Why I like The Strange Case of Billy Biswas – Esther David

Arun Joshi’s novel “The strange case of Billy Biswas is one of my old favorites. I had bought it in the seventies from a bookshop at the railway station. Often I turn to this book as it is all about freedom of the human spirit. Billy Biswas is now in tatters, because the silverfish also love him. With all my interest in the book, I do not know anything about the author. But, I was impressed that he had dedicated the novel to his father in memory of thirty years of love and friendship. Recently, I was rather touched to see that it has been republished with a new cover. I do not think the book did very well, but the mere fact that it has been republished makes one realize that a good work of literature survives time. 

The entire gist of the book is narrated in the first page “As I grow old, I realize that the most futile cry of man is his wish to be understood. The effort to understand is even more futile. If in spite of this I propose to relate Billy’s story, it is not because I claim to have understood him, as it is on account of a deep and unrelieved sense of wonder that in the middle of the twentieth century, in the heart of Delhi’s smart society, there should have lived a man of such extraordinary obsessions.” 

The story revolves around Billy Biswas educated in the USA and a professor of anthropology. He disappears unto a tribal community, much to the chagrin of his family. They start a statewide hunt for him, which eventually ends in tragedy. Because, it was hard for the civilized world to understand that Billy was a free soul and nothing on earth could tie him down, not even death, “After lunch I lay in my camp bed and read through a couple of magazines that I picked up in New Delhi, and an old copy of the New Yorker. As I leafed through them the whole thing, hallucination or whatever it was, that has been haunting me since the time of my meeting Bilasia, miraculously cleared up. You are some kind of a nut, aren’t you, Billy Biswas, I said with unutterable relief. What do you think is going to happen to you? Are you going to run away with that Bilasia. Maybe all you want is to get her into bed. Who do you think was going to happen to your wife and child?”

While reading these chapters one almost assumes that Billy is an irresponsible human being. That is when the craft of the writer comes to the fore. Arun Joshi delves into the complexities of human desires and dreams, “All we could hear was the sound of her anklets above our heads, sometime here, sometime there, winding along the narrow footpath that a million feet had beaten into the side of the hill at the bottom of which stood Dhunia’s hut. I remember how we stopped talking and how we waited in silence for her to emerge from the darkness.”

Few years before this experience Billy had told his friend Tuula in New York, “A strange woman keeps crossing my dreams. I have seen her on the streets of Delhi, nursing a child in the shade of a tree or hauling stone for a rich man’s house. I have seen her buying bangles at the fair, I have seen her shadow at a tribal dance and I have seen her pensive and inviolable, her clothes clinging to her wet body, beside a tank in Benares.”  This dream has supernatural intonations when Billy is worshipped by the tribals because of his knowledge of medicine and  astronomy. They believe he is the incarnation of the king who built the temple at Chandtola. “The temple stood in the middle of nowhere. All of a sudden it loomed in the glare of the headlights like an apparition.” According to legend the temple was commissioned by the king, who was carved the main idol. “The king left the palace and lived in a little hut by the temple. He ate what little the townspeople left by the hut. The king went mad. But the chiseling went on day and night. Then one night the chiseling ceased. In the morning the townsmen came and found the young king with the white hair, dead. The last piece, the one at whose feet he lay, was exquisite. No artist had ever infused such life in a stone figure or hewn such limbs out of common granite. But the figure had no face. That had always been the trouble. The king could never make the face of his god.”

The narration ends like this,“The strange case of Billy Biswas had at last been disposed off in the only manner that a humdrum society knows of disposing its rebels, its seers, its true lovers.”

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