- Paradise of This World by Mashkoor Ali Syed
Mashkoor Ali Syed
Kolkata, (India): Power Publications, 2013. 139 pages, Rs 225
Mashkoor Ali Syed’s Paradise of This World and John Steinbeck’s Pastures of Heaven
Noted Steinbeck scholar Mashkoor Ali Syed’s 2013 novel Paradise of This World is written in the style of John Steinbeck’s 1932 episodic novel The Pastures of Heaven. Syed’s novel reads well on its own, but, for members of the Steinbeck community, the two works create an intertextual, intercontinental conversation that illustrates both books. Syed’s work could very well be labeled “The Post-Colonial Pastures of Heaven.”
The similarity between the two works is immediately apparent. Both novels are narrated from ironic, omniscient points of view. Both focus on the history of a specific, isolated community—in Syed’s case, the Indian village of Balakheda, and in Steinbeck’s case, the Corral de Tierra, which Steinbeck fictionalizes into Las Pasturas del Cielo (The Pastures of Heaven). Both take a panoramic, historical view, examining the settlement of the region and the cultural and social influences that contributed to that development. Both examine the interconnected fates of a small number of families that interact with one another. Both have exactly twelve chapters. The dramatic interest of each chapter is provided by a character whose status in the community is somehow changed, usually with disastrous consequences for the chapter’s protagonist.
Both novels begin with short sections which detail the development of the region. Paradise of This World begins:
Nearly twenty or thirty kilometers away, in the north of Kota is Balakheda, a small and sleepy town known for its deep and dense forestation and heterogeneous population.(5) [End Page 209]
In this town, the “general tenor of life is slow and peaceful” (6) and life is “governed by the arrival and departure of trains.” Furthermore, the people who live in the nearly “two hundred houses” (5) are “unaffected by the city ways and urban life style” and the “live simply, eat simply, talk simply” (6). The opening of the novel evokes a sense of peace and calm in a place that is almost pastoral.
The tone is similar to that of The Pastures of Heaven. The Steinbeck novel begins with a short account of the “discovery” of the valley by Europeans. While chasing a Native American who resisted the “bosom of Mother Church,” a Spanish corporal happens upon the valley and is awestruck by its beauty:
. . . he arrived at the top of the ridge, and there he stopped, stricken with wonder at what he saw—a long valley floored with green pasturage on which a herd of deer browsed. Perfect live oaks grew in the meadow of the lovely place, and the hills hugged it jealously against the fog and wind.(3)
The narration quickly recounts the settlement of the valley, stating that after a century, “twenty families” lived “on twenty little farms in the Pastures of Heaven.” Furthermore, these “families at last lived prosperously and at peace” (4).
Similarities between Syed’s Balakheda and Steinbeck’s Pastures abound. Both places are described in idyllic terms. The landscapes of both are attractive; Balakheda’s “deep and dense forestation” is as appealing as the Pastures’ “Perfect live oaks.” Both authors describe the inhabitants as “prosperous,” and create a sense of pleasant, isolated communities where the pace of life is slower than that of the outside world. Despite these seemingly idyllic settings, however, life is less than idyllic for inhabitants of both village and valley, for there occurs what Scott Pugh has called “the paradoxical introduction of dark clouds into a seemingly pristine heaven” (71).
The knowledge that Syed modeled his Paradise on Steinbeck’s Pastures makes the differences between the two fictional worlds instructive. Syed’s village of Balakheda is described as “heterogeneous,” with “Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Patels, Banias, Sikhs, and Rajputs . . . almost equal in number” (5). Syed’s India is multicultural, multireligious, and multiethnic. Linguistically, the narration reinforces the idea of diversity by the choice of names, mixing traditional Hindu names with those of Muslim and Sihk origins, and including other “classes” such as “Sweepers...