Arts and Entertainment
An Unlikely Success – A Review of The Unlikely Indians
By Dr.Theyiesinuo Keditsu | EMN
Journeys are rarely linear. Physically one moves toward a destination, yet in the time taken to get from start to finish, the traveller inhabits a multiverse of spaces both within and without. Upon reaching one’s destination, the traveller alights, transformed, no longer the person she/he was when they began. Nzan Kikon’s second semi-fictional offering, “The Unlikely Indians” follows in the tradition of travel writings that illustrate this transformative power of travel. Narrated through the voice of the protagonist who bears the author’s name, “The Unlikely Indians” is about a journey undertaken by 6 young men who begin from Bangalore in South India traversing the length of India to the North Indian state of Uttrakhand for an internship and finally for respite to the North Eastern state of Nagaland.
The group is an unlikely medley united by their shared exclusion from the stereotypical idea of who is an Indian. As the narrator explains the title at the start of the book,
Well, out of six of us one is a Sri-Lankan. So clearly he is not an Indian though he claims to possess an Indian Passport while the four of us are from Nagaland which comes under the territory of India and we may identify ourselves as Indians but Nagas have an entirely different history from the rest of India…but here comes Parambil, dude is the quintessential example of what an Indian is all about…because I know my friend in and out…I can safely assume that given the right situation and under duress he will claim a different nationality.
The passage just quoted also illustrates the one feature that sets this book apart and that is its narrative style. The narrative is self-consciously self-reflexive, replete with asides that explain everything from authorial intent, character background and mundane facts. One may conjecture that this style derives from our traditional modes of storytelling. For though the narrator tells of his journey in trains and taxis through metropolis and mountains encountering, in his words, Caucasian missionaries and monks, sustained on a diet of maggi and parathas, he does so in an intimate conspiratory tone of friend huddled next to you by the kitchen hearth. Enveloped in this confessional embrace, the reader is privy to the narrator’s biases, biases that often, one senses, are revealed involuntarily. It is this absolute absence of political correctness that proves to be the charm of the book, putting the reader at ease as in the company of a well known friend. In a narrative devoid of pretense, even I, a female reader, am able to enjoy a candid picture of the entertaining intricacies involved when 6 male friends embark on a journey.
These 6 young men already share established friendships when we meet them. Much of the humour derives from teasing, insults and anecdotes founded upon many moments and memories amassed through years spent together at seminary. Nzan, the narrator/protagonist includes us, as one would a stranger whom one wishes to befriend and add to this circle of friends. For by the time we travel from Bangalore to Delhi and drive through Dehradun, to Mussoorie and finally reach Matli for their internship, we feel ourselves already part of the group, able to share in the familiarity and easy camaraderie that fills this book with so much warmth.
It is in Matli and during their internship at the Himalayan Inland Christian Academy, that the physical travel halts and the journey inwards begin. As each of the 6 young men develop their skills, our narrator tells us, “I was noting down everything that was happening around me and storing them in my mind palace.” And indeed, a stroll through this palace greatly edifies the reader. Whether it is to meet common but often overlooked issues of racism when a team of “Americans” beat a team of “Indians” in cricket or literally taking the plunge into the icy waters of the Ganges river, the many lessons one learns through the adventures of these young men transcend gender, age and nationality. And most of these are learnt through the whimsical musings of the narrator.
Nzan Kikon, the narrator as protagonist is not only the functional backbone of this novel. In him the author has created one of his most mercurial characters. For instance, in the midst of his storytelling, he interjects “No! Wait! That’s not the story that’s a different one. This is the right story.” A style that once again harks back to our oral modes of storytelling in its most organic and raw form. One where face to face with the listener(s), the teller literally makes up the story as she/he goes, selecting from memory and weaving it with whimsy and yes, a liberal helping of that brand of creative mischief and play which distinguishes good storytellers from rest. Nzan is one such raconteur, so unabashedly experimental with his lexicon that he is often verbose (a word that ironically appears in his tales a few times). His storytelling is also at the same time about the process of storytelling, one that the author documents brilliantly. The occasional stumble and awkward moment are bared for us to hear/see. And these instants of clumsiness season and set apart what would otherwise would have been a good but banal travel story.
The author’s narrative play is best illustrated in my favourite passage in the book, when our protagonist sees snow for the first time.
I looked out the window and I could see crumbs of white objects niveous starting to gently fall, not straight down but in a magnificent crisscross manner meandering through space, through the air molecules and gently sitting on the ground, some on the trees and some on the front of the car…I knew that I was going to see snow but this was unannounced. Not that they give an announcement before they tumble down to the ground. I was told beforehand that the possibility of seeing a snowfall was less since the season was over but this was just something else.
I stepped out of the car and took a few steps away from the car and away from my friends and the first thing I did was to look up at the sky, close my eyes and let the fragments of snow fall on my freckled face…As I stood looking up I let out my tongue to catch some crumbs of snow to eat it just to see how it tastes and I wasn’t disappointed.
The reader lost in this beautiful moment, captured in all its sublime and timeless glory is sharply jolted out of her reverie by Nzan’s next words “ Yes, I ate snow and I have no qualms about it, When a person is born a Naga he or she will eat anything.”
This irreverent mixing of the transcendent and colloquial, of the profound and the ridiculous captures the mood of this entire novel. And nowhere more so when the narrator ties the loose ends of his tale with the thread of friendship. After a moving affirmation of how their travels brought “six seminary students, each with striking personalities, obstinate nature, equally talented also equally flawed and a penchant for mocking each other”, together through “an adventure of a lifetime”, he chooses the popular children’s show, My Little Ponies as the analogy to illustrate that “everything is held by friendship”. Nzan Kikon, narrator and author, is a man willing to sacrifice literary propriety for the sake of entertaining his readers. That makes for one unlikely but irresistible story.