In "Saraswattee," Kit Puran Singh has written a daring first novel that scorns the familiar or predictable. Instead, against the landscape of a backward Indian village, he has attempted to portray a huge chunk of the cosmos--mortals, gods, demons, a chain of being, even statuary that thinks, talks and is susceptible to sexual feeling.
And if that weren't enough, his story line pits science against superstition, good against evil, a child hero against an adult villain and its own finite events against an infinite and eternal morality. There is even serious consideration of subjects like child marriage, blood sacrifice and geothermal energy.
What is amazing is that somehow, much of this actually works.
At first, the plot of the novel appears exotic but straightforward. The reader is plunged into the third day of an exorcism at an unnamed mountain landscape in India. In the courtyard of the temple of the wrathful goddess Kali, five preadolescent girls lie sprawled in a bloody heap. A sixth, Chintamani, is being whipped. Marriage partners have not yet been found for these unfortunate girls, and in this village, such an unmarried state is thought to be their fault, their shame and the blight of their families. The girls have been beaten in an attempt to exorcise their evil spirits.
Saraswattee, the young sister of Chintamani, has tempted great danger by hiding in a cleft of the stone body of the goddess Kali, whose image looks down on the frightening scene. Hiding with her is Gopi, a boy of 12 or so, who will become the standard-bearer of all that is good and thoughtful in this village. As Gopi's father, an elder of the village, torments the young girls on the floor of the temple, Saraswattee looks down and tries to make sense of this scene. Are the girls really possessed by evil spirits? Why are they being whipped? Are they dead?
Meanwhile (and also in the first few pages), the reader is introduced to Mahisha, a former inhabitant of the village, now an engineer (and therefore, symbolically, a 20th-century man of science), who is making his way back to the village of his childhood. Mahisha's journey back to his frightening origins will be a sort of Odyssey--the entire novel, in fact, resounds clangingly with the rhythms and attitudes of epic poetry.
It is this confrontation with his past, as it affects not only Mahisha, but all the villagers as well as the gods whose stone images the village has been built around, that makes up the body of the novel. But even Mahisha is unaware of his purpose. Indeed, it takes much of the book for the reader to understand that purpose, and at that, clinging to the text as though it were a foreign language that has to be unraveled.
From the start then, this novel is neither neat nor easy. Kit Puran Singh has set enormously high standards for himself. His plot is complicated; his characters have symbolic roles and destinies as well as narrative ones; even the form of the book stretches the conventions of ordinary fiction. It is an enormous amount of literary baggage to balance.
And yet somehow, the reader is inexorably drawn into the world of this Indian village. There are strengths here that mark the author as a figure of considerable promise. Even with a plot that is not even meant to be realistic, the life that is portrayed in the harsh setting of restrictive village attitudes and customs is believable. The characters are memorable, and their interaction poignant. Saraswattee's love for Gopi is compelling; so, too, is Gopi's brave willingness to confront the challenge of testing reality against centuries-old beliefs; so, amazingly, is the author's rendition of the sexual arousal of the goddess Kali, who lies forever trapped in her body of stone.
One of Kit Puran Singh's strongest tools in creating this special world is his creative use of language. In fact, he seems almost to have created a new language, or at least a unique way of pushing the boundaries of ordinary English. He carries his story forward in many voices and ways--sometimes in dialogue, sometimes in reasonably straightforward narration, and sometimes in the rhythms and cadences of poetry--but always with virtuosolike results. It is a dazzling (although at times mannered) performance.
It is this tendency toward posturing and mannerism--both in language and story--that finally undercuts the book. The plot (and there is a lot of it) does not hang together in the end.
We do not know much about Kit Puran Singh other than what we learn from the back of the book jacket: that "he presently lives in the exile of his skin" and was born in Trinidad, the child of East Indian indentured laborers. No matter how much mythology this young author was exposed to as a child (and he appears to be in his twenties or early thirties), the world of Saraswattee is an impressive creation. No one can accuse him of playing it safe.
Just as he asks his readers to suspend disbelief and make a leap of faith into the unknown landscape of this book, he has taken a similar leap by risking such an ambitious project. Perhaps the plot is ultimately unsatisfying, but the characters and their world live on long after the reader has closed the book.