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Under a sequined sky; Books; Fiction
Navtej Sarna

THE LAST WILDERNESS. By Nirmal Verma. Translated by Pratik Kanjilal. 293pp. Delhi: Indigo. Paperback, Rs295. 81 88297 00 3

Sleepy little towns, like the one in which The Last Wilderness is set, still exist in the Indian hills. Each with its Public Works Department guesthouse, its straggling bazaar, its forgotten library where old men read the previous week's newspapers, its tree-shrouded cemetery with mossy gravestones of colonial vintage, its small hospital with a maverick doctor and its rundown club with a faded tennis net, four card tables, a worn out billiards table-top and the town's top guns -the district civil servants. Even the minor characters may be lurking there: the guesthouse watchman or chowkidar with his monkey cap and his ability to rustle up a meal from onions and potatoes; a schoolteacher with a past; a mysterious foreigner, forgotten by the Raj, living in a cottage enveloped in rumour. In such out-of-the-way corners it is easy to imagine the events of The Last Wilderness taking place: its echoing silences and aimless conversations on lonely verandas at night under a sequined sky, as the mist settles into mountain crevasses and the light in the distance seems now a lamp, then a star and then an inordinately large firefly.

To this mountain magic, Nirmal Verma, one of the foremost modern writers in Hindi today, deftly adds supernatural question marks, sharp and sudden as pine needles. These un- answered questions address life and death, the past and the future. They hang above the hillside with its isolated cottages and the town below, sway with the breeze in the pines and drip with the raindrops from the branches of the oaks that line the paths like "brooding sages". They transform the idyllic hill town into a strange world of half-life, extending either side of death, where the dead may be as present as the living are absent.

Our narrator arrives at the town, carrying his own past "in an attaché case". He has been hired by Diva, the second wife of an ageing civil servant, Mehra Sahib, to act as secretary, as the old man teases out memories of distant journeys, lost places, forgotten times. Around him a strange bunch of people "examine the ruins of their lives at leisure" -a German governess, a philosophy professor turned recluse, an ex-army doctor who rides a horse called St Sebastian.

Tiya, Mehra Sahib's daughter by his first wife, is an occasional visitor, a symbol of hope, youth and, fleetingly, love. The vivacious Diva is claimed by cancer, leaving the narrator with the feeling that he was brought there because she knew that she was leaving, a lingering suspicion that he is only "a parasite whose very existence was contingent upon the extinction of another". Diva is buried in the cemetery but her presence pervades everything -the cottages, the conversations, the silences -more alive than ever in her death; the memory of her laughter, "warbling like the wash of a mountain stream", is never far away.

The shadow of Diva's death is soon overtaken by the shadow of a death that is about to happen, that of Mehra Sahib himself. Troubled at the end by the memory of his first wife (the reader never does find out what happened to her), the old man often seems to stand astride the edge of a precipice, one foot on the slippery rock, the other in the vanishing blue. His spirit journeys in unreachable lands, to places where "every agony has its lane, every memory its court, every regret its backyard". The novel becomes a gripping examination of the time before death: how memories jostle for space, how internal dialogues of the spirit take place, and man himself becomes fragmented into different time-spaces, until it "is impossible to tell which is the last and final copy". Only after he has performed Mehra Sahib's last rites in a starkly surreal sequence, is the narrator free to leave the town, never to return, his fledgling relationship with Tiya just one more question mark.

Pratik Kanjilal, who hammered out the translation from Hindi over four months while at the same time editing a literary magazine from a flat overlooking the Yamuna, has done a commendable job. The narrative easily passes the true test of a translation: it does not read like one. The writing is cryptic and evanescent; the passages appear like shadowy deodars in the mists. As the eye turns to read them again -for this is the kind of book that can be read twice -the mind half believes that they may already have vanished from sight. With masterly elegance, The Last Wilderness points the way to the immense treasure that lies hidden in the literature of the Indian languages, awaiting a wider audience.