Break­ing through the pain bar­rier

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Anita Sethi Anita Sethi is a jour­nal­ist, writer and broad­caster.

To what ex­tent can hu­man be­ings en­dure pain be­fore be­ing over­whelmed? This is the ques­tion at the heart of Man on Fire, the en­gross­ing sec­ond novel from English writer Stephen Kel­man, whose 2011 de­but Pi­geon English was short­listed for the Man Booker Prize.

Kel­man’s In­dian hero Bibhuti Nayak sets out not only to en­dure pain but to tran­scend it. From a poor fam­ily, he sees this as a route out of poverty and ob­scu­rity and into the Gui­ness World Records.

Bibhuti is inspired by the real-life ex­ploits of In­dian jour­nal­ist Bibhuti Bhushan Nayak. In an au­thor’s note Kel­man says Bibhuti’s “essence is em­bod­ied” in the novel and thanks him for “gift­ing me his story”. And what an as­ton­ish­ing story it is.

Kel­man has a great gift for cap­tur­ing the idio­syn­cra­sies of voice and for bring­ing out­siders cen­tre stage. Pi­geon English, nar­rated in a vivid ver­nac­u­lar by an 11-year-old boy, vis­cer­ally ex­plores gang vi­o­lence in Lon­don. Although this sec­ond novel tack­les markedly dif­fer­ent ma­te­rial, the same skills are on full show.

The core of the story is an un­likely friend­ship be­tween Bibhuti and an English­man, John, who trav­els to In­dia and of­fers to help Bibhuti in his quest to break world records. John is soon wel­comed into Bibhuti’s chaotic fam­ily. John has been des­per­ate to es­cape a life in Eng­land that, in his es­ti­ma­tion, would win no records: mun­dane, mean­ing­less job, a mar­riage on the rocks, a painful se­cret dark­en­ing his days.

Bibhuti, who works as an ac­coun­tant, also aims to es­cape the monotony of daily life, and in this the two men find com­mon ground. “My deep wish was al­ways to lead the world in a great en­deav­our, some­thing I alone could do,” ex­plains Bibhuti who speaks through­out in ‘‘In­dian English’’.

His life tra­jec­tory changes when, on a strange im­pulse, he pur­chases the Guin­ness Book of World Records from a street seller dur­ing his “first lonely months in Mum­bai”, hav­ing ar­rived in the city with grand plans to make a name for him­self. He spends ev­ery spare mo­ment read­ing about the records, from the long­est beard and long­est fin­ger­nails to the most snakebites sur­vived.

Bibhuti de­cides on “groin kick­ing as an untested area of achieve­ment” and sets out to be kicked where it hurts mul­ti­ple times. But when “the Guin­ness peo­ple” refuse to recog­nise this, he goes, with suc­cess, to In­dia’s Limca Book of Records. Yet achiev­ing his groin-kick­ing record only in­creases his am­bi­tion and he strives to beat ever more world records and to be recog­nised by Guin­ness World Records. To this end he de­cides on hav­ing 50 base­ball bats bro­ken over his body.

Although Bibhuti be­lieves him­self im­per­vi­ous to pain, af­ter re­ceiv­ing a brain in­jury he awakes from surgery with the sen­sa­tion that he is a man “fully on fire”.

The novel is at its most pow­er­ful when ex­plor­ing the na­ture of pain: “Prob­a­bly ev­ery­one’s pain feels dif­fer­ent, some­thing they alone can feel.” It is not only phys­i­cal but emo­tional pain too that is sen­si­tively ex­plored through­out.

The nar­ra­to­rial view­point shifts be­tween Bibhuti and John, a stylis­tic tech­nique that turns out to be a strength and a weak­ness: while it al­lows us to see sit­u­a­tions from a range of per­spec­tives, the shifts are at times too swift, and just when we are be­com­ing en­grossed in a per­spec­tive, it switches.

The reader is put on alert that John may not be the most re­li­able nar­ra­tor: “I hated my­self for al­ways be­ing too weak to tell the truth,” he con­fesses when Bibhuti asks if he has a wife and he lies that she is dead. As the story pro­gresses, more se­crets sur­face.

This is a tale about push­ing not only the body but also the mind to its lim­its, which it­self in­ven­tively tests the lim­its and strengths of the nov­el­is­tic form.


Real-life jour­nal­ist Bibhuti Bhushan Nayak gets ham­mered for an In­dian TV pro­gram

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