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Mountains ranged to the north of this land once.

Pebblemonkey cover“Once”—so begins Manindra Gupta’s Pebblemonkey (translated by Arunava Sinha), with that portentous word that announces a beginning. To begin at the beginning, perhaps, is characteristic of creation myths, stitching together birth and metamorphosis of a world from a single event. Pebblemonkey, the protagonist of this novel, is an indeterminate creature, a monkey born when a pebble is kicked into a stream, emerging whole to exist among trees and other animals with proper names: predators, hermits, mountaineers, businessmen, even gods and legends. The breadth of the novel’s world, a microcosm on the tip of a Himalayan mountain range which is stretching and melting, speaks of epic proportions. And, as G. N. Devy characterises the many heads and tails of the Indian epic, it begins, not in medias res like its Greek and Roman counterparts, but at the very beginning [1].

Fairy tales also begin with “once upon a time,” a storyteller declaring a beginning where others may see none. Pebblemonkey, like all fairy tales, (a genealogy stretching from the romances of the twelfth century, to the “wundermärchen” or folktale in which Vladimir Propp will include the animal story, and even stories from the Panchatantra, which the seventeenth-century Frenchman, La Fontaine, plucked from an “Indian sage, Pilpay” for his canon, the Fables) traffics in metamorphosis, not only the transformation of stone to a creature, but the transformation of a whole ecosystem. Pebblemonkey is a novel belonging to all these forms—fairy tale, creation myth, animal folktale, non-european epic—each already entangled in the other.

Mountains ranged to the north of this land once. Why do I say once? They still do—that they will not tomorrow has cast a shadow over my heart.

Pebblemonkey, slim, barely a hundred-and-twenty-five pages, published first in 2016, acquired after the author’s death, and translated into English in 2022, is a modern novel. But even in these opening sentences, it is difficult to situate the time-period in which it is couched. Past, present, and future are all made immediately relevant in three opening sentences—“once,” “still,” “tomorrow.” Later, as pebblemonkey grows, meets humans who have lived in metropolises, and then others who use smartphones, matters become less obfuscating; the third-person narrator can be resolutely placed within our own milieu. Belonging to our time, however, leaves the narrator no choice but to echo a contemporary and common relationship to the present. Our present is marked by an awareness that the future is already shaped by a loss of its existing natural forms. So, in the beginning itself, and with a gesture towards “tomorrow,” Pebblemonkey announces that this is a novel set in the engineered tide of biocultural, ecosystemic, and climatic collapse. In this, too, it is a fairy tale, unflinchingly contemporary though its concerns may be, as Marina Warner says, “not passive or active. [Fairy tales] are optative—announcing what might be” [2].

There is history, in a wide but perambulatory arc, which adheres to the novel through the movements of its main character. In another review of this novel, the term “bildungsroman” has been used to describe the creature’s growth. Pebblemonkey shakes off his earlier form, considers his own species and being, discovers predators, consciously decides to consume only plants, structures a language, and communes among many other beings. Then comes the train of humans, all of whom leave the land and pebblemonkey a little different than before. The formal mode of history is suspended for a consideration of how things come to be, delimiting, reflecting, then expanding upon the abstracted notion of being and becoming. Both pebblemonkey and the Himalayan forest land are implicated in this growth, journey, and transformation. Early in the novel, once the monkey has satiated his hunger, he begins to desire thought, to “muse on what it is thinking,” and to do so, “crafts a language,” differentiating between each signifier through what can be “perceived” and what cannot. Having constructed a language, and developed and limited its jurisdiction (like a studied structuralist), he spends a great part of the novel thereafter ruminating on beauty, literature, ethics, and transformation through metaphors and other figures of speech. Each short chapter in the novel pauses on the monkey’s thought and action, and takes shape through his syntactical grasp.

He is the spokesperson of the young forest, the messenger of laughter, a joker among jokers.

Language is also what enables pebblemonkey to commune with beings, including humans. With the advent of man into the landscape, the perspective shifts imperfectly, and the forest is no longer an “unpolluted place” but the ground for transformation of man and beast. First arrives the hermit—the recluse who teaches the monkey spirituality, who names and shames the monkey’s attraction to the deer, attempting to make an ascetic out of a creature who claims nothing. Then the migrants arrive (the five brothers and the wife, resembling the Pandavas) sharply driving pebblemonkey to look for a referent in literature, compelling him to read the Mahabharata. Addressing the travellers’ exhortations, pebblemonkey not only names the land “Brahmapura”—carelessly, as he says, bringing permanence and borders into being—but he also sees Brahmapura through many changes, making it a land of pilgrimage, of migrations, exploration, and finally, commerce and exploitation.

The historical mode here can perhaps be classified in two ways that complement each other. I can extend George Lukács’s definition to say that Pebblemonkey focuses on “developing tendencies of history which constitute a higher reality than empirical fact” [3], and also turn to G. N. Devy again, to say that the novel follows the form of itihasa, as a “way of remembering.”  I emphasize process in both these analyses. History appears as movement, a tendency with no placeholders, which the flow of language then reduces to the “flatness” of erased timestamps and apparent exactitude. We could be anywhere, and we are also in the thick of things—in the midst of impending ecological crisis and the nostalgic mood that accompanies it. The earth is growing warmer, melting, portending the “extinction of glaciers” and the “sixth extinction of the animal kingdom.”

Manindra Gupta’s anthropomorphising—the thought, speech, act of a conscious pebblemonkey—turns an object of inquiry (the pebble that is a monkey) into a subject, then situates him amidst a dying but still-lively world. The representation of speaking animals is not seen as a reductive literary device, and Gupta’s unapologetic anthropomorphising exists within a tradition of legend, myth, and literature, from Ovid to the animal fables of Aesop. The translation, with its characteristic rhythm, produces a sense of the tradition’s orality. The phrases are repetitive, the sentences full of alliteration and assonance; the storyteller intrudes constantly, sometimes directly, sometimes re-presenting pebblemonkey’s experiences and thoughts for us. There are no quotation marks to mark dialogue, rendering everything as one articulation.

This is not a story about mountaineering, this is a story about intimacy between mammals. And so the minutiae of climbing will be missing here. Instead, we shall investigate deep, complex relationships between living beings.

Pebblemonkey is not a witness, and neither is he a noble character cut of the heroic cloth. He is not a creature of virtue, nor is he the conscience-keeper of a morality tale. Instead, he produces metamorphosis itself, transforming interspecies relationships. With him, the hermit learns to accept alms from the forest, and businessmen negotiate to share ownership of the land and its fruit; the monkey develops relationships of varied intimacies with all other species, whether the four-footed deer, the city-dwelling spiritual, or the women who come to climb the mountains. He is a pupil, child, companion, friend, lover, and advisor; he empathises, challenges, seduces, protects, represents, and influences. Through him, it becomes possible to apprehend a biosphere as it comes alive, accepting and interacting even with those who will ultimately destroy it.

Nevertheless, narratives of climate fiction are matryoshka dolls, all hope pinned to the last miniature—the child. There is reason enough to be wary of the “fascism of the baby’s face” as Lee Edelman calls it [4], the kind of fascism that reveals an end-of-empire anxiety through worries about demographics, displacing the necessary work of transformation into the future. The culture that Manindra Gupta is writing within, however, is both implicated and distant from such concerns. On the one hand, Gupta’s novel belongs resolutely to the Bengali literary tradition, a vast and rich canon, whose moods often return to the past as offering a more holistic ecosystem, as in Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Ichhamati. On the other hand, the referents and antecedents in Pebblemonkey are drawn from a cosmology of Sanskrit texts, Advaita epistemology, and Hindu religious thought—all of which today are mobilized by Hindutva, for a demographic panic, weaponized for genocide and wielded to prop up a fascist nationalism. How then, can we read a story situated in myths, when the mythical is so often propaganda? How can we read Pebblemonkey’s conclusive pages, where a child is born to the titular character? What then of fascism, its aesthetic of order, its demand for purity, and that specious turn back to the glories of past?

The risk that a narrative about climate change within these traditions will turn into an eco-fascist narrative, with its “blood and soil” roots in nationalist sentiment, is great. But in Pebblemonkey, if there is any celebration of the organic and of innocence, it is equally mired in negotiating with institutions of modernity; there is no rejection of modernity, only an entanglement with it. In this case, the child can be understood, instead of a displacement into the future, as representation of the continuation of metamorphosis, an “intergenerational commitment” to transformation—as Keerthik Sasidharan says, one that, “recognizes our historically and socially contingent selves, to the flourishing of an ever-expanding locus of affiliations.”

The human is hardly celebrated in the novel. The monkey wonders, “Cultivating garbage and then rooting it out. But if you are going to uproot it, why plant it in the first place?” This approach renders ends and beginnings uncertain, modernity and tradition equally revised, and turns the anthropocentric gaze back to the human to scrutinize them. What comes first—pebble, monkey, or human, and who then inherits this dying earth? For not only is the earth dying, the human in Pebblemonkey also occupies a ruinous category. He is a being unable to escape what destruction he has wrought—but is also one who, regardless, keeps transforming the earth. The human strives towards human ends alone, runs the sentiment of the novel, and ecology can be damned:

Perhaps all of us will die out by the end of this century—the three species that will be seen to have survived beside the thousands of underground gutters of Swachh Bharat are the maggot, the cockroach, and the human.

Finally, here we can give fascism a referent within the novel, through that caustic comment about the exterminators who dreamed up the country-wide campaign called Swachh Bharat, who instrumentalize hygiene to control the bodies that roam the streets they have claimed as pure. Gupta is well aware of the ends to which such hatred runs. History revised so often it becomes sediment on a vast and empty landscape of our imagined nation. People keep running from cities only to recreate the same ruined metropolises in the forest. Pebblemonkey’s last interaction with a human, after all, ends with the businessman and his many sons—a never-ending bloodline—going into war with the animals and the forest. Despite profitable resolution, they gradually exclude the forest from the fruits it continues to produce.  Pebblemonkey rejects a world of such civility, soon becoming “just an ordinary monkey.”

So, the broad strokes of a history come to an end, just as Pebblemonkey’s incursions into civilization come to an end. The child, then, is “tomorrow”: part monkey, part pebble, conceived of loving union and midwifed by other animals—simply another transformation, the forest continuing to thrive.

Endnotes

[1] G. N. Devy, Mahabharata: The Epic and the Nation (Delhi: Aleph, 2022). [return]

[2] Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996). [return]

[3] Georg Lukács, Theory of the Novel (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1974). [return]

[4] Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). [return]



Shinjini Dey is an editor, writer, and reviewer. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Review of Books, Analog Fact and Fiction, Decolonial Hacker and many others. She can be found on Twitter at @shinjini_dey.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
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