Book Review on Jayanta Ray’s Tales of Square Field

The  stories  we  tell  ourselves  tell  the  story  of  our  life. Through  those stories,  we  create, build  and  divine  the world  around  us  in  our  unique  light.  That  is  the  way  the world becomes ours—that is the way we derive meaning from it.

In  this  book Tales  of  Square  Field,  the author, Jayanta Ray, does  precisely  so—he injects into his physical world, his own mental creation, and the two worlds meld and move together in harmony. There is no friction between the two, no conflict between his mind’s creation and the physical entity.  On  the  other  hand,  he  draws  inspiration from the mirage he has, and in that way, imbues his banal existence with sense and sensibility.

Right  upfront  in  the  Prologue,  Ray  informs  the  readers that it has been an ‘eternity’ since the bond was created between Arjun, the humble schoolteacher, and the ‘highly sensitive flat land’ Square Field, in the ‘mofussil’ town of Baharampore   in   Bengal.   Described   variously   as   the ‘oxygen tank’, ‘nerve centre of activities’ and even ‘listless ground’ and ‘vivacious radiating body of landmass’ the SF begins to don a personality in the readers ‘mind.

It   is   interesting   to   note   the   origin   of   this   unusual connection—an  introvert  college  student  from  a  rural background   thrown   into   an   alien   environment   finds comfort  in  books  and  the  make-believe  worlds.  It  is  a smooth  and  logical  extension  into  the  real  world —the thinking and talking and deeply insightful flat piece of land he  encounters  on  his  daily  trips  to  the  school  where  he teaches or the NGO where he works or any place else.

Arjun,  the  protagonist,  admits  his  behaviour  and frequent forays to the field are viewed by his friends as being a little ‘weird’, but his clear intellectual superiority in his college coupled  with  his  love  for  the  written  word  provides  him the leeway to get away with it all.

Chapter  1  opens  with  a  quote  from The  Diary  of  a  Young Girl by Anne Frank, and that is illuminating: For the young teenager, the diary was a ‘source of comfort and support’ in the most difficult days of her life, Arjun views SF (Square Field) in a similar way.

We   also   get   a   view   of   the relationship  between  the protagonist  and  SF.  SF  tells  him  about  an  unfortunate woman,  Sita,  in  domestic  distress  and  asks  Arjun to help her through the NGO, Asha, Arjun is associated with. It  may  be  a  bit  far-fetched, but SF gets to know what’s going on in Sita’s home and details of her ‘SOB’ husband through its extraordinary ability to ‘eavesdrop’ on other’s conversations that take place in its property. But let’s put aside  our  scepticism  here,  and  get  to  the  heart  of  the matter.  SF  is  Arjun’s  conscience-keeper,  the  alter-ego Arjun  employs  to  lead  what  he  believes  is  a  good  life. Of course,   it   is   itself   not   insignificant   that   Arjun  enjoys teaching students, and bringing to life subjects like history and geography, while his young wife Minu teaches Indian music  at  their  home.  SF  with  its  almost-always  socially well-intentioned interventions takes Arjun to the next level of a well-lived life.

There are other instances when SF draws Arjun’s attention to a wrong that needs to be righted. Life  events  overtake  Arjun —his  wife  has  a  baby,  school politics gets in the way, both sets of parents come to stay with  the  couple  for  short  spans  following  the  birth  of  a baby  boy.  Through  it  all,  SF  and  Arjun  remain  bonded —and  as  the  narrative  progresses,  the  nature  of  the bond opens itself up to closer examination.

SF is a construct Arjun has created to mind his mind. SF is a piece of land that Arjun loves for the peace it brings him, for the fact it probably reminds him of his own agricultural roots  back  in  a  Bengal  village,  a  long  time  ago.  Through the  SF  construct,  Arjun  weighs  his  own thoughts, argues with  his  opinions  and  holds  forth  from  another  point  of view when he is faced with a dilemma. On page 30, where Arjun and SF are holding forth on the state of workers and what  the  government  can  do,  and  should  do, this is self- evident.  Such  intellectual  cogitation  must  emanate  from Arjun, SF can only be the medium.

The  narration  is  interesting,  if  sagging  in  parts  (like  the murder   in   Chapter   6,   or   the   academic   session   on Ramayana in Chapter 8). The description of his visit to his parents (Chapter 2) to announce his wife’s pregnancy is crisp,  on  the  other  hand,  and  sweetly  endearing  in  its minute  detailing.  The  interception  of  his  rickshaw  by  the goons  in  the  guise  of  Comrades  at  dusk,  as  well as their looting of his mother’s laddus is humorous, and portrays the  human  side  of  the  goons.  The  so-called  Comrades can’t be so evil that homemade laddus can suppress their evil desire.

There are fitful descriptions of typical small-town activities —a game of cricket, a lost boy, moving pictures, even the unseemly happy allure of a budding illicit relationship with a student. There is a sense of ‘mofussil’ right through the book, and some more descriptions of nature, the Ganges and  trees  and  flowers  would  have  lighted  up  the  town-images in the reader’s mind. Though  saddened  by  the  devastation  of  its property, the disappearance  of SF in the last chapter remains a bit of a mystery   to   the   reader.   It   is   abrupt   and   not   totally convincing,  but  perhaps,  the  writer  exercised his right of creation (and therefore annihilation), and thought it fit to do  away  with  the  alter-ego  in the advancing life of Arjun, who was now well-set in his life and ways, and probably, in his construction of a social conscience too. All in all, it is an engaging read.

Title: Tales of Square Field
Author: Jayanta Ray
Publisher: Frog  Books
Available: Amazon

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