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First, it’s time for a confession. If after Pereira Maintains,I was an intrepid eager beaver ferreting about for the works of Antonio Tabucchi, Indian Noctrine, has made me an impossible and incorrigible convert. Writing in a style that is sparse, yet heterogeneous, economical yet immensely profound, Tabucchi is like an expert mountaineer who after summiting each peak, faithfully albeit concisely pays obeisance to every ridge, cleft, crevasse and overhang. There is an infuriating ‘tease’ about Tabucchi’s writing that leaves an impatient reader pleading for more.
Indian Noctrine, has an anonymous narrator scouring the city streets of India in an apparently elusive search for his missing friend. From the abject squalor of the streets abutting the murky Hotel Khajuraho in Bombay (now Mumbai), where egregious prostitutes compete with enthusiastic shopkeepers to lure passers-by, to the azure sophistry permeating the corridors of Hotel Oberoi in Goa, the protagonist is alternatively assailed and regaled by experiences, detestable and delectable.
Xavier Janata Pinto, about whom nothing is known other than the fact that he is a ‘simultaneous interpreter’ goes missing after an Indian jaunt. The nameless narrator who happens to be a friend of Xavier arrives in India and tries retracing the path traversed by Xavier. Aiding and abetting him in this endeavour are scraps of information loosely knitted together and emanating from past acquaintances of the lost individual. For example, at the Hotel Khajuraho, the narrator gleans an important piece of information concerning Xavier’s ties with the Theosophical Society in Madras (now Chennai) from a prostitute named Vimala Sar. Vimala’s brief and tumultuous dalliance with Xavier, the reader understands is already known to the seeker of his friend. This sets him traipsing off to the bustling metropolis of Chennai and the Theosophical Society.
In every encounter, and in every potential lead, Tabucchi withholds as much as he reveals. The details are thin, the room for optimism is muted and the challenges, formidable. The reader is left enervated as yet another clue, ends in an unpretentious cul-de-sac. Cryptic hints are tossed around taking the narrator from one place to the next in a laborious yet reflective hunt. Tabucci also in an exquisitely clever manner makes it known to the reader, his yearning for the works of the Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa. For example, in a conversation with a principal character at the Theosophical Society in Adyar, Madras, the narrator gets agitated at the condescending manner taken on by his host when queried about the probable whereabouts of Xavier. Over a cup of tea and snacks, the narrator is asked whether Pessoa was a gnostic. “I said. “He was a Rosicrucian. He wrote a series of esoteric poems called Passos da Cruz…. Do you know what his last words were?” “No,” he said. “What were they?” “Give me my glasses,” I said. “He was very shortsighted, and he wanted to enter the other world with his glasses on.” My host smiled and said nothing.” But the narrator is in for a pleasant shock, when after handing over a note penned by Xavier to him, his host quotes a translated passage from Pessoa’s original work, a poem called Christmas
Indian Nocturne also doubles up as a reluctantly condensed travel guide. Armed with only a small briefcase and a copy of A Travel Survival Kit, the non-descript narrator is exposed to the veritable paradox that is India. The spectacular and the sullied joust with one another as decadence shares territory with depravity. India also is a land that births nostalgia and fantasy. While checking in at the Hotel Zuari in Goa, the narrator realises that hotels of the Zuari’s ilk remain seeped in the fantasy of every man who has had an exposure to the works of Jospeh Conrad or Somerset Maugham or watched movie adaptations of the books of Rudyard Kipling or Louis Bromfield.
As the search for Xavier unravels layer by layer, there is a sudden coalescing of identities. The distinction between the seeker and the sought initially becomes blurry before amalgamating into one immutable soul. This trancelike transformation reduces the reader to a somnambulist who is gently feeling her way past various objects in repose. Even animate beings take on disordinate shapes and discombobulated structures. On his way to the coast of Goa, the narrator’s bus stops in the sleepy city of Mangalore. This stop-ever sees the narrator amble over to a visiting room and sit besides a ten year old boy with a monkey on his shoulder. Only after conversing for a few minutes with the boy does the narrator realise that the entity perched atop the boy’s head is not a monkey but a hideously deformed human being. It is the boy’s twenty year old elder brother who also happens to be a fortune teller. For a fee of 10 rupees (not even one US Dollar), the boy holds forth on the karma and atma (soul) of the narrator.
In an interview, Tabucchi confessed that he was drawn to “tormented people full of contradictions.” “The more doubts they have the better. People with lots of doubts sometimes find life more oppressive and exhausting than others, but they’re more energetic—they aren’t robots. I prefer insomnia to anaesthesia. I don’t go for people who lead full and satisfying lives. In my books, I’m not on the side of the authorities. I’m with those who’ve suffered.”
Indian Nocturne resonates with such tormented people. Whether it be Xavier or the boy with his deformed brother, or even the narrator himself, all of these characters carry with them the unsaid burden of torment and the unseen vexation of a life not lived in full. While Tabucchi might have preferred insomnia to anesthesia, it is this very preference that has led to a storehouse of invaluable treasures in the form of his writing.
Indian Nocturne was first published as Notturno Indiano 1984. The English translation of the book had to wait for 5 more years before being published in 1989. A French film adaptation of Nocturne Indien directed by Alain Corneau was also released in the same year as the English translation of the novella.