A Biography Of ‘Bharat’ That Traverses Through The Best of Heritage That This Nation Has To Offer
Read Bharat’s Story, for a glimpse of how two generations lived in India; for the philosophy, heritage and landscape around our feet.
“Bharat’s Story” is a fiction served in five courses; it is a biography, travelogue, philosophy and a glorious compilation of gossip. The fifth course is the masterpiece in the book, heritage, that is Bharat’s and Bharat’s alone.
Bharat’s Story is Sriram Subramaniam’s third book, tightly written and riveting. It is a fast paced, one sitting book; and one that makes you eager for his first two books, “Rain,” and “Centre Court.”
At the surface, it is fiction, a biography of Bharat who makes a puzzling first appearance. In the rest of the book, Bharat keeps adding pieces to the puzzle. He does not have much time and is willing to pay through his nose to get his pet project produced. His backstories and the race against time unfold through the pages. What can be the story of someone who seems to have been a teacher, a cook’s help, food taster, tour manager and many more?
His story flashes in and out of the book, not in one go, but as a curious mix of incidents, his love, fears, failures and thoughts, seemingly unconnected. It narrates the past through incidents that India has grown up with, Indira Gandhi/s death, Mumbai floods, world cup win and neighbourhood music festivals and many more.
It narrates the future, as it always is, through the unknowns. Why is he losing time? why does he have to go urgently someplace every day; and the deepest of all, who is Bharat?
The gossip part of the book opens up quickly, two women discussing colours - ochre, lemon green, tan and espresso; and cushion covers and kurti. Better still, it conjures up delightful stories of the youth.
The gossip takes the reader across wide generation gaps, from the times when an affair just meant exchanging glances in a wedding; to another era where you quietly pull out the dagger and change the sheets.
The possibilities are endless, when there are three young women, one a reporter, another an aspiring storywriter and the third a techie working evening shifts.
The travelogue is kind of staccato, like the glances out of a train window. It throws unfamiliar sights in familiar places; and then unfamiliar places themselves. A glimpse of Ujjain heat, green park terrace, vendors who walk the streets, rifle of a bank watchman, Bongaigon,Daulatabad, Ganguram’s rasogolla, the fires of Delhi riots, life in Bombay, Nagpur, Kolkata, Pune, and Madurai. It is exactly like what the train window shows, a quick view, without lingering too long in one place.
The fourth course, philosophy, is engaging. Is Ahilyabai Holkar the greatest ruler India has ever seen? Why do Karna, Bhishma and Yudhistira evoke such diverse emotions? Does great intelligence come with great pain, and also with great pleasure? Sriram poses crisp philosophical questions, seamlessly as part of Bharat’s own story, and then probes each of them through diverse sources from all around the world.
How much ever steeped you are in this topic, you would unconsciously start debating with Bharat himself. Then you would smile at the quote of Woody Guthrie, “We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do.” Yes, the philosophy is just the pleasure of seeking, the answers are incidental.
The defining character of the book is not the men and women, but the heritage of India or Bharat. Tightly woven into the story, it takes the reader through the best of heritage that Bharat has to offer. It starts with the obvious question, why is Taj Mahal so great, and can there be anything greater?
The book zooms in on seven of the greatest and poses the puzzle, which one is truly the greatest of them all? Which one made its creator wonder, "Oh, how was it that I built it!" There is then the implicit puzzle, how is this question even connected with the biography of Bharat himself?
The book covers the architecture, the history, impressions of the first glimpse at these monuments and the philosophy of the creators. The disappointment of the fifth part is just that it is a part, albeit a central one, while the narration around these monuments could have been an entire book by itself.
Sriram’s prose is a pleasure to read. It serves the five courses not in sequence or in distinct parts, but all blended and woven together effortlessly. So you end up puzzled, smiling, thinking, amazed and curious all the time as each flavour wafts in and out of the narration.
Then there are slivers of brilliance, narrating the annoyance of a proof-reader at an extra space, the shivers of a blood-thirsty city, the hesitancy of adolescence, the pain of loneliness and lots more. For most Indian readers, the book reads like their favourite author in vernacular. The prose is so fluid and effortless that it can only be one’s own thoughts in mother tongue.
The test of a book is its characters. Bharat, Nandita and then the great monuments of India, they will all stay in the reader’s memory. There are parts of the book that will remain a mystery with multiple meanings and possibilities. That is how it is. It can read differently to different people, and will depend on which character appeals more, Bharat or Nandita or Radhika or Mohit or Shruti or Namdeo.
Very fittingly, Bharat’s Story does not end with a full stop, but each life branches off in its own direction, as if the book was just a means to bring them together for a while, and not an end. The book itself provokes that thought in the end, the debate about means and end.
Read Bharat’s Story, for a glimpse of how two generations lived in India. For the philosophy, heritage and landscape around our feet. Finally for its extraordinary prose, for prose is what great books have.
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