By Sakshi Selvanathan
The wizened yet wise Ivan Nikolayevich is an ordinary seventy-year-old individual with an extraordinary outlook of life, who relates his life story to an enraptured stranger. He usually does this whilst trailing his fingers along an excessively used musical instrument of 20th century Russian origin – a ‘bayan’- in an almost maternal motion, and while ruminating over the vagaries of human companionship and commitment to the fellow members of its species.
The exquisitely painted cover page of ‘Bayan’ – portraying an elderly man in a brilliant crimson scarf and a rather enviable snowy white beard – provides no necessity for further divination: Ivan Nikolayevich is quite apparently the protagonist of the novel – a literary masterpiece by Pramudith D. Rupasinghe, the highly acclaimed author of equally captivating works like ‘Footprints into Obscurity’ and ‘Behind the Eclipse’. The entrancing story encapsulated within the pages of ‘Bayan’ heralds its initiation along the glittering waters of River Vorskla that flows through Russia and northeastern Ukraine, travels among the golden sunflower fields that arise on the way to Ukrainian townships like Sumy, and proclaims its glorious conclusion in the backdrop of the wintry landscapes of Pervomaysk.
And in a manner that is remarkably similar to the thought-provoking effervescence of the vibrant landscapes the book is set against, the tone that entwines every word to each other is an exceedingly philosophical one – encouraging the minds of its readers to expand further and beyond familiar horizons. Ivan’s existence, for instance, though appearing to the simpleton’s eye as a mere geriatric burden to the soil of the earth, proves to be, in all veracity, a cornucopia of knowledge and wisdom which should be deemed absolutely imperative for people of all ages to partake in. The profundity of the philosophical life lessons he imparts to ‘the stranger’ (a peripheral, yet indispensable, character of the story) is animated through the enigmatic idiosyncrasies of the protagonist, his almost recalcitrant hospitality towards the stranger, and a delectable sense of humour that comes across as being cynically mature, yet quixotically infantile at the same time. And the stranger – who finds himself in the daunting situation of battling frostbite temperatures and acclimatizing himself to the entirely foreign mise en scène of rural Ukraine – is regaled with the tales of the protagonist’s past, occurrences of his present and expectations of his future – all interspersed poetically with remnants of ballads from a bygone carnelian era, and the mellifluous melodies of his most prized possession, the eponymous bayan.
Eagle-eyed readers would be made cognizant of the formidable bond crystallized between musical instrument and man, which greatly assists in enabling the latter to wholeheartedly embrace the remaining time he has left on the earth’s soil with childlike exuberance, which to the outsider’s eye, occurs in a manner akin to lunacy: as evinced in the book, the prospect of an elderly man leaping dolphin-like into the inviting waters of the Vorskla river and quite abruptly inverting his entire body to stand on his hoary head elsewhere, would seem a ludicrously impossible one. Regardless, it is precisely that highly endearing devil-may-care attitude and the corollary indulgence in such incredible feats which boast of his surprising spryness in old age, that endow the protagonist with an awe-inspiringly optimistic outlook towards life and a fair amount of disregard for the opinions and judgement of others. This is not to insinuate that Ivan harbors any misanthropic inclinations or is preferentially predisposed to living a reclusive lifestyle: contrarily, he is portrayed to be quite a jovial character who exudes a sense of welcoming warmth to the ‘stranger’, a warmth that is not tooth-decayingly spurious. In fact, Ivan is able to make the stranger’s brief stay in his home a wonderfully comfortable experience (even in the backdrop of freezing temperatures) with hot, home-cooked meals and the deeply personal and euphonious sounds of his bayan. Thus, in a way that is beautifully explored by the author, the book demonstrates how an ostensibly bizarre intimacy between the protagonist and his musical instrument facilitates the former in his relationships with other people, and as well as with his own self – notably in the context of the loss of almost everyone he loved.
Furthermore, as descried by the astute remarks made by Ivan to the intrigued stranger, the author has painstakingly depicted how his silver-haired protagonist, in the cusp of his seven decades on the earth’s often treacherous surface, has accepted life for the way it is. Concisely put, Ivan has gracefully come to terms with the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all. And so, whilst playing upon the titular musical instrument, Ivan expresses to the world that he is blithely unafraid of a subject that cripples even the strongest knees and strangles the bravest of hearts: old age. The reason why he is able to embrace a stage of life that many do not deign to embrace could be found in one of the character’s deepest convictions, one that rings true across the four poles of the earth: nothing in life stays the same and transformation is inevitable.
An avid acolyte of literature on psychosocial and socioeconomic global trends, as well as a keen observer of the dynamics of civilization throughout the ages, the author employs the book to offer readers a perspective of transformation at the macro level of politics and economics, in the stark background of 20th century Ukraine and its attendant shedding of rivers of blood, sweat and tears in the brutal transition from communism to a laissez-faire economy. But it does not end there: the book delves deeper into the transformations that occur at the micro level, and the metamorphosis unfolding at the individual level– the most prominent one being the gradual, yet inescapable transition from youth to old age. However, Ivan’s positive attitude towards life does not wither in the face of the imminent deterioration of his physical and mental faculties: in fact, he exhibits a respectful acceptance of it – irrespective of the costs attached to such a generally undesirable process.
Through the utilization of a number of frank life stories recounted to the stranger, the protagonist is shown to have forged through the vicissitudes of life in a gloriously tranquil manner, thus providing invaluable and timeless life lessons to the rest of us (within the confines of Ukraine and beyond) in an exquisitely humorous yet painfully poignant fashion. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that, through his gracious acceptance of the impermanence of mortal life, Ivan looks to his faithful bayan as an object of permanence, one that disregards the failings of his physical self by adapting to them and continuing to emit revitalizing melodies – as indicated by the introductory quote of this review. In a fast-paced world that seemed impatient to listen to the thoughts of an insignificant old man, the bayan (an inanimate object supposedly incapable of understanding) provides a safe space for the cathartic expression of the man’s innermost sentiments; a most empathetic confidante the protagonist finds solace in.
There is also ample evidence to suggest that the book, from its very commencement to denouement, could have been written as a lengthy ode to nature: one that chants its praises to the natural wonders of the earth. Aside from the laudatory tone of Ivan’s words and actions with regard to the enthralling beauty of nature however, smattered across the conversations he has with the stranger are deeply disappointed remarks of how such aforesaid beauty only proves to be diminishing with every leap taken by man in his relentless quest for ‘modernity’. Indeed, as the protagonist refers to the natural elements around him in the rural areas of Ukraine, it is apparent that this book also functions as an incisive commentary on the rapidly deteriorating relationship of man with the natural world.
Ivan’s own spiritual bond with nature and her rabble is one that has been meticulously honed over his lifetime and has evidently played an integral role in shaping the protagonist’s starry-eyed perspective of a life that plunges even the most joyous souls into dark cynicism. As the book elucidates, the stranger is able to steal a glimpse of this seldom-seen, and extremely personal, relationship a human being is capable of forging with nature – widely regarded as simply an apathetic observer of human life. Of particular pertinence to the common man’s gaze is the emotional proximity Ivan possesses with nature: this enables him to draw attention to one of the most pressing societal issues plaguing the 21st century – climate change.
Though not proffering the main focus of the story, the author’s subtle direction of the readers’ attention to critical societal issues is no fruitless attempt: aside from climate change, the character of Nadiia is utilized to shine a spotlight on the issue of the paucity of opportunities (at the economic strata and more) available to people with disabilities as well. Going beyond this however, is the fact that the thoughts of the protagonist are employed to highlight a rather ‘disabling’ and detrimental shortcoming that countless individuals are guilty of indulging in: pessimism. The protagonist recounts Nadiia’s tragic demise as a deadly flower that had been borne out of the seeds of negativity and despair, and offers sagacious advice for all humans in the process: Iife, though miserly in its allotment of joy and generous in the meting out of sorrow, is to be faced with an intrepid optimism. One could be tempted to think that the protagonist’s idealism exceeds its acceptable limits – especially when the pitiful lot doled out to Nadiia by fate is taken into consideration. However, there is great foresight in his stance: just as he is able to calmly accept the frailties of the corporeal being, so is he similarly capable of embracing, in a manner akin to the biblical parable of the Merciful Father with the prodigal son, the disappointments hurled at him by life – hence enabling him to preserve his psychological being in the process. He is rather inexorable in this stand because he possesses yet another pearl of wisdom: life – regardless of the calamities it is fraught with – is in itself precious, and should therefore not be squandered by adopting debilitating attitudes like negativity.
Through the instrumentalization of this positive mindset and the application of the other priceless lessons learnt from his own experiences, Ivan’s lifeline blends effortlessly into the wider cycle of life, its sequential procedure reactivating after his own demise as the decades pass by – this time in the life of his daughter, Olga, her dark tresses bleached to silver with age. In the blindingly white backdrop of a frigid Ukrainian winter, the revivification of the cycle is heralded by – to no particular consternation – the hauntingly euphonious melody of a well-used bayan, a remnant of a man’s life well lived…
Bayan is not only the story of a strange, bearded old man who finds solace and a soulmate of sorts, in a traditional string instrument, while facing a common narrative of his era; it is a commentary on life, and a celebration of the ultimate coming of age. It juxtaposes the failure of physical strength and faculties to the accumulation of immense emotional fortitude. It lulls you into feeling safe in spite of the passing of transient seasons, the waning of political ideologies and the inevitable disintegration of the corporeal being. Bayan talks about how amid a changing world order, revolutions and the ravages of time, the music of life will go on.
Our View on the Cover:
A gorgeous painting of a man with a brilliant attitude towards life. The cover of the book perfectly fits the disposition of the elderly Ivan, who even within the pages of the book, seems to be in constant rumination of life.
Ivan Nikolaevych, Nadiya Dymythrivna, Olga Ivanovna , Stranger
Who can read:
Anyone and everyone
Our final verdict
Couched in romantic language and a plethora of humorous observations that appease the deepest recesses of one’s soul, the novel ‘Bayan’ extends its reach to a readership that is not solely confined to one age group, but many. Thus, if a refreshingly candid depiction of life and its exigencies (embellished with a tasteful sprinkling of reverence for nature and its wonders) piques one’s interest, he or she only has to remove this volume from the shelf and delve into a world that one would not be able to extricate oneself from till its very end – and laugh and cry along the way. ‘Bayan’ boasts of myriad strengths, its only shortcoming being – in all honesty – its brevity.
|Edition Reviewed||International Education 2018|
|Author||Pramudith D Rupasinghe|
|Translations as at 18/01/2021||German, Polish, Sinhalese, Burmese|
|The Asian Review Rating||7.7 out of 10|