We dread death until it inevitably strikes us. And the question of rebirth may fascinate a person as much as it haunts, for as per the Hindu mythology, he or she can be reborn as a lizard, a moth, a bull or again as a human, until he meets nirvana by virtue of karmic deeds. With all its wit and humour, Nude Before God, written in 1983 by Padma Bhushan Shiv K Kumar, intertwines the quintessential fear of death and perplexing concept of rebirth and interlineates the peculiar traits of human nature — infidelity, lust, insecurities, hollow beliefs and hypocrisies.
The protagonist, Ram Krishna, who paints nudes for a living, is married to Maria, a Christian woman, who wears skirts (intriguingly enough, precisely the reason he married her). Though himself in a liaison with Rezia, Ram Krishna is ferocious because of the lingering possibility of the supposed infidelity of his wife.
‘Agitated and perplexed, I began to pace up and down the room. My suspicion began to worm itself deep into my psyche. Had I been a double fool — for marrying a Christian, who was one of my art students as well? She was not a professional painter, just sketched now and then. Still …’, Ram Krishna thinks aloud. As the male ego takes a hit, he sinks into a peculiar fear of suddenly encountering death.
The book is loaded with deaths, including the death – he is murdered by Maria’s lover, Kenneth George – of the protagonist, but it does not incite any melancholy or distress into the plot, de facto. The sudden death of Ram Krishna and his encounter with Yama – the lord of death – and Ram Krishna’s subsequent ability to be able to read every creature’s mind till the 13th day after his cremation, bring in the ‘life’ to the plot. His soul wanders to explore some usual and some unusual facts. How his wife Maria and her boyfriend weed him out to be together; how his pet dog, parents and Rezia miss him; how Pratima, a young painter, still smitten by him, lives with his memory – he ‘reads’ it all.
Even at the workplace, there are a few who ooze good words for him. Ironically enough, Ram Krishna feels much more empowered and supreme after his death. Yet, that is not all. His summon to God after the end of 13th day will now decide what shall he be in his next birth. It is at this point that the discourse between Lord Yama and Ram Krishna – a truly delightful part of the book, with arguments and counterarguments over deeds and misdeeds of human beings – takes place. While Ram Krishna makes his case for seeking forgiveness for his adultery and his obsession with the nude female body, Yama reminds him how everyone is naked before God and is stripped of all his defences.
Shiv K Kumar blows you out with the climax mocking at your pretensions as much as he mocks the hypocritical society throughout the book. But one line may just sum up the story: ‘no matter what we do, our conscience knows it all.’
Verdict: grab this classic piece of fun-filled journey from life to death and beyond.