Book Review: Avadhoot Dongare's Novels Offer a Fascinating Look At Young Indians' Existential Crises

'The Story of Being Useless' and 'Three Contexts of a Writer' root for a meaningful life.

Stories are an integral part of the cultural landscapes all over the world. While they narrate something that happened at some point of time, their very raison d’être is to transcend the constraints of time and space and reach beyond. Avadhoot Dongare’s protagonist is a greenhorn reporter who is acutely aware of the potential of stories and news to transcend time and place. However, he also asks the uncomfortable question, “What, out of this, will survive in 3009?”

Dongare was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar of 2014. Ratna Books has published his two novellas together translated from the Marathi by Nadeem Khan. The first is called The Story of Being Useless and the second- Three Contexts of a Writer. These are multifocal chronicles of the crises faced by the contemporary youth—crises of human dignity, finding love, eternal values and the very beliefs that underlie human culture. They also offer subtle, complicated but hopeful ways to negotiate the challenges thrown at one’s inner self.

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The Story of Being Useless deals with the feeling of futility that the protagonist nurses, as he completes a degree in Journalism in Pune and encounters the world of vernacular newspapers in Urban India. He attempts to embark on a career in journalism as a young intern in the Pune Supplement of a Marathi daily. Trying to find his feet in the quicksand of the newspaper business proves to be a tough task. He has to play an inadvertent role in the scandal involving paid news and the hypocrisy of seniors and editors makes him rethink his choices. On one plane, the banal repetitiveness of events sets a routine for his life; while at another, he is compelled to take a longue duree view of things around him. This makes him acutely aware of the limitations of any narrative.

The protagonist knows that ‘Talks of moral-immoral are a lot of hogwash.’ Comfortable binaries are already a thing of the past. While describing a cool night, the protagonist sees ‘Outside the window, a beautiful, quiet, big yellow light near the neighbouring building.’ No wasting words on the moon and the stars here. The cardboard seller gets a new dress, consisting of ‘an unclean shirt and unclean, loose pajamas.’ The dampening details of people and places, shorn of any romance, are a way of drawing the readers’ attention to the realities he faces.

At no particular point of time, he starts considering himself useless. This feeling resonates throughout the text—overtly as well as silently. He gradually realises that while it’s alright to feel like killing oneself, there is, in actuality, no point in committing suicide. The inevitability of life is what makes him revel in the little triumphs that seemingly insignificant people around him seem to achieve. It may be a prostitute who fights back the physical abuse by a client. It may be a three legged mongrel that righteously inhabits the campus of the Department of Journalism. A man who sells cardboards or an old woman who sells the daily newspapers—they all have a part to play in this little world of road-side book sellers and card board pickers and passersby in a small corner of the Lakdi Pul bridge. True to its structure and function, the bridge might be a conduit that connects different worlds that the protagonist inhabits—private and public, academic and non-academic, professional and pedestrian.

Finally, acceptance comes to the protagonist. He seems to decide the boundaries of acceptance for his own use. Things that are transient in nature, such as people including him, things and businesses, he makes peace with the idea of their mutability. However, if it comes to the destruction of old trees and heritage buildings and the diehard spirit of eking out a dignified existence for humans, he will not go gently. This in a sense seems to give a reason to live or at least not commit suicide to the protagonist. The story ends as he settles down with a comfortable cup of tea.

Three Contexts of a Writer consists of narratives from three characters—A fabricator by profession, a young lady named Saavli, and a person who claims to be the real author of all these narratives. The fabricator and his wife, Shalmali have come to terms with their physical limitations and still find happiness and contentment in each other’s bodies. They have also learnt to get rid of the extra baggage—be it a possessive ex-boyfriend or disparate attempts of self-validation through trivial poetry and blog entries. The epiphany might be a gift of the 17 century saint poet, Tukaram, who professes, “The joys of the bed are gained with the doing; No telling can ever describe them. Burn down this word-based knowledge, Says Tuka; The mark of Vithoba the rarest can know.”

The second character is a young lecturer, Saavli. A crisp and very well-defined character, Saavli (brushes her teeth with the left hand tucked behind, and has a habit of naming her things—a purse is named ‘Lonesome’, a house is named ‘Darkness’) is a sorted young woman who is lucky to find who she thinks is the ‘finest man in her life’. Soumya is a colleague who likes her, gets to know her and even shares an emotional bond and a physical closeness with Saavli without being Macho. A woman of contemporary sensibilities, Saavli most likely falls for Soumya as he asks her if it’s okay to embrace her even as he wraps his arms around her. She also has a lot of emotional baggage which she can do without. It’s the tender and gentle relationship with Soumya which helps her shed it.

The third and the knottiest of the lot, is a character that hurls abuses at the so called author of the book and claims that these stories are actually his creations but for the fact that he does not muster the initiative to publish them while the so called author stealthily gets them published in his name. He is an angry and irritated character, unhappy with his inability to articulate his emotions. He says, “I am telling this to you for no specific purpose. I won’t say whether what I am telling here is true or false....But my pompous talk is not going to make any change in the overall political situation. That is also okay in a way. But, my writing here would surely be important for the politics of the overall existence, and more than that, it is important for me at least.” This is arguably, the reason that keeps the fire in the belly alive for him.

The novels deal with the existential challenges faced by the contemporary Indian youth. The author also leaves a possibility of redemption open for his characters. In The Story of Being Useless, the protagonist makes peace between the transient and the permanent. He makes a conscious choice and resumes living, drinking tea. In the Three Contexts of a Writer, all three major characters learn to get rid of their inhibitions, constraints, ‘self-incurred tutelage’ if one is to borrow Immanuel Kant’s words. Thus, for all the apparent melancholy and being unsure about a definite moral of the story, these novellas root for a meaningful life.

Ratna Books needs to be commended for bringing out this visually pleasing volume. Translation by Nadeem Khan is commendable, succeeding in retaining the flavour of the original most of the times. Especially commendable are his translations of the verses of Tuka and Namdeo, as also his decision to not translate, the Marathi curse words where the sense is conveyed more through the sound rather than through a literal translation. Already recognised as markers of a point of departure in the Marathi literary world, these novellas will fascinate any reader who might be looking out for a sensitive and young perspective on contemporary realities.

Shraddha Kumbhojkar teaches at and heads the Department of History at the Savitribai Phule Pune University. As a historian, she tries to make sense of Ideas, Memories and Literature in Marathi, Sanskrit and English.