This is the kind of “Indian” novel I like best. You don’t have to wade through the sewers to reach the seamy underbelly of society. You don’t have to beat your brains out trying to figure out the arcane whimsies of magical realism. All you have to do is go with the flow and at the end you emerge with a heart warmed and a mind stimulated.
Ravi Shankar Etteth’s The Book of Shiva is an elegant and eloquent tale of man’s eternal quest for meaning. One could describe it as a cross between Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, set in an Indian context. It is the story of a young monk, Asananda, whose guru, the pot-bellied, merry-eyed, wise and compassionate Gyanananda, sends him on a journey to the holy mountain of Kailash where he is tasked with finding The Book of Shiva. Asananda, once a soldier but now a seeker, sets out from Rishikesh on his long pilgrimage, walking along the Ganga and its various tributaries through the holy towns of Devprayag, Nandaprayag, Joshimath and many more on his way to his goal. Drawing a parallel with Bunyan’s Christian on his pilgrimage to the Celestial City is irresistible.
As with Christian, Asananda’s physical journey is mirrored by the inward journey his mind and soul take toward self-realisation —helped along by sharing experiences and knowledge with the many people he encounters along the way. And as in Canterbury Tales, each of them has an illuminating story to tell.
A murderous monk seeking redemption, a woman searching for her lost child, a young nun who becomes his guide for a day and takes him to the lost path of the Buddha, a pair of Buddhist lamas (one of whom walks backwards because to find your future you have to know your past), a female “boatman” searching on the river for a song she has heard, loved and lost.
Among the stories of all these people are interwoven tales from mythology—both Indian and European—such as the story of Pandora’s Box; the story of how Ganga was forced to leave her privileged home in the holy tresses of Shiva and made to flow down to the dusty plains, burdened for eternity with the sins and sorrows of humanity; the story of how the young god Ganesha won back his beloved mother Parvati from the kingdom of the dead; the story of the frog in the well; the story of Tansen and Mehrunissa; the story of Icarus, among others. But all these stories are both familiar and unfamiliar, for they draw unusual morals and contain unexpected twists, which makes them a delight to read and mull over.
Etteth is well versed, to the point of erudition, in the scriptures, customs and observances of ancient Indian ritual and practice and makes them relevant to today’s reader—for this book is not set in the times of the ancients, but in the present era, the age of motorized transport, TV gurus, Beatles’ fans and post 9/11 New York. There are many delightful insights: “Hope is not just about waiting for good things to happen. It’s also about having the faith and the will to make them happen.” And, “teaching nothing is the most difficult thing to teach and to comprehend. A great master is one who teaches nothing and the pupil understands everything”. And my favourite, “The universe has only one true secret… and that is man”.
The cherry on the sundae is Etteth’s writing skills. It’s no mean feat to describe over a dozen sunsets and sunrises and make each of them unique, to capture the ebb and flow of each of the rivers along the way, big and small, and give to each its own personality, to find the essence of the small temple towns that Asananda passes through, each with its own sights, sounds and smells.
On his journey, the keeper of a cremation ground by the Ganga lets Asananda into a valuable secret: “…as in everything else, the scholars will tell you there is a hierarchy in prayer too. First, pray to yourself before you pray to god.”
Reading this absorbing and rewarding book is a great way to pray to yourself.
From the little bundle hung over his shoulder, he took out a small copper vessel. He stooped to fill it with ice. He asked the soldier to look into it. The captain peered in. The ice resembled a lump of coarse sugar. He touched it.
‘Do you feel the cold?’ the holy man asked. The captain nodded.
The ascetic began to blow on the ice. His breath made plumes in the crisp, high air. The captain began to perspire. The holy man’s breath was warming the air. It became hot. Then hotter. He turned to look at the captain. Little pinpoints of fire burned within his pupils. He thrust the copper vessel towards the captain.
‘Look again,’ he commanded. The captain looked.
‘What is inside now?’ the holy man asked.
‘Earlier, there was ice. Now there is water that was once ice. What is in the water?’
‘Nothing,’ replied the captain. ‘Just water.’
‘Look again,’ the ascetic said.
The captain looked. In the water, he saw reflected a familiar face. Far above it, clouds lounged sleepily in a deep blue sky. He blinked, and his own face stared back at him.
‘I’m inside,’ he said.
The ascetic laughed. He raised his hand and threw the water on the snow. It hissed with steam. He held out the vessel again for the soldier to look into.
‘There is nothing now,’ the captain said.
‘Now do you understand? It’s all in there. Both being and non-being.’
The captain bowed his head and thought for a while. ‘Is that how one gets enlightened?’ he asked the ascetic.
‘No. You get enlightened by forgetting everything. And that’s only part of it.’
‘How do I find all the parts?’
The holy man threw the bundle over his shoulder, picked up the staff he had planted in the snow, gestured vaguely behind his shoulder and prepared to walk away.
‘For that you have to become Shiva,’ he said.