Monday, March 25, 2013

The Skinning Tree by Srikumar Sen

Amit Chaudhuri is wrong when he says, The Skinning Tree, which won The Tibor Jones South Asian Prize for 2012, is ‘About Calcutta in the 40s’. Indeed, the story is placed in that period, but is not the whole story. Further, the book publisher, Picador India uses Chaudhuri’s brief one-liner to market it, by placing the statement at the back of the book. But the content of the book goes way beyond these narrow confines, to make a compelling read.

I am sure everyone who is a sports buff, would have heard of Srikumar Sen? If not, then, both the Award and his book, The Skinning Tree, have placed him firmly on Top of the reader’s mind.

 Written about the historical period in India, mainly Calcutta and Gaddi, The Skinning Tree revives memories of the past, 1940s. It showcases the life of educated, affluent Bengali families, who were closely associated with the British. It tells you about, how, these families needed to keep up with the Jones by ensuring their children went to schools run by the British, although they ensured their own children went to schools, exclusively meant for them. And most importantly, it opens up, perhaps for the first time, the Pandora’s Box, on what went on in these all-boys boarding schools where Indians from affluent backgrounds sent their boys and how they coped with it.

Nine year old Sabby, is sent away to boarding school in Gaddi, because, his parents fear that the Japanese are going to occupy Calcutta. Established Journalists of those times, the wining and dining that keep the couple busy by day and night, are happy their only son, Sabby is at home with his grandmother and joyously going to his Elementary School. Propelled by their fear, though, they decide to send Sabby away to the boarding school, so he is safe. But this measure is ill received by Sabby who hates his new school and dreams his parents will come as promised during the Easter holidays and take him back, from the harshness of school. Run by the Catholic Fathers, they are strict disciplinarians, who do not spare the rod. His heart breaks when a letter arrives from home saying that his parents, caught up with their lives, now that his grandmother has suddenly died too, would not be able to come to see him after all! This undoubtedly dashes his hope of escape the school. Thanatos takes over the young boy as he runs on top of the high wall that shuts off the world outside from the isolated school, from which, if he fell, there would be only death, the final escape from this hell. Caught by his friend, he has been saved from dying but not from the disciplinarian whip, of the Father, who lashes out on him, for breaking the rules.

At this juncture, Eros, takes over Thanatos, and young Sabby makes another escape from the hell within, by giving himself to the new life he is living in boarding school, altering his perception of it and taking it on, whole heartedly. His home in Calcutta and his dear ones are forgotten / replaced by friends in school. The pages of the book become testimony to what is true friendship among boys, put away in boarding schools. He begins to learn and use the language spoken by the boys, quintessentially punctuated with words, only familiar to them. He begins to participate in acts that indicate how the boys at school have learned to cope with the administration - the rigorous, often, violent disciplinarian actions, teach them to release the anger and violence received from the authorities by giving it back in equal measure, if not more, to things, persons, animals, birds and bees, anything that is vulnerable and cannot retaliate back. Killing and skinning snakes, squirrels and birds, only to dump the dead on The Skinning Tree, which becomes the emblem of destruction. The helpless tree standing just outside the boundary wall, bares the pain and the strife, the misery and the misplaced hatred, from the boys. Finally, though, one day, as if in connivance with young Sabby, she changes her stance from a silent victim to retaliate, by giving way when moments after, Sabby fearing  strict disciplinary action for breaking rules, fails to heed a plea for help, and the skinning tree unable to bear the burden of giving support, gives way.  Consequently, a lesson from life is doled out to a figure of authority - what goes round, comes around. Violence is met with violence, alright!

The book is autobiographical and bears testimony to an act that remained to trouble the psyche of the writer and while putting the book down, the reader hopes that, by writing it, the guilt so long held close in the crevices of the mind, or the remorse, might have found its peace. Although, it is quite possible to see that Sabby could not have been blamed for his last minute refusal to help, for had he cared to listen to his heart, that evening, the dreadful whip would not have spared him at all.

Throughout the book, the reader is witness to the struggle of life and death, of Eros and Thanatos, at many levels, with many people, but no matter what, victory is always Eros’.

Although it is death that has the proverbial, last laugh.

My observation, not only related with this book, but of late being discussed in many circles, is, it appears to be that most debut novels are autobiographical in nature. So, in a way, the audience is made to read books that are essentially a confession. This is both an advantage as well as a disadvantage. At one level, the author has decided to take pains to externalize events in their lives to make a compelling read for an audience out there. On the other hand, it is quite something to be able to lay one’s life in the hands of readers to be constantly analyzed, critiqued or applauded for.

The life within is like a mirror, which one can hold to see one’s own reflection. At the same time, it is also like a shadow, one can never really get away from, and which stays with the author, like a devoted partner. And if that is shared with many, it is for the reader to judge, what h/she wants to take, or wants to leave out.

I prefer a story that shows me, survival, at its best. The power of the human mind to transform an adversity to an opportunity is for me the most profound moment in a human life. The poignancy of each word that make it the story, well written, is life changing and unforgettable. The Skinning Tree certainly deserved the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize for 2012, and to become a part of your personal library.

Tibor Jones South Asia Prize 2012

Publisher: Picador India
Author: Srikumar Sen
Price: Rs 499
Hardcover, 222 pages

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