In the good old days when Doordarshan was the only channel we had, there was an art film called Suraj Ka Satvaan Ghoda that was aired. It remained etched in my memory mainly because it was made by the master film-maker, Shyam Benegal and it starred Rajit Kapoor, the underrated actor who immortalised Byomkesh Bakshi on TV.
The movie was based on a novella written by Dr Dharamvir Bharati in 1952. I came across this English translation (The Sun’s Seventh Horse by the renowned Hindi writer, Sachchidananda Vatsyayan ‘Ajneya’) at NBT some months back and since I remembered nothing of the movie, except that it starred Rajit Kapoor, this book landed on my to-be-read pile.
The book starts off with an anonymous narrator who introduces the main protagonist, Manik Mulla. Manik Mulla, a man of Kashmiri origin, is a part celebrity in the small town that the young narrator lives. He works for the railways, in a job, that gives him enough time to come up with stories. The narrator and his friends often get together at Manik Mulla’s house where the conversation would veer towards love and politics. An excellent story teller, Manik regales his younger and impressionable friends with five short stories over a period of six afternoons. The chapters between the stories tell us about the reactions of the young men to the story.
It starts off by him laughing at the current obsession with Devdas (by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, a big rage among young men those days) among the younger lot. He points out that Devdas is not a relevant tale as it is not rooted in the economic struggles of the time and hence cut off from reality. The young men do not understand the connection between love and socio-economics. Manik reasserts this connection by starting with his first story. Titled Being True to One’s Salt, it is the story of a young Manik and that of a young girl named Jamuna who lived next door. Jamuna is in love with her childhood friend, Tanna; a match that her mother doesn’t approve of, because Tanna belongs to a lower caste. Tanna’s father also disapproves of this match because Jamuna comes from a poor family. Manik, who is younger than Jamuna, becomes a friend and witnesses this love story. Tanna, scared of his father, does not have the courage to go against his will and the story ends in an expected tragic manner.
The second story titled The Horseshoe is about how Jamuna gets married and to whom. Her parents, who are unable to afford a dowry for her, get a proposal from one of their relatives. The prospective groom (from the same caste) is twice-widowed and as old as her father! Her father is appalled at first but soon Jamuna is married off to this man. What happens to Jamuna forms the rest of this sad story.
The third story is the retelling of the first story but from Tanna’s point of view. We get to see why Tanna is the way he is. It also tells us what happens to Tanna after he is unable to rebel against his father and leaves Jamuna. He does get married but his marital life is not particularly happy either. It is this inability to face his father that triggers and leads to the subsequent events in his tragic life.
The fourth story is one that took place in a span of twenty four hours. We are introduced to lovely, educated girl named Lalita who was in love with Manik but nothing came of it. We get to know of their last meeting on the eve of her marriage to Tanna!
And finally is the tale of the unfortunate Satti, a beautiful woman who lives with her uncle. Satti and Manik become friends; and at the same time, Tanna’s roguish father, Mahesar Dalal sets his eyes on her. He exploits her uncle’s weakness for drink and that uncle sells Satti to the rogue. Satti gets raped; she tries to escape and comes to Manik for help. A frightened Manik instead takes her to his elder brother. The elder brother does not want to get involved in this matter and hands her over to Mahesar Dalal. Manik watches this silently. News comes out the next day that Mahesar Dalal and Satti’s uncle were seen with a body near the river banks. Satti is presumed dead and thats the last they hear of her.
And with this the storytelling session ends. The young men are a bit flummoxed as they know not what to make of this. They are not sure, and neither does Manik clarify, as to how much of these stories was real and how much of it was fiction.
The most interesting aspect of this novella is that while it is supposed to be a set of five short stories, it is actually a single story, told from different angles and points of view. The author clearly achieves his goal of dismissing Devdas as being an irrelevant book. Through these stories, he shows that love cannot exist in a vacuum. Love stories are impacted by the harsh economic and social realities. The characters are varied and interesting. Jamuna is idealistic and naive when the story begins. She has a strength of character and a willingness to fight for what she wants. Lalita is educated and intelligent and quickly realises that the men in her life are weak characters. By leaving Tanna and opting to be a single mother, she makes the choice to be independent. Satti is the strongest character in the book; however she is also the most unfortunate. Affectionate, friendly and loving, she is let down and betrayed by the one person she trusted. What is definitely worth noting is that, even though Tanna is portrayed as a weak character and pays an unfairly heavy price for that, it is Manik who comes across as the weakest link. And hence perhaps justifies the title of the book.
According to Hindu mythology, Surya, the Sun God’s chariot is pulled by seven horses, said to depict the seven colours of the rainbow. According to one particular legend, one of these horses is weaker and lags behind the others. The speed of all the other horses (and the chariot) is impacted by this one horse. Similarly, the link in all these connected tales is Manik, who comes across a very weak person. It is his inability to be strong that contributes (albeit in varying degrees) to the tragedies. The author is adept in bringing out the varying positives and negatives in each character by retelling the same story from different points of view.
The book is a slim one, easy to read, filled with humorous touches in the narration. However the stories are grim and poignant. I must admit that I did not enjoy the stories, despite the innovative and interesting format – they were too gloomy and stark. In fact I was thankful that it was a short book!