Ashish Kaul Reviews Sasthi Brata


"Rimbaud stopped writing poetry at nineteen… Jesus was crucified at thirty-three; Jack Kennedy was shot…at forty-six. I am twenty-nine years old. What have I done? What am I capable of doing? Who am I? "This is possibly the best line that describes Sasthi Brata's ulterior turmoil.

Story of a boy, a man and the main protagonist of "My God Died Young". Penned in the late 1960s, this autobiography has been immensely popular and successful, largely due to its unassuming style and youthful angst spoke to a whole generation of those times and perhaps does that even today with élan and ease.

In this explicit and irreverent autobiography, Sasthi Brata tells his life story, his increasing sense of alienation from his wealthy and extremely conservative Brahmin family, his traumatic experiences at school where the housemaster's moral lessons almost made a psychological wreck of him, his intense love affair with a girl whose parents married her off to the man of their choice, and his agonized search for roots which took him to England. Alternately tender and brutal, he lays bare the shams of tradition-bound society in India as well as in the West with his no-holds-barred honesty and astonishing insight and understanding. -- It was quite difficult back in those times to have raised issues, with a tinge of disgust, like faith and superstition, logic and science, fatalism and the freedom of choice but when I read this masterpiece in the present times I find it so relevant and I cant help but admire the genius of Shasti Brata. With due apologies to most of the contemporary writers, Shasti Brata and My God Died Young is one in a million example of a writer who doesn't have to pretend to be a writer.

"Thanks to the twin pressures of a Brahmin home and a nonconformist upbringing," Brata notes, "Most of the time I move around in the steel braces of subconscious inhibitions." Most Indians will be conversant with this feeling. Indeed, one of the arguments advanced by Brata's book is the extent to which our adult lives are in thrall to conceptions and attitudes formed in childhood. University at Presidency College in Kolkata, and a love of debating, freed him somewhat of these shackles. He studied science, flirted with fashionable Marxist ideas, believed he was a young genius and prophet, fell in love, agonized about religion, and contemplated his place in the world. Later, unhappy in enclosed, stratified India, he moved west, and decided to pursue a path as a writer. Everywhere he found that obstacles to his dreams lay not just in the conventions of society and the shape of his personal destiny - as some people like to believe - but also in something marshy and tortured in his own nature, even more generally human nature.

Brata's confessional language has a powerfully persuasive air. "I hated my family and since I was a part of them, I hated myself too." "My outward actions were frenzied and daring because the inner man was so tame and ordinary." "Even the most genuine emotion [I felt] was centripetal, tending towards myself in the centre, with the other person as an incidental circumference. I don't believe I had any real feelings. I sometimes wonder if I do now." "I move about in a thick viscous cloud, always looking over my shoulder to see if anyone is watching." "I was the shadow of a shadow. It is always hard to build a life on such foundations."

Some of Brata's phrases - fusty Britishisms, and curious analogies to English examples rather than native ones of the kind one can still find in, say, a professor of English in Kolkata - are a mark of his time and place and his education. The old midwife who delivered him "looked as close to the Witches in Macbeth as Shakespeare could have imagined them to be." How could Brata know how Shakespeare had imagined his witches?

My God Died Young culminates in a beautifully realized scene in which Brata, having returned to India for a visit, is persuaded by his parents to "view" a potential bride. Reluctant but also curious, he submits to all the rituals of the arranged-marriage experience, driving to the would-be bride's home with his parents, listening patiently to her father reeling off a list of her achievements, scrutinizing and being scrutinized by the gathered women of the girl's family. He asks the shy, veiled girl a couple of questions in front of the entire company, and hears her sing a song at his mother's request. Despite his reservations he is impressed with, even entranced by, the girl. At the same time the curious scene in which he is the chief player arouses in him a strange horror and repulsion expressed in these beautiful sentences that simultaneously evoke both a burgeoning, thriving life and a kind of moral blindness:

"The girl sat there like a Goddess. And for a moment I felt that no one but a Goddess could have her forbearance, her beauty, the sweet maddening melody of her voice. Restively, my eyes swung round to her, so calm, so removed, so enchantingly graceful like the swift green curves of spring. Then over the rest of those hard deadening faces, severe and resolute, presiding over the closing cries of an auction mart".

Many of my friends call My God Died Young a pensive, cranky book of a writer being both impatient with the hypocrisy of the world and despairing himself. Brata is always asking the question: "Why do we live in this way and not in any other?" This is why I feel reading someone's autobiography is a responsible job. Someone's upbringing may shake your sensibilities and cause a conflict and a war within thus creating minds that do more damage than any good. A word of caution, if you don't have a strong head on equally strong shoulders - just leave the book alone! "I wrote this book to try and understand myself," Shasti Brata says at the beginning (he was not even thirty when he wrote it), and autobiography, he knows, "demands honesty". This is the way every writer of any times must be able to write about his work and when you read that you know he means it. Frankly, I read it (and continue to do so) because I wanted to understand myself.

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