There is something about a spiritual thriller that keeps us glued to the pages of a fast-paced story. Hemis is a unique novel in this less explored genre of Indian Writing in English. One may remember Arun Joshi’s ‘strange case’, a narrative delving into tribal lore, but Madhu Tandan takes us to the picturesque, mystical landscape of Ladakh, to a small monastery in the Hemis sanctuary. Imagine being walked through dark corridors, up creaking stairs to be met by an abbot who says nonchalantly, ‘What took you so long?’ Ajay, the corporate honcho from Delhi gets goose pimples—so would any of us—when such familiarity with our secrets is expressed by a stranger in a remote spot. Who then writes the design of your life—you or some other force?
That is the tenor of Hemis. It’s about the unsaid aspects of sexuality and desire, love and loss, grief and mourning. It is a mystery novel; a page turner that will resonate with us city folks whose hectic, action filled quest for material success has stifled the cry of the soul that is on a much longer journey.
Though the narrative is deeply layered, I will touch only upon two themes that moved me profoundly and also impressed me with the meticulous research. The first is Tandan’s use of a Buddhist paradigm of sexual gratification as an alternative to what can be called the popular Kamasutra model of physical fulfilment. In Hemis, sexuality is described as a religious-spiritual discipline of human desire that distances itself from the object of desire. When passion is so controlled, the feelings are more substantive, intense and enduring. This Tibetan practice, seldom spoken about but known to scholars, allows even monks to have a ‘Sangyum’ or a spiritual wife participating in an intense experience which is free of physicality. The formula is ‘look, feel, but do not touch’ (p. 187). ‘The key lies in seeing the partner as divine. Every gesture then becomes an act of worship, every sigh a prayer, the gazing into the lover’s eyes a meditation’ (p. 197) . If this sounds too esoteric, the novel works through real life situations to question the limitedness of love and sexuality that is merely biological but fails to invoke the spirit. So we have Ajay and Swati, the ideal Page Three couple whose perfect smiles in public turn into snarls of accusation in private. The absent ‘third’ to the couple is Akansha, the ‘other woman’ who is imagined as a destroyer of this marriage, and so on. Isn’t this a common scenario? Ajay’s month long sojourn in Hemis sanctuary shows him the futility of lives that are lived on the surface but not observed in depth, of assumptions about loyalty and betrayal in conduct that hide far more potent subtexts. And, how does the Oxford educated abbot, administering a remote monastery with minimal resources or human interaction, know so much about the everyday love of men and women in the city? ‘Me, no tell’, he says charmingly to Ajay.
Tibetan Buddhism will not have answers but the abbot knows how to question and Ajay has his healthy scepticism, keeping the plot in taut balance. With modern education’s stress on Freudian psychology, an alternative philosophy of desire may seem strange, but it is worth asking if society has solved the riddle of sexual attraction through the copious ‘scientific’ documentation from academia. If the traditional knowledge systems are explored, can another way of understanding man-woman relationship bring about a better sensitivity to human need? When Ajay runs away from the anxieties in his querulous domestic space and meaningless office routine, he represents many others who are just as troubled. Will Hemis bring an answer?
My second thematic interest is in the Bible. To the threesome in the city of Delhi is a parallel of three in the monastery—Ajay, the abbot, and Anna, the Harvard scholar in comparative religion. Her quest is for the ‘Jesus manuscript’ said to be hidden in Kashmir. This part of the novel held me in thrall for its sheer build up and clever integration with the main plot. According to Anna, the lost manuscript dating from the first century AD says ‘Jesus came to India with merchants following the Silk Route, then he travelled through Rajasthan to Puri, and then to Benaras and Nepal’ (p. 55).
Another surmise is that Jesus came to Kashmir after his resurrection, for which ‘the grave at Rozabal in Srinagar, and the plaster cast of feet with holes, as if nails had been driven into them,’ is held out as proof (p. 122). Madhu Tandan weaves these conjectures into Anna’s memory of true love, her coalescing of religion and sexuality where guilt makes a strong appearance too. Anna’s remembrance of her husband and his determination to find the lost ‘Jesus manuscript’ in Ladakh drives her to study Tibetan material with the sensitivity of a scholar. She, a single and intellectual woman, is a misfit in the sanctuary but the abbot and Ajay both find her alluring—maybe for different reasons. What are they? This remote monastery turns oddly multicultural and multi-religious when life choices are discussed, because self-knowledge is not bounded by geography. In Anna’s search for the Jesus manuscript, the abbot’s commentaries on the meaning of love, and Ajay’s bewilderment at the other-worldly talk—a magic mirror is held up to us, the typical readers. In this we see our so-called ‘beautiful’ lives shadowed by hidden disappointments, we see our memories of hurt bleeding once again, and we see hope in drawing upon spiritual resources that we had forgotten.
The strength of Hemis resides in its positive energy and its message of self-healing told through lively characters. Each reader will find her/his own persona peeping through its pages and looking at answers to some riddles of modern living. We might repeat after Rumi as Tandan does, ‘Our greatest lessons come from our greatest pains’ (p. 169).
Malashri Lal retired as Professor in the Department of English, University of Delhi. Currently she is Member, English Advisory Board of the Sahitya Akademi.