Jagdish Keshav’s The President Vanishes and other Stories is a Chinese box collection with four dimensions that outline the pseudo modern existence – myth, instinct, reification and organised crime.A born story teller, he keeps our eyes glued onto the narratives verging on suspense. In “Circa”, in the search for the missing jewels, the quest for answers lies within, and readers also find themselves in a hunt for the missing link, a metaphor for some answer that has always evaded us and lingered onto the mind, as in the end of the story. It symbolizes the irrational fear that is a heavy baggage whose bits and pieces we find strewn on our path.”The March of Asuras” caricaturizes war that is often romanticized in myth and legends, and utilizes a powerful myth to subvert the same. ”The Story of a Lecher: Nayan Lal!” is a pointer to the patriarchal existence that promotes the reification and commodification of women. The inquisitiveness of the men-folk is a peep into their own psyche where the woman is objectified.”The President Vanishes” presents terrorism as the intentionally distorted simulacrum of religion.

I comprehend that “Circa” is in the form of a quest to complete oneself through God. Though instead of completing ourselves, we end up completing God binding him to a construct. In the light of a recent movie Rajkumar Hirani’s PK, I was amused at human’s frail attempts to complete God, as Pandit Shastri and Pandit Sharma try to complete Him. Does god require human assistance? Particularly all religions are predominantly based on offerings when there are neighbours suffering in our backyards owing to abject poverty. Other than the prescribed rituals in the scriptures, does God require a bribe for having his work done? These are questions that haunt one on reading Jagdish Keshav’s “Circa 1729-1730.” Apsara remains an enigma in her angelic qualities and her evasiveness. Jagdish Keshav has apostrophized innocence through her that is quite often missing in today’s simulacrum of creed. God is omnipresent as emblematized by the scattering of the jewels, and yet people endeavour to restrict him to locations as in the story where the pandits and the people of the village keep returning the jewels to the temple as it belongs to Him/Her. The quest for God continues, whereas peace to be found within. As stated in  Luke 17:21 : “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Girish Karnad’s monologue Flowers also deals with the construction of God with respect to gender when the priest poses a rhetorical question: Does God have long hair? The story “Circa” remains unresolved as an objective answer remains next to impossible. The writer utilizes time in the title as these myths are propagated through the cycles of time. Astral projection is a recurring motif that points to man’s out of body pursuits in a metaphoric stance when he should locate spirituality within.

“The March of the Asuras” caricatures war that has been romanticized especially with regards to epics. The title stands in opposition to the defeat of the Asuras. Where there is the march, there is no route to destination. The spies here are reminiscent of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern , the celebrated pair who bring in their own doom and come across as pawns. In Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the author endows a kind of existentialist freedom to this pair as he makes them the titular heroes of the play. In the rendering of this subplot of the Ramayana, Keshav also foregrounds a pair of groundlings as they encounter their downfall. Their buffoonery makes the war look one-sided that goes subversively against the army that wins. Also as Arundhati Roy once pointed out winning a war cannot be equated with success that could also be found in fulfillment. Vaira’s single focusedness is criticized by Keshav, as Vaira only sees the defeat of Ram and does not  heed  to know more about Luv and Kush.

“The Story of a Lecher : Nayan Lal” is about a person who makes statues of women based on his ogling eyes and his lewd gaze. The story seems to be centred on the male gaze as Laura Mulvey states objectifies women. And this reification can be seen in the statues that are placed within the four walls only to meet the male eye. The statues that seem lifelike hold the centrestage more than the actual living beings imprisoned in the house.  The male gaze manages to make a mockery of patriarchy itself as the real reason behind Nayan Lal’s gaze evades their intellectual reach. The protagonist is named Nayan after this phenomenon that locks women into his gaze. The hypocritical stance of society is made evident where women are imprisoned throughout their life for the fault of men so that skeletons of the past do not fall out of the bungalow. What adds to the story is the suspense, and the surreal quality that leave us wondering whether the protagonist is a real human being as he literally evades our grasp. Keshav also makes an indictment on women whether they subscribe to such a culture based on commodification, for Laila and Mrs. Wilkins enjoy being objects for this statue-making in spite of their stature, for the glamour associated with such a profession. The boat that finally drowns is named The Queen ironically as Virginia Woolf had once remarked: “Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.”

Like other stories this one ends with an unresolved ending for readers to ruminate over whether the Bermuda Triangle selectively sucked in the four missing people? Further the mannequin-making points to the reduplication of women where on a parallel man stands as the male-god who creates the woman. Nevertheless this Pygmalion does not give life to the statues, he rather takes. His Galatea is nothing more than a business proposition.

The story “The President Vanishes” is also on the construction of god(religion) as terrorists project a simulated version that they project and others willingly buy. Is God so feeble that he requires soldiers to fight for him? The author also echoes the hypocrisy involved in questioning whether the meat is halal  whilst the terrorists were committing a grievous sin to achieve unfair ends. Hatred was a vaccination that was fed to terrorists from an early age to immunize them from sanity.

Keshav projects the tension between India and Pakistan, in spite of being siblings that came from the same womb and relished each other’s culture. The look-alikes Chauhan and Rashid exemplify how these two countries are almost like mirror images. The true meaning of Jihad as mental struggle against evil is caricatured by the terrorists in their vain pursuits, where they create their own sub-text of religion that is nothing more than pretext. Indeed, the President vanishes!

©Rukhaya M.K 2015