Breaking through the pain barrier
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.
BIBHUTI DECIDES ON ‘GROIN KICKING AS AN UNTESTED AREA OF ACHIEVEMENT’
Real-life journalist Bibhuti Bhushan Nayak gets hammered for an Indian TV program