The Indian pastoral is a text within which the corruption of milieu is often the aggregating function that brings macro-narratives together. These narratives, uni-polar on the human side, seek to emote and deconstruct with an apparatus that leaves little or no space to fit in the micro-narrative. That the reader expects larger-than-life characters coming out of rural chic, thereby anchorage that appeals mostly to our cosmopolitan sensibilities, is instructive on how reading has developed over the years in the country. There are not many books out there that can capture rural India, in all its slow, earthly materiality and perhaps there aren’t enough writers who have lived it, to write from within context either. Gurdial Singh’s Anhey Ghore Da Daan (1976), now translated by Rana Nayar as Alms in the Name of a Blind Horse is perhaps, more an indicator than an exception to that rule, if a large enough oeuvre exists to create one.
Singh’s strengths are found in what he refuses to describe for us. Alms in the Name of a Blind Horse is not so much a narrative as it a quadrant approach to telling the story of a village the finality of which is squeezed into a single day. The focus shifts from family to family, and character to character as the inner billings of a village on the verge of being gulped by industrialists has begun to take its toll within, and despite the inhabitants. Singh’s prose and his technique in which he completely forgoes the labour of description is extremely effective. Even more so if one has, even for a fleeting moment, witnessed a cold morning in rural Punjab, where the novel is set. There is, however, difficulty in following the book as it meanders between characters, who in the entirety of the book, dissolve into each other to often give the impression of the same person speaking every other time. There is no narrative thread to follow, sans the indicator at the beginning of the book that sets the events of the day in motion. The events themselves are ruminative, rather than consequential to any degree. And therein, perhaps, lies the point.
Though every novel, aspirational in one way or the other, seeks to develop a relationship with the reader, Singh’s genre-turning intervention is the detour from that approach. At times the book can become a frustrating read for its lack of acerbic wit, or forthrightness that though present lacks the charm of quotable ideas. For that copious abstinence Singh is perhaps the conductor than he is the unwilling quotient. The truth about character and of a character is more of a hegemonic approach to writing text than it is to being true to the text. Singh’s approach of moving through quadrants of mini-events where characters act as coordinates for pausing in time and space is efficient for the setting the book seeks to invoke. As we move through the book the consummate dejection is conveyed through the myriad exchanges that many characters have but not to the extent that it may leap out at the reader. A villager’s house is being demolished, and though illegal in its existence, the incumbent family has no place left to go. The men, mostly seniors, in the village gather and go from one spot to the other seeking solution or redemption of some sort. Equally straining is the plight of rickshaw riders who are struggling to cope with battery operated rickshaws that are now plying their trade in the nearby town. You gather more than you pick these things as you go on reading.
There is absolutely little to no detailing of the image, except for markers that we may most identify with: expanses of green fields under blue skies and charpai (manji) conversations over tea. It is winter, and the cold marginalises movement and action. Singh captures it beautifully, by choosing to say nothing about it. Not until the latter half of the book, when Dharma’s house is nearly demolished, and the village folk, resigned to their fate, sort of make peace with destiny do the first few passages of descriptive writing appear, an incremental approach to writing that works more as a visual medium. What is the catharsis or the end then? Well, look around. For that is how minimalistic the book can be, which also makes it difficult to follow at times. It is most certainly a novel of two-reads, the second time being the more corporeal evaluation, free in its knowledge of a day, which ensembles into the flesh of night, with the sense of a horse (perhaps us), blind to the unbecoming of a grain of wheat.
It is only natural to talk about Gurvinder Singh’s film Anhey Ghore Da Daan (2011) that was based on the novel. As said so aptly by Rana Nayar in the introduction to the book, a film invents its own discourse rather than merely accentuating the book it might be based on. Since the mediums are different, and so is the language it is best to approach both as independent texts, which may or may not borrow from each other. Singh shot into limelight only lately with his second feature Chauthi Koot (2015) which is also based on a Punjabi writer in Waryam Singh Sandhu. Gurvinder, clearly flourishes with the advantage of the visual and more than re-accounts or retells the events of the day, as he imagines them to be.
Though the characters remain the same, and so do the conspiring events, there is a Tarkovsky-ian feel to the film. The slow procession of the camera, the methodising of actors who are not really actors and the study of their faces cringing from cold and circumstance at the same time is laudable. Perhaps the greatest credit to Singh’s direction, as with the author’s writing is the utter refusal to plunge his frames into the meadow-y gloss of the countryside lit by a parked sun unsmilingly acting as a coefficient of the rivers that now no longer flow. This after all, is not a Yash Raj film and neither similar to the patriarchal, civil transactions (Jatt and Juliet for example) that we have come to identify of Punjabi cinema.
Gurvinder, therefore, accomplishes a lot more, and is perhaps, better placed to do so in the film. That in itself is an appreciation of a text capable of levitating above the chains of medium and thought. That said, the film, like the book can be an even more difficult watch what with its cache of the visual, unflinchingly restrained and reserved. We, who are intoned to the aesthetic of Bollywood might find that unacceptable and even ordinary. But so is rural and real life. There are no heroes. Gurvinder though innovates where most directors wouldn’t and risks what most directors won’t, in creating a film that is in all likelihood the birth of a career that will travel inwards, towards the conscience of our untold landscapes, as it evidently, should.