Room with a View|Nov 15, 2009 1:23 PM| by:

The Idea of a Novel

She was a smart, young and bright student of a venerable institution, which pursues spiritual values in education. We were discussing about novels. I asked her about her favourite novelist and she mentioned the name of a famous American author. “But is he not a little erotic”, I queried. She replied casually “Well, yes, but American life is like that”. Her reply set me thinking about the dharma or the ideal of a novel.

The Dharma of a Novel

The first and the most intrinsic dharma of a novel is to mirror life. A novelist cannot be puritanical. He or she is not writing a Bible or Gita. She has to mirror life in all its hues and colours – white, black and grey, good and the bad. For example, according to ancient Indian thought a literary composition, Kavya, should express nine moods, navarasas, which include not only positive emotions like heroism, compassion, humour, romance, wonder but also negative ones like fear, anger, ferocity, repulsion. But mirroring life should not become an excuse for depicting only the ugly and grotesque aspects of life. A novelist should also mirror the good and beautiful aspects of life, which were never absent even in the most materialistic societies which pursue sensate values.

But an ideal novel should not only mirror life but express and evoke in the reader a higher aspiration―moral, aesthetic or spiritual―beyond the mundane interests and desires of the ordinary life. In a novel this aspiration should not remain as a noble abstraction aloof from life; it must rise out of the facts and events of the actual life of the human being. For example, if an American novelist writing about American life, keeps it entirely free from sex and violence, then, even if she expresses a higher aspiration in the story, her work is not wholly in conformity with the dharma of a novel. For sex and violence, especially the first, is a very visible and sensible part of American life and a novelist writing about American life can never ignore it. On the other hand, if the novel depicts only the gruesome aspects of American life with a brutal murder or a lewd erotica on every second page, then also, it is far away from our ideal of a novel.

The other dharma of a novel is related to the style and the story. A novel is an instrument of mass-communication. Its language, narrative and style should be able to catch and sustain the interest and attention of the vital, emotional and sensational consciousness of the masses, in other words, it must be entertaining. It is in this aspect that most of the popular novelists of the West excel.

What is the ideal theme of a novel? A hero or a heroine pursuing a higher ideal in the midst of life, passes through all the vicissitudes of life, conquers all the defects or weaknesses in his or her nature and the difficulties and temptations of the life around, finally coming out victorious – this is perhaps the ideal theme of a novel. But is this not the theme of most of the commercial novels and films? To communicate or evoke a higher aspiration in the audience the author must have this aspiration, living and burning in her heart. And the story should be a creative transcription of the personal experiences and realization of the author in his effort and struggle to live the ideal and the aspiration in his daily life. So, some of the English novelists who write fiction based on their personal and professional experiences, for example John Grisham in the legal field or Robin Cook in the medical field, have set a good trend. But when you preach morality without a moral consciousness, it will not be taken seriously by the audience. This is the reason why the moral theme, which is doled out in Indian Bollywood movies by very brave, macho and ethical heroes do not inspire the audience, though they may entertain them. However it is not absolutely necessary that a novel should be based on the personal experiences of the author. It can also be based on the life and experiences of great men of history who represent the higher aspirations of humanity. If these biographies of great men can be recreated and made more vivid and contemporary by the creative imagination of the author, then also it can communicate to the audience something of the higher aspiration, which inspired the great men.

Is there such an ideal novel or something which come close to the ideal? In India, some of the novels of Rabindranath Tagore and Bankim Chatterjee, like Gora or Ananda Matt, and in the West, among contemporary writers, some of the fables of the famous Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho like Alchemist and Robin Sharma’s The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari, are a few example’s which come near to the ideal. But my personal choice is something which may surprise many readers: it is Vyasa’s epic Mahabharatha, the Great Indian Novel!