By Sakshi Selvanathan
“When my trembling fingers were no longer able to press the keys as hard as I used to, my old ears failed to follow my melodies, my bayan began to change its rhythm and tone. I felt that it had become familiar with my trembling fingers and faulty hearing, and composed a melody that did not ask about the little shortcomings of my age…” (p.149).
So go the verbally expressed thoughts of a wizened yet wise Ivan Nikolayevich – an ordinary seventy year old individual with an extraordinary outlook of life – which fall on the ears of an enraptured stranger, as the former trails his fingers along an excessively used musical instrument of 20th century Russian origin – a ‘bayan’- in an almost maternal motion, whilst ruminating over the vagaries of human companionship and commitment to the fellow members of its species.
Theexquisitely 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 in 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 brought to life 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.
The stranger – who naturally comes to be emancipated from the stifling garb of feeling like an alien by the grace of Ivan’s amicable nature and generosity – finds himself in the daunting situation of battling frostbite temperatures and acclimatising himself to the entirely foreign mise en scène of rural Ukraine of the Eastern European regional mosaic. Nonetheless, each novel experience molds him in becoming a firsthand witness of the country’s wonderfully grounded yet vibrant culture, as well as the charming exigencies of its people. It is in such a context that the stranger 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 – in tribute to the very title of the book – the mellifluous melodies emanated from his most prized possession, the bayan.
And without a flicker of doubt, it is through the operation of the obdurate metal keys and reeds of this extensively used Russian accordion that Ivan is able to translate the most occluded yearnings of his heart into audible harmonies – harmonies that seem to coalesce effortlessly with the commonplace sounds of nature itself. Indeed, there would be worldwide consensus – stretching beyond the different cultures and belief systems of the planet’s civilisations – on the fact that music in itself possesses the incomparably unique ability to act as an outlet for the voicing out of unspoken human emotions – reaching a depth that could not be explored through mere words but a melody.
It is safe to claim that the relationship between the grey-haired man and the sable musical instrument surmounts to a practically religious one, the former even going so far as to compose a hymn of praise for the object, for having encircled him in a melodious force field that had successfully protected him from the onslaught of a multitude of fears – especially those that accompanied the inevitable prospect of retirement. And of paramount importance is the fact that the reverential regard Ivan possesses for his bayan is a direct result of the solitary mortal urge for companionship – which is quite understandably, something that countless individuals have spent their lifetime laboring for since time immemorial. He utilizes the musical instrument as a means of battling the demons of his soul – a particularly menacing one being lost opportunities; specifically, the opportunity he had lost in his youth to forge a meaningful relationship with his first wife and their daughter – the apple of his eye – a little girl named Victoria. The story reveals that history seemed to cruelly repeat itself in the protagonist’s life, as fate shouted for the blood of an encore: Ivan becomes estranged from the second woman he had ever loved, a dauntless woman by the name of Nadiia, disabled by the ravages of polio, and with whom he had begotten a child – another beloved daughter, Olga. Though offered the meagre solace of watching his second daughter grow from a distance, the concomitant heartache caused by the emotional loss of the latter and then the physical loss of the woman he continued to shed tears for, Ivan expresses his grief in the form of the dulcet tones of the bayan. The protagonist’s action of playing upon the traditional instrument and subsequently forming an almost spiritual connection with the inanimate object, constitutes a coping mechanism of sorts, that, as opposed to the typical ones that only serve to inundate an individual into a stupor of lightheaded self-loathing and misery, veritably enables Ivan to find – and make – peace with the ghosts of his past and the uncertainties of an unforeseeable future.
Eagle-eyed readers would also be made cognisant of the realisation that the formidable bond crystallised between musical instrument and man greatly assists in enabling the latter to wholeheartedly embrace the remaining time he has left on the earth’s soil in 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 that 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; on the contrary, he is portrayed to be quite a jovial character in his interactions with others – capable of making the other villagers burst out into peals of laughter because of his humorous anecdotes whilst travelling in the little Russian minibuses called marshrutkas, and he is also observed to exude and extend a sense of welcoming warmth to the ‘stranger’, a warmth that is not so garishly apparent or 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 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 close to his heart.
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 – or concisely put, Ivan has gracefully come to terms with the good, the bad and the ugly of it all. And so, playing upon the titular musical instrument proves to be an extremely efficient method through which 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 civilisation throughout the ages, the author employs the book to offer the 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 to the transformations that occur at the micro level, and the mercurial process of metamorphosis that unfolds at the standing of the individual – 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 utilisation of a number of frank life stories recounted to the stranger, the protagonist is shown to have forged through the vicissitudes of life in an almost enviably and 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 cast aside from memory 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 revitalising 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 seems to be ample evidence, through mere setting alone, to suggest that the book, from its very commencement to denouement, could have been written as a lengthy ode of sorts to nature: one that chants its praises to the natural wonders of the earth. This point is buttressed by the fact that the protagonist is presented to be a character who retains a deep admiration and appreciation for nature. It could also be no mere coincidence – or simply a haphazard arrangement of facts – that Ivan’s acquiescence with the inevitable cycle of life arises from his aforementioned appreciation for nature, and the concomitant comprehension that is gained about the natural order of things when one does so. And once again, it is through the tune of a thousand spirited melodies from his trusty bayan that Ivan is able to build a ‘bridge’ between ‘Mother Nature’ and himself (p.149). In its unique way, the humble stringed instrument acts as the catalyst in the reaction of the merging of the spirits of man and nature.
Aside from the laudatory tone of Ivan’s words and actions with regard to the enthralling beauty of nature, 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 – where, in all candor, the detrimental effects of climate change are not so harshly observable – it is quite 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 utilised 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. At one point for instance, Ivan is observed by the stranger to be sorrowfully lost in thought about a woman he had met by the banks of the river Vorskla, whose arrival had drastically altered the course of his youthful life – Nadiia’s. The main character looks back on her tragic demise as a deadly flower that had been borne out of the seeds of negativity and despair, and offers sagacious advice for every living human being in the process: Ivan takes pains to warn the stranger how life, though miserly in its allotment of joy and immensely 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 is 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. Moreover, he is rather inexorable in this stand because he is in possession of 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.
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.