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Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise. (Turner, 1967, p. 97)

There are two ways to approach life. One, as a socially mediated, historical phenomenon belonging to and fashioned by specific individuals in distinct ways in relation to cultural, linguistic and geographical horizons. Another, as a common principle of existence, vitality, sentience, and mutability, that individuals share with each other and with other species. The first entails life as biography, understood as linear, coherent, unified. The second indexes an ontological essence, variously abstracted throughout the conceptual history of the world as vita, zoe, jeeva, and the site of much (bio)political contention in colonial and postcolonial modernity. Yet in his last writings, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze finds the latter to contain cues for radically rethinking foundational moral categories of good, evil, friend, stranger, host, alien. Referring to a poignant moment whose pathos arises out of its categorical indeterminacy, Deleuze describes the scene of a near-death experience in a novel by Dickens, where for a fleeting while life makes itself manifest in the second, ontologically shared and universal register– a common field in which we collectively participate.

A much maligned convict lies dying, and in those moments when he is thought dead by a crowd that has collected around him, he becomes the source of deep empathy, eliciting gestures of unconditional hospitality in attempts to resuscitate him. Here solidarity is simultaneous with the transformation of 'the' life into 'a' life, of the particular and marked existence into a general and unqualified principle of existence. However, as the dead convict returns to life, this collective pity folds back into hostility once more, attesting in turn to the split that runs through the very structure of being, between one's socially designated personhood–the convict as a particular individual with rights, responsibilities, and obligations: in other words a form of life– and a fact of being alive, or life as pure potentiality. This life as potentially undergirds formal embodiment and is abstracted in such exceptional or liminal moments as death, illness or embryonic development, where life ceases to be the provenance of a private self and becomes impersonal, seemingly democratized, free of subjectivity, and thus a site of common identification and mobilization towards its conservation, or as under biopolitical regimes, its politicization as an instrument of governance and control (Roe vs. Wade being a paradigmatic case in point). Deleuze sees in art the potential to liberate this ontological principle of life from its social moorings, in fragments where chronological time splinters into the temporality of events, and through the invocation of forces of heightened pleasure and pain that bring the grammar of habitual thinking and the logic of normalized perception to a crisis.

In Karan Madhok's profoundly philosophical reflection on life in times of contemporary neoliberal necropolitics, narrative becomes a site for addressing the pervasive commodification and devaluation of existence, more specifically certain kinds of marginal existence, while asking robust ethical questions about the difficult process of forming solidarities in an imperiled planet where the differential distribution of privilege both hides and escalates a vulnerability that is more shared than it appears.

Set in the heyday of the Trump years, (addressed throughout with a vernacularized sobriquet of President Gandu-face, literally fuck-face) the protagonist of A Beautiful Decay is a corpse, a recent casualty of white supremacist, Republican America where certain racialized lives don't matter or matter less, and who in the manner of Deleuze's Dickensian convict (but also alluding with hamburger coated tongue in cheek playfulness to the metaphysical tenets of Vedic philosophy) splits from his body at the moment of his murder, to gain, quite literally, narrative omniscience. This mode of posthumous storytelling is ironized by the fact that Vishnu Agarwal is a self-proclaimed nobody or rather a quintessential liberal bourgeois everyman– upper-caste, Hindu affluent male whose closeness to the cultural statistical mean is disturbed by the imposition, quite violently, of the fatal burden of brown immigrant marginality. Madhok's use of narrative as postmortem testifies to the book's larger approach to the contentious question of identity and its fluid relationship– embodied in Vishnu's amphibian cohabitation of multiple worlds and a highly self-conscious navigation of the liberties and constraints associated with each– with identitarian politics of location and affiliation, including one of minority status.

With a sagaciousness uncharacteristic of a 21 year old but attributable perhaps to his newly acquired cosmic gaze, Vishnu describes the cultural politics of identity as a constantly shifting, unstable formation, a nested structure in which privilege and lack are relative conditions, part of the very spatiotemporal matrix of hypermobile, digitally networked, postmodern globalization. This optic not only prevents the narrative from ossifying into a myopic fetishization of a univocal model of immigrant suffering and/or brown victimhood without taking into consideration the multiple and nuanced intersections of class, caste, and gender that constitute immigrant brownness, and more significantly of plotting a uniform or monolithic narrative of South Asian experience in America as a narrative of marginalization without agency. It also allows the book to avoid a self-flagellating and melodramatic posture of caste and gendered guilt, even as it refuses to absolve the centers of economic and social privilege including the narrator’s own–be it individual persons or systemic arrangements– of their explicit and implicit complicity in the suffering of the precarious.

On this latter point the novel is unsparingly rigorous, and indeed some of its starkest and most critically engaging episodes– like those chronicling the jingoistic nationalism and religious bigotry of north India in the 90s– is relayed through the nuanced, credible yet scathing realism of its witness. Similarly the awareness built into the novel and amplified through its speculative mode, of the cultural and existential relativism of disadvantage, is carefully weighed against its empathetic depiction of the lives of the most vulnerable whose disposable lives cannot be placed on relativistic graphs and represent the limit or terminal points of modernity's socioeconomic and epistemological structures– what contemporary biopolitical theory describes as bare life– Dalits and working class Muslims labouring under unsanitary conditions of bodily risk and toxic exposure in Vishnu's father's sweatshops in India. While the scene of Vishnu's protracted death inside a pub in Washington, creates points of correspondence between these two instances of life dissociated from social safeguards and sanctions, the book's maturity lies in its resistance once again to turn the empathetic resonance produced by the structure of witnessing to a mode of metaphoric appropriation of the other. Deaths and lives, including those deaths that are unmarked or unmourned, and those lives rendered invisible and without value and whose livability remains in constant porous proximity with death, are neither interchangeable nor substitutable on a common plane of suffering. To attempt such substitution would be to repeat the statistical logic of the nation-state or market society.

In that sense the protagonist of Madhok’s novel remains simultaneously rooted in the viscous realities of cultural identity while acquiring, both in the speculative conceit of posthumous narration and the perspectival politics it engenders for the narrative as a whole, a kind of unfinished or unrealized transcendence that serves as a provocation to critique the limits of totalizing frames–be it national, ethnic, geographical or social– that constrain the sensuous vitality of life and its unpredictable entanglements. The beautiful decay of the title is thus the textual rigormortis that liberates those emotional, interpersonal, and social ambiguities, indeterminacies, and excesses– the articulation of pain, pleasures, desires, impulses, and misgivings which cannot be subsumed by fixed interpretive structures but require a different register of creative expression.

Much of the novel’s critical effectiveness lies in its dexterous– light but by no means flippant– juxtaposition of the existential contraries that make up human life. Its agile, almost acrobatic handling of life and death translate as the calibrations of a finely choreographed performance, occupying both– the messy registers of material finitude including the troublesome entanglements of personal trauma, ideological determinisms, and machiavellian maneuvers of realpolitik through which life and death are distributed as matters of violent and unequal infliction, as well as those mythic and metaphysical dimensions where questions of loss, identity, community, intimacy, and desire acquire alternative meanings, affective and performative possibilities. Any attempt to subject contemporary white-supremacist, right wing religious fundamentalist, and capitalist genocidal regimes to critique needs to, the novel seems to suggest, develop the capacity to traverse between these registers, or rather undergo a perspectival dilation that allows for an acknowledgement of the nature of reality as always already plural.

Thus in the days following Vishnu’s murder, media and political response is quick to marshal an array of polarizing cliches as the only way to exorcize, or even erase the event. In India, Vishnu’s father, represented in the novel as the local alter-ego of the gun-wielding Mark Tillerman aka Wildhair, attempts to iron out the serrations brought to scrutiny by his son’s tragic death, by going through the predictable motions of funerary rituals and consulting the comfortable abstractions of astrology. While in a transnational middle, a host of friends and acquaintances grapple with bereavement and its complex incomprehensibility by resorting to the neatness of shared coping mechanisms– social media platitudes, protest gatherings, and public tributes. It is only Vishnu who in his ironic absence from such scenes of interpretation seems to have access to another view, one in which the modern cultural preference for closure and logical coherence with its propensity to reduce everything to clearly articulated definitions of black and white, gives way to an understanding of existence as an intricately connected network of causality: a karmic matrix animated by the butterfly effect of reverberations, in which an organized pogrom targeting vulnerable minorities in a third-world country percolates through a meshwork of personal and political choices to the bullet that explodes the skull of a hindu nationalist’s immigrant son at a generational and geographical remove. Here Karma of course is not a new-agey rehashing of the pedantic religious determinism of incarnated and inherited debt; rather the novel’s philosophy of causal relationality is ecological, elliptical and asymmetrical rather than filiative or linear, indicative of the deep structures of interconnections that persist through displacements: "The real challenge of this moment isn't to imagine and understand everything, but to parse it and filter it down to what is truly relevant. To separate the connections that count from the malware of memories bombarding every thought, to draw a map from A to B, and translate the entire Ka Kha Ga. From those dancing bears I grew up watching on Cartoon Network, to Papa in the passenger seat of his old Maruti, driven away from the riots in Muktigarh, to Wildhair and his handgun. Ah, fuck. It all matters. All of it." (4)

Justice and equity are not just political positions, insofar as the narrative is keenly aware of the inadequacy of solely relying on juridical models of culpability and victimhood. Instead for the novel, political questions about citizenship rights, diversity, inclusivity, democratic enfranchisement and representation are closely bound with the nuances, asymmetries and incoherence: the many shades of gray– psychic and intergenerational traumas, historical ruptures and overlaps, bodily and emotional conditions– that constitute the field of interpersonal ethics. Thus Vishnu's lukewarm response to forms of political agency that are rooted solely in civil rights discourse or the liberal construction of a legitimate political subject– whether it is public demonstrations and protests or performative gestures of identity based on enforced or uncritical affiliation with aspects of one's native culture– are in consonance with this larger narrative orientation towards the contentious ground between politics and ethics. Likewise, in a moment of epiphany where narrative compression and philosophical accuity give to the scene a near aphoristic quality, Vishnu observing his non-white friends with whom he shares an apartment, remarks about the color denoting 'persons of color' as a graduated shade card, a melanated spectrum with many mixes in between rather than a single fetishized monolithic black or brownness. What this finetuning of political perception requires is not only the possibility of loosening of categories of personhood from being anchored too firmly in sociological containers of race, gender and class to incorporate other idioms and registers of being, including the very speculative possibility of negation of being that is the narrative kernel, but also a rethinking of ideas of beauty and decay: of what is seeable and sightly and what is deemed unsightly, and thus rendered invisible.

Much of the work of equity and justice, including racial justice lies, the narrative testifies, in questioning the norms that legislate visibility, challenging those centers of authority that enforce what passes for correct and sanctioned knowledge, and expanding epistemic as much as territorial borders to bring the dirt and detritus of the seemingly ungainly, the obscene, the wasting and derelict to the forefront of our sanitized technophilic hypermodernity. The fleshly bathos that opens the narrative, Vishnu’s somewhat gory death with the taste of meat mingling with blood, the references to sweat and grime, graphic images of vermin infestation and killing, near-cinematic tableaus of the burning ghats not as a reified spiritual site but a ghastly charnel ground rife with caste inequities, gendered oppression, environmental toxicity, and burning flesh– the book’s reveling in rot works like a Rabelesian carnivalesque, an assertion of sublimity in a minor key, it's shocking of sensibilities a radical invitation to problematize the decay that is at once caused by structural and historical injustices and concealed or elided from public memory and consciousness. A justice-oriented politics thus not only needs to begin with decay as a mode of dismantling regimes of truth, but also take into account the role of aesthetics in creating (and hence also destabilizing) these frameworks.

Madhok masterfully demonstrates this connection in a scene where the brutal extermination of rats inside the Agarwal’s dilapidated hotel coincides with a flagrant killing at a short distance outside. Without resorting to direct comparison, the narrative creates a metaphoric correspondence by juxtaposing two sites of violence and their respective power dynamics as interrelated through a common predatory and territorial trope– that of what Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz referring to the animalized African native famously calls “exterminat[ing] the brutes.” The interrelated nature of Mrs Agarwal’s systematic campaign against the ‘invading’ rodent colony and Mr Agarwal’s participation through silent assent in the religious pogrom at Ayodhya, is further reiterated via the nature of this shared act of witnessing.

For the novel, the act of witnessing is a preeminently moral task and an indubitably political site for inscribing, reinforcing or subverting the normative parameters that structure atrocities. Atrocities against the marginalized are not, as this instance as well as the hate crime that kills Vishnu, show, sporadic or random infractions. Rather, these are premeditated and consolidated gestures secured through inherited traumas, cultural beliefs, political and economic dysfunctions, institutional corruption and faulty knowledge systems. Wildhair's pulling of the trigger is thus informed by years of racial profiling and hate-mongering on the internet exacerbated by his own failing marriage and alcoholism, just as the Vishnu's father's involvement with right-wing fundamentalists is entwined with the particular economic landscape of liberalization and privatization in India in the 90s leaving non-gentrified and rural geographies vulnerable. This doesn't mean that the novel absolves wrongs or places all acts of violence under a common rubric. What it does, however, is blunt the scalpel that separates an absolute good from absolute evil, offering instead a kaleidoscope where the internal fractures running through individuals and communities are offset against broader contexts, and essentialist presuppositions about perpetrator and victim as static types are complicated by a view of selves and their dispositions as dynamic processes unfolding through time and space.

The novel’s meticulous plotting of these embedded matrices of causality reconceptualizes violence as a product of particular ecosystems at the moral core of which are decisions about who or what constitutes a friend or an enemy, how the culturally and socially, or even ontologically other is perceived, and the tenuous intersections where racism, misogyny, consumerism, and speciesism meet and reinforce each other. A Beautiful Decay’s mortuary omniscience also accounts for its interpretive forensics, its prizing open to critical scrutiny the minor fascisms and normalized hate that seethe underneath staid social appearances. Shankar Agarwal might not be an arms possessing white supremacist but the abuse and microaggressions that he inflicts on his children under the guise of paternalistic providence– curtailing personal liberties, enforcing oppressive gender norms, and disowning the rebel offspring– point to the many scales and registers on which tyranny plays out making the inequities engendered in private environments an intrinsic part of public malaise. Madhok's narrative thus offers a prescient, sophisticated, and empathetic expose, without capitulating to polemic or sentimentalism, of not only a tale of two cultures but a tale of two hates joined at the hip by the near-cosmic self-replicating propulsion of human fallibility and systemic hubris.

The novel offers its own ethical respite to this inexorable grind by conjuring moments of exquisite liminality. Vishnu's ludic occupation of the realms of myth, though a tad bit overdone at times, belongs to this liminal terrain as do the crosscultural pockets of camaraderie that emerge around shared penchant for computers, American food, and cannabis, the undefinable forms of intimacy between Vishnu and Jess where eroticism and friendship inconclusively segue into each other, unexpected, serendipitous companionships between unlike parties along shared axes of deracination, loneliness, and the need to be seen, and the resonating tremor of inarticulate pathos, the "shiver"-- an affective equivalent of Kurtz's "the horror" – transmitted like a corporeal radiowave from the sentenced criminal to the bereaved father. The sublime poetics of decay brings us to these subversive junctures. Decomposition's graduated unraveling of structure liberates, as Victor Turner suggests, "novel configurations of ideas and relations." It is in these pauses where the corpse hasn't solidified into a statistic but hovers like a belated voiceover, that the concrete architecture of norms and values that make up social monoliths– the heteronormative family, the nation state, caste and class– are held up to scrutiny and even overturned. It is thus no coincidence that the narrator shares his name with the intermediary figure of the Indic cosmic trinity. While the Hegelian dialectic of creation and destruction, Brahma and Maheshwar, might propel larger machinery of revolutionary change or in the hands of self-serving terrestrial centres of authority, repetitively reinforce the status-quo of global (and local) power asymmetries, the novel chooses to dwell instead in the sustainable genius of Vishnu, the preserver. Acts of conservation, caregiving, therapeutics, and solidarity are, the narrative seems to suggest, a timelier radicalism needed to address a wounded and decaying planet.


              Victor Turner, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage,” In The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, 93–111. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967.

              Gilles Deleuze, Immanence: A Life, New York: Zone Books, 2005.

Paromita Patranobish is an assistant professor of English at Mount Carmel College (Autonomous), Bangalore, and researches on topics at the intersection of embodiment, neurodivergence, trauma, and nonhuman ecologies. Her doctoral thesis looked at disembodiment and spectrality in Virginia Woolf’s writing, and she is currently working on a monograph on waste in South Asian speculative writing and cinema. Her creative nonfiction, and book and art reviews have been published in The Bombay Review, Gulmohur Quarterly, Stir World, The Brazen Collective, Hakara Bilingual, The Chakkar: An Indian Arts Review, Cafe Dissensus, Scroll, and The Assam Tribune. She blogs at https://paromitapatranobish.wordpress.com and her twitter handle is PPatranobish.

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