Sugu Pillay: The Chandrasekhar Limit (2003)

Jack Ross, ed.: brief 27 (July 2003)

Sugu Pillay, The Chandrasekhar Limit and other stories. Auckland: The Writers Group, 2002. ISBN 0-473-08731-6. 151 pp. RRP $29.

Sugu Pillay: The Chandrasekhar Limit (2002)

Like V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri and the millionth other, Vasuki Maharaj had come to London to live the writer’s life [“Heretic Loka”]

“That is, the secret writer’s life” (57), the passage continues. It would seem an appropriate beginning for a discussion of Sugu Pillay’s intricately-constructed, intensely self-conscious fables of identity in a post-colonial, post-post-modern world. Does the passage imply that the writer wishes to be seen in the same terms as those icons of Western possession of the Other? Is Vasuki Maharaj a mask for Sugu Pillay, Indian writer in Aotearoa, first-cousin-once-removed to London?

The story immediately belies this notion by the unexpected density of its prose (I first wrote “pose,” and that would seem a point worth making also):
It was obvious that to enter the game of difference and differAnce, one must be released from bondage to the myth of sameness. To risk the caterpillar’s touch and metamorphose into a blue enamel butterfly and in the process the lilac wisteria of memory turns into art? (57)

The invocation of Derridean différance is weighed against the near-Georgian “lilac wisteria of memory.” There’s something odd about the syntax, too. Is “turns” meant to function as a verb or a noun? The punctuation would seem to admit either possibility, thus committing itself to neither. “A postmodernist is an unpalatable writer who eats at the table of another,” grumbles Tom Muribellum, one of Vasuki’s colleagues in the “Physiology department.” “All stories are thieved. Lord Ganesha approves” (63) is her reply.

“The rest was just needlework” (59). This extraordinary complex of conversations, literary investigations, and surgical operations (on sheep, mostly) culminates in the literal arrival of a deus (or should one say diabolus?) ex machina: Ravana, the demon kidnapper from the Ramayana:
Centering Vasuki with his rhynchocephalian eye, Ravana said, ‘He iwi kotahi tatou.’ He then invited Vasuki to enter his left toe. Recognising the pushpavahanam as her rightful turangawaewae, Vasuki gladly jumped thresholds and entered the puzzling space of nga tapuwae. And away they flew to Heretic Loka where only the brave dwell and thrive. Who was afraid of the textual toe? (70)

In his introduction to The Vintage Book of Indian Writing (1947-1997), Salman Rushdie refers to the phenomenon of “Rushdie-itis:’ a dazzling, multi-layered prose which rejects the possibility of simple or understated effects. Even by Rushdie’s standards, though, this passage would seem problematic. Without a knowledge of Maaori, Sanskrit, and modern post-structuralism, the points Pillay is making here are not so much obscure as inaccessible.

Nor is it an isolated example – in this story or any of the eight others. They all hinge on a bewildering multi-cultural barrage of references. Characters from mythology interact with Bollywood lovers, stereotyped politicians and academics, and “realistic” slice-of-life characters. Their language is as complex and typographically bewildering as a Derridean treatise (Glas, for instance), and yet the centre of this web of significations (note the American spelling in the passage quoted above) is always poetry. A Mallarméan poetry of allusion, to be sure, but no less intensely felt for that:

love and its survival
love and survival
love survival


Is that, finally, what saves these stories from themselves? This sense of a reality behind the dazzle, “beyond all this fiddle” (Marianne Moore)?

Sugu Pillay is not anxious to be owned. She doesn’t want to win a Nobel prize for careful adherence to Western ideas of the anti-self, the Other: the familiarised exotic (The Mystic Masseur, The Famished Road – even, dare one admit it? Midnight’s Children). It is true that that is also the subject of these books: how to “succeed” (in the Western literary sense) while rejecting assimilation. Naipaul, Okri, and Rushdie have all faced the same dilemma and tried to write their way out from under it. What degree of success each of them has achieved is (or should be) a daily topic of debate among us. (Perhaps The Satanic Verses is the most magnificently Quixotic of all such attempts to date – no Nobel for Salman, or not as yet …)

Sugu Pillay’s answer is uncompromising in a different way. The “secrecy” mentioned in the first quote above should alert us to the existence of a series of Hermetic barriers within her stories. She invites knee-jerk rejection, derision, incomprehension by the very way she writes. And yet, perhaps hard words are needed when easy answers have failed. Sugu Pillay is not blind to the complexity of her historical and cultural moment. She refuses to let her readers be blind, either. If you listen, there’s much to hear. (There are some rattling good yarns concealed in here, too).


brief 27 (2003): 99-100.

[790 wds]

brief 27 (2003)

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