- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 4, 2002


By Sudhir Kakar

Overlook Press, $26.95,

251 pages

Sudhir Kakars first novel, much praised, was "The Ascetic of Desire." The writer and noted psychoanalysts new novel, "Ecstasy," gets off to a fast start in the first sentence:

"Gopals visions ended when he grew breasts."The 15-year-olds hips widened too, giving him a twin-gendered appearance. He had, in addition, been a singer much in demand at religious ceremonies since the age of 10. Growing up in the village of Deogarh, some 30 miles north of Jaipur in India, Gopal finds that he does not like boys and prefers the company of women, but not in any sexual way. Even at this early age, his pronounced appetite is for the world of the divine.

The time is the early 1930s, and in the course of the novel the Raj will pass and India gain independence, but that is not yet:

"When a special British guest and his mem who had motored down from Delhi set out with the baron and his retainers on a hunt, they were seldom aware that the expenses for the expedition, including the lavish meals washed down with bottles of Scotch whisky and fine French wines, were being borne by the undernourished men with large turbans and spindly legs who prostrated themselves in the dust by the side of the road as the elephants bearing the hunting party passed by."

This is a novel about the conflict between the spirit and the flesh, the tension between ancient and modern in Indian culture and between those Indians intent on preserving their traditional ways and other Indians more inclined to ape the West.

Much of Gopals story is based on that of the great Bengali mystic, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1839-1886), while that of his later disciple Vivek in the book comes from the background of Ramakrishnas successor and heir Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). The author, as he tells us in a preface, has also benefited from accounts of other mystics, including Muktananda, Gopikrishna, Raman Maharishi and Teresa of Avilla, plus a number of poets, "especially those with a mystical bent — Surdas, Tukaram, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Rainer Maria Rilke, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Jennings — whose works provided some of the images with which I have tried to enter the heart of the 'ineffable."

Mr. Kakar stresses that he is in no way inclined to mysticism himself, which makes his achievement in the book all the more impressive. The extent of his psychoanalytic trainings contribution is not as accessible to the layman as it would be to a specialist, but one can see the possibilities at least.

First, there is Gopals twin-gendering, which is an aspect of Indian mystical thought: the idea that one is both masculine and feminine at the same time. Gopals breasts shrink on his path to becoming the sadhu, or religious leader, Ram Das Baba, but in one episode along the way he takes to wearing female clothes for a six-month period and cultivates the walk of a woman.

This is but one example of how his spiritual journey has an air about it of eroticism just behind the scenes. The tale is very sensual to that extent. And late in his spiritual journey to his goal, Gopal does experience an invasion of erotic images and impulse, which to the Christian imagination conveys something of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness.

At the same time, the story of Gopal is intensely spiritual and not of the material world, Indian or otherwise. The author at one point employs as an epigraph William Blakes line from "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" that "The roads of excess lead to the palaces of wisdom." It is apropos but in no way a Western thought, except perhaps in an anti-Enlightenment way. Reading about Gopals various transformations on his way to sublimity, I was reminded of W.B. Yeats in his poem "Mohini Chatterjee": "I have been a king, / I have been a slave, / Nor is there anything, / Fool, rascal, knave, / I have not been, / And yet upon my breast / A myriad heads have lain."

Another aspect of Gopals spiritual journey where one discerns the psychoanalytical possibilities lies in the idea that one is not an individual but part of a universal situation bound neither by time or space, oceanic in the Jungian sense perhaps. This is the goal in a way of the mystical quest, to shed the trappings of materiality. There is a near-comical episode after Gopal has been returned home from a monastery to his worried mother, Amba, who makes an attempt to marry him off to a 16-year-old Jat girl, niece of a local astrologer. Appalled at the thought, Gopal turns to Dhamani, a jeweler and his patron:"Only you can explain to her why I can never marry, how I can never be a householder."

At no point in the book is the division between the Indian mystics life and that of ordinary society more sharply drawn.

The novels secondary story, that of Vivek, is somewhat different. He is the son of Trilok Nath, an agnostic (who later will die after collapsing while playing tennis — very modern, very Western). Vivek attended a Jesuit school and when we meet him is a wide reader, passionate wrestler and desultory philosophy student who likes to spend his time lying in the grass and listening to the thwack of cricket bat against the ball.

Viveks path to the spiritual life and the side of Gopal, by this time known as Baba, will be another one. But he will arrive and be accepted among the great teachers disciples, largely consisting of boys 15 and 16 years old. As he grows older Baba withdraws from the company and touch of women who attempt to kiss his feet and so on, but needs physical contact with young boys, something of which the reader is left to make what he likes (one last psychoanalytic touch?). In a climactic scene, Baba places his foot on Viveks stomach, with dramatic spiritual consequences. When Baba succumbs to cancer of the throat, Vivek takes on his role.

The novel has a wide range of characters in addition to those I have mentioned. Several are spiritual teachers who guide Gopal on his way, either from institutional bases or after itinerant arrival and departure. Kamal, a fellow student of Vivek, is a Marxist and provides a link of sorts to the path of Indian independence as it arrives and is guided by the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru. Babas national fame is established when Indira Gandhi visits him.

This is not a novel for the timid. But the reader interested in a serious way with the psychological and spiritual life will find it worth the march.

The character of Gopal, above all, is a bold and intimate portrait of a boy with a singular gift for the spiritual life. Most of us wouldnt want to travel his route through the years. The rigors are too great, and the appeal of the flesh and societys comforts irresistible. But after reading Sudhir Kakars novel we know a lot more about what the committed spiritual life is really like than we did before. And we know a lot more about India too.

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