Saturday, December 26, 2015

Book Review - Tomichan Matheikal's The Nomad Learns Morality

Indian Bloggers

Literature does something funny to you. It makes you see meanings underneath meanings. It makes you probe a little more, question a little more. It agitates you, adds to your disquiet, makes you less dogmatic and more poetic. It also gives you a tool, a potent and compelling tool, the pen. It fires your thoughts, kindles your imagination, and intensifies your narratives with an integrity that is rebelliously coordinated. Tomichan Matheikal's The Nomad Learns Morailty  to put it in brief is good literature, with all the features mentioned above and much more than that. 

The book is a collection of 33 stories that deal with topics ranging from mythology to religion, history and politics. The themes are vivid - faith, doubt, human fallacy, God's devise, divinity, morality, sin, facticity, fantasy, truth,  illusion and deception. The collection begins with tales from mythology. When I asked Mr. Matheikal what he meant with mythology and religion, he came up with an answer that set me thinking. According to him, 

"Myths are literary expressions of human aspirations.  They acquire spiritual connotations eventually.  Gods and Devils are part of those aspirations as well as attempts to give meaning to life.  Add some rituals to spirituality and you get religions."

Much before civilization came myths. Myths were flexible, less deterministic than religion. They did not aim to take everyone in their 'fold'. With time however, societies grew sophisticated. Culture became more defined and rituals more pronounced. And myths acquired the status of religion. Human consciousness has been predetermined, shaped to a large extent by these forces. The author succinctly sets out to explore the narratives that he has encountered in his life. There are anecdotes from history, legends from mythology, and yarns from everyday life.

Let me start with something I requested from the author himself. I was curious as to why he had not added any preface or introduction to his book. Instead of an introductory note, he said he wanted to make a 'request'. This is his reply:

"When writers like Salman Rushdie write books like Satanic Verses, they are not ridiculing any religion or God.  They are probing their own inner conflicts.  It is their way of trying to make sense of the religion, its deities and also the fellow human beings who may appear absurd and baffling.  It is their way of making sense of life.  When I probe characters and events from religious books or other existing sources, I am doing the same: trying to make sense of them and life.  I also expect that my attempt at making sense of life can be of help to the readers.  Unless the reader understands this, the work will be a failure."  

The collection begins with a 'chaste' and 'wronged' woman Ahalya and ends with the deceptive Queen of Spades. In between the two lies a whole panorama of life. The author dons the garb of the narrator in many places, trying to locate meaning in meaninglessness, and sense amidst absurdity. He attempts to be an interpreter and not a judge, for he himself is a reader. He is venturing through his texts to read through time and consciousness to find the many faces of truths and falsehoods. 

I present before you in brief, the strand of each story. I have asked some questions in some places.

In the stories Ahalya, Sarayu's Sorrow, and Snakes and Ladders, are the gods in their human incarnation existential' beings searching for answers that are almost impossible to find? The mistakes they commit, are they an 'authentication' of their life on this Earth? When Ahalya was given freedom from her 'stony' existence, was it an acceptance of her fault, a peep into her consciousness, or a recognition of 'desire' she had nurtured? Was it the delusion of 'chastity'? If everything was a matter of perception and choice, where did God Ram falter? At the altar of humanity itself? 

Autumn of the Patriarch

Is the 'greatness' of a figure of prominence like Bhishma a 'construct' that 'cages' him? Is it something that forces upon him the decisions he 'thinks' he has made willingly. Isn't the 'selfless partiarch' an oxymoron, an impossiblity, a contradiction? Draupadi's question sets Bhishma thinking. He wonders whether a 'woman' can understand the complexity of something as subtle, as complex as 'dharma'. Is 'Truth' something that needs to be even told? Will a 'woman' understand the meaning of it? And there stands Draupadi at the other end, asking a pertinent question - Can he not see the 'adharma' of it all?

Original Sin

We have heard it all. The story of our fall. But was that so simple? Is innocence the bliss that one should aspire for? What was the original sin? Where did Eve err? What if there was an even more sinister plan, something as mundane as simple boredom? What if God was in cahoots with Satan? What if?....

Children of Lust 

What was Lot's fault? Did he 'sin' against 'God' or was his fault something most of the protagonists in this collection are found making? Also, was his fault an outcome of something that God 'let' happen in the 'Original Sin'?

First Christmas - The greed for 'knowledge' has larger context here - the persona of the narrator seems to intervene - his greed is for a deeper knowledge, something that will encompass religion, myths, magic, Creation, sin, will and even time.

Achilles' story brings us back to 'The Autumn of the Patriarch' which asks similar questions. The question of the 'identity' and 'will' of woman are crucial thoughts running through both the stories. History, if re-written from the perspective of a woman, would probably include lot of unanswered questions, and would perhaps also compel us to understand the whole concept of 'dharma' and adharma'. And one would ask again if everything is fair in 'War' and 'Love' after all?

Barrel Life

The 'teacher' is a 'madman' and does a 'slave' work.  Sanity' and 'madness' are relative to each other and also a matter of perception. There is bias. There is interrogation and rebellion too. The conversation between the 'teacher' and the 'king' is something that will haunt you with an insight you might not have had before. The trappings of civilization, the conquests of kings, the minimalist living, the never-ending 'quest',  and then, the ending leaves you with another question mark. The strand is carried in the next story And Quiet Flowed the Beas which witnesses the downfall of the king and the crumbling of the conquest. Roxana, like many other women in history, stands at the periphery of history but her presence reiterates the questions of Draupadi, Ahalya and Sita from the earlier stories.

'Worship' has a different connotation in this story that is short and still makes you wonder at Nebamun who has 'authenticated' his life in a certain sense. It is ironical that that validation comes at a huge price.

Scholar, Priest and Politician is another excellent story which by way of history proves its contemporary relevance. Times change, beliefs are put to test through experiments and hypothesis. Heresy seems close by. These interrogations are a threat to 'power' and 'power-holders' and ought to be nipped in the bud. Meanings need to be twisted and spoken words misquoted to uphold the status quo. Intelligence and power wrestle and new-fangled ideas are conveniently brushed aside. Galileo's Truth extends the theme further. What is heresy? A pertinent question would be, who is being 'harmed' by the 'heretical' claims? Can 'thoughts' possibly be caged? Can 'tongues' be imprisoned? No, and yet the intelligent suffer as scriptures are stripped of their 'poetry' and read literally. 

'Heresy' finds a new meaning in the next story Caliph of Two Worlds. The most important line perhaps in this story, which has a lot of relevance even today is this
"The line between politics and religion is an illusion that can be shifted in any direction as required by the occasion." The usurping of the king can be viewed as a sin against God, but what if God's representative ordains it. Meanings change, are perverted and subverted, only to be reinstated in obedience to the God-man. 

Saga of a Warrior  - The title tells it all. It is the 'story' of a warrior, a figure from history. Whether it is accurate, or otherwise, is a matter for historians, who are themselves prone to errors. So while I leave that strand there, I want to emphasize the fact that the story of Khusru, as narrated from the view-point of his wife, has deeper meanings and throws light on how histories can be constructed differently and how every story can have elements of 'truth' and 'fabrication'. History written by 'sycophants' as the writer correctly puts it, is full of 'blunders'. Approaching them with caution is advised. History etched on the walls and erected as mausoleums also hides skeletons inside. Who is a hero and who is weak, who is hailed as a true warrior and who is stigmatized as a coward and a traitor should be objects of continuous interrogation. 

Aurangzeb too dies, but with some regrets and many questions. Will his son ever get to understand those questions? Will he try to seek answers to those questions? Perhaps yes. Like his father, when he lies dying. For now, he is busy. He needs to 'conquer' others' gods.  

Under the Peepal is a story I started with a little unease. Reason - Buddha. But that unease settled soon as the story's ironical rendering of 'nirvana' lays bare the mechanisms of present day life. The humorous positioning of Siddhartha, the son of an estate owner, with all modern day entrapments, with the cheeky narrator, I suspect, it is the writer himself, who audaciously enters anybody's life (how dare he..?!!!) heightens the drama minus the melodramatics. Who knew a Russian 'Idiot' would be of some help?

Maya significantly becomes the reason for renunciation and escape to scriptures. Illusion, or the breaking of it, is the cause of the fate she suffers. What will the narrator or the reader learn from it? Will he find a meaning, a resolution in the end? Destiny asks questions that pertain to the way things happen, and decisions are made or thrust upon us. Lennon's quote with which the story ends has relevance not just to this story. Are we 'meant' to be where we are? Why? Who decides this? Who plans it all? The story I assume has a personal reference for the writer who himself has been a teacher and has experienced the whims of the 'rich'. Lennon's quote becomes even more engaging when read in conjunction with the next story, The Devil has a Religion. Philip's fate hangs in the hands of Father Joseph whose absence only seems to offer an illusion of peace. The self-ordained God-man leads the 'chosen' one to 'damnation'. A Ghost and a Secret have the elements fit for a light thrilling read. The conversation between the 'ghost' and the narrator are reminiscent of the conversation between Alexander and Diogenes in Barrel Life. The narrator's failure to keep up his promise is a failure of human beings in general. The quest remains unfulfilled since the object of quest is something that is lost on the way to the destination itself.

Mayank Passes deals not just with matters of blind faith, faulty parenting, and duplicitous Babas. The entire education system is open for interrogation here. 'Phenomenananda' Baba is an excellent dig on the phenomenon of the God-men which has become so common these days. Michael and the Witch engages the reader by an apparent simplicity underneath which all lie some questions that need urgent answers. The narrator is walking to the 'edge' of the forest. The disappearance of woods is symbolic of a disappearance of good literature, taste, and sensitivity too. The narrator tries to bring 'change' through a 'kiss', which I read as an attempt the writer is making to bring about a questioning of dogmas, and prejudices through his pen. Will he fail or succeed? Even the witch does not know. Sacrifice is a heart-breaking tale. The word 'sacrifice' can have different meanings, and is here used both ironically and literally. Coma discusses the vagaries of employment and fate yet again. The protagonist Tony reminds one of Philip from The Devil has a Religion. The Lights below Darkness is an engrossing read. While the narrative hinges on who is going to be the Head of the English Department this year, other strands come in too - the way we perceive others, the assumptions and judgments made upon people around us, 'opinions' we hold, selfish interests that we harbor. The trope of 'wires' and the life that is entangled between them for in Twinkle Twinkle Little Star makes for another appealing read that leaves with you with some questions. Is the decision Rohan makes towards the end worth it? The short and piquant BMW of desires gives many a sleepless night. Anna, I Miss You narrates the dance of life and death and everything in between and ends with Yeats's beautiful words. It can serve as a metaphor for the writer's attempt at making sense out of life, and his wish to see what the world makes of it. The Queen of Spades is a brilliant adaptation of Pushkin's story by the same name. The writer's distaste for the 'rich' is seen in the characterization and his choice of words. Deception and illusion are key themes in the story and prove a worthy end to the entire collection.

Now for the title and the story with the same title:

The Nomad Learns Morality is a self-contradictory title. Who is a nomad? One who has no boundary. One who is a wanderer. What is morality? It is the qualification of conduct as good and bad. It happens in a 'society/ Morality of one society can differ from another. Morality of a certain time period can be in opposition to the morality of the other time. A nomad 'learning' morality is a nomad dispossessing his essence, his very being. The story is subtle and complex. It serves as a parable of life that we live today when attempts are being made from all directions to conquer gods, to trample faiths, to crush diversities. The terror of religious dogma is something that is scattered all over in Matheikal's writings. His blog articles time and again have dealt with the issue. The story takes it one step further. Read it together with Life's Journey which tells you that ''the distance between life and death is just a moment' and mocks at the absurdity of it all. Read alongside it Pearls....and Bullies which proves in a certain sense that the 'soft' ones are bound to suffer. It is in their fate. And yet, if they choose to just sit there and not act, it can get pretty 'boring'. There are tears, yes. There is pain, yes. But then, there are pearls too. 

I personally feel that Mr. Matheikal should include a bibliography for further reading for his readers. He should also add in brief a bit of a background for the mythological and historical stories for those who are unfamiliar with the same. This will ensure a better reading, understanding and analysis of his own narratives.

I have tried to deal with each story as it has affected me. I have asked questions in brief in some places because those questions are my responses to his text. There are many things that are untouched in this review. I could not incorporate everything here. I urge, with a strong conviction, that if you have not read the book, please grab a copy and read it. Who knows, you might find the answers to questions the author himself is seeking. 

To buy the book, click here
To reach Mr. Matheikal's blog, click here


  1. Loved reading the detailed and thorough review of Mr. Matheikal’s book. From your review one can gather that book has a wholesome combination of stories that prod people to reflect on morality, ethics, religion, politics etc. The self-contradictory title 'The Nomad Learns Morailty' sounds interesting with a hint of satire, and the term 'Phenomenananda' Baba is quite catchy.

    Sunaina, I must tell also you that I really appreciate the way you present a book to the readers, highlighting its flavour, and bringing out its essence and spirit.

    1. I have to thank you for reading through the review. It is a long one but I could not shorten it. There is so much richness in the text that one review is not enough. I would urge you to pick up and give it a read. There are many nuances to each and every story. Would love to see how you read it...

  2. Sunaina, your post has intrigued me enough to buy and read the book. Besides Mathiekal is one of the bloggers I respect so a decision to buy the book is an easy one

    1. I am so glad to know that. I will wait for your views on Sir Tomichan's stories too.

  3. Its an AWESOME review Sunaina .. in-depth yet not disclosing a thing. I have not read your full post as NOW I want to read the book first and THEN compare my observations with yours !
    Just read up-to the 'Barrel Life' and believe me it begged me NOT to read further !
    Ahalya, Bheeshma , Original Sin .... intriguing.. specially when I know who the writer is!
    I liked your observation about the opening and the last story of the book... One a 'chaste' and 'wronged' woman .. the other seemed to be a deceptive one !!
    A 'must buy' :)

    1. Yes Kokila - a must buy for sure. I wish to see more people read and review it. I am happy that you stopped reading my review and instead opted for the real gem. I wish you happy reading...:)

  4. Thanks for the wonderful and detailed review, dear. I will read it soon :)

    1. Do read Purba You are a book lover. You cannot overlook it.

  5. Great review.... Such rich text of review itself makes me want to read the book.

    1. I have only done half of what I wanted to do Shoma. There is much more to be discovered. Go ahead and give it a reading.

  6. There is no greater pleasure for a writer than being read, understood and appreciated by readers. This review has given me joy without end. I'm also obliged for Sunaina's suggestions. Since we live in the age of internet, I believe anyone can access information quickly and so the allusions in my story can be clarified easily. That's one reason why I didn't add any notes or introduction to the stories. Secondly, I thought my mythological and historical characters were known enough to readers so that they don't need any introduction.

    I'm happy Sunaina has taken my book to some more readers.

    1. Thanks for the reply Sir. You are right that we live in an internet age. But there are people still out there who have little access to internet or have little knowledge about it, or are still learning. For me, a book is in itself a comprehensive experience. So, if you include a bit of a background to it, it will be easier for many to read it without any break. I was imagining my mom reading it. I know that she has lot of prior knowledge about historical and mythological figures but there are areas she might be unfamiliar with. And for her to look into the internet (although she has started learning that) would still be a little taxing. And a bibliography would help those who want to enrich themselves further.

      Having said that, I cannot thank you enough for the wisdom and insight you have brought out through your stories. To read life like a nomad, and to still be part of the society, has its own challenges. The narratives you wrote are a testimony to that.

  7. Nice detailed review. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Wow! This is an indepth and detailed review this wonderful book truly deserves!
    And you know makes me feel like reading the book yet once again, alognwith your comments/observations! Thank you Sunaina:)

    1. Thanks Amit ji. I hope I have done justice to the book.

  9. Thanks for such an in-depth review of the book dear. I shall read it soon :)

    1. Thanks Maitreni. If this review encourages people to pick up the book and read it, it has served its purpose well.

  10. You just sold the book to me!

    It's the best review I have ever read. I wish if I ever publish a book, you do its review.

    1. Do you really mean it Saru? If you do, I cannot but feel overwhelmingly happy. I hope you read the book and post your views too. It is actually the richness of the book that has elicited this kind of response from me. All credit goes to the writer and his mind. Would look forward to your book, btw.