It would hold no wonder that one hasn’t heard of ‘The Sensualist’. Perhaps it is because, Ruskin Bond, the writer, has never been associated with literature of this kind. Also, the fact that even though The Sensualist was written over two decades ago and only recently re-published makes it difficult to know about it, unless one is Ruskin Bond fan.
A history surrounds this novella (a short tale normally with a moral). The Sensualist appeared in serialized form in the Debonair- a Mumbai Magazine and consequently Mr. Ruskin Bond was charged with obscenity. After a long trial and a much awaited acquittal, the popular author was freed from this unwanted mess. With a controversy like this, surrounding the contents of the novella, the story is quite not a shocker but interesting nonetheless.
In the words, used by the author himself in the author’s note “Interesting if true, if not true still yet interesting”
The story has two main characters, the narrator and the ascetic in the cave. The technique of a narrative within a narrative is used and often the story transcends time and place, shuffling between past and present. Although the exact location is not explicitly mentioned, the story is roughly based in North India, a place and motif often used in the authors other books too.
The beginning of the novella is perhaps what sets the tone of the story and gives it an erotic twist- an excerpt from the Damodaragupta, The lessons of the Bawd (from the 8th C). The piece speaks of devouring a man like one eating fish-wholly – a seemingly animalistic sexual intonation.
The story begins with the protagonist’s or narrators climb up a mountain and his search for a place called Kapila. On his way he comes across a cave where a starved looking recluse awaits his visit. From then on, the man in the cave speaks of his life gone by and how his many excesses of a sexual nature lead him eventually to renounce his life and live in a cave.
Surprisingly the narrator and the recluse are not named, but the supporting characters are. Mulia is perhaps the one who is most wonderfully described. The caretaker of the boy recluse, Mulia, was the first who shared a relationship of a sexual nature with him. Mulia a widowed woman is shown to be passionately in love with the then adolescent boy indulges in sexual activity all the while willing to share him with anyone. She even helps him to arouse and continue an interest in Samyukta –the boy’s cousin. Samyukta and the boy are portrayed as harbouring certain hatred towards each other in the beginning but later share a sexual relationship. The reasons for the same are not explained but the reader is slowly given the drift of the nature of the recluse in the cave. Shankini, the lesbian prostitute is another character and is associated with the color green (the green lantern light in the room). After a series of liaisons either with Samyukta, Mulia or Shankini, the casanova finally faces someone who can devour him instead of the other way round. This happens when he deviates from a business trip to Delhi which has been imposed on him by his father to help him prove his mettle in the family business. The man of excesses decides on a whim to jump off at an unknown station and embark on a different journey. At this place called Deoband, he meets a small runaway boy Roop Singh and decides that his aim should be to help the boy return home. Once he accomplishes the feat he meets Roop Sing’s mother who is described as a tribal woman. The same woman is given as the reason for the ascetic’s downfall. In the beginning they are shown to have no affinity towards each other at all. Later, they share a very different sort of a sexual connection, once which the man cannot understand himself. After their activities he is left with a feeling of being used up and tired while the Roop Singh’s mother seems to be normal. It is not so much so that he finds this fact abnormal but rather disturbing. Eventually he does escape the hills and the woman with some timely help from a surprising source and tries. Once home he tries to return to normal life but problems seem to pop up. The women that once interested him, he no longer finds attractive. His sexual prowess now diminished, he finds it difficult to cope with a different feeling.
While the life story is being told, the narrator listens. He also plays as part of the impatient reader who at first is reluctant and then pays complete attention. The narrator also tries to pacify the ascetic that his life isn’t that bad – there are worse cases. This instant can be related to the fact that readers today may not find this wonderful piece of literature too explicit as there are works far more graphic that readers are exposed to today.
During the narration, often, highly philosophical statements are made by both, the narrator and the ascetic which makes for witty arguments in the story. The best would be of the conversation about destroying souls of innocent individuals and the impending fear of this act.
The novella was well ahead of its time and today too seeks to impress the reader. It is perhaps the contradictory nature of the two characters that bring about the novelty in the story. A different perspective is portrayed in the end of the Sensualist , one which seemingly ridicules the ascetic’s ideology. Ambiguity seals the deal of this story and the reader is left with perceiving the piece in whatever way he or she pleases.