The incomparable silence of Vilas Sarang
Vilas Sarang, the author Samuel Beckett recommended to his American publishers
By Ramu Ramanathan

Vilas Sarang 1942-2015

Professor Vilas Sarang is no more. He was 73 when he passed away, on 14th April, at Hinduja Hospital.

He was the author Samuel Beckett recommended to his American publishers, The Grove Press. Those were not the days of literature fests and television appearances. And so Sarang never became a literary star. He did not even receive the celebrity status of an Arun Kolatkar or Kiran Nagarkar, both of whom wrote in English and Marathi. Neither did he have the literary equity of a Vinda Karandikar or even a Bhalchandra Nemade among Marathi readers.

So who was Vilas Sarang?

He taught us James Joyce’s Ulysses at Mumbai University. The 783-page gem which chronicles a single day in Dublin was “the least read” book on the course.

There were three things Sarang highlighted about Ulysses. It is experimental, it is historical, and it’s all about Joyce’s ability to dash down a rabbit hole, into a grammarian’s wonderland – qualities that have been attributed to Sarang’s own work.

The English lectures in the summer months would be conducted in slow motion.

Sarang would scribble “snot green sea” on the blackboard. Long silence. Sarang would smile. Long silence. Sarang would talk about Joyce’s use of water as a metaphor. Longer silence. Nothing would happen in class. All of us staring at the professor. And he staring out of the window. Some more silence.

It was a tour de force on how to deliver a lecture. The rumour was: he was insomniac.

I loved this lecture; especially the incomparable silence.

I took a vow that if I ever became a professor, this is how I would deliver my talks: 60 minutes of silence.

I met him in his cabin a few times. Lots of Rudyard Kipling adorned the wall panels and a solitary tribute to Kafka. Plus copies of Little Magazine on the table. His own identity, neatly camouflaged.

He was approachable, but just one word answers, followed by longish bits of silence.

Once, when we wanted to gate-crash into his room with a silly play-reading issue, we were informed at the door, “Sir is busy”. In Sir’s cabin were seated Miroslav Holub from Czechoslovakia, Ferenc Juhasz of Hungary, Ernesto Cardenal of Nicaragua, and the under-rated and under-stated Adil Jussawalla of Mumbai.

All mighty fine poets.

Next day, we asked Sir, what transpired in the room?

He chuckled. And then, silence.

His fascination was not merely westward with Joyce and Borges. He had published an anthology (The Marathi Modernists) in which he critiqued the writings of Bhalchandra Nemade, Kiran Nagarkar, Kamla Desai and C T Khanolkar, among others. He used to acknowledge the influence of B S Mardhekar’s fiction; inasmuch as Gangadhar Gadgil and Vyankatesh Madgulkar.

His short story collection was published by Seagull Books (In the Land of Enki; the original Enkichya Rajyat in Marathi was published by Mouj) and Penguin (Fair Tree of the Void).

After reading Sarang’s A Revolt of the Gods, Ganapati Visarjan has not remained the same for me. In this short story, the Ganesha idols in Mumbai come to life and decide to hide so as to escape immersion at the culmination of the festival of Ganeshotsav.

Critics in the Indian English press compare Sarang’s technique to Kafka’s imagery. This is a bit irksome. The point is there was so much more to his work. There is the quintessential school teacher who gets a job in the school in which he was a student in “On the Stone Steps”. In one stroke, Sarang turns Pu La Deshpande’s canonised characters from Batatyachi Chawl upside down.

As Dilip Chitre said, “… (His) fiction has a fantastic premise followed by a detailed and ‘realistic’ narration. We needn’t go to Hispanic America to seek the seeds of Sarang’s technique or his themes. Like most of us, he is the inheritor of the Indian epics, the Puranas, the Pali and the Prakrit classics, the rich tribal as well as rural oral traditions, so rarely drawn upon by younger creative writers today.”

After the stint at Mumbai University, we lost touch with him. We got an update that Sir was a university professor at the English Language Faculty in Kuwait City. He had this uncanny knack to pick the most brutal of cities: Beirut and Basra; and as he used to say, quite wryly, “the toughest trouble zone of all, Kalina Campus”.

He suffered a stroke and became a recluse in the past few years.

When admitted to the Hinduja Hospital, he was out of breath.

I think he timed his death beautifully. 14th April. The day after Beckett was born in 1906.

Question: Sir, did you do this deliberately?
Answer: Long silence.
May you rest in peace, Sir.

Ramu Ramanathan is a Mumbai-based playwright and the editor of PrintWeek India magazine, where this tribute was first published.