KILL MYSELF OR HAVE TEA! By Jerry Pinto

Jerry Pinto writes about Damodar Mauzo’s new novel which is titled “Jeev Diun kai Chai Marun” (Kill Myself or Have Tea). It is about a young man torn between two young women, one Catholic and the other Muslim, who befriend him over cell phones and whatsapp messages. The new novel is a departure from the usual Mauzo writing in Konkani in the sense that it is critiqued as being “neo-realistic…”

By Jerry Pinto

The house in Merces is not beautiful, we are told, it is not large, but it is home to Vipin Parob, the central protagonist of Damodar Mauzo’s new novel Jeev Diun kai Chya Marun (kill myself or have tea). Home is the word that comes with its own emotional charge; the place ‘we have to gather grace’, as Nissin Ezekiel put it. But Vipin’s home is nothing like that. His parents are self-obsessed narcissists who have long given up the possibility of family life as it is defined in the ideal, they hate each other with a low. Grade rancour compounded by disappointment and rage; they have very little time for their son. It is my contention that Bhai Mauzo is working on a Gedanken here, a thought experiment: how does one live without love?
Vipin manages although he is stymied at every turn. His childhood fantasy of marrying two trees, a childish way of reinscribing the love so obviously missing in his family, ends when his father has one of the trees cut down. His desire to turn the patch of red, arid land outside the house into a garden is again savaged. His mother turns her despair into food cravings: his father seeks solace outside, eating at restaurants since he can no longer face his wife’s indifferent cooking. It is indicated that he satisfies other desires outside the home too. Such love as he is capable of he saves for his godman, a shadowy Bab whose word is law.
Vipin’s world changes when he goes to school and encounters the classic mentor figure, Martin Sir, who introduces him to the world of reading. One of the many joys of the book is the reading list this teacher shares with his student, the way he checks whether Vipin has read and understood. The Fault In our stars by John Green or themes of The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. This bildungsroman follows the mental trails of a young man’s journey to adulthood, and these must then be signposted by the idea.
When Vipin goes to college, he takes science because his father has discovered that he is a genius and he is determined, in the fashion of many Indian parents, to make use of his son’s gifts for his own benefit. Parob Sr decides that his son must be a doctor so that he will earn a great deal of money and he will save on medical bills in his old age.
But fate intervenes and although Vipin finds himself in the position of caring for his parents in their terminal illnesses, it is not as a doctor that he tends to them. He is only a young Indian who is doing his duty, not against his will, not because he loves them but because he has a rare quality he shares with his creator: he has moral fiber and he stays the course with what he thinks is right.
Mauzo takes the breathtaking risk of setting his story in the contemporary ear of cell phones and WhatsApp messages. Although Vipin has much to deal with at home, he encounters the true catalysts of his growth in college. These appear in the form of two young women who are friends and who befriend rage quit and withdrawn Vipin: Chitra and Fatima. In different ways, both draw him out, challenge him and force him to confront the possibility that he might be lonely, that he might need human companionship outside the pages of a book or the screens if Kindle.
There is a fineness to the construction of this novel that perhaps only other writers can see. For instance, let us consider Vipin’s moment of truth. He is walking down the street on a monsoonal Goa afternoon when he spots a kidnapping in the process. He steps up and interposes his body as a way of protecting the young woman (Fatima) from being dragged into a van, this suggests a physicality that would slow down the two men who are intent on dragging Fatima away. How this physically has been sculpted, a reader might ask. Go back a few pages and there is a scene an almost incidental scene, in which Mr Parob Sr decides that he will teach his son how to do a surya namaskar. He is unable to complete one but like the best coaches, he manages to teach Vipin to do one and Vipin, intrigued by the effect this has on his body, incorporates it into his morning routine. We now have a sense of that body which could be interposed between kidnappers and targets. This may seem like a small thing but it is out of small things that capacious novels are constructed.
This world that Mauzo conjures up is startlingly contemporary and finely wrought, Vipin’s parents are driven by society. They rarely choose to do something because they want to. They do what they do because that is how things have always been done. Vipin is different. He thinks about his actions, he thinks about his life and his world. Mauzo may be suggesting that this self-awareness he draws from reading novels where the agency is important. In non-fiction, the writer is constrained by events. The telling of these events is the least problematic of all; the explanations represent the pitfalls. Fiction on the other hand starts with a tabula rasa. As reader one encounters a human being as initial. One follows the lead of the writer. One may find the character improbable because one has generally some sense on the uniqueness of the human being in the idealized form. These senses, of course, come from an assessment of what one would do in a similar set of circumstances. The task of the fiction writer is to fund a way to bring most people to think: Here is how a teenager living in Goa, an urban-rural conurbation like few others in the world, might disport himself given these circumstances.
For myself, I have never had trouble believing even the most farfetched possibilities. Should it be possible for a man to see his mother’s dead body and feel nothing and then go out and kill a stranger? There seems to be little causal connection between these two events. At first glance, they hang in mid-air, trapped only by the net of words spun around them. And yet this sequence of events is so familiar that no one needs to be told which book it is drawn from.
The name of Bhai Mauzo’s book, Jeev Diun kai Chya Marun, is drawn from the belief that somewhere in Camus’s works, the existential question is posed in this binary: Should I kill myself or have a cup of tea? You can draw a line from here to the pointlessness of twentieth-century life that T.S Eliot offered us: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”. The 21st century Mauzo hints have not yet solved this dilemma. The young may seek experience over possession, they may be a lot more open to possibility and a lot less censorious of what others seek but the question remains: how is a human being to live in such a way as to fulfil the nearly unlimited potential that has been granted to all of us?
Vipin’s potential has fewer limits because he is presented to us as a prodigy. His prodigiousness is easy to accept because it is limited to his understanding of the conceptual world. Abstractions are easy for him: people are not. He punches above his weight with the educational system because those are simply virtual artefacts that can be manipulated in a solo. People are much more difficult for him. It is his shortfall in his understanding of ordinary operations of human nature that causes the series of small betrayals that end in the tragedy that brings him up against an existential question that forms the title of the book. How is one to live when there is nothing to live for? Would this even be worthwhile?
Jeev Diun kai Chya Marun is a skillfully paced novel so that you do not even notice how the doors are closing on Vipin, how he is slowly being squeezed to the edge of his resources. We leave him, full of potential, relieved of the need to make a living and uncertain of what all this means.
The noted Kannada litterateur Vivek Shanbhag said he was astonished at how Bhai Mauzo had worked himself into the mind and heart of a young adult. It should be no surprise; this novel shows the writer at the height of his powers, holding several characters in place so that we never lose track of any of them nor doubt the possibility that they could be real while moving us relentlessly toward a climactic moment. This is a magnificent moment. This is a magnificent achievement and it has been my proud privilege to try and translate into English.

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