<*- home: for once, away from social tragedy

   The god of small things (and train to pakistan)
   I recently read /Train to Pakistan/ by Khushwant Singh. And /The god of small things/ by Arundhati Roy over two months ago. The two are comparable on several counts and yet differ on some that are crucial enough for me to find one a tedious read and the other a valuable one.

   It took me over a month to read The god of small things. Every now and then I'd pick it up, read the florid descriptions of Ayemenem and the characters with mysterious pasts that remained to be revealed and give up about 50 to 100 pages in. Remarkably pretty language to describe a relatively rustic rural town. Then, determined to finish the book one weekend, i read it all. It's largely a contemptuous commentary on the largely orthodox provincial bigotry of almost every sort of person one might find in rural India. I say "almost" because exempt from such contempt are the two passive children, their mother and a dalit worker who retain affections foreach other while remaining at the nexus of harm, violence and the stifling roles to which they're reduced by everyone around them. The children serving as the perspective of naive, innocent conscientiousness through which we observe the grand and complex tapestry of uniquely indian bigotry, intolerance and idealism which plays out through patriarchal, casteist, religious, communist, powerful, egotistical, regressive men and sometimes even the women who play their own part in sustaining the ideas that emerge from a traditional indian upbringing that upholds social status, caste, and roles with their rules of social, public and private grace as paramount above all.  Arundhati's self insert is evidently the mother of the two children in the book, intelligent, extremely cutting, assertive, ideologically independent yet hopelessly mired and caught in the hell raised by the rigid orthodoxy of her family and ultimately dependent on them until she dies as a solitary unattended figure in a hospital deprived of her children and ultimately any care from a family that has not only abandoned her but played active part in tearing her life asunder - particularly helped by a scheming aunt who bitterly resents a dalit worker and successfully plots to implicate him as a murdering kidnapper of children. She strikes home the festering orthodox rural rot amid the most grandiloquent and pretty similies and metaphors, liberally describing the natural scene, sights, visions, scents and poetic enchanting exoticisms of rural india as they might appear to a city dweller. The book is unabashedly romantic about suffering, tragedy and the lives of the victims at the center of the book - who try their best to avert misfortune but due to the complicity of everyone in their village - from the brutal and malicious policement to the casteist aunt and the spineless careerist communist politician, are unable to overcome the tragedy that leaves the dalit worker dead, the mother relegated to a solitary life of deprivation until early death and children who grow up traumatized, separated and alienated from everyone but each other until they reunite decades later.
   This book has value. It's a sharp denunciation of casteism and its practioners, of male figures that beat their wives, of city educated men who believe themselves to be god's gift to everyone, of the police, of men on the street who molest children, of religious dogma and the stunningly regressive and rigid intolerances of authority figures in india. Her sly digs at the petty hipocrysy that pervades indian families is gratifying.  

   It's also pornographic. Literally so in that it contains a pornographic chapter in which the mother (ammachi) is described in explicit detail as making love to the dalit worker. And figuratively so in that the book romanticizes everything in it - from the grand suffering of its oppressed, to the quixotic and uniquely sensorily dense scapes of rural kerala, to the malice inherent in the politics and thinking of the people who inhabit it. Intense emotion acts as the central figure of aestheticized experience and animates every character roy is empathetic towards. Traditional orthodoxy and political cunning animates those that she isn't.  

   It becomes tedious in the middle and the florid literary descriptions become less charming and more grating as I hoped she'd arrive to the event she alludes to throughout the book - the nature of which is not hard to anticipate. I became bored and apathetic to the book after the middle and found the literary embellishment of grief and sentiment sort of heavy handed. I would rather read this same book but written more factually - if that makes sense, without the beautified literary descriptions of abuse, lynching, untouchability and caste politics.  At some point one begins to find analogies, metaphors etc forced or silly or reaching, as if the point was to appreciate the narrator's imagination and capacity to make suffering sexy, and grand. Something that makes me uncomfortable. Is casteist brutality up for commodification and leisurely consumption in the form of novels now? I perhaps am not entitled to publicly hold any opinion in this. Cancel culture has determined that by virtue of my gender/caste/class I'm entitled to no political opinion and consequently no opinion of consequence. But by the same criterion, is arundhati roy? Perhaps she is, because she's a woman and a social activist who seems to be financially comfortable and famous enough to draw light to this issue. What about caste?

   Train to Pakistan.

   This one is more simply written. With few, if any, pretensions to literary grandeur and carrying no aestheticisms that romanticize suffering of violence. It's an accessible story, almost a fable, about a remote fictional village called "mano majra" that lives in relative predictable harmony with an affectionate fraternity between the two major religious communities in it - the sikhs and the muslims who cohabit the same place with a shared sense of community until trains carrying thousands of dead bodies of sikhs/muslims murdered through communal rioting pass through the village and a bureaucrat institutes a plan for driving the muslims to pakistan. The villagers are simple minded. They're not inherently malicious. They're not yet capable of deep seated generation long hatred for women, children, and figures from a different caste. They're religious and seem inclined to do what is good. The sikh in the village weep profoundly when they discover that their muslim 'brothers', 'chacha' and villagers are forced to leave without proper farewell and experience genuine sorrow at the destruction of their houses and their property being looted. However, the genocidal riots of partition yielding rivers flooded with corpses fallen victim to religious rioting puts the sikhs of the village in significant unrest and sorrow that remains in a state of passive acceptance to fate, as one passively accepts the havoc of seasons sent by God, until a rioter comes to the village and incites the sikhs to murder every muslim heading to pakistan on a train - which includes the muslims that till a few days ago would inhabit their own village. The people in this book are understandable. The way they think requires no romantic devices and they don't harbor profound and intense schemes involving their internal feelings of the right place for each in their role in the village. Their lives, roles, and forms of living are ordinary to them and involve no grandiose everyday sufferings. A grand tragedy does befall the village but Khushwant singh describes it factually, minimally, simply and without embellishment. From rural religiosity, to authoritorial servility to the government and a corrupt police that beats its criminals with the same banal incompetence and unemotional function, to the absence of logic in deliberation over communal matters. It contains no complex mystery and enigma that requires unfolding, time jumps, flashbacks. A linear story with linear minds.
   The rhetoric used to incite fickle village mobs and rouse communal sentiment to slaughter muslims on their way to Pakistan is not unknown to anyone in this country. The communist is just as much of a careerist but less likely to implicate another worker and more likely to drink whiskey and doze off away from violence. This communist, a weak, intellectual, disconnected city educated idealist who is entirely impotent in the context of a rural village and resorts to nihilist despair in the face of tragedy is not unrecognizable to me. Perhaps an older version of him might have resembled roy's communist politician. But he harbors none of the secret romantic feelings of political cunning that roy's machiavellian figures do. Neither do the religious folk of the village. Nor do the police, who're incompetent bootlickers who can hardly interpret simple commands from the visiting bureaucrat easily. These figures, the way they speak, how they act, I understand. Their parochial easy to sway dispositions I can easily locate in the context of a village. Roy's figures are too dense and profoundly evil for me to grasp them too well. Khushwant singh narrates tragedy without prettifying the whole affair to make it sound any grander than it is. Women despair theatrically in his villages instead of profoundly and romantically. The men shrug them off instead of scheming to dispossess them of their property or deprive them of their children. Caste does not exist in this book, likely to heavy a topic that already deals with ethic cleansing. But if a book were to be written about caste, I'd prefer to read one by Khushwant singh for his relatively unaffected methods of representing people.

   The questions that immediately haunt me:

   If said contrasts are legitimate at all - involve how much of traditional life as described by khushwant singh and roy is a matter of everyday suffering to its people and how much of it is ordinary reality - as singh notes inequality is a matter of fact in india when juggah is given a worse cell than the educated communist? Is it a matter of difference in the type of communities and size of village/city, a difference in south or north india or just a difference in
   time [singh having written this far earlier than roy]?

   How much of this difference in how the characters that are etched is attributible to violence emerging from casteism compared to violence emerging from communal rioting?

   How much of this is attributable to the difference in cities/villages?

   How much of this is attributable to the difference in lengths of the two novels - did khushwant singh limit to the external functional simplistic descriptions of villagers due to constraints of length?

   How much of this is attributable to the either author's inclination to probe the internal psyches and emotive intentions of people?

   How much of this is attributable to the audience either author is seeking to reach; roy writing for a more international, literary crowd while singh presumably for the more common indian.

   How banal is suffering and tragedy really? And is that determined by who
   speaks and portrays it?


   Side note:

   Sp B, a close friend, throws the idea of fiction that presents an argument. Does all fiction do this trivially through representation? Is representation the same as providing an argument? Or is there a difference between description and argument? On one hand there's didactic fiction that is simplistic and childish and moralistic - fables with moral lessons, but is there an equivalent to this that does something more interesting? I posited that like science which represents structures as is and then constructs a model of functioning depending on said representation, fiction like roy's god of small things might do something similar by describing a model of reality/life/people and the functioning of said perspectives. It runs into the humean problem of induction. Maybe one can describe, represent but not argue. And especially not so with fiction (as compared to observation, history and reality), but Sp B suggests that one uses fictional hypothesis for arguing in and out of science all the time. Perhaps fiction can be used to argue. But to be somewhat sure that it doesn't reduce to a truism, i have to find examples of fiction that does not argue using this logic. Ruskin bond doesn't argue. Nabokov doesn't. Chekhov doesn't sometimes and does sometimes. Roy argues. I need to think about this more. 

pulkit manocha november 2020