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Between Crime and Punishment

KR Meera’s new book is a disappointing hybrid, neither a political novel nor a love story

Written by Amrita Dutta |
August 13, 2016 12:38:48 am
The Gospel of Yudas book cover. The Gospel of Yudas book cover.

Title: The Gospel of Yudas
Author: KR Meera (Translated from the Malayalam by Rajesh Rajmohan)
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 158
Price: Rs 399

The political and the personal seem to be entwined like a thick, coiled rope in KR Meera’s fiction, at least that which is accessible to the non-Malayali reader. In both Yellow is the Colour of Longing, a fine collection of short stories, and Hangwoman, the bravura tale of a woman executioner in Kolkata, Meera takes a hard look at the uses and abuses of power, especially the kind that keeps women in their place.

The hyper-real worlds she sketches are often disturbing. The exaggerations in her language and metaphor, even if jarring, become a way of forcing the reader up close against life. At its best, it is distortion that yanks one into perception. But the newest of her books to be translated, The Gospel of Yudas or Yudasinte Suvisesham, is a disappointment by those standards.

The story is set in Kerala in 1985, even though the Emergency and the police excesses it encouraged, looms over it like a dark cloud. A 15-year-old girl, Prema, grows up listening to horrific tales of custodial torture and violence that her father, a former policeman, gloats about. There is nothing idyllic about the verdant village she lives in; its lake is a grave for many people, young and old. On the shore lives Yudas, a man whose work is to dredge bodies from its pit — and he is summoned to work with uncanny regularity.

Yudas is the proverbial pariah, a man, as his name suggests, weighed down by a history of betrayal. He is the “traitor who can never sleep. His hunger is eternal; his thirst, insatiable.” A Naxalite who was once held at the dreaded Kakkayam camp, he succumbed to third degree and is haunted by that original sin.

Meera’s characters are not always driven by the logic of a realist narrative or even explicable desires. There is a strong tug of the unconscious in her stories, as well as a symbolic logic that tends to flatten the characters. Prema, the protagonist of the story, is not just a young girl who (surprisingly and abruptly) falls in love with Yudas, but someone seeking expiation from the sins of her father.

The novella charts her often interrupted quest to find Yudas. The plot is a string of unsatisfactory encounters between the two, which end in Yudas’s slipping away. In between is the fitfully told story of Prema growing up and her search for answers. The question: how does power corrupt so absolutely that it has left both Yudas and her physically and mentally maimed?

That interrogation is let down largely by how Meera draws Prema, the first-person narrator of the novel, who is almost always in a heightened, almost adolescent, welter of emotion. “He hung rocks on the tattered veins of my heart,” she says of Yudas’s refusal to love her. Or when she believes herself fascinated by the idea of a revolution: “My heart began to stir as I neared the bottom (of the lake). Sometimes I felt as though I was a baby jostling to get out of its mother’s womb. At other times, I was a combatant waging a revolution all by myself.” Here she is imagining the torture inflicted on the Naxalites in the Kakkayam camp: “My mouth tasted the salt-and-sour blood which my father ruthlessly beat out of youngsters. I suffered an unbearable pain as though a nipple was ripped right out of my breast.”

In the absence of an exploration of place, time or context (as Meera did in Hangwoman, recreating the underbelly of Kolkata’s Nimtola Ghat), the reader of The Gospel of Yudas is abandoned in the stream of Prema’s fervid consciousness.

The novel, at the end, is neither an exploration of politics nor a love story. Neither is the translation as fluid as it could have been. While it could have been an examination of how absolute power creates crime, punishment and guilt, The Gospel of Yudas remains content with shock and melodrama. Prema’s eventual realisation that “revolutions do not cease, little people persist” seems to be a coda tagged on as decoration, and not knowledge that the novel has earned for itself.

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