Two Mirrors at the Ashram

Published in Books & Authors (Daily Dawn) on November 25, 2007.
Original Link
By Shiv K. Kumar
Penguin Books, India
ISBN 0-14-310083-1
223pp. Indian Rs250

Shiv K. Kumar has produced works in various genres of the English language; he is a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, a playwright, a critic and also a translator. With a doctorate in English Literature from Cambridge University, Kumar has taught at Indian and foreign universities and has been honoured by the Sahitya Akademi Award (for his poetic work ‘Trapfalls in the Sky’) and the Padma Bhushan, for his literary achievements. Since the central character of Two Mirrors at the Ashram is a writer and the novel is in the first person, Kumar’s love for writing and his reflections on the various roles that a writer has to play come across in a rather fascinating and vivacious manner.

Protagonist Rajesh Sahni’s mind is extremely active and his nature very observant; he is inquisitive to the point of interfering in other people’s innermost secrets. Even in perilous situations, his mind grasps minute details such as during his encounter with the cobra: ‘But it was its beady, needle-sharp eyes that mesmerised me — incisive, bloodshot, probing, charged with intense concentration. It was the concentration of a boxer closing on his opponent in a ring. A flicker of the eyelashes and the adversary’s hooked glove could knock one out.’

The novel begins with Rajesh’s chance stay at an ashram called Shanti Niwas (Abode of Peace) in South India. His drinking habits, promiscuous relationships with women, atheistic beliefs and blasphemous thoughts and statements, all contradict this occurence: ‘I have always marvelled at the ingenuity of Hinduism. Is there anything that cannot be explained away through karma and reincarnation?’

Therefore, at Shanti Niwas, Rajesh initially remains unimpressed by the respected Swami there, looking down upon his puritanical discourses and regarding him as a hypocrite. However, a rendezvous and the Swami’s unexpected admission of the truth (in line with his belief that ‘Satyameva Jayate’ or ‘Truth Alone Triumphs’), changes not only Rajesh’s opinion but also his personality.

Gradually, as he interacts more with the Swami, he begins to see the world in a different light. Whether it makes him a better or worse person is subjective, but then perhaps the author’s purpose was not to be judgemental. In fact, the novel is simply a narration of events at a certain point in Rajesh’s life; it does not have a definite destination or conclusion. Surprisingly, the author’s account of the riots, which broke out after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in Delhi in 1984, which he writes about from personal experience, lacks emphasis and impact. Perhaps Kumar has intentionally avoided too many morbid details, but the chapters that are more or less dedicated to those events should have been a mirror to the strong feelings that one would associate with such incidents.

Nevertheless, the characters and their reactions, especially Rajesh’s, throughout the rest of the book are very close to life. And this is exactly what makes the book more engrossing; whatever happens is unbelievably real. At first, the book may appear to be rather anti-Hindu, which is something the author has been accused of previously, but upon further reading one arrives at the conclusion that this is not so.— Ayesha Hoda

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