Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

The House and the Road: Two Modes of Autobiographical Fiction

Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

The House and the Road: Two Modes of Autobiographical Fiction

Article excerpt

"The Greek word for 'return' is nostos. Algos means 'suffering'. So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return," explains Milan Kundera in his novel Ignorance (5). The word "nostalgia" was first used in English in the nineteenth century as a medical term (like "neuralgia"), for diagnosing a malady suffered by soldiers far away from home. Over the years the word acquired emotional connotations and the initial meaning has now been quite forgotten. It has come to be associated with the longing with which people think of their childhood or dislocated persons think of their lost home.

Many novelists are known to have drawn from the experiences of their own childhood and adolescence to write their early novels. The question that triggers this paper is: are all autobiographical novels driven by nostalgia? When an expatriate writer delves into the memories of his growing up in another land to write a novel, the impossibility of return assumes both temporal and spatial dimensions. But even when a home-based writer goes back to his own past for fictional material, he knows that he can never return to that original space of innocence. In this paper I am looking at two novels, apparently quite dissimilar, each of which evokes vividly and with precision a complete world rooted in the ethos of the writer's own past. Leavening memory with imagination they have been able to create two unforgettable narratives which in their different literary traditions have achieved near-canonical status today. Will the word "nostalgia" be relevant equally to both the novels?

V.S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas (1) was published in 1961. Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's Pather Panchali first appeared in 1929 and its sequel Aparajito in 1931. (2) (In this paper I am considering the two parts of Bandopadhyay's novel as one continuous text.) Temporally Naipaul's and Bandopadhyay's novels are more than a generation apart and spatially distanced by half the globe. They emerge from totally disparate cultural contexts (uprooted Trinidad-Indian and rooted rural-Bengal communities) and are written in different languages--English and Bangla, one the dominant global language of our time, and the other confined to a region in South Asia. Despite these differences there are some surprising parallels in the events and experiences that constitute the two narratives. After tracing these similarities, I would like to speculate on the historical, cultural or other factors that contribute to the totally dissimilar perspectives of the writers and then reflect on the specific nature of nostalgia that informs each text.

Written in the bildungsroman mode, both the novels trace the growth and education of the protagonists--from birth to maturity and, in one case, to death. The central figure in each text is born to an indigent brahmin family and grows up in a British colony. The movement in both is from the village to the city where the literary aspirations of the central figures come nearer to fulfillment, and both the novels record in rich detail the specific aspects of education--institutional and otherwise--that mold their consciousness, including detailed lists of books read by them. Fatherson relationships are of crucial concern in both the novels.

The many accidental thematic similarities serve to highlight the more fundamental polarities. Naipaul's novel is about an immigrant family of Indian origin in the heterogenous multi-racial society of Trinidad. Their ancestors were brought there as indentured labourers to work in the sugar plantations run by the British. The milieu at the beginning of Pather Panchali is a closely knit homogenous society in rural Bengal--not without its internal inequalities and exploitations, but bound by the same customs, myths, rituals, food and festivals. If the theme of Naipaul's novel is the search for a fixity in life, a striking of roots which would give order and coherence to the chaotic existence of the protagonist, Pather Panchali, as its title suggests, celebrates the open road. …

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