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Translator's Note: Mansarovar

“[Nature] will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.”

Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

To protect the individual from an innate propensity for error seems to be a primary task of religious instruction. Transcending the more broad-based rationale for morality, religion turns on the insight that it is the perpetrator who suffers the most from his own transgressions. Once fallen, his peace is shattered for all time, and his very being fractured beyond restoration. So, all of us, irrespective of our faith or unbelief, must deal in these polarities: desire-liberation, sin-redemption, taint-cleansing. And our ongoing struggle for peace and sanity in the force field of these polarities becomes the enduring drama of human life.

This novel is about two men with very different personal histories and predicaments, whom chance has brought together and united in their quest for faith and inner peace. The narrative seems destined, as does their quest, to reach Manasarovar, a fresh-water lake nestling in the upper reaches of the Himalayas, which, it is believed, can cleanse the sins committed over a thousand lifetimes. However, remote as its physical location happens to be, Manasarovar – a combination of manas (mind) and sarovara (lake) – can only be a metaphor for this arduous, even precarious, spiritual attainment. It is no surprise, then, that the novel’s epiphany, when it arrives, is inward and metaphorical.

For all that, Manasarovar is very much of this world, describing a series of events in the lives of its two main protagonists, narrated in their own voices. Characteristic of Ashokamitran’s work, the narrative is many-layered, opening several doors at once for the reader – irrespective of his character and vantage – into rich contemplation. For, in our world as it exists, to consider one man’s peace and redemption in isolation must be futile: we have embroiled, and are continually embroiling, one another in the traps of history, family, nation, sexual desire, pleasure, illusion and even redemption. So that everyone on these pages, even those who make only a fleeting appearance, seems embattled and besieged, struggling simultaneously for consummation and balance. That the novel is set against the backdrop of the film industry, with its compulsively hedonist ethos and hard-wired emphasis on appearance over reality, only adds another layer of complexity to this story.

“Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.” Rumi

As is inevitable with any human story, Manasarovar appears to have clear links with age-old traditions of this land. In the modern world, we believe that the spirit is always alone, especially in moments of extreme distress. The struggle must play out in implacable isolation. But the Indian mythological tradition is also witness to a certain kind of engagement between two individuals—Krishnan-Arjunan, Karnan-Duryodhanan, Vikramadityan-Patti, Kalidasan-Bhojan, Ramakrishnar-Vivekanandar come to mind—that leads both protagonists again and again to high spiritual attainment. Manasarovar may also be read as the account of one such friendship, between Satyan Kumar and Gopalan, the two main protagonists who belong to the film world in India of the early sixties.

The embattled soul is often too untrained and inept to arrive at realisation of the truth, to forge a peace strong enough to withstand the chaos of one’s own mind. The need of the ordinary individual to engage with a master – the enlightened one – in order to make spiritual progress is also integral to the Indian tradition. Both Satyan Kumar and Gopalan have their respective encounters with gurus. The nature of these encounters – at once tenuous and desperate – and what they precipitate forms a fascinating aspect of Manasarovar.

The exhortation to “move on!” is often seen as the answer to periods of crisis in the lives of individuals. Move on towards what? To move on, away from the cycle of memory and guilt, of trust and betrayal, can only be an act of faith. However, It seems to be the only faith that is worthy of its human adherents. The reader may draw his own lessons from Manasarovar and, in a manner of speaking, take himself home.

N Kalyan Raman

June 2, 2010



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