Saturday, December 31, 2016

Magical Realism meets Asian Culture in the novel " Night Prayers"

Night Prayers is the story of three Colombian characters and their encounter with four Asian cultures. The Colombian protagonists are: Manuel, the philosophy student; his adventurous sister Juana ; and  a diplomat posted in New Delhi. India, Thailand, Japan and Iran are the countries where destinies take the Colombians. The author of this novel is Colombian writer Santiago Gamboa. 

The lower middle class family of Juana and Manuel are ardent supporters of Alavaro Uribe who comes to power promising to put an end to the FARC guerrilla war. They are frustrated with the bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and drug trafficking by the guerrillas who had deviated from their original ideological agenda and become a criminal terrorist organization, pushing the country to the brink of 'a failed state'. President Uribe manages to break the back of FARC with an iron hand. But the liberals and intellectuals including Juana are critical of the excesses of government and the military as well as the paramilitary atrocities in the name of the war against the guerillas. 

Manuel, a shy philosophy student and dreamer, does not understand the challenging world around him . His sister is the only person to understand and support him. When his sister goes missing to Japan, he wants to go and find her. In order to finance the expensive trip, he agrees to carry drugs for the traffickers. He gets caught in Bangkok and put in prison there.

Juana, the rebellious and audacious sociology student, is an angry critic of Uribe's methods.  When she wants to run away from the violent Colombia to a 'civilized place like Europe' a French man settled in Bogota tells her, 'you have to give time for Colombia, a young country still looking for a language.  Europe which has peace today, cost two thousand years of war, blood, torture and cruelty. The last European war left fifty four million ( more than the entire population of Colombia at present ) dead'. Juana wants to take revenge on the Uribe government and infiltrates the secret service by becoming an escort to the officials. But when she is about to be caught, she slips away  to Japan and  joins the escort service there. Later, she escapes from the Japanese mafia by running away with an Iranian bodyguard to his country. She is rescued from the Ayatollah tyranny of Iran  by the Colombian diplomat who takes her to reunite with her brother in the Bangkok jail. But the brother commits suicide just before the meeting with the sister. 
Santiago Gamboa has given a vivid portrayal of the Colombian society which has paid a huge price in blood in the deadly feud between the revolutionaries, liberals and conservatives in the last seventy years. In the Colombian history, the ten years between 1948 and 1958 is known as the period of ' La Violencia'. It is not over yet. Uribe's supporters defeated the referendum held in october last year on the government's peace agreement with FARC. Naturally, this internal conflict and violence is the typical and inevitable theme of Colombian writers just as many writers in South and Central America cannot get over from the sufferings caused by military dictatorships. The author, a product of the Colombian culture of violence, says, ' violence and wars are always part of the history and culture of mankind. Force is the argument most often used by man in history'. It is interesting in this context that a Gujarati has set up a Gandhi Foundation in Medellin to propagate non-violence. More on this in

The Colombian diplomat in the novel finds New Delhi as 'unconventional to a Latin American, requiring a somewhat adventurous frame of mind' to survive. He lives in Jangpura Extension, unable to afford the expensive areas like Vasant Vihar. He gets used to the dust, rickshaws and fly-infested fried food stands 'that are like factories for typhoid or dysentry'. From his second floor window of the embassy in Vasant Vihar he observes women in saris carrying bricks for construction while their children play amid the rubble. He finds the Sai baba temple in Delhi as the place where the fragrance of the saffron flowers and smell of incense mix with the intolerable odor of the decomposing matter. As a consular officer, he deals with all kinds of problems and people, especially Colombian visitors who get into troubles caused by the gap between their romantic and distorted image of India and the realities on the ground. Rich ladies from Colombia who come seeking spiritual enlightenment end up offering not only their soul but some times their body also to Indian Gurus. 
The diplomat pays homage to the neem tree under which the Mexican poet diplomat Octavio Paz married Marie Jose in 1964 in the Prithvi Raj road residence where Mexican ambassadors used to stay. It was Paz who introduced the Indian culture to Latin America through Latin American eyes based on his personal experience of long stay of over six years in India. Paz's book 'Vislumbres de la India' ( in the light of India ) was an eye opener to Latin Americans.  He was also the first one to give a comparative perspective in Indo-Latin American cultural history. His poem " Tale of two gardens- poems from India 1952-1995" compares his Indian inspiration with his Mexican roots. Like Paz, the Colombian goes for walk in the Lodhi Garden ' a park that reconciles you to the city'.
The Colombian diplomat describes his travels to Thailand, Japan and Iran,  in his pursuit to reunite Juana and Manuel. In Bangkok, he is struck by the the smells of canals of stagnant water, the ubiquitous massage parlors and bordellos, traffic jams and the deafening din of the tuk-tuks in the ' land of smiles'. The Thai prosecutor gives the Colombian diplomat an outraged lecture on the evil consequences of sex tourism to the Thai society and takes pride on the fact that Thailand is one of the very few countries which has remained uncolonized by others. He gives a bit of  magical realism back to the Colombian, saying" Ten years ago, there was a traffic jam that lasted for eleven days. We had to lift the cars out by helicopters". This is like the story  of the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez "One Hundred Years of Solitude" in which it rains continuously for five years. 

The " Night Prayers" reminds me of the book of short stories " Lotus flower-stories from Asia" in which another Colombian, Juan Alfredo Pinto (and another writer diplomat) in which the magical realism of Latin America meets the cultures of Asia. Each story in this book takes place in a different Asian country such as India, Indonesia, Cambodia and Kazhakstan to which the Colombian characters travel. Pinto's book has been translated into Hindi and English by the Sahitya Academy.

This the first novel of the Colombian writer Santiago Gamboa, I have read. He has joined my list of favorite Colombian authors which includes Gabriel Garcia Marquez ( whose book ' love at the time of cholera' initiated my Latin American literary journey ) Laura Restrepo and Juan Gabriel Vasquez.  

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