Arun Joshi’s The Last Labyrinth and Indianness in the Novel

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The Reverberation of Indianness in Joshi’s The Last Labyrinth

by – Neeti Agarwal, Vol.II, Issue.XXII, November 2016

Introduction to the Author:

Dr. Neeti Agarwal Saran is a Guest Faculty in English Department, University of Allahabad. She has done her research on “A Study of Postcolonial Themes in Indian English Literature with Special Reference to The Last Labyrinth, Shame, The Shadow Lines and The Inheritance of Loss.  Her chief area of work lies on the suppressed and the marginalized class. She has got multiple papers printed on colonized class, females and dalits.


Indian English Literature voices the Indian ethos that makes it distinctive from other literatures both in theme and style. It expresses the psyche as well as the culture of the nation. This paper aims to discuss Arun Joshi’s The Last Labyrinth from the perspective of Indian tradition and culture.

                                    Som Bhaskar, the hero of the novel is a rich and Western educated man. He is completely absorbed in acquiring other people’s wealth, and in this, he neglects his own family and health. He continuously suffers from insomnia and a call from inside of “I want, I want”. Som is unable to understand the desire of I want. Som in order to overtake Aftab’s business goes to the spiritual land of Benaras and comes in contact with Aftab, his beloved Anuradha and the spiritual guide Gargi. Here on the banks of Ganga, under the influence of Anuradha and Gargi he realizes that Ganga is not only a river rather a spiritual soother and a desire of “I want, I want” is not for the worldly pursuits rather for the spiritual needs.

Joshi’s novel The Last Labyrinth is a book for the post-colonial youths who have lost their spiritual and cultural moorings and are wandering for worldly pleasures. Joshi suggests that Westernization can never give happiness rather the happiness lies in one’s culture and traditions.

Keywords: Spiritualism, materialism, Indian ethos, religion, desire, postcolonial, Westernization.


Indian English Literature concerns the body of literature by the writers of Indian descent whose national language could be one of the abundant local languages of India. It originated under the colonial rule in India where the native writers felt an urgency to express their native culture, tradition and language through literature. Braj B. Kachru addresses Indian fiction;

Indian English Fiction is now being studied and discussed in the entire English speaking world by those interested in the Indian sub-continent or in non-native Englishes, and by linguists for its thematic and stylist Indianness, At least half a dozen Indian English novelists have created a small but slowly increasing international reading public for themselves, e.g. Mulk Raj Anand, Anita Desai, Manohar Malgonkar, Kamla Markandaya, R.K.Narayan, Raja Rao, Khushwant Singh and Nayantara Sahgal.

The writers express themselves through various themes, culture, tradition, myths, images, symbols and indigenous language. Alastair Niven remarks;

Commonwealth Literature is all about the shift away from the notion of centrality. Far from attempting to impose unity upon diversity, to force a Euro centric precision of focus on many different cultures, it recognizes a multiplicity of equally valid centers, but then proceeds to evaluate their individual absorption of local influences.

Thus Indian English Literature voices the Indian ethos that makes it distinctive from other literatures, both in theme and in style. It expresses the psyche as well as the culture of the nation. This paper aims to discuss Arun Joshi’s The Last Labyrinth from the perspective of Indian cognitive content and culture.

Arun Joshi is one of the most distinguished Indian English novelists. His novel The Last Labyrinth is unrivaled in the treatment of Indian ethos based on Hindu philosophy as told in the pious scriptures of the Upnishads and the Gita. The novel deals with a man’s endorsement with four stages of human life that are- dharma, artha, kama and moksha respectively known as duty, wealth, lust and salvation. The novels ultimate goal is the attainment of moksha or salvation by crossing the barriers of kama (lust), artha (wealth), and aishwariya (name and fame). The novel is deeply immersed in the Hindu philosophy and thoughts.

The hero of the novel Som Bhaskar is divided between the hunger of the soul and body, and in this tug-o-war his body dominates the mind. Som Bhaskar is a thwarted soul who is engrossed neck deep in attaining materialistic wealth. His residence is also named as maya, echoing the web of wealth. Som is completely immersed in earning wealth and overtaking else s’ people abundance. His voracious hunger want’s to grab Aftab’s enterprise, giving a peril to his own establishment. Som’s sacred vacuum cannot find a way out from this web and gets entangled in it. The only way out from this muddle is salvation. The novel upholds Som’s desire for salvation as he has been uprooted from his spiritual and cultural berths. Som’s beloved Anuradha, wife Geeta and the sage Gargi makes Som realize the hollowness of worldly pursuits and encourages him towards salvation. In the postcolonial era the itinerary to spiritualism has become a trap as the youths like Som are completely engrossed in worldly pursuits, neglecting their spiritual needs, but ultimately its religion that soothes them.

                        Arun joshi inorder to present the Indian ethos has infused the culture and tradition of the Worls’d oldest and spiritual land Benaras. In the novel Ghosh has presented the corporal and unearthly beauty of the river Ganga and its ghats. Joshi has also presented the various religious cults in India like the Bhakti Movement, Sufi Cult, Buddhism and Vedanta.

                                    Ganga is considered as the most pious river of India, also known as “Maa Ganga”. Its touch is considered so pure that it reinstates one from all sins, not only of this birth but of past lives too. The watercourse Ganga holds an important place in the book as Aftab’s Lal Haveli is built near Ganga and from its patio the streaming “kalashes” and Aurungzebe’s mosque can be viewed. Som, a misanthropic, “felt as though this was not Ganga but some unknown stream, in some unknown segment of the Universe leading to a reality that I had not known” (44). Such elevating is river Ganga. Its ghats are also of deep importance, they are considered as the most reverent funeral terminus. Som’s visit to the ghat’s of Benaras with Anuradha and Aftab reminds him of his father’s death. Having a ride in the river Ganga, Som realized its piousness and depth. Som though Westernized feels it not only a river but a bigger reality of the Universe.

Arun joshi was deeply influenced by the Bhakti Movement. The Bhakti movement originated during the medieval period. It encouraged vernacular languages in various parts of India. In an interview Joshi expresses his spiritual views;

I certainly have some affinities with this country India; I have found it lately. One is that affinity of the spiritual kind, then there is the affinity of the sensual kind and there were others, too. Each country (i.e. States) in India is very unique and all Indians still remain unique. You know, historically, India has always been very inner-directed and not outer –directed like many other country countries… There is no other country like this for the religious size, for the spiritual the Bhakti Movement … India then has dealing with God which is peculiar. (Web)

The movement focuses on Lord Krishna as God, father, friend, master and beloved. Joshi celebrates Krishna Janamashtmi at midnight in the novel;

The city’s celebration of the Lord’s birthday was not yet ended. I could hear the sing-song of half-a-dozen aartis. Every temple bell was being rung. Every conceivable sect was present on the mushy steps. Men and women sang, beat drums, clanged enormous cymbals, pirouetted. Hare Krishna. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna. Hare, Hare. An American junkie, a bare skeleton, grinned: ‘this is it, baby. This is it’. Indifferent to the shit under their feet, indifferent to the smell of a thousand bodies, the pilgrims jostled from step to step, ecstasy on their faces…Anuradha was no different. Her face suffused with a strange ecstatic glow, she muttered prayers, made offerings at every possible shrine. The leper’s guard had been doubled for the occasion. (214)

The festival Janamashtmi is symbolic of human love. People, despite of their religion celebrate the festival with singing and dancing. Joshi’s The Last Labyrinth and E.M. Foster’s A Passage to India could be compared to each other as both the books celebrate the Janamsahtmi festival. The festival upholds universal love and compassion among people of all religion and faith.

                                    The novel reflects deep faith of Anuradha, geeta, gargi and Som’s mother in Lord Krishna. This faith comes in sharp contrast to Som’s rational beliefs. Som’s mother was a deep follower of Krishna. She was suffering from cancer and still believed that Krishna would give her power to fight the disease. Anuradha’s mother also had deep faith in Krishna. Lord Krishna was a lover to her and she was married to him. She sang and wept before Krishna whenever she was sad. Like her mother Anuradha also seeks a lover in the Lord. Her name itself speaks her love for the Lord. The name Anuradha means the companion of Krishna. Anuradha adores and even dresses up for Krishna. Som observes this on the day of Janamashtmi;

“She looked like as if I had never seen her before: draped in a saree of heavy silk, its muted colors woven on the loom of some exquisite ancient craftsmen of Karachi, she looked like a medieval courtesan around whom wars might have been fought. There was a diamond in her nose. Which had not been there before… there was mehendi on her hands. All this preparation I knew was for Krishna.” (121)

Som Bhaskar’s wife Geeta, though living in the materialistic world, loves Krishna. Geeta is not keen in accumulating earthly pursuits rather her aim of life is the purgation of soul. Gargi, the divine women is an incarnation of God on earth. She is deaf and dumb but still she can hear the voice of the almighty and can communicate with people. She can hear people’s problem and suggest solutions too. Som, Geeta, Anuradha and Aftab get tranquility from her smile. Aftab too has faith in Krishna and does not bother if his business gets ruined. He is soul elevated man whose priority in life is Anuradha.

                                    Som Bhaskar is contrary to other characters in the novel. He is born and brought up in India, with religious faith of his mother but gets higher education at Harvard University. The Western education instills skepticism in Som. He himself articulates his crossbreed;

I had been to the World’s finest Universities…And there were things hat I had picked up by myself. I knew that money was a dirt, a whore. So were houses, cars, carpets. I knew of Krishna, of the lines he had spoken: of Buddha at Sarnath, under the full moon of July, setting in motion the wheel of righteousness; of Pascal, on whom I did a paper at Harvard: ‘Let us weigh the gain and loss in wagering that God is, let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all, if you lose, you lose nothing’ All this I knew and much else. And yet, at the age of thirty-five. I could do no better than produce the same rusty cry: I want, I want. (9)

It appears colonial education has reduced modern man to zero in cultural values. Brahmins were considered as the most learned and knowledgeable about spirituality in Indian society. But young postcolonials like Som have lost their cultural moorings Som is a Brahmin by birth but has failed to understand the teachings and philosophy of Upanishads and Gita. Anuradha caustically remarks to Som “You are a Brahmin, after all. A Bhaskar, what is a Bhaskar doing in business?” (102) Mathur and Rai comment on this condition of Som Bhaskar:

Som Bhaskar, too, is a Western-educated industrialist. He, too, though an Indian by birth and domicile, and a Brahmin at that, is unable to make head or tail of the mumbo-jumbo of Hindu religion, depending on which his mother sacrificed her life as a victim of cancer, nor of the tantra practiced in the ancient city of Benaras. He, too, is unable to believe in God, and contemptuously treats the idol of Krishna just as a “wooden creature.” (102)

                        It appears that only Indian spirituality can give Som comfort and harmony in life. Though Som has inherited some spirituality from his mother he is still a perturbed self. He finds some comfort in Anuradha, whom he finds at first glance “obsolete” and a monument, “tall, handsome, ruined” (12). It is Anuradha, however, who realizes that the endless desire in Som is not for physical or materialistic gains but for spirituality. She says:

                        It is not me you want—I know. You want something. You badly want something. I could see that the first time we met. But it is not me. That, too, I can see. I told you so in the dargah. (58-59)

Gargi also pacifies Som by saying that the Omnipotent will soon send someone to help him, and she relates it with Anuradha, saying: “‘go with her,’… ‘Don’t quarrel. She is your Shakti.’”(110). It is Anuradha who can help Som to come out of the labyrinth of rationality and move towards the mystical power of the soul. His longing for Anuradha is the longing for his soul. In contact with Anuradha, Som slowly starts believing in God. His journey to the mountains to face Krishna symbolizes his journey towards the realization of his soul. In the mountains when he sees the man-high flame burning he feels that:

Its perfect stillness could hypnotize. I had heard of people who, staring into such flames, had enjoyed the Eternal Bliss. Others had discovered their Oneness…with the Brahma A man I once traveled with—one of the most sophisticated I have ever met—claimed he had seen in such a flame his previous incarnations…This little flame of mine, however, yielded nothing beyond an ounce of tranquility which, of course, was not to be laughed at.(193-94)

Anuradha succeeds in partly cleansing Som’s soul but his Westernized outlook keeps on troubling him. Though Som’s wants to be spiritually enlightened he is unable to reach his goal. Bearing the hurdles of his life Som is incapable even of committing suicide. One of the basic aspects of Postcolonial literature is the transformation of culture through novels. Religion and spirituality establish values and systems in a society; therefore, they have a significant role in cultural decolonization. Joshi, through The Last Labyrinth, shows the decolonizing of the Indian spiritual identity that was tainted by Westernization.

                                    In The Last Labyrinth Joshi has narrated some strange religious beliefs in India like Anuradha says a story to Som of a Sufi Pir who drank heavily as he felt, “When I am drunk Allah comes to me, stares at me but says nothing. So I drink the more. One day He will speak to me”(54). In another incident Som witnesses the day of vows where people come to flip a coin and ask a wish from Krishna. It’s believed that every wish is granted over there. In another incident the hills are blessed with the healing touch as several lepers across the nation comes to take a dip in the tank near the temple. It’s said that a dip in the tank cures leprosy. In the novel Joshi has revealed the strength of Indian tradition and culture. Though Som is Western influenced but he starts believing in religion and God. He too visits the mountains in search of hope and happiness.

                                    Joshi has also presented the religious words like “mantra”, “aarti”, “dancing bhakts”, “kirtans”, “Prasad” and “panda”. Joshi also makes use of Indian addressing words like “jaan”, “premika”, “namaskar” and “shrimanji”. Indian eatables too find their place in the novel like “paan”, ‘chaat”, “kulfi”, “khir” and so on.

                                    Thus to conclude Joshi has explored the Indianness in The Last Labyrinth. The post-colonial youths are spiritually impotent and the re-discovery of spiritual roots is a only solution to it. Joshi through the novel suggest that Westernization can never give happiness of life as native culture and tradition lies deep in the sub-conscious mind and again and again reverberates to the conscious mind for fulfillment. The message of Bhagavad Gita, as quoted by G.A. Ghanshyam and vasumati Nadig is relevant in this context;

                                    Sarva-dharma parityajya

Mam ekam saranam vraja

Aham tvam sarva papebhyo

Moksayisyami ma sucah

(Abandoning all duties, come to me alone for shelter. Be not grieved, for I shall release thee from all evils).


Works Cited

  • Braj, B. Kachru, The Indianization of English: The English Language in India, Delhi: Oxford University Press, p.87. print.
  • Naikar, Basavaraj. Indian English Literature, Vol IV. India: Atlantic Publishers, 2003. Print.
  • Joshi,Arun. ‘Back cover of the Book’. The Last Labyrinth. Orient Paperbacks, New Delhi, 1981. Print.
  • R.K. The Novels of Arun Joshi. India: Prestige Books, 1992. Print.
  • Nayar, Pramod K. Postcolonial literature An Introduction. India: Dorling Kindersley Pvt. Ltd, 2008. Print.
  • Pandey, Mukteshwar. Arun Joshi: The Existentialist Element in His Novels, New Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation, 1998.
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