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Snehal Vadher reviews
Five Movements in Praise
By Sharmistha Mohanty 

“The land rises and falls, a geological breath.” So begins Sharmistha Mohanty’s new book, and from that moment on, the language remains acutely perceptive to time embedded in our experience of the world. Five Movements in Praise is Mohanty’s third book of fiction, in which she continues on the journey begun in her first book, Book One, an exploration of storytelling itself through fragmented narratives. Although this phrase suggests postmodernist tendencies, the values and aesthetics of Mohanty’s work are far from those observed in works classified under that label.

For one, we see her trying to form continuities out of the disjointed and disparate pasts, rather than play with them through pastiche. A relentless force is at work in Mohanty’s prose to bring closer, to buttress, times and spaces far from one another. So the story of Manaku, a Pahari painter living in the early 1700s, is placed right next to one in which a traveler crosses the endless, mythological night of a painting of Radha and Krishna by one of Manaku’s own predecessors. Similarly, the story of an old man who frequents an Irani café, whose owner sits reading Li Po, is placed next to one of a pujari of a shrine at a street corner, outside which, once its doors shut in the evening, “women and eunuchs blossom.”

What Mohanty achieves by doing this is exactly what Manaku finds he has achieved in his painting, in the above-mentioned story:

“It was a mistake that made him see, slowly, that brought him to a belief he never had before. That each thing in his painting was equal, as it was in the landscape in which he moved, none diminished by the other, freed from a hierarchy imposed only by the eyes.”

As the reader accompanies the narrator through the book’s varied terrain, reflected in the titles of the five movements—Town, Forest, City, Caves and Landscapes—Mohanty dexterously situates not only times and spaces but also discourses on the same plane, placing philosophical meditation next to kitsch and the surreal next to the real, suggesting that there is hierarchy in what we see because there is hierarchy in the ways of seeing. 

 As landscapes are made continuous by the elements of light, rock, air and sky, the discontinuities in discourse are stitched together by a prose that remains restrained yet honest and sincere throughout the journey. Mohanty wields it like a tool, with full understanding of its power, as is evident in these lines:

“In places that are forgotten, the sky goes back a hundred years, then a thousand, then a thousand and eight hundred. It holds up a ruined fort, presses through the stone lattice work of mausoleums, watches from a shaded pavilion. Only sometimes does the land bear a fort, a mosque, a stupa, a line of caves. Otherwise it is empty except for barren hills and scrub.”

 The power of concision often renders the language so abstract that it slips into the realm of poetry and makes Five Movements in Praise an exciting work to read:
“I only wanted to go to the other shore,” he says.

“I’ve been rowing all night,” the boatman replies, “and only at dawn can I see that I’m still in the same place.”     

 In a little more than hundred pages, Mohanty manages to create beautiful and haunting landscapes, explore philosophically the idea of the original and convey the brutality of living in contemporary times, when violence has become part of the everyday. Five Movements in Praise fuses the myriad harmonies and cacophonies of life to create a music that is enriching and humbling to listen.  

Five Movements in Praise is published by Almost Island Books. 122 pages, £15.53
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