Here’s a novel built on the premise of three atheist friends belonging to three different religions who consecrate a mutilated stone idol as an “anti-god” to make a statement against the set ways of religion. Imagine if you can, or make a wild guess, about the upheavals this narrative is going to create; more so given the current abyss we are staring into.
But when the setting is Kerala, where different religions have equally strong followings, not to mention the presence of the most vocal rationalists and atheists, you know you’ll in for some interesting moments, you know there will be a number of confrontations, a lot of ground that will be covered. And yes, you get more than you sign up for when you read Nireeswaran by VJ James, translated from the Malayalam by Ministhy S.
If “Eeswaran” is god, then its radical opposite would be “Nireeswaran”, the anti-god – so think Antony, Bhaskar and Saheer, three friends bound by their scathing disbelief in the beliefs of other people. The three find religion overbearing and consider those following its tenets and rituals nothing but blind followers of superstition who fail to see anything beyond what they are expected to do in return for some vague prayers.
They set out to create a new anti-thesis to god, with Bhaskar being tasked to make an idol – one with no face, no arms or limbs. The consecration is held on a new moon night as it is considered to be a most inauspicious day, with a priest whose illustrious presence and position in a temple had come to naught when he was accused of stealing the jewels of the deity.
What follows after this anti-sacred moment is a turn of events that not only throws things into disarray, but also provides a skilfully executed examination of truth and belief, of faith and dialogues, of rationalism and science, of philosophy and spiritualism.
In addition to the three main protagonists, James brings in the most unlikely characters and pits one against the other in terms of perceptions belief systems: the woman in prostitution who services men for money but whose desire for a less than seemly man is her sole source. agency; the white researcher who holds science as the ultimate truth and must research further; a man who wakes up from a coma after more than two decades and tries to reconcile to the fact that his body and his physical needs remain those of his youth while his wife has aged.
Then there is a gaggle of believers in Nireeswaran, their rank and file swelling, much to the dismay of the three friends who are compelled to destroy the foundation of their beliefs, leading them to a path of violence.
James adroitly balances dark social satire with deeply philosophical questions on the meaning of beliefs and their place in human existence. Religion versus science, philosophy and spiritualism pitted against radical idealism – these conflicts are explored in a way that the novel achieves a certain harmony in its telling of this absurdist story.
In fact, the drama in the lives of some of the characters is highly entertaining as well as educational. Some of it is comic, while the rest is profound and intellectual. A chaotic atmosphere reigns in the way certain situations are played out, but that’s the author showing how the most unconnected of events and incidents can connect people in unforeseen ways.
But is this enough to call such an incident a miracle? Do miracles exist at all in the world? What core truth does every religion and its followers seek? Is it within us or contained in an idol, within the tenets of a religious order? These are the questions that the characters in Nireeswaran are seeking an answer, not just for their own understanding and acceptance but for us as well. Through the characters and the positions they take, the author provokes readers to go down a certain path and then makes you wonder just where you’ve arrived.
The figure of Nireeswaran is meant to be a disruptive force, but it eventually heralds the making of a meeting ground for divergent beliefs and world views. And if you have to know who has the last word – the believer or the non-believer – then it comes down to this:
“Both belief and disbelief are fundamentally the same! The intensity of belief the devotee has in the existence of god is of the same magnitude as the belief a disbeliever has in the non-existence of god. But the truth is naked, devoid of the garb of either belief or disbelief.”
Nireeswaran will enthral readers as much as keep them grounded in the perspectives of the characters. James keeps the confusion and confrontations real by not making his characters sermonise to one another. They make spirited arguments and get embroiled in volatile situations, and except for what plays out in the final section, there is no extremism – which, of course, is a far cry from what happens in the real world. Ministhy S’s translation reminds readers of the flavor of the original language with the use of words and expressions in Malayalam.
NireeswaranVJ James, translated from the Malayalam by Ministhy S, Vintage Books.