By Anupama Bhattacharya October 1999 There’s a new genre on the bestsellers’ list. A genre that goes by the name of New Age fiction and claims to explore unknown realms and possibilities. But what is this latest avatar of the word all about? Perhaps it’s time for evolution. T.S. Eliot wrote: ‘Only through words can the Word be known.’ Today, words, in their New Age avatar, might be closer to the primal sound than ever before. You go down the rabbit hole, into the world of the Cheshire Cat, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the Reluctant Messiah, The Alchemist. You feel the angst of The Trial, the pathos of Metamorphosis, the surreal phantasms of Everville. It is, after all, the avant garde world of mind games—where imagination transcends the mundane. Most likely, you’d call it New Age fiction. Though the genre itself is rather vague at the moment—you can stretch it to include other realms, different states of being, space/time continuums, spirit entities, supraconsciousness and such phenomena—what is obvious is a desire to explore the higher reaches of human potential. It’s almost there, the gift of wings, words that rend asunder the mask of reality and touch the core of that unknown, unsought ecstasy. You reach out, the elastic universe stretches to its brink. Then it snaps. So close, yet so far away. Is that what New Age fiction is all about? Besides, since the term ‘New Age‘ (with its present connotation) was first articulated in 1971, does it exclude all that was written prior to it? ‘New Age fiction is a meeting point of science fiction and mythical reality,’ says Indian novelist Namita Gokhale, ‘which expresses a belief that a collaborated spiritual evolution outside of religion is not only possible, but likely.’ Which suits the likes of Richard Bach and James Redfield, acknowledged New Age authors, just fine. After all, Bach‘s Jonathan Livingston Seagull is the potential Everyman. And Redfield‘s The Celestine Prophecy is definitely about collective evolution. But how do you categorize authors as diverse as Herman Hesse, Tom Robbins, Douglas Adams or Kahlil Gibran? For Adams, the universe is like a conjurer’s hat. It can spring surprises any moment. And the only way to preserve your sanity is to consult his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not to mention the fact that God’s ultimate message to mankind is: ‘Sorry for the inconvenience.’ Pick up any of Adam’s books—So Long and Thanks For All the Fish, Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the Universe and Everything—and you are bound to perceive a totally iconoclastic, rib-tickling, yet fantastic picture of a world that has method in its madness. Equally captivating is Indian author Vikram Chandra‘s Red Earth and Pouring Rain where Sanjay, the all-seeing narrator from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, incarnates as a pesky monkey and weaves his tales of fantasy. Metaphysical in their own way, right? Or take Tom Robbins. If a sock, a can of beans and a spoon can discuss the meaning of existence, or a belly-dancer reveal the mysteries of the universe—as in his Skinny Legs and All—then wouldn’t you call it a statement on the inherent divinity of all? The comic-cosmic author himself has this to say: ‘A longing for the Divine is intrinsic in Homo Sapiens,’ adding: ‘For all we know, it is innate in squirrels, dandelions and diamond rings as well.’ Blasphemous? Cheeky? Or simply the obvious? ‘Too many people mistake misery for art,’ explains Robbins. ‘You don’t have to be somber to be serious. I don’t think I am pollyannaish; my characters suffer, they die. They experience pain, alienation, frustration. But, my heroes and heroines, the characters with whom I identify, insist on joy in spite of everything. ‘The most striking feature of New Age fiction is its unbridled optimism,’ agrees Anu Majumdar, Indian author of Parallel Journeys. In fact, the spirit of this age is the intrinsic joy and abundance that is already there. FEEL GOOD READS As in Richard Bach. When you first discover Bach, it hits you like a revelation. Ahm Brahmasmi (I am All, the basic philosophy of the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita) was never so simple. ‘You have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now,’ Bach writes in Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the story of a bird who dares to break conventions of his ilk and rises up to unlimited perfection. ‘Each of us is in truth an… unlimited idea of freedom… Your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip, is nothing more than your thought itself… Break the chain of your thought, and you break the chains of your body, too…’ Incidentally, Jonathan… was written in 1970, a little before the word ‘New Age‘ officially came into being. So were Kahlil Gibran‘s The Prophet and Antoine de Saint-Exupery‘s The Little Prince—which only goes to prove that a literary genre cannot be time-specific. But do all New Age fiction provide a glimpse into a higher reality or existence? Bach himself refuses to draw a line between reality and mysticism. ‘Which parts of the books are real and which are artistic license?’ writes Bach in his official website. ‘Is the feeling real, the one you have when you lie back in summer grass and watch the night sky? Is a dream real, that touches and changes your daytime?’ Poetic, and equally elusive. ECSTASY OVERDOSE Excess of anything, however, can be cloying. By the time I reached Bridge Across Forever and One, Bach‘s next two books, the magic had petered out—or perhaps an overdose of the same philosophy had lost its novelty. That, actually, has been the trouble with many New Age novels, especially some recent ones. Instead of posing questions about the nature of existence, most of them seem to dole out answers by the dozen. Take James Redfield‘s The Celestine Prophecy. It is the archetypal New Age fiction where the focus is totally on a feel-good world-view. Here, an ancient Peruvian manuscript, containing the meaning of life, that even the government is desperately looking for, keeps popping out of the blue—in numerical order. Suspension of belief has never been the drawback of fiction. What does irk is the not-so-subtle politically correct ideologies that you have already read in New Age nonfiction. ‘In New Age fiction, the focus is on conveying the message. The story line is secondary,’ justifies Vikas Malkani, an emerging New Age guru based in New Delhi, India. ‘New Age fiction is like water, spiritual fiction like wine. Everybody needs water. Only connoisseurs go for wine.’ Which, actually, has become an excuse for poor writing. Take The Sai Prophecy by Barbara Gardner where, during the late 19th century, a Jew comes across a ring inscribed with ‘Shirdi, Sathya, Prema’. Immediately, he figures out that Shirdi is a place near Bombay, in India. You are not supposed to ask how a Jew in Tasmania in the 19th century is aware of a little-known village in India. But why so much of bad fiction? Explains Makarand Paranjape, professor of English literature based in New Delhi, India: ‘New Age is about simplifying wisdom so that it is accessible to every one. Trouble is, there is no democracy about wisdom. It dawns in its own capricious fashion as and when it pleases. In the bargain, New Age runs the risk of trivializing serious issues.’ Anu Majumdar feels that many New Age books are too fast paced. ‘The protagonist tries to change the world, often by running around time/space/psychology, getting hurtled into instant experiences and changes,’ she says. ‘You sometimes miss the sense of a sustained impact of time upon the spirit, the real endurance needed, the quiet heroism of bearing with the tiniest detail of everyday existence.’ But Malkani is hopeful. ‘Like any movement, there would be innumerable people claiming to be New Age authors. So, there is bound to be a lot of bad writing around. But that wouldn’t stop the masterpieces.’ PARABLES IN PERSPECTIVE There has also been a spate of management or personal growth books guised as fiction. Take Mark Fisher‘s The Millionaire’s Secret. Here, a series of tales illustrate how you can achieve your goals. Or D. Trinidad Hunt‘s The Operator’s Manual For Planet Earth where common New Age philosophies are explained through a fantastic tale of human bodies as space suits. The story element here is minimal. In fact, most of these books read more like parables. Then there are New Age books where fact masquerades as fiction and vice-versa. While Marlo Morgan wrote Mutant Message Down Under as a real life story, its publisher labeled it fiction to escape the wrath of Aborigine leaders who questioned the authenticity of the white author’s account. At this point, you may dare say that Castaneda‘s fascinating series of books about his apprenticeship and mastery of sorcery are too well crafted to be anything but fiction. That shouldn’t, however, detract you from the soundness of the world he describes. SACRED TRADITIONS Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian author of bestsellers such as The Alchemist and The Valkyries, presents the other face of New Age fiction—rediscovery of the old where there is no simple demarcation between black and white. Here, the focus shifts from a feel-good world-view to an exploration of the human psyche. Hailing from a powerful tradition of magic, Coelho‘s books are a treat to read-not only for their intensity, but also for the elemental magic he weaves through the lines. The deserts come alive in their ruthless power and st
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