PSYCHOPOMP | Indrapramit Das.
There are going to be vocab words aplenty, I promise.
But first, let’s talk about Interfictions.com, a venue for some of the most exciting, boundary-smashing works of literature being written today. I first discovered Interfictions (and its creator, the Interstitial Arts Foundation) through the two phenomenal print anthologies of the same name. Since going digital, Interfictions continues to create thought-provoking, entertaining literary works that mesh genres, text forms, and ideas in an ongoing interrogation of interstitiality (MFA buzzword #1) and the ways that this concept drives artistic innovation.
To be honest, and this is in no way a complaint, I don’t know where to begin in discussing today’s featured story, Indrapramit Das’s “Psychopomp.” The story is conceptually rich and bursting at the seams with beautiful images and metaphors and linguistic pyrotechnics. I’ll do my best to summarize it, which after two readings is still a little tricky to do:
“Psychopomp” is the hallucination of an Indian woman dying of typhoid, a plague that has gripped Kolkata and left the banks of the Ganges piled with death. This is also not a hallucination but a literal narrative of the universe’s death and impending rebirth–no, not rebirth, that implies continuity. This is the story of the supplanting of the cosmos with something entirely new–of moksha, the final emancipation from the cycle of reincarnation. The story is at once a cosmic parable and deeply felt story of a woman and her grandmother, two women guiding each other toward What’s Next. This is a death story, a story of family, of Hindu and secular Indian culture, of terror and acceptance.
It’s epic as fuck.
Here is a brief list of vocab words I had to look up during my reading, and I’m not ashamed to admit it’s a long list: moksha, brahman, psychopomp, yama, revenant, lich, prasad, lakshmi, ganesh, saraswati, glossalalia
amma, hashem, ghat, rime. A long list indeed. My favorite of these is definitely the titular vocab word “psychopomp,” which is a term for the person or being who ushers a soul into their next phase of existence, a sort of ferryman or end-of-life consort (popular examples being Charon, Hermes, and Nicholas Cage in that movie where he plays an angel who falls in love with Meg Ryan).
Before I get into the craft-level breakdown, let me see if I can do a better job of describing the plot on a less abstract level:
We are on a beach. The first-person narrator (whom we quickly learn is dead or dying in the typhoid-ridden hell that Kolkata’s become) is there on a beach at a long table, joined by the body of her dead grandmother and the ominously silent, waiting Yama (death), who is cloaked in stars, amorphous. There is a wave coming, a tidal wave that fills the sky, laced with lightning. This is the godhead. God is waiting there right behind the wave, closing in and close at hand but hidden behind this terrible wave, this manifestation of god and death and the end of the universe.
Which seems appropriate. For someone living close to the Indian Ocean, site of one of the most deadly natural disasters in recent history, there is surely no truer symbol of god and death and cosmic annihilation than a single, infinite tidal wave.
The woman and her cadaverous grandmother talk about various things, and there are much more intimate details having to do with the grandmother raising her, and how she (the granddaughter) feels weird swearing in front of her dead grandma at the end of the universe, and there is a bit of detail coloring in their stark generation gap (religious culture vs. secular culture, the narrator’s decision to be a student and modern woman rather than settle down with a nice Bengali boy and squeeze out some offspring, which she imagines her grandmother would have wanted… etc.). So the story balances the intimate and the cosmic with incredible deftness, and considering the holy-shit gravity of what’s going on with the universe and the godhead waiting beyond the tsunami’s event horizon, there are actually moments of quiet. This quietness benefits the fantastic, metaphysical epic really well, giving the readers well-timed breathers in between the author’s sturm und drang of cosmic awesomeness.
We see the spirit of interstitiality at play throughout this piece, from the very nature of the transitional predicament of our narrator and her grandmother to the collage of systems and cultures (Hindu tradition, metaphysics, realism, and family dynamics). Likewise, as I said, the story achieves a masterful balance of high-octane cosmic stuff and quiet details, each of which enhance the other through their contrast and tighten the narrative nicely. Yes, this is a challenging story, and heavy on dialogue and esoteric detail, but it’s absolutely worth the reader’s time and energy.
Read it twice.