Mumbai (called Bombay when this novel was written) ! The commercial capital of India which has dirty and stinking slums too. A dirty, ugly middle-aged woman clad in torn clothes moves out of her small and ramshackle residence and heads to the magnificent residence of a renowned advocate of the city. He’s startled by her visit. A few dialogs take place between them. Then the woman captures the revolver of the man kept in the drawing room of the house itself (the correct location being known to her beforehand) and then shoots him dead. She does it with a cool head and in a highly relaxed state of hers. With the same coolness, she confronts the arriving police by closing the door tightly and making fires towards the cops by the same revolver, using the cartridges available there. Her motive is not to hurt any cop but to pass some time and delay the inevitable, i.e., her arrest. She also keeps on smoking the costly cigarettes of the victim available there. When all the cartridges are finished and the door is broken open by the police, her destined arrest takes place. She moves with the cops towards the police station with a smile on her face.
If the opening scene of a novel is the one as narrated in the previous para, the novel is likely to be the brain-child of some known or unknown mystery writer – some Agatha Christie, some Surendra Mohan Pathak or the like wise. Anyway, contrary to your guess, this is a novel written by famous Hindi litterateur – Acharya Chatursen. The same Acharya Chatursen whose name is taken with a high degree of esteem in the world of Hindi literature with novels like Dharmaputra, Vayam Rakshamah, Somnath and Vaishali Ki Nagarvadhu to his credit. I was surprised like anything when I picked up this book from the local library and in the opening pages, the story came to fore as a murder mystery. Acharyaji’s forte has been social, romantic and historic plots and he’s skilled in painting sentiments on the canvas of life. Then how could and why did he write a murder mystery ?
The answer came to me as I progressed through the novel which is, in fact, a novella because the no. of pages is quite less. Despite beginning like a murder mystery, the story gradually dips into an ocean of sentiments only. The murderer lady only is the protagonist of this story whose identity becomes known to the reader pretty soon after going through a couple of scenes that follow the opening scene (containing the murder). However the reader can guess only as to who she is. Why she committed the murder dawns upon the reader quite gradually and by reading between the lines because everything is not mentioned or revealed in express terms. Despite the story being quite engrossing, the reader has to grasp the essence of it by trying to understand the principal characters especially the lady who is the pivotal character. Though the author has devoted more words and chapters to the other characters, those characters get their strength from and can be understood by referring to her character only. Finally this mystery does not remain a normal run-of-the-mill mystery for the reader. It becomes special, bearing the clear stamp of the style of the great Hindi litterateur. By the time the narrative is midway, sentiments and relationships embedded in the story have overwhelmed the mystery aspect of it.
The title of the novella is Narmedh which apparently means homicide. However let me explain that in the ancient times, the high profile kings used to perform Ashwamedh Yajna, the sacred ceremony which was symbolic of their might and a means of its demonstration before the world. A horse (Ashwa) was an integral part of this ceremony which was ultimately sacrificed. In this novel, the female protagonist arranges a kind of Narmedh (the ceremony involving human sacrifice) by offering her own life (after killing someone who deserved to be killed only in her view) in order to save the lives of her beloveds. Despite being the murderess, this lady is a woman with a heart of gold. She had committed a mistake in her past and now whatever she has done and is doing is nothing but her penitence only. Right from the opening scene to the ending scene, the story is the Narmedh performed by this lady in which the holocaust to the sacred fire is nothing but her own life.Narmedh is a sentimental mystery written by Acharya Chatursen in such a splendid way that it is to be liked by both the mystery lovers and the lovers of serious, sentimental and romantic stuff. This is the story of a family whose members love each other, respect each other, never misunderstand each other and are ever ready to make sacrifices for each other. When I was watching the last movie directed by Yash Chopra – Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012), when the episode involving Neetu Singh, her sweetheart – Rishi Kapoor and her daughter (through her husband – Anupam Kher) – Katerina Kaif came on the screen; I could not help comparing the same to the story of Narmedh. Like the movie, this (much older) novel also contains two love stories taking place in two consecutive generations. However, this novel of high literary value is manifold superior to those characters and that episode of that movie.
Narmedh has been written by Acharya Chatursen in his trademark style and Sanskritized Hindi. In my humble opinion, this language is good for narrating the things from the author’s point only. While penning the dialogs of different characters, it would have made more sense, had the author used the language of day-to-day life because the kind of refined Sanskritized Hindi used for dialogs is something that appears out of the world and snatch the flare of reality from the characters who are shown as speaking the same.
Narmedh has been written on a small canvas with limited number of characters as well as limited number of events. However the mystery of the murder gets unfolded quite gradually making the reading of this book as thoroughly engrossing for the reader. A majority of characters are nice and idealistic which may not be visible in the real world (of today at least). The novella contains a love story of two young characters also which is quite romantic and the depiction of the tender sentiments of both the boy and the girl is able to stir the heart of the reader like anything. After various ups and downs, the story ends on a highly emotional note.
In the end, the protagonist is shown as being awarded the capital punishment for the murder committed by her (in the beginning of the novella) which is unnatural because this punishment is awarded in India only in the rarest of rare cases and not awarded to the female convicts as a legal tradition. On this count, a great litterateur like Acharyaji has also stumbled just like the regular (pulp fiction) novelists of India. Awarding of this sentence renders the whole courtroom drama that precedes it, unimposing.
At the very outset of this novel, Acharyaji has portrayed the slum areas of Mumbai (or Bombay) and the people residing in them in a sarcastic language and scoffed the so-called development in India post independence whose trumpet has been being blowed by the rulers relentlessly for decades.
Narmedh is a lesser known work of this eminent Hindi litterateur but leaves a strong impact on the reader. The moral of its story is – ‘Even when their hearts are divine, human-beings are, after all, human-beings only. And so they can commit errors because to err is human.’
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