India Today - - LEISURE - —Ashok Va­jpeyi

There ex­ists a pack of leg­ends about Kabir’s life, birth, death and wis­dom, but he was first a poet. A poet who, along with Tul­si­das, has colonised the Hindi pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion for cen­turies. A poet who democra­tised poetry, re­li­gion, wis­dom and spir­i­tu­al­ity by lib­er­at­ing them from the clutches of castes, shrines

and books. A poet of candid wis­dom, a poet who cri­tiqued so­cial norms and prac­tices, Kabir also in­ter­ro­gated him­self. He saw the world up­side down. Blas­phemy was per­haps his favourite rasa.

Ki­ran Na­garkar weaves a me­dieval das­tan-like nov­el­is­tic tale around Kabir, forg­ing yet another legend around him. Na­garkar, how­ever, while tak­ing into ac­count ‘facts’, cre­ates a fic­tion that does have con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance. His book’s ti­tle— The Ar­son­ist—al­ludes to a fa­mous Kabir verse: “Kabir stands in the mar­ket­place/ A torch in his hand./ Whoso­ever will set fire to his house/ Come, join me.” If Kabir’s poetry is to be con­sid­ered ev­i­dence, he did in­deed want to set fire to con­ven­tional val­ues, shal­low be­liefs, vac­u­ous wis­dom and books that in­spired big­otry. He wanted to fi­nally ar­rive at the truth.

Na­garkar’s very read­able nar­ra­tive pre­serves Kabir’s in­ter­rog­a­tive spirit but gets him mixed up with state­craft. As ‘The Ruler’ seeks Kabir’s some­times blunt and cruel ad­vice, Kabir, in turn, gets em­broiled in po­lit­i­cal in­trigue. A lot happens in the weaver’s work­shop. In the novel, Kabir has many ap­pren­tices and work­ers—both Hindu and Mus­lim—who some­how al­ways feel em­bold­ened to ask un­com­fort­able ques­tions of their master. The court of the State is a space for ad­vice and com­plic­ity. The work­shop, in

con­trast, is a space for seek­ing knowl­edge, for carrying out in­ter­ro­ga­tion and de­bate.

The nar­ra­tive is pop­u­lated with is­sues and in­ci­dents that re­late to the mas­sacre of Mus­lims, to ques­tions of beef eat­ing and to lynch­ing in the name of cows. The free­dom of women, caste and creed all come up as themes too. There is a rad­i­cal ques­tion­ing of God. Kabir as­serts, “God, if I may use one of th­ese new-fan­gled aca­demic terms, is the uni­fied the­ory of the uni­verse. Good and evil, war­mon­ger and paci­fist, Hindu, Mus­lim, Jew, Chris­tian, Bud­dhist, ma­te­ri­al­ist and preacher, athe­ist and be­liever are all en­com­passed in Him.

He’s large enough and wise enough to ac­com­mo­date all con­tra­dic­tions.”

In another telling episode of the book, the help­less ‘Gover­nor’ is seen watch­ing the butcher­ing of Mus­lims in their thou­sands. Kabir then tells the Ruler: “One mur­der and the cul­prit goes to jail and then the law hangs him […] But kill a thou­sand or two, or a mil­lion or more and you are above the law. And be­fore you know it, am­ne­sia sets in and the mass mur­derer is hailed as a hero, a saviour of the peo­ple.”

De­spite be­ing “a brig­and and a high­way rob­ber”, de­spite in­dulging in “whor­ing and blas­phemies”, de­spite his de­sire to shock, scan­dalise and al­ways be sensationa­l, Kabir lands up in heaven. When he faces God, he is re­ferred to as “our an­nual ges­ture of for­give­ness. Our to­ken sin­ner and un­touch­able”.

The Ar­son­ist tells an up­lift­ing tale about Kabir, a poet, saint and mys­tic who re­mains con­tem­po­rary, just one of us. In the end, the book re­ally is about us—our mess, our chaos, our clar­ity, our way out. ■

THE AR­SON­IST by Ki­ran Na­garkar JUG­GER­NAUT `599; 320 pages Poet, Weaver, Seer, Blas­phe­mer

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