For the Relief of Unbearable Urges
The Concept of the Journey in “Dharma” and “The Twenty-Seventh Man”
Within “Dharma” by Vikram Chandra and “The Twenty-Seventh Man” by Nathan Englander, the concept of the journey forms the central structure around which the rest of the narrative is built. While the two stories are contextually very different—“Dharma” takes place in mid-1900s India, and “The Twenty-Seventh Man” is set slightly earlier, in Stalin’s Russia—these dissimilarities prove inconsequential as the thematic unity between the two overcomes any superficial differences. Chandra’s “Dharma” and Englander’s “The Twenty-Seventh Man” complement each other well, together validating the importance of the journey for story and character development using the stories’ shared elements of symbolism and meta.
Symbolism in the two stories is abundant, as the authors draw on readers’ perceptions of the characters to attribute meaning to otherwise unremarkable things. In “Dharma”, one example of such is Jago Antia’s “bottle full of yellow pills” which he “[feels] in his pocket all day, against his chest” (Chandra 165). These yellow pills are medication for the pain Antia feels in his amputated leg, “a constant hum just below his attention” that keeps him from performing his duties as a commander with the focus and care that he requires of himself (165). The pills serve as a constant reminder to Antia of his weakness; his reliance on anything other than himself is a source of shame to him, despite the medical necessity of it. Serendipitously (although not for the characters concerned), reliance on a small yellow object is a relevant aspect of “The Twenty-Seventh Man” as well. In Englander’s story, the yellow object is the solitary bulb found in the cell where Pinchas Pelovits and his literary colleagues are imprisoned. Like Antia resents the pills for their hold over him, so do the men in the cell “hate the bulb for its control, such a flimsy thing” (Englander 257). “With [the] light [comes] relief” for the prisoners, and they despise their own vulnerability just as Antia does.
It is difficult to distinguish disparate purposes of this symbolism, as both stories employ it to address their characters’ grudging reliance on something besides themselves. The purpose of the figurative language present in the two stories diverges, however, when animal imagery is utilized. In “Dharma”, Chandra uses simile to express Jago Antia’s pain “as a beast of some sort, a low growling animal that…came rushing out to worry at his flesh” (Chandra 165). This quote suggests that Antia is a victim of the pain he is experiencing, and implies a weakness in Antia that is otherwise denied in the story. Animals are unusually perceptive of vulnerability, and the animal attacking Antia metaphorically conveys the potential for chinks in the armor of this man, previously considered by his men to be “invincible…[with] his ramrod straightness” (163). In “The Twenty-Seventh Man”, Englander’s animal imagery is, like Chandra’s, used to describe the body. However, Englander takes a more humorous, general approach to his imagery, and focuses it primarily on Moishe Bretzky, a man who was “huge, slovenly, and smelly as a horse” (Englander 249). This comparison seems to serve little purpose other than to emphasize Bretzky’s physicality—he is later called a “giant bear” as well—and to provide details allowing the reader to distinguish him from the other authors in the story (249).
The last major common element of these two short stories is meta, or the inclusion of storytelling within the story itself. In the case of “Dharma”, it is easy to forget that the entire narrative regarding Jago Antia is in fact a story told by a man called Subramaniam in “a small, whispery voice” to a bar full of men, including the true narrator, who sets up the primary account, that of Jago Antia, by providing first-person context for the tale (Chandra 163). This beginning grounds the story somewhat, giving it a base in reality, but at the same time seems to do the opposite, as the supposedly true story appears to resemble a fable or legend. Englander, on the other hand, derives his meta from the path Pinchas Pelovits’s story takes during its short lifespan. Pelovits’s tale is “a shooting star…[one] to be extinguished along with the teller” and is all the more beautiful and precious for it (Englander 260).
Englander’s use of the story’s path to creation, brief life, and eventual demise, is certainly an element of meta, but also is an aspect of the concept of the journey that is so evident in both “The Twenty-Seventh Man” and “Dharma”. The two short stories can both be described as stories within stories, and rather than featuring characters who come into themselves, they focus on the path that a story takes as it germinates from an idea into something capable of moving others. At the end of both short stories, the characters experience a moment of clarity, brought on by the fitting conclusions the stories featured in each reach.