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Nothing, Absolutely Nothing, in India Is Simple : THEN SPOKE THE THUNDER by Elwyn Chamberlain (Grove Press: $19.95; 240 pp.)

June 25, 1989|Laura Richardson | Writer Richardson lived in New Delhi, India, 1984-88. She now lives in Paris. and

In India, the will to believe--in ghosts, in magic, in the power of the stars--is strong, not only among the profoundly ignorant, but also well-educated people. Dreams and visions have material reality; the outrageous and absurd stand unabashed alongside the mundane and practical. Politicians have staff astrologers. A medical doctor in Uttar Pradesh seriously explains that human children may be reared by wolves and bears. A respected news wire service runs a story about a man-eating elephant in the northeast jungles that tramples its victims and then sucks up their blood with its trunk. A Bombay banker advises that one may diagnose a bite from a rabid animal by pressing a chapatti against the wound, then flinging the flat bread to a scavenger dog.

"If the dog runs away, you have rabies. If he eats the bread, you are safe," the man says, and everything one knows about first aid protests.

Indian manifestations of extreme spirituality are not simply peculiar to Westerners, but deeply shocking: naked devotees of Krishna with skewers through their penises; begging naga babas clad only in filth and their own tangled hair; old men who have so long raised their arms in prayer, they cannot lower them. Walking on live coals, sitting on a bed of needles, kissing king cobras, scourging oneself, whirling for hours, for days: To onlookers it's all terrifying, horrifying, and on some level--as it is doubtless intended to be--entertaining as well. Life in India, the mother of great religions, can be so cruel it is some relief to see these bizarre and wonderful exemplars of self-sacrifice.

On the other hand, Hinduism, the dominant Indian religion, imposes self-enrichment as a positive duty of the devotee, who in young manhood is to build up wealth and family; in old age, to leave all behind and go begging in search of enlightenment. The former duty appears to be the more assiduously performed. And as many Indian businessmen are only too happy to teach you, if you haven't already learned from the U.S. stock market, dishonesty is the best policy.

India's contradictions are so difficult to comprehend and its culture, layer upon layer of ancient conquest and submission, all attended by poets and magicians and sorrowing women, is not merely graceful and beautiful, but infuriating. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is simple, and the specious familiarity of today's political forms and lively press, the brisk and fluent young men in their Japanese cars, the modish young women in jeans and jogging shoes buying Barbie Dolls for their daughters, only serves to heighten the confusion and delay the realization that one does not, cannot, understand modern India.

Thus, much recent fiction about India has taken the easy way out, diving straight into the distant past. There, one may romance the exotic at one's leisure, holding hard to the comforting fact that witnesses of the era are dead, or at least, very few and far between. Bravely, Elwyn Chamberlain sets his latest novel, "Then Spoke the Thunder," at the time of Indira Gandhi's assassination by two of her Sikh bodyguards in October, 1984. His violence is new, and he also gives one another look at Indian spirituality, tossing in some tantrism and its unattractive initiation into the mysteries and powers.

His main characters, the repellently rich and handsome David Bruce and his equally obnoxious wife Philippa, who appears to have done nothing in her life but be beautiful and sleep around, are dropped all unawares into India's present where they are, of course, Shocked and Amazed. The reader is not shocked, but is pleased to learn during the course of the Bruces' travels around India that although they appear to have absolutely everything, they are in fact spiritually impoverished, emotionally crippled failures crying out for Love and Meaning, and guess where they find it?

Chamberlain is a dab hand at caricature, as far as subcontinentals are concerned, and the cast of Indian characters, speaking supposedly flawless Oxford or amusing Hindish, is broad and varied, ranging from the dispossessed princes, some of them now in straitened circumstances, others zillionaires like the Bruces; through gentle and eccentric geniuses, gluttonous poets, and the time-honored officious bureaucrats and faithful retainers; to the relatively new ignorant, inflamed, religious fanatics, the very stuff of which terrorists are made. These last are conveniently eaten by tigers.

"Then Spoke the Thunder" is nothing if not action-packed. Death and destruction, heartbreak and ruin, perfidy sharper than et cetera rain down on every other page. The spaces in between are reserved for sex--anticipating, having or remembering same. It may be necessary these days to write sex scenes into what aspires to be popular literature, but surely it is not necessary to use the word lingam. Chamberlain does.

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