The Friendless God is a dispassionate, non-partisan narrative of ordinary lives in small-town India and the impact the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement had on them.
The central question of The Friendless God, a novel by S Anuradha, is anchored on the idea of who God’s friend is. The deceptively simple novel, written in unassuming prose, exploits the metaphor of friendship par excellence to explore the contentious limits of religious sentiment in India in the 1980s and 1990s.
The ontological question of God’s friendless stature is explored through the honest quest of a naïve and untutored teenager, Kodanda, from a small town in Andhra Pradesh, who unwittingly comes to the fore of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid conflict and becomes its unwarranted victim. The story is narrated in a casual, matter-of-fact manner and this is a concrete reminder that changes occur in our lives in seamless ways. If we are not alert to what is happening to us or around us, change can engulf us in its torrential sway.
At one level, the author suggests that God may be surrounded by many devotees but unless these devotees sincerely understand the meaning of godliness, they will never be able to identify with the objects in the instituted altar of the temple. This is exemplified through the landscaping of the Parnashala in the temple at Bhadrapuram. The garden and the backyard have plants with flowers and leaves that are used to worship different Gods and Goddesses. Yet, Rama is decorated with tulsi leaves that mark his austerity and purity. This disjoint between Rama’s austerity and the sensuous beauty of the garden underscores the difference between instituted religion and simple faith. Unlike Dasharatha, a businessman-turned-politician who awaits an opportunity to politicise the religious conflict, and win the elections, Kodanda, has created space in his heart for God. This is the kind of love for the divine that the narrative finds lacking in the masses that dogmatically make their way to Ayodhya.
One of the strengths of the author is her ability to bring together disparate narratives to foreground the polemics of the religious-political conflict that saw a high point in the late 1980s and early 1990s, leading up to the catastrophic turn of events on December 6, 1992, when the domes of the Masjid built during the Mughal rule were destroyed.
We are taken through two parallel narratives of Kodanda, the only son of an abusive single mother, and Raman, the orphan living off his relatives. Kodanda, simple but sensitive, follows his heart; Raman, the skeptic, follows his mind. The stories are brought together in a way that is reminiscent of the intertwining of the swaras sung by the vocalist and played by the accompanying artistes to specific permutations and combinations in Carnatic music. The cycle of the swaras and their numbers are systematically reduced until the vocalists and the accompanying artistes merge their renditions and conclude the performance. Similarly, Kodanda and Raman’s stories are narrated. Initially, full chapters are devoted to individual narratives. Soon, the stories form parts of the same chapter as the two individuals approach Ayodhya from their respective places and positions in life until the last catastrophic moment. This is a commendable stylistic achievement of the author.
A good part of the story is about the human desire to come to terms with a sense of loss. Vaidehi (a name that reminds the reader of Sita) fights with the loss of self-respect, Raman is constantly aware of his lack of parents, Dasharatha (name reminiscent of Rama’s father and a father figure to Raman in the novel) fears political failure, and Kodanda (another name for Rama as the wielder of the bow) suffers with a sense of multiple losses. Vaidehi wears the mask of a strong, self-reliant woman to hide her sense of loss, Dasharatha pretends to have lofty ideals, and Raman takes refuge in scepticism. Those who do not wear masks are unable to survive. Kodanda, in falling through the hole on the top of the dome of the Masjid and imagining himself to be in the divine presence of Ram Lalla, believes that it is a release from his sense of loss.
However, the author does not allow us to come to such straightjacket conclusions. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement is presented in an objective, dispassionate manner that allows the reader to internalise the ambivalent political and religious sentiments of the nation’s leaders that brought many innocent citizens to their tragic end. The novel also dwells on another, less tangible but more pertinent and potentially dangerous sense of loss. This is expressed with seemingly deceptive simplicity through Kodanda’s reading of Rama’s story. Having memorised the story that is written in a few sentences, Kodanda devises innovative ways of reading the text. He reads it from left to right (in the way of a Devanagari script), from right to left (Urdu script), vertically (Chinese/Japanese scripts), and diagonally.
While at the outset, this kind of reading is presented playfully, the real message of this incident — to which an entire chapter is devoted — is deeper. The author points out how the meaning of the text changes with the sequence in which the words on the page are read. This part of the novel is a critique of how those in power exploit impressionable minds with their ability to interpret the words on the page to their advantage. Through this rendition of the seemingly mundane exercise of a bored teenager’s engagement with words on the page, the author captures the power of interpretation to make or break lives. The Friendless God is a powerful, detached but sensitive narrative about a contentious and long-drawn play of religious sentiment and political power.
Writer: UMA JAYARAMAN
Courtesy: The Pioneer