas Sarang passed away earlier this year in Mumbai, at the age of 73, there were stray pieces discussing his life or giving brief sketches of his work. But the kinds of literary choices he made as a bilingual writer of fiction, poetry and criticism in English and Marathi, and the precarious position he held within the Marathi cultural sphere, still need closer inspection. So does his relationship with European and Marathi modernism, genres which influenced almost all his work and whose principles he used to critique the realism of his predecessors—prolific Marathi novelists of the 1930s and 1940s such as NS Phadke—and of his contemporaries in the 1980s, such as Bhalchandra Nemade, who classified modernism as essentially a Western practice.

Known by many merely as the writer whose short stories Samuel Beckett recommended to his American publishers, it’s very hard to gauge Sarang’s legacy, given his absence even from a large body of post-colonial criticism. Born in 1942 in Karwar, a coastal town of Karnataka, Sarang started out by producing fiction in English during his college years, and followed it with writing extensively in Marathi and in other genres, while concurrently teaching English literature in Mumbai, Kuwait and Iraq. He published three novels in English—In the Land of Enki (1993), which appeared in Marathi as Enkichya Rajyat; The Dinosaur Ship (2005); and Tandoor Cinders (2008). His collection of poetry in Marathi was simply titled Kavita (1969–1984), while two collections appeared in English—A Kind of Silence (1978) and as Another Life (2007). But it is his short stories that best exemplify his ingenious ideas and modernist craft. They often appeared internationally in journals such as Encounter and The London Magazine, and were also anthologised in the American poet and publisher James Laughlin’s famous annual anthology New Directions and Adil Jussawalla’s landmark anthology of translated literature, New Writing in India. His stories in Marathi appeared as Soledad (1975) and Atank (1999); these were translated by Sarang himself into English and collected in Fair Tree of Void (1990) and Women in Cages (2006), though he did not see them as translations but as stories that were “re-done” in and for the English language without necessarily relying on the original.

Reading ‘An Evening at the Beach,’ the very first short story in Women in Cages, one knows it’s neither the familiar nor the fantastical that one has to negotiate in Sarang, but a nonchalant barter between the two. In the story, Sarang describes at length an old man trying to wash his buttocks against the incoming waves of the sea, while the story’s protagonist, Bajrang, sits looking at him with his girlfriend on the beach, an experience Bajrang thinks fit for Reader’s Digest—the scene soon shifts to the funeral of Bajrang’s friend’s mother, which is taking place metres away from where he sits.

Mantra Mukim is a postgraduate student of English literature at Delhi University.

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