A Work that Dares to Dream Big: C P Surendran’s One Love and the Many Lives of Osip B
Certain chance-incidents can swing our plans into startling focus. Today on the 27th of August, 2021 as I sit down to review the poet–novelist CP Surendran’s latest outing in long fiction, One Love and Many Lives of Osip B, the international TV is breaking the story of a group of Ukrainian researchers who unearthed the largest mass grave of Stalin era. The aftertaste of Surendran’s novel is still fresh in my memory as I listen to the newscast.
In the opening page of the novel, Surendran writes: “Often one’s name is one’s fate. One had to respond to the particular challenge that it enjoined upon oneself.” The protagonist of this novel is named Osip Balakrishnan, after one of the major victims of the Stalinist Purge: Osip Mandelsatam. But the overthinking loops of Balakrishnan’s mind gets caught on how the name of persecutor Joseph Stalin was also approximated to Iosiph or Osip. The victim-poet and the perpetrator-demagogue both flow into each other as the novel proceeds, bringing into the narrative “the particular challenge” that the name ‘enjoins’ on its protagonist. The fall and degeneration of the Russian communist party is a major motifs that run through Surendran’s novel. Surendran correctly captures the spirit of Communists regarding Kerala in the Post-Soviet world. The novel has little to do with the Leftist propaganda though. It uses the figure of Stalin and the embattled poet Mandelstam through and through and transcends propaganda and the limitations of committed literature effortlessly. Today when researchers locate the largest-till-date mass graves from the Stalin-era, and as the body count rises by some figure between 5000 to 8000, suddenly, Surendran’s novel assumes an Orwellian aura, asking us to see how narratives across the globe are connected, tragically, farcically and fantastically.
In a plot summary, the novel might sound like a transgressive love story. It follows Osip B. from Trissur, who falls in love with Elizabeth Hill, his English teacher of British descent, in the course of his studies at Kasauli, north of Delhi. After she discovers she is pregnant, Elizabeth leaves India. The body of the novel carries Osip’s obsessive trips (in both senses of the term) in pursuit of Elizabeth. The novel uses the perspective of Osip and is therefore maniacal in its world view. Nevertheless, sheer narrative ambition soars through the work, in every twist and turn, in every shift from the present to the past: it sizzles in its attempts to connect – the West with the East, the North of India with the South and most interestingly, the Soviet ghosts with Kerala’s life-blood. One Love runs to almost 400 pages chasing this fiendish ambition, and is unlike anything CP Surendran (or for that matter, most of our present-day writers in English) ever attempted before, either in poetry or in prose.
The first part of the title suggests this one love story that Osip is caught in – it is simple. The second part of the title lays the landmines for the readers – this love story does not leave a single stone unturned in Osip’s young man’s life; it triggers the many lives that he must scavenge through. It throws him randomly from the layers in his name to the complicated relationship he has with his doppelganger, his grandfather, Niranjan Menon. Osip’s memories about the ancestral home in Trisuur also hold a very interesting woman, Gloria Innaley. The second name of the character literally means Yesterday in Malayalam. Her discovery of the savings that Menon hid in his library while dusting the books, results in a Marquezian episode in the fifth chapter, making a very ordinary event bloom into a layered episode. “Between page 141 and 142 of Volume One, Das Capital had a hundred rupee note. Another big note on page 254 of Anna Karenina, with whom Gloria vaguely identified. Late in the evening of the same stupendous day, between pages 126 and 127 two notes of Rs 10 in Stalin’s Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, It was then a matter of time before she figured out that there was a small bank right there in Mr. Menon’s library.” The loop that holds Menon, Gloria and Osip also held the ghosts of Stalin and Mandelstam. Later when Osip and Elizabeth have a conversation over art, Osip rounds up the occasion saying how his grandfather said the best of everything beautiful died with the twentieth century. “Everything then was more than itself, everything was symbolic.” This awareness that the twenty- first century is too bland and overexposed to be metaphoric haunts the style of narration of the novel.
In fact One Love is a novel that is overly conscious of its place in the world as a work of art. Its nervousness with the reader adds to its effect. There are moments when the unstable narrator stares out of the book and makes sure he has the reader’s confidence. Listen to Osip B breaking the fourth wall on page number 8: “Students fell in love with their teachers all the time, didn’t they? Consider your own life, Dear Reader. Look back: the seventh grade, the biology class. Wasn’t what she said a coded invitation to share her bed. No? Perhaps not. I am never quite sure of anything.” Osip bears this uncertainty like his cross. In extension, narrated through Osip, the novel also carries the cross of doubt and lack of conviction, and fails to make grand political statements. The uncertainty of the post-truth era we live in, conditions the scattered musings of Osip B.
Literary fiction in English from Indian authors is a rare whiff of relief, as the market gets increasingly flooded by chicklit, YAF, and other run-of-the mill books. CP Surendran’s work is a ray of hope for serious readers of English fiction from Indian authors. The book dreams big, really big. More importantly, it is marked by that rare magic whereby readers are made part of the work’s grandest dreams.