By Anjum Altaf
A Gash in the World, a novel by Prashant Parikh, iUniverse, 2009
When I read A Gash in the World, I was immediately reminded of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco because of the thematic similarity. But I also thought of Ectopia by Ernest Callenbach for entirely different reasons.
Ectopia was written in 1974 and rejected by every significant publisher. As the author describes it: ‘Some said it didn’t have enough sex and violence, or that they couldn’t tell if it were a novel or a tract. Somebody said the ecology trend was over… I was on the point of burning it.’
The author self-published the novel and it went on to become a cult classic. It sold more than 400,000 copies in the US although, according to the New York Times’ review of its re-issue edition, ‘the novel is not especially literary. Its characters are flat; its prose — well, call it utilitarian. And the plot lacks sophistication.’ But the book made a mark because it addressed a concern that was important to a large number of people.
A Gash in the World is that kind of novel. The ideas are so topical and powerful that I read it through in one sitting, despite the fact that the story is really a thin excuse to carry the ideas. The reader with an interest in the theme really wishes that the story would stop getting in the way of the excitement that comes from engaging with the ideas themselves.
It is in the ideas that the novel resembles Eco’s masterpiece: an intellectual mystery combining semiotics, biblical analysis, medieval studies, and literary theory. A Gash in the World is to Hinduism what The Name of the Rose is to Christianity.
Of course, Eco’s readers have an advantage because of their prior familiarity with the history of Christianity that allows the author to use the mystery to elucidate new paths in familiar terrain.
Prashant Parikh’s readers lack that advantage. The complexities of medieval Hinduism are beyond most non-Indian readers and the mystery is not exciting enough by itself to carry the weight of an unfamiliar history that makes us see and understand the origins of Hindutva, the intellectual journey of Hinduism from past to present, and what it might mean for the future of religion in India and peace in South Asia.
Such an understanding, however, is critical for Pakistanis who are suffering from religious fundamentalism of their own, and have a stake in the future of communal relations in India. The fact that escalating religious fundamentalism and religious nationalism in both countries can bring them to the brink of war, as has happened after the attacks in Mumbai, convinces me that the book needs to be made available to a Pakistani audience.
And here the genre of the novel is a big advantage because the audience is unlikely to access a book of non-fiction to gain the same understanding.
The following extract of a dialogue from the first chapter gives a sense of the theme of the novel:
‘You know, the very fabric of Indian society is being changed, both in time and space. The legacy of thousands of years of Hinduism is being slowly dismantled, its tolerance, its openness to new ideas, its ability to coexist with other religions. All our secular institutions are being gradually imbued with distorted religious ideals, and if this continues for a couple of decades, they will be awash with the worst kind of prejudice and bigotry.
I don’t need to mention the violence; that is in plain view for everyone to see. These other changes, however, no one notices. They creep up on a generation without anyone realising it, they become habits of the heart, and then it is too late. It is a very subtle process, and I think only Arendt among recent thinkers really understood it, though in a very different context. And this is a problem not just in India, but all over. It has deep roots, going back to Humanism and the Enlightenment,’ Meghnad paused. ‘Forgive me for going on about this. What do you do, Mr Puri?’
‘I’m a cardiologist,’ Dinesh replied.
‘Ah, so you know exactly what I mean by ‘habits of the heart’, Meghnad smiled. ‘Do you know that, in 20 years, if things carry on like this, modern philosophy will be almost completely wiped out of the curriculum at Indian universities?’ he continued. ‘The worldview of the average Indian, Hindu or otherwise, will be irrevocably altered.’
Pakistani readers will find it somewhat easy to engage with the ideas because of their proximity to Hinduism, the compulsion of religious politics in South Asia, and the belief that they understand what Hinduism is about. It will be a useful surprise for them to discover how much they don’t know and how much of what they know has been shaped by years of misinformation.
This review, reproduced with permission of the author, was first published in the Books and Authors section of Dawn, Karachi, in January 2009 when the novel was being serialized on The South Asian Idea. The novel has been published since and is now available in India and outside.
Prashant Parikh is a graduate of MIT and Stanford University. He has also written two highly acclaimed books on semantics.