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A Map of Where I Live.

S. Shankar's novel A Map of Where I Live is a minor masterpiece set in Madras (recently renamed Chennai) and in Lilliput. It takes a great deal of daring on the part of any writer to hobnob with Jonathan Swift's timeless masterpiece Gulliver's Travels. Shankar has dared and, in doing so, has succeeded in creating a worthy sequel to the first part of Swift's great work and in tying it up strategically with a story of political intrigue and iniquity in suburban Madras. One suspects, in fact, that in certain ways Shankar out-Swifts Swift in invention, especially in the impressive lexicon of Lilliputian words and even sentences he builds up in the course of his narrative.

The novel begins with a prologue in which the main characters are pen-sketched in a manner reminiscent of Chaucer's pen portraits of the pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn in The Canterbury Tales. The prologue not only introduces the main characters; it rather tantalizingly foreshadows the shape of things to come in the novel.

The narratological structure of A Map of Where I Live consists of two parallel first-person narratives: one by C. Ramachandran (CR), formerly a student in America but now settled in Madras and deeply involved in local politics; and the other by Valur Vishveswaran, a mysterious personage newly seen on the prowl, as it were, on the streets of the city after his reluctant departure from Lilliput, which, "in the fortieth year of his life," having ascertained the exact location of Gulliver's Lilliput ("55 degrees 7 South, 100 degrees 9 East"), he had rediscovered and sojourned in for a number of years. The two parallel narratives ungeometrically but quite esthetically intersect in the person of Vishveswaran, once happily footloose in Lilliput but now hatefully confined to Madras and destined to be involved murderously in the city's climactic political incident.

What is particularly interesting in Shankar's handling of the Lilliput story is the originality of his invention in extending Swift's brief Lilliputian episode and in endowing Vishveswaran with a perspective quite different from Gulliver's on the people of Lilliput - both Mildendan and Blefuscudian. We are told by Vishveswaran that Gulliver in his account of his stay in Lilliput had falsified facts in such a manner as to give us a distorted picture of his experience there. One obvious falsification concerns the duration of Gulliver's stay. While Gulliver gives us the impression that he lived in Lilliput for months, Vishveswaran avers that his stay did not exceed ten days. He supports his assertion with evidence drawn from the writings of Skkrrk Skkrrl, one of the greatest Lilliputian historians. He further tells us that, according to Skkrrl, "Gulliver's acts of depredation . . . left an entire agricultural district devastated. . . . This area, the Karunar Punuk, is a desert even today." In fact, Vishveswaran is so critical of Gulliver that he cautions us against giving Gulliver any credence: "Indeed the few scraps of notes [Gulliver] left of his trip to Lilliput are singularly critical. . . . I dismiss him. He deserves no credit." Having thus impugned Gulliver, Vishveswaran refers to the momentousness of his own achievement in terms reminiscent of Neil Armstrong's "one giant step for mankind." He says, "I had persevered and now here I was, a man standing at a crucial juncture in Earth's history." He believes that his discovery could be of great benefit for us bandur (a term that in the Lilliputian language signifies the "giant" race of humans that inhabit regions far remote from Lilliput), for we can learn a lot from the superior civilization of the Lilliputians. He quotes one of their leaders as saving, "We monitor you bandur very. closely and we do not think you are as yet developed enough to appreciate some of the things we have achieved here."

So great is his love for these people and his admiration for their civilization that Vishveswaran forgets all about India and decides to stay permanently in Lilliput. But this is not to be, for Queen Baataania's "scientific" interest in his huge body proves his undoing. "The prospect of our climbing onto your monstrous body," she admits, "is embarrassing to us . . ., but the demands of science must be met." So saying, the queen, in the name of science, travels all over Vishveswaran's naked body, examining every organ including his phallus, which suddenly goes into an uncontrollable frenzy of misdemeanor, causing the queen to fall ill from fright, so ill that her death seems imminent. Accused of high treason, Vishveswaran is nevertheless spared the death penalty, being instead sentenced to exile in Blefuscu, where in his desire to ensure his continued stay in Lilliput, he not only consents to undergo castration in order to avoid recurrence of the horrid contretemps that sickened Queen Baataania; he also shows himself eager to try a medicine that promises to make him permanently as tiny as are the Lilliputians. However, events take an unexpected turn, forcing Vishveswaran to escape from Blefuscu and return to Madras with as much hatred for the bandur as Gulliver felt against the Yahoo-like humans on his return to England from the land of the wise and noble Houyhnhnms.

It is thus that the Lilliput part of Shankar's novel impinges on the Madras part - which, by and large, is a rather lusterless narrative of political intrigue and violence culminating in the murder of Shanthamma, a trade-union leader. The identity of the murderer is made into a "whodunit" mystery that remains to be unraveled, not by the police but by a one-eyed beggar casually telling his mate about his having witnessed Vishveswaran stabbing Shanthamma to death in (as the reader knows by now) a paroxysm of pent-up abhorrence for the "detestable animals" among whom he is obliged to live.

It is a measure of Shankar's shrewd nonintention to place himself in a situation of unfavorable comparison with Swift in the field of satire that he satisfies himself with quoting from the amateurish verses composed by RK on corruption in Indian politics: "Every few years comes an invitation: / 'Commit suicide with the rest of the nation. / Between morning and evening may you be seen, / Selling your soul for the sake of Mr. Clean.'" In fact, there is nothing in A Map that so much as hints at a conscious attempt to emulate Swift's devastating satire on mankind. By eschewing the satiric substructure that superbly countervails the fabulous and the fantastic in Gulliver's Travels, Shankar unwittingly causes his readers to sense a dearth of motivation in Vishveswaran's inveterate misanthropy and misogyny.

However, A Map is a remarkable achievement in the way it dexterously dovetails the Lilliputian part of the novel with its Madras part. The regular alternation of chapters dealing with events in Madras and those dealing with events in Lilliput conjures up an oneiric atmosphere in which the more imaginative the author's invention, the less (strangely enough) becomes the tension between "disbelief" and its "willing suspension" on the part of the reader. In the "Author's Note," Shankar (tongue in cheek) acknowledges that "the Madras sections of the book are a work of fiction," implying thereby that the Lilliput sections are of a documentary nature, being the diary of one who actually traveled in Lilliput. Besides, RK's short story, with real Madras as its locale, is a surrealistic one in which the strangest of things happen, stranger than anything in imaginary Lilliput - or perhaps nothing happens except in the mind of RK, so keen on making a map of where he lives, with the help of five nameless persons who are expected to arrive as his guests. It seems the point of this baffling story is that this map never gets made, whereas the physical and human geography of Lilliput, the land where Vishveswaran once lived and now longs to belong, gets drawn in the pages of his diary. In a way, then, Vishveswaran's "amphibious" existential space, encompassing both Madras and Lilliput, becomes a metaphor for an implied continuum between the real and the imaginary, and possibly for the ultimate unmappability of man's ontic space.

Joseph John Trivandrum, Kerala, India
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Author:John, Joseph
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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