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Book review: Life and Times of Mr S

Vivek Narayanan’s Mr S is a book that is not comfortable resting within any genre but is situated between poetry, novel, critique. It has the epic sweep of a novel that takes us through one character’s transformation and has a narrator to guide us–all told with the immediacy of poetry to jolt, startle and invigorate. The book is structured in a way to take the reader through a similarly transformative journey.

In the poem “Mr. S, on first looking into Parthasarathy’s Cilappatikaram” we get to know Mr S well as a man who admits that he is “political” with a rage like Kannagi’s at the “untrue city.” From the third person narrator, we find out that he is a man who “lacks rumination” and the true “banishment of longing” to trigger change. The narrator loses some of his distance when he urges Mr S to “register what is being perpetually lost even then in that dreamtime to our still troubled times” and find his true inner rage:

rein in the true political     bring out the weak and spineless testicularly encumbered man your truer Kannagi    your   inner kanmani your truest    courage your missing breast   step by step minute by minute    stand    turn back   look   look hard and devour my dear sir     the sweet mango fruit of that vision.

Poems about Mr S’s obsolescence are scattered throughout the book. He is contrasted with the narrator who is fully realized, someone capable of seeing the simultaneity of moments that Mr S. is incapable of, “not quite cracking the code of the succession of instances.” The key to his awakening lies in unlocking the past, “shaking up” a “fetishised” time, seeding “present with past,” opening up the past to questioning: “had Thyagaraja actually seen his blue-bodied god?” and being able to “judge between aura and monochromatic fetish, belief being a value and not an event.”

Through letters to his mother and father, Mr S works on unlocking a personal past, reflecting on how he is similar but yet different, “killing” the omnipotent parent within to grow into his own being and also urging his father to write a memoir that is “honest and naughty:”

Promise that it will
be honest and naughty, as
you are, now,
among us. Let the hazy moonlit
past consist of more than a succession
of bland unimpeachable
deities. Let not all
the men be noble, nor all the deeds
good. Let history do more
than wag that strict Sanskritic
finger, let it carry instead the black
silt of the stream
where once you kicked
and cried.

Language is another key out of obsolescence and the narrator awaits the day Mr. S might understand what he is “hotly writing now.” Blank pages with just a line or two of poetry awaken the reader with fresh, surprising language: “O intellectual, intellectual toy.” Language startles with surprising line breaks that force the reader to pause, feel the words–their impact and meaning.

Enter,  in the mist       of awakening’s wrangle
a sudden but not unusual recall
                   of being alone
in the afternoon     another life    a code
in the noisy determinedly disinterested burr
of the brain.

There are also a few banal lines which might or might not have loaded implications: “You have come to the conference late.” All ask the reader to carefully consider not only each line but each word, space on the page.

That this book is written in poetry when the ideas could have been elaborated in prose demands that the reader start looking at language afresh–for every word, space, line break that might hold meaning. With the precision of a master craftsman, Narayanan takes the reader on a journey where he shows rather than tells him why history has to be alive and not embalmed, why language and poetry is key to an awakened and inquisitive mind.