Nandlal Kapoor is that hysterical cheapskate freeloader/borderline conman we all know (and hate). Mohan Rakesh’s contempt for him is palpable, even when they first meet at the Hotel Savoy in Kannur. But Kapoor — lacking any awareness of boundaries — develops an immediate, inflated kinship with the author thanks to their shared Punjabiness, leading to uncomfortably comic consequences. Later, in Trichur, at the Vadakkumnathan Temple, a man named Sridharan loans the mandatory lungi to Rakesh so he can visit the temple. Thirty-something and unmarried, Sridharan is frighteningly devoted to his religion and his mother, with whom he lives, isolated from all sense of collective reality. Rakesh is invited over for a cup of coffee, earning the distinction of being the first ever guest at their house — he doesn’t get to meet the mother despite his repeated insistence on thanking her in person; she promptly falls ill at the intrusion.
To The Farthest Rock is the story of the illustrious Hindi writer Mohan Rakesh’s journey from the Bombay of the post-Partition period of 1952, to the southern part of the country and, just as often, into the very depths of the unknown, the “farthest rock”. Twenty-seven at the time and armed with a “restless disposition”, a longing to travel, he sets off, and the journey culminates in a terrifying ordeal on a boat in Kanyakumari. The places he visits — all of which Rakesh describes in stunning detail, packing in rafts of information that display a sharp, perceptive mind — and the pointed observations he makes are naturally an indispensible part of the book. “In every town there are some roads that are not much used. There will be lively traffic on nearby roads but hardly anyone travels along a particular road — as if the other roads had plotted to boycott it.”
However, beyond that, the travelogue is really about the many, many people he meets, the fleeting relationships that shape his voyage. Those passages, which form the heart of the book and appear as little vignettes in the form of chapters through the course of his travel, are an exhibition of the union between simplicity of language and complexity of thought that Rakesh would go on to master in his later works. The revelatory intimacy of these passing, prima facie trivial interactions with fellow strangers and travellers is thrilling, often to the point where you’d feel guilty, as if you’re eavesdropping. It’s like you’re sitting next to them, travelling on trains, hitching rides, seeking comfort in the stories of these very real others.
There’s the heartbreaking account of the proud young beggar who’s fluent in English, Tamil and Sanskrit, refusing to entertain Rakesh’s attempts at engaging in personal conversation, walking away before Rakesh could give him any money. Or when, in Chundale, labourer and former army-man Govindan assists him to a coffee plantation, only to be chased away by an angry, cartoonish English owner with fierce dogs. The loneliness of the very charming Hussaini — the piercing sense of despair the travelling card salesman feels being on the road 11 months a year away from his wife and two children — that drives him almost into the arms of a lady of the night, before seeking solace in the company of Rakesh resonates greatly. Maybe it’s the choice of words and the conversation the two share, or the contrast between Hussaini’s good-spirited, cheerful disposition and the darkness that lies at his heart that adds to that sense of feeling shattered. Or maybe it’s just the sensitive, distanced style Rakesh uses. You get a sense of the narrator and his moods, and most concerns are tackled with maturity and sensitivity, but there’s also a subtle level of detachment in there that allows for the subjects themselves to rise to the forefront.
Rakesh sets out to discover new sights and sounds, new perspectives and experiences. There’s a scintilla of optimism and positivity as he embarks on his adventure.
Dropcap OnAnd while this reviewer’s understanding of the nuances of Hindi writing is practically non-existent (or English for that matter), the translation, by Satti Khanna, seems to stay true to Rakesh’s modern, inquisitive style. The thing with translations, really, is a bit like the role that the bass plays in music. You won’t often hear the bass, but you’ll always feel it, and it’s easy to tell when something goes awry. Not much seems to here. That said, one tiny little grouse this reviewer has with To The Farthest Rock is the at times over-elaborate descriptions of spaces — in those rare lapses it gets, dare I say it, flowery. But then, it’s a double edged sword. While occasional portions can seem a tad ham-fisted — of course, not taking into account the fact that the book was written half a century ago — the colour that those bits add (when they work) lends a real sense of splendour to the times of India past, a crystal sense of belonging to the places Rakesh visits.
As for the potentially dated quality of the work, Rakesh’s progressive ideals dispel any such notions. One passage in particular, about visiting Karvakar, a newly-made acquaintance on the train, at his house, persists sharply: “I noticed that he was helpful and humble before a stranger like myself but imperious with his wife. He assumed, like a medieval husband, that the wife’s chief role was to serve him.”
To The Farthest Rock is a glimpse of a simpler time in history, an insight into the past. Although, realistically, calling it simple would be patronising, and also inacurrate. Rakesh sets out to discover new sights and sounds, new perspectives and experiences. There’s a scintilla of optimism and positivity as he embarks on his adventure. But soon, as he, and through his words the reader, discovers, the world can be a vicious, thankless place. The historical-document nature of the book stays, but along with it comes a sense of the now, the current, affording a quality of timelessness to the words. Glimmers of joy and tranquility appear just as frequently as desolation, and Rakesh, ever the master of lilting moods, captures both with equal effortlessness.