At the beginning of Nireeswaran, the novel by award-winning Malayalam writer VJ James, is a street called Deva Theruvu or the Street of God. It leads to a temple. Antony, Bhaskaran and Sahir, three friends who live down the street, are atheists who decide to change the name of the street to something less obvious. Having already formed a “community of profligates” with the first syllables of their names, they rename the street to Abhasa Theruvu or the street of profligates.
In his third novel to be translated into English, James brings together a cast of characters in an unnamed village to aim for visceral notions within a deeply divided world. The trio of atheists form the main cast that sets off a chain of reactions with their incendiary anti-god logic. Named Nireeswaran, the stone anti-god is given a (human) form, a (male) body, and an abode (under a conjoined peepal mango tree on the debauched street).
Another set of three characters – Eswaran Embrandiri, a disgraced former priest, and his friends Arnos Pathiri and Zaid Maulvi – unwittingly push the agenda of the original trio. With the help of his two friends, Embrandiri manages to consecrate the statue of the anti-god, an act that soon leads to miracles in the village. In the first miracle, Sumitran, a mentally ill villager, is cured of his stutter after praying to the statue under the peepal mango tree. Indrajit, another villager, wakes up from a coma after 24 years. Parameswaran, an unemployed man, gets a government job after an 18-year wait. The son of old and destitute Kartyayani, lost at a church party when he was only three years old, returns after 18 years. Another got a long-awaited Gulf visa and yet another finally had a reason to smile as her husband’s rheumatism showed signs of improvement.
Soon there are more people praying to the anti-god than to the village’s own deity. As the number of believers in the new god increases, some enterprising villagers come forward to help by forming a new association, dubbed the Nireeswaran Prarthana Sangham or the Association for Praying in Nireeswaran. They are also launching a prayer group with a money back guarantee for those who live far away with the assurance of a full refund if their prayers are not answered.
A scientist who had a long career at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, James doesn’t stop at the redesign of the pulpit in the satirical portrait of the three atheists and their revolutionary idea of an anti-god. As he did in Chorashastra: The Subtle Science of Thievery – his 2002 novel and his first to be translated into English two years ago – where he created an imaginary world in which thieves swore to kiss higher objectives of the profession, the author does not hesitate to recast the new ideas of scientific research on the altar of social awakening. The debauched street atheists are joined by Krishnan Ezhuthachan, a parapsychologist and scientist at a research institute in Bangalore, a 21st-century Albert Einstein, about to make a discovery about smells. Roberto, the scientist conducting research in the village, finds the profession of Janaki, a village sex worker, conducive to his conquest of unknown scientific frontiers.
First published eight years ago under the same title, Nireeswaran has won major literary awards in Malayalam, including the Vayalar Prize, Basheer Puraskaram and the Kerala Sahitya Academy Prize.
Translated into English four years after his last work, Anti-Clock, the novel continues the author’s constant search for voices that do not conform to a certain idea of social hierarchy and justice. He lets his characters raise questions that lift the veil on the paradoxes of contemporary society. Antoine’s question: “Why not create a new god that is the antithesis of all the existing gods?” launches Nireeswaran.
The strong voices of the novel lay bare the creeping commercialization of religion that feeds on people’s bizarre beliefs, like their race to join the religious frenzy against the anti-god in this case.
The author’s penchant for a provincial setting, an unnamed village in Nireeswaran, amplifies voices like those of Janaki and Ghoshayatra Annamma (Annamma of the Procession), which symbolize the shift of power in favor of the fringe.
The wide range of characters in the author’s arsenal lends a multiplicity of images and ideas, sometimes prolific and abundant to the fault. Nevertheless, the audacity of the novel is matched only by its lofty literary ambitions. And the two combine to make Nireeswaran a compelling study of the times we live in.
(Faizal Khan is a freelancer.)