A colourless, bloodless tale
The Drunk Tantra
By Ranga Rao
In the colourful spectrum of fiction offered regularly by India’s publishing houses there was always space for a campus novel. For some time one had awaited a riotous, savagely funny work a la Kingsley Amis, Tom Sharpe or David Lodge.
What was also fairly obvious was it would have to be written by a wry teacher of Eng Lit. Ranga Rao’s The Drunk Tantra was thus in most ways the novel that lovers of Lucky Jim or Changing Places were waiting for.
The setting is Janayya College (popularly nicknamed ‘St Jaans’) and the protagonist young Mohana on her first teaching assignment, a greenhorn among the hardened cynics of the college faculty. The book, in short, is a picaresque tale of her journey through the labyrinths of academia, her commentary (and Rao’s) on the dismal state of learning in this country from Patna to Palghat.
Obviously a novel like this has to be based on character stereotypes – the freshness of a Mohana set next to the repulsive Hairy, the fecund Fertility Goddess, the gentle Daash and the hard and brassy Mrs. Mocham. The plot has to similarly follow the rites of college life – exams, seminars, strikes.
Rao, like others writing campus novels before him, has to tread this territory warily – one false step and you fall into the pit of sanctimonious moralising or face the terror of a plot where the stereotypes elope with the tale.
Rao avoids both these fates. What happens is, however, quite as bizarre. The novel becomes bloodless, lapsing into pre-Rushdie English and ultimately, a dead bore. So you have people who say “Please be seated” to one another and a dying speech where the Mahatma of the campus, Dr. Daash says, “I am a theist…God is other people.”
No one speaks like that anymore, without sounding limp. So the language Rao uses actually demolishes his characters where it should have built them.
What a spectacle! Hairy seems to be all over the
Any person who has taught in a University or a college, or any one who has recently attended one, would testify to a tremendous change that is taking place in the sounds emanating from the campus. Rukun Advani describes this as an extension of Kooler Talk lingo, for it is a strange, often obnoxious, version of Wimpy slang and desi ghee.
Rao’s ear is deaf to these colourful phrases and half-expressions, something that one can hear in his choosing to call a Janayya college St. Jaans. There should be a ‘laa’ against people writing campus novels without passing a language test first.
But where does all this leave young Mohana, the tender green sapling in a dying forest of ancient oaks? My last glimpse was of her re-enacting a scene out of A Suitable Boy – her mother crying quietly, saying as Rupa Mehra said in another world at another time, “What are you doing to yourself?..If only he had been alive today, he would have found a fine boy for you…”
If you want to find out what happened to the lusty Hairy or solve the mystery of Begum Pura, perhaps you might finish the book. Many would balk at the thought of wading through the opaque folds of Rao’s plot. And who can blame them?