Laughter in the Dark

Vilas Sarang’s bilingual modernism

01 September, 2015

Death recurs in Vilas Sarang’s fiction as punctually as in a flowering tree. It enters the story through everyday objects, rituals, rooms and corpses. Handcuffed to this bleak universe is Sarang’s phenomenal comic vision, that mocks what he creates and makes death a difficult joke: hard to decipher and harder to laugh at. But a writer’s death is different. It makes us turn to him or her in the way that we turn to the funnel of light coming from a projection box. For a moment the projected image, the literary text in a writer’s case, is forgotten, and the source that lights up this image becomes of greater interest. If the writer is Indian, however, and his major output has been in the genre of the short story, there’s hardly anyone facing the screen, let alone turning away from it.

When Vilas Sarang passed away earlier this year in Mumbai, at the age of 73, there were stray pieces discussing his life or giving brief sketches of his work. But the kinds of literary choices he made as a bilingual writer of fiction, poetry and criticism in English and Marathi, and the precarious position he held within the Marathi cultural sphere, still need closer inspection. So does his relationship with European and Marathi modernism, genres which influenced almost all his work and whose principles he used to critique the realism of his predecessors—prolific Marathi novelists of the 1930s and 1940s such as NS Phadke—and of his contemporaries in the 1980s, such as Bhalchandra Nemade, who classified modernism as essentially a Western practice.

Bhalchandra Nemade MADHU KAPPARATH

Known by many merely as the writer whose short stories Samuel Beckett recommended to his American publishers, it’s very hard to gauge Sarang’s legacy, given his absence even from a large body of post-colonial criticism. Born in 1942 in Karwar, a coastal town of Karnataka, Sarang started out by producing fiction in English during his college years, and followed it with writing extensively in Marathi and in other genres, while concurrently teaching English literature in Mumbai, Kuwait and Iraq. He published three novels in English—In the Land of Enki (1993), which appeared in Marathi as Enkichya Rajyat; The Dinosaur Ship (2005); and Tandoor Cinders (2008). His collection of poetry in Marathi was simply titled Kavita (1969–1984), while two collections appeared in English—A Kind of Silence (1978) and as Another Life (2007). But it is his short stories that best exemplify his ingenious ideas and modernist craft. They often appeared internationally in journals such as Encounter and The London Magazine, and were also anthologised in the American poet and publisher James Laughlin’s famous annual anthology New Directions and Adil Jussawalla’s landmark anthology of translated literature, New Writing in India. His stories in Marathi appeared as Soledad (1975) and Atank (1999); these were translated by Sarang himself into English and collected in Fair Tree of Void (1990) and Women in Cages (2006), though he did not see them as translations but as stories that were “re-done” in and for the English language without necessarily relying on the original.

Reading ‘An Evening at the Beach,’ the very first short story in Women in Cages, one knows it’s neither the familiar nor the fantastical that one has to negotiate in Sarang, but a nonchalant barter between the two. In the story, Sarang describes at length an old man trying to wash his buttocks against the incoming waves of the sea, while the story’s protagonist, Bajrang, sits looking at him with his girlfriend on the beach, an experience Bajrang thinks fit for Reader’s Digest—the scene soon shifts to the funeral of Bajrang’s friend’s mother, which is taking place metres away from where he sits.

The story moves seamlessly from the banal, but scrupulously recorded, events on the beach to the solemn funeral rituals of Hindus. Bajrang, amusingly enough, does not register this shift; standing in front of the pyre he thinks how “the warmth of the fire made him feel better,” and speculates that the mourners around him “might have killed this woman so that they could warm themselves on a cold day.” The story does not leave us with new ways to think about funerals or social behavior, but just a twitchy feeling of not being able to mourn as readers a death that the protagonist himself leaves unattended. If to mourn is to let someone pass, to begin to forget, Sarang’s story through its comic discomfort does not let the event elapse easily but makes it linger like an unfinished sentence.

Figures in Sarang’s stories often mishear even while being fully immersed in the event. The reader, on the other hand, is allowed to discern both the oddity and the actual music. The characters start by misinterpreting conventional codes of conduct and regular emotions, and then lapse into a private language. Stories such as ‘On the Stone Steps’ stop here, without reconciling the protagonist, and his sense of himself, with the world outside. But some stories do bridge the gap, such as ‘Om Phallus,’ in which Om wakes up to find himself turned into a giant phallus. He immediately shuns society, retreating into his own thoughts, until he finds a way to translate his own condition into a religious language. Taking the place of a shiva-linga in a temple, Om’s metamorphosis forecloses all human encounters for him but also makes him an object of worship in a hierarchical world of idolatry. Sarang’s story uses this duality to pull off a private joke, one between him and the readers, at the expense of a belief system that accepts and cherishes Om’s condition in temples but one that the believers themselves would otherwise see as a public joke.

This duality is reiterated in other stories from the same volume, such as ‘A Revolt of the Gods,’ where Ganesha idols come to life in order to escape immersion in water. Sarang’s narrative strength lies in how he turns the everyday on its head by introducing figures who can look at it from a moral and emotional distance. This does not make such a figure a critical insider who can evaluate his or her own surroundings—because Sarang is equally suspicious of endowing the individual with such a rational power—but someone who constantly plays out the tensions between private and public languages. This kind of tension is central to Sarang’s modernist practice, and something that distinguishes him from those traditions of the Marathi and Indian English short story which operate with a certain realist bias, a “shibboleth” if Sarang is to be believed.

IT IS RARE for an indian writer to have written so much about writing itself as Sarang has. His essays and criticism, published in journals such as World Literature Today and the Sahitya Akademi’s bi-monthly journal Indian Literature, made eager attempts at explaining modernism, the short story as a genre, and bilingualism in the context of Marathi literature. The Navkatha writers of the 1950s, these essays tell us, created the field of experimentation and formal rigour that post-colonial modernist writing in Marathi built on. Sarang, whose work is spread over several decades starting from the 1960s, often cited these writers as the first rupture in traditionally social realist and “contrived” Marathi writing. It isn’t very hard to trace some of these influences in Sarang’s own work, which the critic RS Kimbahune in a 1999 article in Indian Literature saw as the “culminating point of the individual-centered navkatha.” The psychological and sexualised narratives of Gangadhar Gadgil, daring use of common speech in Vyankatesh Madgulkar’s fiction, and Aravind Gokhale’s consistent last-line surprises, were some of the contributions made by the Navkatha writers. Sarang, however, did not over-emphasise their importance, nor did he see himself in any way as a proponent of Navkatha.


It is tempting to read all that was happening with Indian literature in the 1960s, including Sarang’s modernist idiom and his stories about seclusion and underground violence, as a reaction to Nehruvian socialism and its failures. However, it was also Sarang’s approach as a bilingual writer and the influence he drew from continental modernism and Navkatha that shaped his voice. ‘Flies,’ the first Marathi story that he published, in 1965 in Abhiruchi, a journal edited by a fellow bilingual writer, Dilip Chitre, was “a hasty crib” from the original English. It is an impressionist piece in which a solitary reader recalls his experiences of mutilating and killing flies in his room. Bearing a close resemblance to some of Kafka’s conceptual stories, ‘Flies’ is an example of intense stylistic repetition and thematic isolation. The entire physical and psychic landscape of the story seems to be confined to the length of the protagonist’s arm. This kind of Marathi fiction was clearly a product of Sarang’s bilingual imagination. If he sharpened his pencil at one end with the likes of Borges, Kafka and Camus, the other end drew its edge from Navkatha and other contemporaries who were experimenting with modernism.

In his long essay, ‘Tradition and Modernity in Marathi Literature,’ which appeared in Indian Literature in 1992, Sarang wrote fondly of Bhalchandra Nemade’s pathbreaking novel Kosla. Published in 1963, the novel is about the college life of its cynical narrator, who moves to Pune from rural Maharashtra for higher education. Instead of seeing it as part of Navkatha, Sarang considered Kosla one of the boldest gestures of Marathi modernism, marking its departures from realism by “defiantly gambling all on its innate expressive force.” In the same essay, though, Sarang critiques and moves beyond Nemade—who exclusively adopted realism after the adventurous Kosla—to then think of bilingualism, and its practitioners, Arun Kolatkar, Dilip Chitre and himself, as the ultimate signifier of Marathi modernism. Walking the borderlands of two or more cultures, bilingualism, for Sarang, carried the project of modernism beyond the 1960s, and although he does not sufficiently explain why other writers retreat into social realism, he does make a case for bilingualism and why its followers alone continued with the modernist project.

Opposed to identity politics of any kind, Sarang already felt alienated by the beginning of the 1970s, which saw the emergence of the Shiv Sena and organised Dalit politics. Even the little magazine movement of the sixties, which nurtured experimentalists and was driven by a group of motivated editors and readers, was short-lived. The writing that followed had “no trace of any desire for experimentation or innovation,” and writers of the 1970s seemed to disregard “the writing of Marathi poets and prose writers of the past two decades.” With the resurgence of the socialist Ram Manohar Lohia and the leading Dalit icon BR Ambedkar as literary influences in that decade, new thematic avenues opened up for writers who couldn’t express themselves in the Navkatha or the modernist idiom sufficiently and chose more politically stable forms of realist writing. These tendencies consolidated as grameen—rural—writing and Dalit writing, both of which consciously broke away from what they thought of as the “formalist” ethos of the previous generation. Thus it comes as no surprise that “highly innovative and original poets like Dilip Chitre and Arun Kolatkar have had no following among the younger poets, and have been conveniently sidetracked.” Sarang, although respecting these political tendencies by imbibing some of them in his later work, could not see their literary output as anything more than throwing one’s hat into the identity politics ring. The kind of writing that dominated Marathi literature from the 1970s onwards was for him aesthetically naive and insufficiently concerned with craft, leading him to chart his own course.

THE FIRST FULL-LENGTH BOOK that Sarang read in English, at the age of 16, was Jim Corbett’s The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag and thereafter, he confesses, “it was almost exclusively English, English, and English.” Sarang accepts English with unusual ease, considering the kind of antagonism it was met with in regional literary circles. From ‘Flies’ onwards, Sarang wrote in this amphibian mode almost all his life and in all the genres, including literary criticism. Bilingualism was, before anything else, a question of technique for him; the experiments in his stories were jointly occasioned by two literary cultures and identified with neither completely. This is why probably Sarang felt the need to burst the regional prototype by sarcastically declaring about himself and his bilingualism: “Well, there’s a ‘Marathi’ writer for you!”

In an introduction to the 1990 anthology he edited, Indian English Poetry Since 1950, Sarang pointed out how pre-Independence poets failed “simply to be good poets” by not “letting the Englishness or Indianness take care of itself.” Just as he charges Marathi writers with focusing on regional and caste identities, Sarang picks issue with early Indian English writers who could not shape English into a literary language. Moreover, Sarang’s initiation into writing almost coincided with the language debates of the 1960s, when English was constantly being defined as an administrative spillover of colonialism, something to be avoided at all costs. These twin problems, of technique and authenticity, did not peter out with time but became something that almost all Indian English writing consistently grappled with. Bilingualism, as practiced by Kolatkar, Chitre and Sarang, responded to these “authenticity questions” with its robust disavowal of celebratory nationalism, while also reworking English poetry in quite original ways. These tendencies are best displayed in Kolatkar’s lines from the poem ‘Three Cups of Tea.’

        the police commissioner asked

why did you go to burma?

        prickface I said

  what’s there in india?

In his essay ‘Self-Translators,’ published in Journal of South Asian Literature in 1981, Sarang finds himself and other bilingual writers in possession of a dual citizenship, which rejects singularity, cultural or linguistic, for a multiplicity of affiliations and tools. This meant that a writer could consistently access two or more adjacent modes of being; Sarang cites Kolatkar’s example, who in the Marathi versions of his poems ‘The Hag’ and ‘Irani Restaurant’ uses straight rhymes (widroop/khoop; phodi/ghodi; samaksha/laksha), while the English versions have highly effective off-rhymes: ugly/vaguely; guess/ oranges; paws/pose; horse/farce. With these off-rhymes in the English translation, published first in Chitre’s 1967 An Anthology of Marathi Poetry, Kolatkar built the sense of a bizarre and distorted reality in the very body of the poem, something that he only semantically implies in the Marathi poems. “Self-translation, then, is not merely imitation; it is also creation,” writes Sarang and it is this that makes his work in both languages distinct and parallel, yet associative.


As much as he applies his reading of continental modernism to his work in Marathi, his translations into English of writers such as BS Mardhekar, Janabai, Yeshwant Rao, Vasant Abhaji Dhake and Binabai adds to English literature universally what comes to Sarang locally. Mardhekar, especially, illustrates a kind of modernism in regional languages that precedes Sarang’s by at least two decades. His poetry shows a marked influence of TS Eliot and the early symbolists, but more crucially, it launches these transnational encounters much before independence and domesticates them in quite original ways. In lines such as these, Mardhekar (in Sarang’s translation) seems to be saying something significant about the nature of cultural exchanges and literary inspiration itself.

But don’t hesitate to come just because

my ribs are brittle;

the heart’s intentions

can use my ribs

as bamboos for a bier.

SARANG'S INTERACTION WITH EUROPEAN and Latin American modernisms hasn’t found much favour with Marathi critics, however. His experiments have often been considered self-absorbed and politically unmotivated, in a “state of total alienation that could end up only in solipsism,” as RS Kimbahune points out in his aforementioned essay. A story such as ‘Spider in the Clock,’ where the narrator uses the minute-hand and the hour-hand to kill a spider caught in his table clock, was maybe what Kimbahune had in mind. He is right about the state of alienation in these stories, but Sarang’s work does not merely affirm this condition. As the narrator of ‘Spider’ asks: “How does the darkness of closed eyes differ from the darkness of open eyes?” Sarang’s work is set between the two, at the threshold separating the dreadful isolation of his characters and what his critics consider the “unalienated” world outside.

This liminality was perhaps best gauged by the eminent Indian-English poet Adil Jussawalla, who, in his introduction to Sarang’s Fair Tree of Void, pointed out how many of Sarang’s stories are created out of a “one-room-one-man” phenomenon, in which the fictional space is limited to a reclusive figure, his mind and his room. Readers only become trespassers in this guerrilla solitude, breaking the silence that stories impose upon them. But Jussawalla does not see this as a solipsistic trait: “The astonishing thing is that these people, perennially oppressed though they are, live with full knowledge of themselves and rarely seek to escape those selves of their fate.” This leaves Sarang’s fiction hardly private; the lone individuals in his stories are wracked with anxieties that are as much psychological and personal as they are social. Stories such as ‘The Odour of Immortality,’ in which an aging prostitute’s prayers are answered with vaginas sprouting all over her body, cannot be read as merely improbable or a dirge of fancy. In the five sections that The Women in Cages is divided into, this particular story falls under the heading “Libido Zone,” where Kamathipura, a red-light district in Bombay, is a constant presence. Thus Champa, the prostitute whom Lord Indra helps improvise, is not an exclusive figure but a corporeal expression of desires and instincts that are as socially provoked as anything else.

In one of his essays, ‘Confessions of A Marathi Writer,’ Sarang takes the American poet John Berryman’s advice to “Depend on/ interior journeys taken anywhere” as a statement on his own work. Even though his most personal and fantastical stories are social, their executions are interiorised and, at times, lack dialogue. Not flaws by any stretch, these “interior journeys” put Sarang in a conflicting position within the Marathi cultural sphere. In the same essay, from 1994, he writes, “The narrow, and subtly caste-marked, paths of Marathi literature I saw as something to avoid at any cost; a largely self-invented international tradition offered a liberating route to self-realization.” By doing so, he squarely announced his discomfort with the social realism that dominated Marathi literature from the 1960s onward.

THE DESHIVAD, OR NATIVIST, position, popularised by writers such as Bhalchandra Nemade, is not that an intimate relationship between word and world, as Sarang stresses it, is impossible. They rather believe that its figuration in writers such as Sarang, Kolatkar and Chitre is essentially Western and thus misleading. “I don’t like internationalism,” Nemade is quoted as saying in Sarang’s essay ‘The Perils of Nativism,’ published in Muse India in 2008. Apart from personal recourse such as this, Nemade gives apparently analytical reasons for why modernism is completely incapable of representing the “Indian conditions.” The “yamunaparyatan sensibility” that he endorses and which roughly means progressive social enquiry cannot, according to him, be accommodated in a formal inquiry such as modernism, but only in realism. Sarang retorted by pointing out how deshivad novels were making it “convenient for the reader to forget that he is reading a novel and he is encouraged to do so. One does not come across much of imagination or a sense of form.” Sarang dismisses deshivad not in favour of a liberal internationalism, but rather to show how most concepts that deshivad itself used, including its name—derived from the word nativism—and its emphasis on realism, was part of the “Western vocabulary.” He suggests that “we should borrow whatever we need from the Western and other civilizations with the instinct of a honeybee,” and then not discard our identities as borrowers for another primary identity. By not closely reading Sarang’s own fiction, his nativist critics have not only missed his emphasis on craft, but also how he fitted it to regional politics. An excellent story that demonstrates this. ‘Testimony of an Indian Vulture,’ masterfully employs the Swiftian mode of mock-heroism, while also making the wounded vulture a symbol of caste exclusion and brutality.

FOR SARANG, IT IS THE NATURE of the short story itself that imposes a certain privacy and fictional isolation. Unlike a novel, which has an implicit social sphere to account for, short stories, because of their tailored and miniature quality, do not have to let go of the fiction and engage with reality in a “grand," sweeping manner, he believes. As a stance against realist writers in English, such as RK Narayan and Raja Rao, as well as those working in Marathi, Sarang is keen to re-conceptualise the very genre of the short story. The first step for him in this process is to resist realism tooth and nail. It is meaningless for him because it makes unnecessary fuss over reality, which most art should merely assume for itself and not make the sole aim of representation.

In his relatively recent essay ‘Pure Fiction,’ published in Indian Literature in 2011, Sarang passionately described how short fiction differed from long. Apart from the “reality quotient,” he also expressed a fascination for the politics of long and short writing, and asked why one is preferred over the other. Every short-story writer in the Western tradition, he says, tends to be seen as a sedentary party in the waiting room of the great novel. Kafka, Joyce and Hemingway, the three writers he mentions by name, are all writers who built their early reputations in the genre of short stories before switching to the longer mode.

Sarang believes that the capitalist infrastructure in the West is motivated by and motivates a dominance of the novel form, and perhaps exaggeratedly, he also aligns English imperialism and its conquering streak to the expansive territory of the novel. The novel not only dominates literary life in Europe, but also reserves the right to be mourned. “The novel is looked upon as the narrative of one’s culture, if the novel is sick, or on its death-bed, it is a cause for anxiety about the whole of Western culture,” writes Sarang. In the absence of a similar infrastructure here, he finds it intriguing that Indian publishing still favors the novel over any other form. It seems to him that the idea of greatness that is attached to the novel in the West has uncritically travelled to India; more so in the Marathi literary world, where the once popular genre of the short story is now questioned as an art form by writers including Nemade.

In such a scheme of things, “a writer like Borges is just what the doctor ordered.” Although Sarang admires Borges’s work, in ‘Pure Fiction’ he finds him inappropriately exoticised and his reception in the West quite gimmicky. It is not that Borges’s stories aren’t read seriously, but the kind of generic potential that Sarang associates with them, as acts of “pure” fiction that novels cannot emulate, goes unrecorded. They become a part of the Latin American literature market without ever provoking a thought on short fiction itself. Even if one dismisses Sarang’s argument right away as being overtly speculative, it does help in comprehending his own stories as playing on the limits of the novel form, and in decoding some of the strangest experiments that he conducts in his work. Among other things, he used modernism to see the short story as something more than a homunculus of a novel, as a fictional engagement of its own kind.

The origins of Sarang’s fiction and thought are not in the Western writers he admires, but in a transcultural vortex that includes both Kafka and Mardhekar, both the penal colony and Bombay, and are ultimately tied to his alertness to the genre itself. A rare zone of laughter, his stories act out the crucial tension between the self and the world, not by easily pitting them against each other, but by creating a network of cautious smiles and abrupt deaths. In ‘Confessions of a Marathi Writer,’ Sarang draws a binary between Beckett and Sartre: the former lapsed into acute formalism by the end of his career, while Sartre left literature for sheer didacticism. Sarang’s own fiction did both and neither. His figures entered a state of feeling that took over their entire being, but they were simultaneously being assailed by the ravages of time, religion and society. His fiction is as much an outcome of the “interior journeys” his characters undertake in their rooms as of the “lesser gulags” that shape the world around them and us.

Mantra Mukim is a postgraduate student of English literature at Delhi University.