Growing up with Hindi books and, to a lesser extent, Hindi movies, I was constantly (but silently) enraged at the way certain characters in many of these books and movies behaved. These characters were usually women: unmarried, married or widowed. They lived with extended families or ‘joint families’. The behaviour that enraged me involved silently tolerating all the wrong that was continuously done to them by family members, by neighbours and acquaintances and even by strangers. The reasons why they were singled out (though ‘singled out’ is not a very accurate phrase as we will see) for tormenting ranged from their being dependent on others, say, because the parents had died, to simply because they were women. You can still see these characters (in some form or the other) in the soap operas of 21st century T.V. and even in occasional Hindi movies, though these movies now avoid such things: they now focus more on the brighter side of life, which their target multiplex audience is more accustomed to as well as more comfortable with.
To take a typical case, you would have this joint family where there were at least two brothers with their parents and at least one sister. Both brothers are married, one from the beginning of the story and the other usually during the course of the story, possibly after a courtship. The courtship would serve the purpose of providing a happy prologue (which could be quite long) before the sad, tragic body of the story. The end might be happy too, but I won’t go into that. Instead of a courtship, you could have a happy growing up of the younger brother’s would be wife in her loving parents’ home, followed by an arranged marriage.
So this new member of the extended family would join with as great expectations as an Indian woman of her time could. See a few old Indian family dramas if you want to know what that means as I won’t go into that either. Soon she would realize that her expectation were ill founded. All the other members of the family (except usually her husband) would start going after her like proper sadists. It would be very misleading here if I don’t mention that ‘all others’ is not the right way to put it as the members who would really do most of the tormenting would be the other female members of the family: the mother-in-law and the sister-in-law. I might note here that the Hindi words for the mother-in-law and the sister-in-law of a woman evoke the image of most likely to be unpleasant relationships. Hindi has a different word for sister-in-law for men, which doesn’t evoke such an unpleasant image. In fact, the word evokes quite a naughtily pleasant image.
I didn’t create that image, so don’t go after me on moral grounds. Or nationalistic grounds.
The expectations were ill founded and instead what would happen is that the new member would be required to do all the dishes, to wash all the cloths and to cook all the food and more. Then she would be viciously targeted for all her mistakes in everything that she did. The mistakes, in most cases, won’t even be her mistakes. She would framed repeatedly.
The husband, the younger brother (or younger son, if you like), might not participate in the tormenting, but he would either not come to her defence or would be very unwilling and ineffective to do anything. More usually, he might not even notice what is happening. And here comes the starting point of the behaviour that enraged me: the victim would not even tell him about the ways she is being tormented.
She would not tell and she would not protest. She would quietly tolerate (possibly with some meek protest initially) everything that is done to her. And I would be shouting to myself (silently) why the hell is she not saying anything. Why is she not protesting. Why is she not hitting back.
And so on it went for a very long time. Then I understood something and it made sense. At least it made some sense, even if making some sense is not the same as being completely justified or being the right thing to do. But then who am I to definitely say what would have been the right thing. I was not that woman.
Let me remind you here that this particular woman is just an example of the characters I am talking about. And let me also clearly state that they are not just (at least not completely) the product of pulpy and bad writers or writers of the Sadist school. These characters were found very commonly in the Indian life and they still are (I hope to a lesser extent).
These characters, dear reader, were some among your ancestors, whoever you might be, in whichever country. That is, if you yourself are not one of them.
I have been aching to write about this, but (to borrow a phrase from Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) many things between the heaven and the earth came in the way. Till a few hours earlier when I read the story The Road by Vasily Grossman.
Let me also clarify that these characters are not of the slave-girl category of the Fassbinder film-play. They are not of the ascetic-hermit variety either. Nor are they Gandhian satyagrahis.
Nothing like Mel Gibson’s Passion, so don’t accuse me of blasphemy. Passion is being used here just as an English word (in its older sense), not a religious concept.
Vasily Grossman was called the Tolstoy of the USSR by Martin Amis. The Road is about (and from the point of view of) a mule being driven on the way to the Battle of Stalingrad. Robert Chandler, who has translated Grossman novels, mentions ‘evocations of the horror of war and the miracle of love’ all appearing in this universal story. But as the introduction to the story (not written by Grossman) says, it is about a ‘mule wrestling with Hamlet’s dilemma on the long road to Stalingrad’. This is the part that concerns us here because the dilemma is not just the mule’s (or even Hamlet’s). It is the dilemma of the characters I have introduced above.
And just like the mule in the Grossman story, these characters of real life and pulpy Indian stories resolve the dilemma by becoming indifferent:
It was impossible now to tell him apart from the old mule walking beside him, and the indifference each felt towards the other was equalled only by the indifference each felt towards himself.
This indifference towards himself was his last rebellion.
To be or not to be – to Giu this was a matter of indifference. The mule had resolved Hamlet’s dilemma.
Having become submissively indifferent to both existence and non-existence, he lost the sensation of time. Day and night no longer meant anything; frosty sunlight and moonless dark were all the same to him.
Indifferent not just to others but also to oneself. Indifferent to being or not being. But this indifference was not the result of conscious thought and analysis. It was spontaneous and instinctive. And, arguably, it was almost the only way to survive the life one had landed in. Survival by being indifferent to survival. It was not stoicism, just as it was not masochism. It wasn’t even necessarily the lack of courage or of any other abilities. But with some lexical license, we could call it The Passion. Think of Tarkovski’s Andrei Rublev or Dreyer’s Joan of Arc. So what if it has nothing literal to do with Christianity. So what if they are not painters or warriors but just ordinary mediocre people. As the hunchbacked sexton Algot says in Bergman’s Winter Light, he too in his own humble way has suffered a lot. And so what if they have been portrayed a lot in pulpy Indian stories without even Grossman’s (or, to be impudent, my) insight.
Let’s call it The Passion of the Mule. Or, to be a bit discreet, let’s call it The Passion of Giu. Does it ring a bell? Let it ring. No harm is intended and none is being done.
There is another candidate. We could call it The Passion of Balthazar. How could we forget Bresson in such a context?
At this point, if you are familiar with the Hindi-Urdu literature, you might mention Krishan Chander’s talking donkey (Ek Gadhe Ki Aatmakatha: The Autobiography of a Donkey). But I don’t think that is an appropriate comparison and bringing it in is probably an unacceptable and irrelevant digression. Premchand’s Hira Moti, the oxen, are only a little more closer, but not quite.
There is, of course, the difference (though not always) of degree between real life and fiction. The scale of suffering could be smaller in real life and its manifestation might be different too. I would give you a very common scenario: a frequent motif in real life. There is a woman who is either living with or is visiting her extended family. She has a child. Something happens that is not very unusual in her or the family’s life. She feels that she has been unfairly treated. The matter might involve her child, perhaps vis-a-vis other children in the family. What does she do? She roughly goes to her child and starts beating her or him. Sometimes right where the row took place and sometimes after first taking the child to her room (if she has a separate room). She might or might not shout while she does that. And, more likely than not, she would cry while she does the beating.
This reaction to (quite often justifiably) perceived injustice seems on the surface to be not the indifference of that mule or of the more archetypal characters. But it is just an emphatic display of that same indifference. I have mentioned this particular behaviour just to prove that this instinctive indifference is actually a kind of rebellion, even if she herself is not explicitly aware of this. The only thing this woman cares about more than herself (and may be her husband) is her child. By unjustly punishing that child (and thus punishing herself: more than she could have done by directly punishing herself) she is only showing that she has been treated unjustly. The child too seems to understand this.
How do I know all this? I could tell you, but I won’t. At least not now.
If you want, you can go ahead and laugh at these characters, real or fictional. I don’t feel the inclination to join in. I would like to better spend my time laughing at some other characters.
Before continuing, I would just add a confession (to avoid misunderstanding and silly allegations) that I have only read this one story by Vasily Grossman, though I have read (in translation) other, mostly pre-Soviet, Russian writers.
(To bo contd.)