Tinted, Foggy, Sparkling in Parts: Maugham’s Ideas on China Is a Confusing Concoction.

Compared to the Great Mughals or the European Wars for nation-states, Chinese history is often relegated to one semester of a central university’s syllabus. The other is devoted to the Japanese. Together, they adjust themselves into a single module titled History of Modern Asia. As academic papers, students even face a significant adjustment period because of the complicated names, the utterly alien culture of the regions and the general lack of knowledge about their societies. In this scenario, Somerset Maugham’s On a Chinese Screen is a part-foggy and part-pretty mirror reflecting European nationals’ lives vis-a-vis the native Chinese population. It is a fascinating yet flawed account – a peek into the frustrations, lifestyle, and emotional ethos of foreign nationals in China.

In 1919, immediately after the First World War, Maugham spent his winter travelling 1500 miles up the Yangtze River. Along this journey, he met a motley of people – missionaries, ex-pats, managers, government officials, and bankers, who were culturally and philosophically out of their depths in China. He also brushed shoulders with the more impoverished Chinese population sections such as steersmen, farmers, coolies and rickshaw-pullers.  

However, for most of this journal-like collection of 58 vignettes, we see China through the eyes of majorly European (British and French) characters. They are people who have not visited their home countries in a long time, up to nearly 50 years. Do they love China? Do they hate China? Do they want to return or have their lives been moulded in the quaint Chinese urns till the day they die? Have they managed to adapt themselves or still live under a garb of being the better ones in an outlandish civilization? Maugham’s astute observations attempt to shed light on each kind of outsider who has supposedly made their homes and fortune in China. An unmistakable tinge of superiority tints the narrative.

For me, On a Chinese Screen is an inconsistent experience. Just like any other anthology of short works, I thoroughly enjoyed select stories. Whether it was Maugham’s descriptions of the rain in the countryside or his notes on traits like hypocrisy, adjustment, and longing, they create a lasting impact. However, some others felt tepid. Sadly, a few did not elicit a reaction at all and felt out of place. The book was a mixed experience, and my thoughts remain divided. First, I’ll describe the pieces that I admired the most.

Servants of God is a conversation between an old French missionary and a younger English one. While they are not similar, the author describes them as sharing a common attribute of goodness. They speak for a while and prepare to leave. The Englishman and Frenchmen are both heading home. However, each is unaware of what home means for the other. The Frenchman, living in China for half a century, is leaving for his town that he never plans to leave. The British missionary is thinking about his home in Cheshire, where his family have dwelled for three centuries.

Henderson is a commentary on western hypocrisy in China. Henderson is a pompous junior partner who upon his arrival in China was revolted by the rickshaws. As a socialist, it aggravated his sense of personal dignity that another human would be carrying him around in a vehicle. But as he began to encounter the scorching Shanghai heat, Henderson frequently uses the rickshaw. However, he maintains that the puller is like his brother and friend. On a particular ride, when the author accompanied Henderson, the latter remarked how their rickshaw-puller was sweating profusely and they ought to let him go for the heat will only get worse. Henderson answered that one must not pay attention to the Chinese for the British were the ruling race. As the rickshaw-puller missed the turn he ought to have taken, Henderson kicked him and called him a bloody fool. All while discussing Bertrand Russell’s Road to Freedom.

The Opium Den is a unique take on the nature of opium addiction in the country. China had been in the midst of massive and illegal opium trade that destroyed vast segments of their population and caused two major wars in the 17th and 18th century. The author always imagined opium dens to be dingy, squalid places. His idea is like a set from a play where young men driven by addiction behave like frenzied lunatics while the poorer lot begs the evil owner to let them enjoy a smoke for free. Finally, when he is taken to an opium den, the real picture is entirely different. The property was neat, brightly-lit and divided into cubicles where people were experiencing a quiet time with their long pipes, chessboards and newspapers. The den was like a Berlin bar that men visited after work. Studying the scenario, Maugham remarks, “Fiction is stranger than fact.” 

The Nun is a short conversation between a nun and the author. Mother Superior has been in China for 20 years and dearly misses watching the Pyrenes mountains from her window. However, she is fond of the Chinese whom she believes to be hardworking and understanding. She remembers when a few soldiers she nursed to health transported her heavy bags in their car. The author asks why the men did not give her a lift instead of only carrying her bags. The nun’s reply is poignant. She says, “A nun in their eyes is only a woman. You must not ask people more than they are capable of giving.”

The Consul is the funniest of the lot. It’s about Mr. Pete, a man who is employed in the consular service. In his long career, the only case that eluded a solution was Mrs Yu. A British citizen who married a Chinese man against her mother’s wishes, Mrs Yu arrived in China only to find out that her husband has a wife, and she was his second. Since the revelation, she regularly harasses Mr Pete by seeking legal remedies but disregards his suggestion to return to England. In a fit of rage at her stubbornness, he asks her why she refuses to leave her husband. Mrs Yu answers, “Theres something in his way his hair grows on his forehead that I cant help liking.”

Maugham’s writing has a strangely mixed quality. He can make searing statements but simultaneously, dazzle the reader with his fluid and poetical descriptions of the smallest moments. The latter is evident in Night has Fallen, Arabesque, The Painting and A Game of Billiard. They are not rich in material. Only wonderfully writte, a drawback shared by many more stories in the collection.

On a Chinese Screen is not a compassionate account of Maugham’s travel in China. Neither is it harsh. It is a cross between matter-of-fact observations and free-flowing ruminations. Moreover, the stories do betray a considerable white man’s lens. There is casual racism. Maugham is more interested in the life of Europeans and how they battle or adjust to China. The indigenous population works as the backdrop, but that backdrop is rather dull in itself. He paints a much brighter picture in front of the grey curtain. It is incredible how the same man can paint a sensitive word-picture of a plum-blossom (The Picture) and in another story, describe a Chinese woman as a “little yellow wife” (Sullivan).

Maugham is part aggressive, part beautiful. However, to his credit, Maugham sufficiently reveals European ignorance. He remarks how high-ranking officials can barely understand a Chinese word for they consider the language to be beneath them. In fact, Maugham’s idea of China is best received by readers who share the same socio-economic background. For example, the Los Angeles Times described the book as “Evokes a nostalgic China replete with rickshaws and sing sing girls.” This is a simplistic statement, borderline cliched. It is like Coldplay’s Hymn for the Weekend video where India was represented with peacocks and Holi.

Coming to the principal question: Do I recommend On a Chinese Screen? There are two ways to look at it. I will not suggest the book to be a reader’s first brush with Somerset Maugham. He has far more powerful and memorable works. However, if you are a seasoned Maugham admirer, you will enjoy the travelogue as “another Maugham down.” As a reader in the first category, I think of my experience as a fascinating glimpse into the realities of a specific niche of the population in a far-off land. But I read On a Chinese Screen knowing that it is imperfect.

Si. Su. Chellappa’s Vaadivaasal Takes You on a Guided Tour of Jallikattu

One night, during January 2017, I woke up with a nightmare and wrote this- The Rights & Wrongs around Jallikattu. The endless debates on social media and all the restlessness in the whole of Marina and TamilNadu wouldn’t let me sleep until I wrote about all that I had to say. One of the oft-repeated suggestions during those times was to pick up and read Si.Su. Chellappa’s Vaadivaasal. Strangely these recommendations came from both the pro and anti-Jallikattu activists. After four years, I have finally heeded their advice and I am beginning to wonder if they ever read it before recommending.

I, for one, have never witnessed a Jallikattu in person. However, I have seen and known the pampering the bulls receive as they prepare for their big day. I always looked forward to the newspapers, the mornings after Jallikattu. Even as the stories carried the details of the number of people dead or injured, I loved looking at the pictures of these beautiful bulls in the middle of the arena. It was all magnificent and fascinating until I graduated to live telecast in later years. On live television, all I saw was madness.

Imagine being picked from the comforts of your home and dropped in the middle of one such maddening crowd on a sultry afternoon. That was what was done to me when I began reading Si.Su. Chellappa’s Vaadivaasal. The book was a short read. Yet, the whole hour I spent with the book was the most adventurous I have ever felt while reading a book. You are convinced not to move a limb, bat an eye, or even take a breath because anything could happen in the arena in a flash of a second.

Picchi and Maruthan arrive at Chellayi Jallikattu hoping to avenge the death of Picchi’s father, Ambuli. Ambuli is killed in the arena by one ‘Kaari’ and Picchi believes only the defeat of Kaari in the arena would comfort his father’s brave soul. As he awaits his moment of truth, the duo finds themselves in the entertaining company of ‘Pattaya‘, the grand old man. Just like Picchi and Maruthan, I too have my Pattaya – Si. Su. Chellappa, who takes me on a detour while we wait for the contest to begin.

He shows me around the village, the long train of men walking towards the arena, the sheds brimming with the best of the bulls from all over and the festive spirit that fills the air. He introduces me to the various kinds of bulls and educates me in the nuances of Jallikattu. And together we eavesdrop into the conversations in the crowd.

My heart brimmed with emotions as Picchi’s Pattaya talked about the bravery of Ambuli. I felt it all over again when Picchi and Maruthan came face to face with Kaari. The familiarity of the language, the merriment all around, and the nostalgia in the whole set-up gave me a moment of respite. I then watched the whole village follow Kaari to the river and my heart sank. Once again I felt torn between the rights and wrongs of Jallikattu. I felt like that shepherd who voluntarily sacrificed his dearest goat to honour his traditions and then wailed in grief holding its lifeless body.

There at the arena, all conflicts converge into a strange sense of equality. It did not matter where you came from or who your ancestors were. It did not matter if you are rich or poor. It did not even matter if you were a man or an animal. All that mattered was if you had it in you to face the ordeal and survive it. It is also a field of transformation. You see a man become the beast that he was trying to tame and the beast display a human-like intelligence. And whoever emerges victorious shall have the privilege of being the Zamindar’s decorated plaything.

As I looked around, I painfully realized that except for me and the all-powerful Chellayi, who protects the village and its people, there is not a single female in and around the ‘Vaadivaasal’. So much for what began as a sport to impress one’s lady love.  I am not going to hold Si. Su. Chellappa responsible for this. He only mirrored the society of his times which isn’t much different even today. I must also tell you this. If you ever want to know about Vaadivaasal and Jallikattu, there is no one better than him to tell you all about it. And if you don’t read Tamil, you can pick N. Kalyan Raman’s translation of it. Even after the Jallikattu was over, here is one thought from the book that stayed with me and I want to leave it with you too. “The men in the Vaadivaasal might think of this as a sport. However, that’s not true for the bulls.

Fifty Shades of Feminism in Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist

In newspapers, news channels, magazines, and social media – we have met these three kinds of people. One is the avowed feminist, as Roxane Gay would have it – the one who sits on the pedestal waiting to be dislodged at the first sign of betrayal of the idea of ‘perfect’ feminism. Second is the anti-feminism who is a self-proclaimed feminist-hunter waiting for the decimation of the ideology itself. Third is the Bad Feminist. This one doesn’t hide the fact that she loves listening to those sexist hit numbers or shaves her legs or that pink is her favourite colour and at the same time, believes in equal opportunity for women and wants them to be represented on par with men in publications, board-room meetings, or the parliament. This one comes with all the little imperfections that we human beings come with. Roxane Gay, the author of a collection of essays, primarily on ‘Feminism’ as well as several other intersectional subjects, is a Bad Feminist.

Roxane Gay is an American writer and professor who has also written Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Ayiti, An Untamed State among other works. She is a New York Times best selling author and is vocal with her pen and speech on issues of feminism, race, sexual violence (rape), immigration, and LGBTQ rights to name a few. Her personal brush with most of these issues lends her an air of sincerity, authenticity, and seriousness that these subjects deserve. This does not mean she is divorced from humour. In fact, Bad Feminist is laden with a wry sense of humour throughout.

The book begins with the author’s constantly evolving understanding of feminism, her struggles to acknowledge the feminist inside her even at the cost of offending the ‘sisterhood’ that wants you to play by the inviolable playbook of feminism. So, even if she does and likes a lot of things that the feminism police would absolutely abhor, she comes to terms with the idea that she can still be a feminist, maybe a bad one at that, but still a feminist! The imperfections of the practitioners doesn’t imply that the idea itself is a dispensable one.

With feminism as the centre point, she moves about the circumference and speaks on a range of issues through her essays. You will find thought provoking critiques of several best selling books, popular films and television shows. As I read through, I realized that a lot of content in the book is focused on American pop culture and its icons. She tells us about the misogyny that comes with most of the Hip Hop lyrics, inadequate or misrepresentation of people of colour in the book as well as the movie The Help, criticism of Fifty Shades of Grey, Django Unchained, her likes and dislikes about The Hunger Games in straight-from-the-heart prose without carrying any burden of formal writing. 

“Any offense I take with ‘Django Unchained’ is not academic or born of political correction. Art can and should take liberties and interpret human experiences in different ways, even if those interpretations make us uncomfortable. My offense is personal — entirely human and rising from the uncomfortable reality that I could have been a slave,”…. “I can’t debate the artistic merits of ‘Django Unchained’ because the palms of my hands are burning with the desire to slap Tarantino in the face until my arms grow tired.” – Roxane Gay

It’s not that Roxane Gay doesn’t contradict herself in the book but she is acutely aware of these contradictions as well as her personal flaws. At times she can be too harsh and sometimes more forgiving than you would expect her to be. Also, since she is an ardent follower of pop culture, the book is full of examples that readers from other countries may not appreciate. However, because her contexts are well explained, it should not be difficult for a reader in India to replace Yin Yang twins with Honey Singh and understand what the author means. But for someone entirely disinterested in pop culture, a few essays can get weary.

For me, one of the defining parts of the book is when Roxane talks about sexual violence and crimes. Starting from her own horrific experience to reflecting on the way ‘rape culture’ as a phrase is frequently used in media, she explores several facets of the subject. Her own experience is heartbreaking and her deliberations on how popular icons rarely get adequately punished for their sexual crimes are piercing. The essay will remind you of how in our own backyard, a rape joke by Salman Khan could not make a single dent on his box office collections or how Mulayam Singh Yadav remains an Honourable Member of Parliament even after saying something as shameful as “Ladkiyan pehle dosti karti hain. Ladke-ladki mein matbhed ho jata hai. Matbhed hone key baad usey rape ka naam dey deti hain. Ladko sey galti ho jati hai. Kya rape case mein phasi di jayegi?” (First girls develop friendship with boys. Then when differences occur, they level rape charges. Boys commit mistakes. Will they be hanged for rape). He is not alone. Several people have contributed to the cause of defending or glorifying rape at different times.

Roxane Gay’s book is as inward looking as it is outward looking. She keeps creating bridges between the two worlds to draw her observations. She is candid in her narrations, and talks about a lot from her own life and struggles through its different phases. If you are someone who is conflicted between the three types of people I mentioned in the beginning and would like to have some clarity on matters related to feminism, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist makes it easier for you. She is there with her essays sitting right beside you telling, it’s okay not to tick all the mandatory boxes of feminism, you can be a feminist even without applying to the sisterhood.

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

Edgy, Brilliant, and Complex: Salman Rushdie’s Shame Injects a Fairytale Into Politics

Can you live somewhere without knowing its name? Can you breathe its polity and travel its landscape only relying on letters? Can you grow up in a sealed fortress, watching snow capped mountains and discovering new rooms every night? Can you accept a narrative of a woman so ashamed that it stunts her mental growth until she becomes a monster, ripping apart men and turkeys? It all sounds gibberish until you allow Salman Rushdie’s Shame to consume you. Just like the crippling embarrassment that consumes the life of every tragic character in the novel, Rushdie swallows the reader into an abyss of words, history, allusions, illusions and magic. Open your mind, and Rushdie’s genius will engulf you exactly how Harry fell into the Pensieve and experienced memories that didn’t belong to him.

Shame is about many things that constitute life. Families. Marriages. Children. Affairs. Religion. Politics. Dictators. Governments. Rebellions. Scandals. It is about interconnected families against the backdrop of an unnamed, phantasmagoric country and the upheavals in its polity. The book’s family tree will immediately remind you of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. In fact, Rushdie and Marquez share substantial similarities in writing style and elaborate imagination. The worlds they create are brimming with strangeness. Even the tiniest thing is ornate. Whether it is the bitter almonds in Love in the Time of Cholera or the elevator in Shame built to transport goods and commit murder, nothing is ordinary. Yet, all of it is true.

Shame is tough to summarise, but for protocol’s sake, it must be done. Who started Shame? Omar Khayyam Shakil. His matrilineal lineage is questionable. He was born to three mothers, who replicated a pregnancy. Apart from Rushdie, no one knows who among the three Shakil sisters was Omar’s mother. After spending his childhood in a suffocating fortress designed to prohibit human interaction, Omar leaves his home at 12. Eventually, he becomes a debauch but famed doctor before marrying a ridiculously young patient called Sufiya Zinobia.

Sufiya is a symbol of purity and the axis on which shame and shamelessness revolve. Born to a mother who craved a son, she embodied the book’s central philosophy: Shame begets Violence and Violence begets Shame. Suffering from stunted mental growth, Sufiya grows up unloved and prone to constant blushing on account of internalising her family’s dishonour. Her parents are General Raza Hyder and Bilquis Hyder. Raza is a politician par excellence, masking his shrewd barbarism under the well-pressed suits. The second bloc in Shame is General Raza’s political opponent, Iskander Harappa. Once known for his indulgent personality and many affairs, he marries the simple Rani Harappa whose quiet tolerance of her husband’s ways finds expression in the delicate shawls she embroiders. His daughter is Arjumand. Known as Virgin Ironpants for her attempts to suppress her sexuality and reject potential suitors, she is Iskander’s secret weapon. A political mastermind, Arjumand stands by her father throughout his career and even after his execution. Many more characters are crucial. They come and go as per the story’s requirements. 

Shame reads like a secret. It is whispered so often that everyone has a vague idea of what it is hinting at but cannot be brash and say it aloud. A significant portion of Shame’s geographical and psychological landscape may go unnamed, but it has been broadly agreed that Shame is Pakistan’s story. As a writer, the Indian Independence, Partition and Pakistan are very close to Rushdie. Whether he is exploring them full throttle like in Midnights Children or incorporating the zeitgeist of the time in The Ground Beneath her Feet, the two nations’ political health always had a bearing on his characters. With Shame, he delves into the political class of Pakistan and gives us a fairytale.

Scholars (and readers who are tempted to explore the history of Pakistan even at a tertiary level after reading Shame) have found the following, significant allusions:

  • The unnamed city of Q – Quetta
  • Raza Hyder – General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq
  • Iskandar Harappa – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto
  • Arjumand Harappa – Benazir Bhutto

Shame is so layered that you will find hundreds of papers and dissertations, so many different themes explored in the novel; such as nationalism, violence, religion, marriage, motherhood, magical realism, political identity, post-colonialist writing and modernism. Which one will I address? The question puts me in a pickle.

Salman Rushdie’s vision for Shame is far ahead of his times. The observations he made in 1983 through dark humour and fictional situations hold their ground in 2021. For example, Maulana Dawood’s character. He is a fanatic and General Raza’s advisor. His influence steadily draws Raza towards establishing a theocracy. The narrative about faith being rammed into politics and those poisonous politics being forced down people’s throats will resonate today. Shame even answers why the rhetoric of faith is such a fit in governance. It’s because faith as a language is too complicated to oppose. It comes with respect. So much of it that it hushes everybody.

Shame does a great job of reminding us that no matter how much despotism is shrouded with sweet words and mysticism, the masses will rise. In the end, General Raza, his wife and Omar flee the city and take shelter in Omar’s childhood home. The intimidating fortress, a symbol of tyranny, is where they are brutally murdered. Ultimately, commoners storm the house. What can be more symbolic than that?

One of the most poignant and famous lines in Shame is, Beauty and the Beast is simply the tale of arranged marriage. This sentence alone captures the sadness that permeates every marriage in the book, making the reader acutely aware of the feminist discourse underlying the outwardly masculine narrative of men fighting it for power, women, and legitimacy. On the surface, it is all about men. Hyder, Harappa, Omar, Maulana, Babar and Talvar Ulhaq claw and scratch to climb society’s ladders. By the time it ends, the women stand out.

Shame is often overshadowed by the sparkle of The Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. However, it must not be missed. Even if one doesn’t enjoy political critique, it can be appreciated as a fairytale about warring families. The book does have drawbacks. For example, those who are not aware of Pakistan’s history may initially miss some of its flavours. It is quite detailed, so you forget portions of initial happenings when the author revisits in the middle of the book. Some amount of going back and forth and googling may be essential.

Shame, just like the emotion itself, is warped and multifaceted. It is about disgrace and as well as its antithesis: shamelessness. Together, they form the basis of violence. As Rushdie says, “Between shame and shamelessness lies the axis upon which we turn; meteorological conditions at both these poles are of the most extreme, ferocious type. Shamelessness, shame: the roots of violence.”

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

Tagore’s Nastanirh Is a Tale of Unsaid Emotions in the Crossfires of Tradition and Modernity

Nastanirh translates into The Broken Nest. One that is not broken only because of the romantic, intellectual, and sexual gulf that exists between its prime occupants. It is broken because each occupant is fighting a storm of loneliness, unrequited love, and misconstrued creativity. Swirling in this quiet storm, wandering the corridors of her mansion, childless and deep within, a child herself is Tagore’s bright yet confined Charu.

Nastanirh is the story of people, their clay-like identities, and their unsaid emotions caught in the crossfires of tradition and modernity. Positioned at the dynamic nib of the Bengal Renaissance, the novella is a keen eye into the Bengali household’s inner workings, its men and women, its ‘liberal’ ideologies and their impact on relationships. The story follows the tumultuous lives of Bhupati, Charu and Amal. The tumult is not blatantly visible. Thoughts are unexpressed and words are half-formed. Within the pauses, there is suffering.

Charu is a young wife in a time that was seemingly looking up for women in educated families. Nabeena, or the New Woman of the late 1800s, was outspoken, cultured and freely dabbling in literature and intellectual discourse. However, the real picture is not as rosy. Charu, a prototype of this nabeena, exercises her agency only within her sprawling home’s architectural confines and the boundaries defined by her role as Bhupati’s wife and Amal’s sister-in-law. Oscillating between a husband who for all his progressionist views cannot fulfil his wife’s emotional needs and a pampered, vain brother-in-law whose affections she was desperate for, Charu functioned in a bewildering time for women.

19th-century Bengal, for the lack of a better expression, was awkward. Two very different forces were struggling to become one. On the one hand was Christian imperialism, on the other was the Hindu traditionality. Together, they constituted the archetypal Bhadralok who lived a life oscillating between Anglophilia and Bengali customs. In this novella, the bhadralok is Bhupati. Bhupati is described as a person of such wealth that he does not need to work or earn. However, his love for oration and journalism leads him to establish an English newspaper. Like an obstinate lover that entraps a spouse, the newspaper becomes a shield that Charu cannot penetrate. Once a child bride, his wife has silently blossomed into a woman, without his involvement or companionship. Bhupati is not a cruel man. He cares for Charu. He wants her to be happy. He even encourages her to write. However, he is guilty of assuming the truth instead of knowing it. When he does, at the very end of the novella, it is too late. They fall prey to a marriage that aged prematurely, stunting both Charu and Bhupati’s ability to comfort each other and find solace in each other’s company.

Amal, his mischievous personality and the need to care for his every whim kept Charu moving. Charu’s days were structured around pampering her brother-in-law. From preparing his breakfast to asking him for books and discussing plans about remodelling the garden, Amal was Charu’s most prized possession. Adding fuel to their friendship is their love for literature. So profoundly does Charu feel for Amal that when he publishes one of his poems, she sees it as a betrayal of confidence. Steadily, external influences creep into their once tender relationship. When a critic praises Charu’s writing, it fosters a deep sense of unease and competition. The final blow is Amal’s abrupt departure. His absence makes Charu hysterical, making her distressingly conscious of her newfound feelings as a woman and causing her marriage to burst open and expose its dry core.

Between Bhupati and Amal, Charu was seen as a naive woman who needed moulding. The former was a loving patron, treating her like a child. Amal was vain, almost hostile when Charu’s writing is valued. For him, she was a student and a blind admirer. Muddled in his pride, Amal believed that Charu must condemn the critic who praised her and disregarded him. He disapproved of her overstepping her boundaries as his loving bou-than (sister-in-law) and developing a writing style of her own. Charu’s writing style is symbolic of her personality. The second it fluttered and attempted to grow, her surroundings made her guilty of her desire to fly.

I could never fathom where Charu belonged or in which direction her thoughts were headed towards. The two men in her life were torn apart by progress and conservatism, and their internal confusion had a direct bearing on the trajectory of Charu’s life.

For a novel published in 1901, and like all of Tagore’s writing, Nastanirh was wonderfully ahead of its times. The book is audacious, elegant, and deeply saddening. The narrative is straightforward, lucid, and brimming with emotion. They overflow into the reader, making one acutely aware of each feeling. Tagore’s ability to weave complex emotions and situations together is beyond description. To call his writing a ‘revelation’, ‘magical’, ‘powerful’, or ‘transportive’ would be churning out cliches. Tagore’s power is unbelievable. When he writes about Charu weeping in her balcony, you feel your chest tightening and your lungs gasping for breath, mirroring his heroine’s suffocation. 

A significant portion of the credit must be attributed to translator par excellence, Arunava Sinha. For a Bengali who cannot read the language well enough to complete a novella, it is a saving grace to stumble upon a translated copy that is competent enough to convey the story in its entirety, from establishing the typical ambience of a wealthy Bengali’s mansion to deftly conveying the emotional mayhem. I’ve had the pleasure of reading several of Sinha’s translations including Chowringhee and The Boat Wreck. He is without a shadow of a doubt, the best there is.

Nastanirh has a particularly thought-provoking end. It is a story where you know that each character is severely damaged and emotionally limited. When Charu refuses to leave with Bhupati, there is an air of finality about her decision. However, one is left wondering. Will Charu ever cope? How will life move on? Estranged from her husband, her Amal and her writing, where does Charu spread her wings? Her journey reminds the reader that the Bengal Renaissance might as well have been a masculine fantasy. Men with great ideals of moving forward didn’t enjoy when women thought of doing so. It was not unkindness as much as it was obliviousness. They didn’t know better. Women can be writers, only if she is a wife and sister-in-law first.

The Color Purple: Understanding Alice Walker’s Womanism

Many African American women have preferred the term womanism to black feminism. The term is taken from the Southern black folk expression of mothers to female children “you acting womanish”. Womanish girls acted in outrageous, courageous, and wilful ways as opposed to frivolous, irresponsible, and ‘girlish’. Womanism is rooted in the black woman’s historical experience of racial and gender oppression and consciously set itself apart from the white feminist movement. The Color Purple read in this context is a powerful, womanist narrative of the personal development of Celie, an African American woman living in early twentieth century rural Georgia.

The 1982 novel is written as a collection of letters she wrote to God and later, to her sister Nettie through her teenage and adult years. This epistolary form has been used repeatedly in women’s writings owing to its subjective nature. These letters are Celie’s expression of the violence and abuse she is regularly subjected to, first by her father, then by her husband. Written through the sensibilities of a teenage girl, it is an honest and brutal rendition. It is a novel that has been praised for breaking the silence around domestic and sexual abuse by narrating the lives of women in all honesty. Simultaneously, it has been subjected to numerous protests from some African American church groups and male writers who disapproved of showing love between women and violence against women within their community. Such is the politics of the African American woman, their voices are attacked both by the white supremacists and men within their community.

The narrative goes beyond a documentation of discrimination, as Celie tells us her story she also grows and changes. Celie’s transformation happens with the support of other black women giving importance to the black women’s sense of community, an important idea within womanist theory. Her interactions with Sofia, her stepson Harpo’s wife, shape her. Sofia is absolutely different from Celie, she would never let Harpo beat her but fight back. Through her interaction with Shug Avery, Celie begins to explore her sexuality, Shug also protects her from her husband. They are both ‘womanish’ role models for Celies. They are also women Celie nurses and aids, forging relationships of mutual support. We see colored women supporting each-other throughout the novel, even women who are otherwise shown to be at odds with each other. The Color Purple is about Celie exploring her sexuality and gaining autonomy, not her seeking a conventional marriage. This makes The Color Purple markedly different from the earlier 18th century woman centred novels which ended with the protagonist’s marriage and wealth acquisition or death.

It is a beautifully imagined journey of emancipation. Celie is soon disillusioned by the white Christian God. That is when she decides to stop writing letters to God and write to Nettie instead. Shug says, “When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest.”(175)

Celie and Shug together explore an answer from within their own culture. The lives of the natives still living in Africa are also explored through Nettie’s experiences and her own attempt to negotiate between the Christian and Olinka traditions. The novel itself is written in the Black English vernacular questioning the hegemony of the language spoken largely by whites.

Celie’s quest for self development is hindered by both sexism and racism. Later, she also discovers that she is marginalised from dominant society by her sexual preference. According to the premise of intersectionality, race, and gender oppression does not merely ‘add up’. The Combahee River Collective Statement of 1977 helps us locate The Color Purple within the Black feminist (and womanist) struggle. It declares that Black women’s ‘liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s.’ The novel is about Celie’s individual experience but can be seen as establishing the universality of a female and racial quest for selfhood. To read Alice Walker’s work outside this political context would be a gross act of unseeing. It is a novel that documents pain and suffering and yet it is essentially an optimistic work. There is the possibility of overcoming barriers, emancipation and even reconciliation. However, a positive ending does not mean an end to the conflict that drives the novel. The power structures of race, class, and gender are still in place. Would we say then that it is a book giving us a false sense of hope? Maybe, but being a part of Celie’s journey of emancipation sensitizes the reader. The novel engages in a transformation of the reader as the protagonist transforms. This power to move its reader is the revolutionary potential of The Color Purple. That is what makes it, in Peter S. Prescott’s words “A novel of permanent importance.”

Reference: WHAT’S IN A NAME? Womanism, Black Feminism, and Beyond by Patricia Hill Collins

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

Rutger Bregman’s Humankind Amplifies the Voice of Hope in Human Nature

How many times have you come across a really disturbing piece of news or development where humans have indulged in the most inhumane acts possible and wondered if humans are after all terrible creatures who stay civilized only because they are regulated by law? How many times has someone tried to convince you that a law abiding citizen is abiding only because he has never got an opportunity to become a terrorist, that if the circumstances allowed, people would resort to their primal instincts and eat each other alive?

Remember the much celebrated movie – The Dark Knight? Joker puts his philosophy thus – “They need you right now, but when they don’t, they’ll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it’s a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other...” Throughout the story, Joker is trying to establish that when humans get into the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’, they choose themselves over others. He devises a social experiment with the passengers of two boats – one has the civilians, other has the prisoners. He proclaims – “Tonight you’re all gonna be part of a social experiment. Through the magic of diesel fuel and ammonium nitrate, I’m ready right now to blow you all sky high. Anyone attempts to get off their boat, you all die. Each of you has a remote… to blow up the other boat. At midnight, I blow you all up. If, however, one of you presses the button, I’ll let that boat live. So, who’s it going to be: Harvey Dent’s most wanted scumbag collection, or the sweet and innocent civilians? You choose… oh, and you might want to decide quickly, because the people on the other boat might not be so noble.” How many times have you found yourself in agreement with Joker?

The Joker Meme

Recently, a Gangetic Dolphin was hacked to death by a group of men in Uttar Pradesh, India. It looked like they were killing for fun, out of a compulsive thirst to do something outrageous. Of course, such incidents make us want to believe in that seductive philosophy of Joker. A meme keeps roaming around in the social media space and must have at some point appeared on your timeline/inbox too.

What if I told you that several pioneering psychologists and scholars of our world would stand by Joker’s side when it came to the nature of human behaviour. Not only that, they also created different experiments to establish that humans are inherently evil. One of the most famous experimenters of the kind was Philip Zimbardo who is attributed for the Stanford Prison Experiment. Such experiments have been repeated in different time periods with minor modifications time and again by different people to theorize the same piece of ‘fact’ – that we are bad people! (Note: If you like watching Big Boss or other reality shows like Big Brother, you should read the book right away!)

In such a dark and depressing universe, what then remains of ‘Hope’? That and then some more are answered in Rutger Bregman’s 2020 book ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History‘. Bregman begins with the contrasting models of human behaviour propounded by Thomas Hobbes and Rousseau, and argues that we would be better off with the goodness of Rousseau than the cynicism of Hobbes. It is a difficult side to pick in a debate on human nature and that makes the book a riveting read from cover to cover. By the time I got done with the prologue, I had already put this book on my ‘few good things to come out of 2020’ list.

In order to bolster his argument, Bregman takes up the most famous episodes of human history and evaluates the conclusions drawn from each one of them. Some of the cases selected for investigation in the book are Stanford Prison Experiment, Death of Catherine Susan Genovese, Holocaust, and the novel Lord of the Flies by Nobel Prize-winning British author William Golding. Even though the author seems to have indulged reams of research papers on the matter, the book has been brilliantly composed to not overburden its readers with the routine of an academic journal. In fact, you will be surprised by the writing style, the tone of narration, and the impeccable transitions between themes. The book keeps you hooked on till its very last word.

A very touching tale unfolds in the chapter ‘When the Soldiers Came Out of the Trenches’ when the trenches on opposing sides celebrated Christmas together during the first world war. While the author draws several lessons from this episode, we as readers are given a reality check on how the social media, originally meant for connecting with people, use the same tool to judge, hurt, and stereotype people according to our prejudices. In this context, Bregman’s unconventional arguments on empathy & compassion shape the heart of the book around which all the remaining narratives flow.

It is tempting to like the Joker meme. However, I have never personally been a fan of such overarching generalization and could never bring myself up to like this theory that when the situation arises, we are going to eat each other. This was also the reason I could not convince myself to like the ending of an otherwise outstanding movie ‘Jallikattu’ which also happens to be India’s official entry to the 93rd Academy Awards. The ‘pessimistic’ view of reality sells like wildfire. In the video of the murder of this gangetic dolphin, even though I knew how it would end, I kept waiting for someone to stop the killers. And then I heard a voice in the video pleading with them not to kill. It sounded like hope. But like the men in the act, we have either ignored or silenced that voice at several turning points of our history. With Humankind, Rutger Bregman tries to amplify that voice to a decibel where it cannot be ignored or unheard anymore. I want to see him succeed.

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

On Maps, Borders, and Nationality: Reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines

In writing The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh has penned an eventful narrative of a young boy who stays in Calcutta and yet his world includes many parts of the globe. These are not places he has visited, but places he has read and heard about from his uncle Tridib and cousin Ila. One can easily relate to his longing for travel and his fascination with Ila’s luxurious life, who has moved across a number of foreign cities over the years. We learn of his family’s friendship with the English Price family, a bond born during the British Raj and spanning generations. We follow him as he visits London as an adult, meets the same people he met as a child, revisits the places he visited in Tridib’s stories and eventually gains an agonizing closure over a childhood trauma.

Beyond this personal story is a rich historical backdrop, we hear Tha’mma passionately recount her memories of the Swadeshi movement, we follow Tridib to London where he meets intellectuals during the Second World War and even explores a bomb site, the story of the Partition of British India is retold through the partition of Tha’mma’s childhood home, and the Communal riots of 1963-64 (Dhaka and Calcutta) are the setting for the novel’s climax. The Shadow Lines asks us to delve a bit deeper in history, understand how human lives have been affected, often tragically, by nationalist politics and the creation of borders. 

Amitav Ghosh’s metaphorical retelling of the partition is a divided house, a recipe by two brothers to avoid constant quarrels that in reality creates a sense of bitterness and hostility. The children who cannot recollect what lives on the other side can only imagine what the other half of the house looks like. They conceive the people on the other side of the border to be completely different from theirs, when in reality they are not so different, being their extended family. A seemingly quirky section, it does more than add a touch of humour to the story, it tells us the story of nation formation as Ghosh sees it. As India became a country, Pakistan became its ‘other’, its complete opposite. For Ghosh, the differences between the people of the two countries is imagined, a result of the bitterness that partition has created. 

The Shadow Lines explicitly defines the borders that mark territory as  artificial divisions created by politicians, calling them ‘shadow lines’, and implying that the nation itself is a social construct. The arbitrariness of borders is perhaps best conveyed in the journey undertaken by Tha’mma, the narrator’s grandmother, to bring her uncle, Jethamoshai, from Bangladesh to India. To Tha’mma, a Hindu man’s home is in India, but for Ghosh, the sense of belongingness, of having grown up somewhere creates ‘home’ and the Partition cannot change that. Travelling from Calcutta to Dhaka she expects to see a physical border between India and East Pakistan from the plane. To Amitav Ghosh, the drawing of borders on a political map cannot distance two nations that have a shared history and culture.  In fact, by showing different characters stuck in the same riot, the narrator in Calcutta and the others in Dhaka, The Shadow Lines gives us two cities, in two different countries that are as closely bound to each other as images in a mirror, one reflects the other. 

The ‘shadow lines’ that divide people can be overcome, by understanding each other. The narrator is able to connect with England when Tridib tells him stories about his travels. When Tridib points out places in the Bartholomew’s Atlas, the young boy gets a chance to relive Tridib’s experiences. He creates detailed image-maps of these places he has never visited. So much so that when he arrives in London, he astonishes the others by his knowledge of the city’s geography. He looks for the places Tridib described, recollects the stories Tridib told. He is capable of finding Mrs. Price’s house without a map, owing to his memory of an A to Z street atlas of London that his father had brought him as a child. As Yusuf Mehdi says in his critical analysis of Ghosh’s book, the ‘shadow lines’ between nations can be surpassed only through emotional bonding between people.
We often tend to see the political as distant from the personal, Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines is a reminder that very real people are affected by what we read in the news. It has the potential to build sensitivity in its readers and offers a critique of the mainstream understanding of nationalism.

Like what you just read? Become TheSeer Insider. You will be receiving one letter from us every Friday to help you spend a more mindful day and make the best of your weekend. Enter your email id below and click on subscribe. We won’t spam you, ever!

Everything Is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo Has All the Sunshine You Need to Kickstart Your New-Year

At least in India, our entertainers still have some time to go before they can get rid of their obsession for pessimistic realism. From the millions of episodes of reality television shows to creating gloomy pieces of art and cinema, we are being served hopelessness and negativity every day in the name of realism. Add to the mix, the pandemic of news media, the common man is forced to feel vulnerable and powerless with every primetime broadcast. Not to forget, our own magnetic attraction to all things negative makes us the perfect guinea pig in the laboratory of so-called ‘realism’.

Naturally, it always takes much more force and motivation to stay positive and hopeful in today’s age. With business models created to make us lazier and more worthless every passing day, people have begun to lose control of their lives as early as their toddler phase. Contrast this to our parents and their parents, things were more complicated than they are now. They didn’t have access to google to look up for ‘how to make myself dumber’ every time they had to do something. However, they perhaps lived a more complete life than many of us are living now. They knew how to fix things. Even if they didn’t, they didn’t tap on a screen to get things done. They tried and learned. This is where Marie Forleo’s wonderful book ‘Everything is Figureoutable’ begins with a chapter on her mother who could figure out just about anything. Here’s how she begins – 

“My mother has the tenacity of a bulldog, looks like June Cleaver, and curses like a truck driver. She grew up the daughter of two alcoholic parents in the projects of Newark, New Jersey. She learned, by necessity, how to stretch a dollar bill around the block and is one of the most resourceful and industrious people you could ever meet. She once told me she rarely felt valued, loved, or beautiful, but she held tight to the promise she made to herself that, once she was old enough, she’d find a way to a better life.”

It makes sense. When I observe the lives of people who are now in their late 50s and beyond, each one appears to me as if they were books to be read cover to cover and as they pass away without telling their story, it feels like a library getting ransacked in a siege laid by time and the modern man’s self-obsession. Enter COVID-19, and the entire process gets fast-forwarded. It is indeed depressing to be an audience to this pandemonium.

With all the bad things happening around us, I was looking to read something that shines some sunlight towards the end of the year. This is when I found Marie Forleo’s ‘Everything is Figureoutable’ – a phrase she has loaned from her mother and inspirer-in-chief. Guess what, this book was exactly what I was looking for. Marie Forleo is a ‘multi-passionate’ entrepreneur, author, and philanthropist. She was named by Oprah Winfrey as the ‘thought-leader for the next generation’. The introduction will take up the whole page if I go on about her achievements and how she inspires millions around the world. Coming back to the book, Marie draws from her own life experience, her personal as well professional journey, her hits and misses to compose a transformative book for her readers.

There are chapters on the magic of belief, befriending fear, the suicidal road to perfectionism, the myth of ‘I’m not ready’ or waiting for the right time. These chapters are full of practical suggestions and instructions laced with homour and anecdotes to keep you engaged. As a result, you gain something from every page of this book. There is not a dull moment, thanks to Marie’s conversational style of writing. It feels more like a personal session with the author herself. One of my favourite sections of the book is about how the modern day products have turned ‘us’ from being consumers to becoming products. She underlines the damage social media and all the insta-gratification tools and apps are doing to us. That is only the first half though, she also comes up with exercises and activities to help the reader fix this problem. And these are very doable if you want to put your mind to self-improvement. I am writing this review more from the perspective of a beneficiary of Marie’s ability to stay positive and spread it around her than merely jotting down a plain-old book review. The book is also interspersed with testimonials (field-notes) from her readers who have benefitted from the book and are so powerful that a collection of those stories can make a great book in its own right.

2020 was a year of harsh realities for most of us. People died, plans stalled, and businesses shut shops. But was it all as dark and negative as we want to think it was? Well, many got a chance to reconnect with their family. Many people I know went on an online certification spree to upskill themselves. Some of us learned a new language. Many came out fitter physically, mentally, and spiritually out of these serial lockdowns. There are certainly a few positives to count, no matter how sparse they are. Marie’s life and her book tell us exactly that without the ‘preacher mode’ on. This definitely makes the book a recommended read to begin your year with some more light around you.

Tales from the Himalayas by Priyanka Pradhan Takes You on a Nostalgia Date With Your Childhood

Someone pushed gently at our gate and my husband rushed to check. I saw his face light up with a smile and he was wishing our visitor a happy new year. Our visitor was hardly bothered and babbled away in her merriment. She and my husband have been trying to befriend each other for a while now. I played the observer. The only part of the conversation that I understood was when she said ‘Oh My God’, although I have no idea what made her say that. “Children – theirs is a world of bliss. Won’t it be wonderful to be a child all again?”, I thought to myself. So, the universe conspired later in the day to grant me the wish. Except there was a twist. The wish came true in the form of Priyanka Pradhan’s ‘Tales from the Himalayas’.

As an adult, we tend to oversee the various emotions that fill the world of a child and paint them all in the colours of carefree joy and playful innocence. The book reminded me of how wrong I was. While their world is a lot simpler than ours, they too experience a whirlwind of emotions. Priyanka Pradhan makes us relive at least some of those different emotions, joy included, in her book ‘Tales from the Himalayas’. 

The book, published by Rupa Publications, is a collection of 17 short stories based mostly out of Kumaon, Uttarakhand. Some stories like ‘Kafal’ are inspired from age-old folklore. However, some of them do sound contemporary, especially the ones that touch upon social issues. The story ‘The Villain’ for instance reassures the dark-skinned Kisna to be comfortable in her own skin. In ‘The Bagpiper’ Priyanka encourages little Paru to defy the tradition that doesn’t allow girls to play the masak-been from the bottom of her heart.

Stories like the ‘Daak Ghar’ and ‘The Village Monster’ remind me of those days when I would be terrified to go alone into the kitchen at night for the fear of ghosts. 

Priyanka introduces her readers to the hills, the birds, the berries, the songs, the food and the very culture of this Himalayan state. While ‘Haria’s Kitchen’ made me hungry for all the delicacies of Kumaon, I liked how cleverly she employed the narration to acquaint us with the Choliya dancers with their swords in ‘Holi’ and the famous song of Kumaon in ‘The Spring Song’. She also draws inspiration from history and brings to us the stories of Indian explorer and surveyor, Nain Singh Rawat and Gaura Devi of the famous Chipko movement.

The memories of  our childhood are never complete without our grandparents. So it is only natural that grandmothers and grandfathers make their presence felt in ‘Tales from the Himalayas’. The award-winning ‘Postcard’ especially is quite heartwarming. My favourite, though, is ‘The Long Lost Friends’. It reminds me of how everyone’s childhood is not the same yet most of us have been happiest as a child.

All the stories leave a moral for children and adults alike. Mohit Suneja’s illustrations add colour to this beautiful ride through the mountains. I couldn’t have asked for a better book to start the new year with. Go for it, for the nostalgia that it promises. More so if you are a parent because here is a book to bond over with your child.  

Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s ‘The Silence of the Hyena’ Is a Commentary on the Wild Side of Human Behaviour

Animal fiction is an intriguing genre in literature especially the ones that are written for adults. Be it Orwell’s Animal Farm or Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi, these works do not merely stay as works of fiction. They, instead, go on to serve as a commentary on society and its ironies. Syed Muhammad Ashraf’s ‘The Silence of the Hyena’ is one such commentary on human behaviour. Written originally in Urdu, the book is a collection of short stories and a novella translated by M.Asaduddin and Musharaff Ali Farooqi.  

Syed is one of the most prolific contemporary Urdu writers and also a Sahitya Akademi award winner. His works are known to be a poignant portrayal of the marginalized. ‘The Silence of the Hyena’ is no different and bears testimony to the pathos and deep sensitivity that his works carry. Interestingly all the animals in these stories are ‘wild’ and therefore, a sense of impending danger prevails over most of the stories. For instance, in the story title ‘Rogue’, where three men go out to hunt a rogue elephant on a winter night, you can almost feel a chill in your spine.

Happening at the edge of a forest, these stories, on one hand, depicts a day in the lives of people and their encounter with the wild beings. However, the symbolism in most of the stories is too hard to miss, especially the ones with the Hyena. Real horror begins when the difference between man and animal blurs and you can’t say who is who. In the story, ‘ And then laughed The Hyena’ when everyone in the family walks with a ‘chat-chat’ just like the hyenas, you are thrown into a world of eerie surprise and you end up reading it again to ensure you are not delusional.

‘Death of an Antelope’ and ‘The Vulture’ sound more like fables. While the plots of these stories are quite obvious and they lack the usual layers that exist in all the other ones, they are still enjoyable. They give you a break from all allegories and metaphors. Nevertheless, these too keep you brooding. The stories, ‘The Silence of the Hyena’ and ‘The Last Turn’ are intricately layered in their narration and divulge the hypocrisies in human behaviour. However, my favourite one among the short stories is ‘Separated from the Flock’. A heart-wrenching tale based on the Indo-Pakistan partition in 1947, it talks about the trauma of separation, the grief of the migrated, their broken wings and homelessness.

The last part of the book is the Novella ‘Beast’ – the story of village administrator Thakur Udal Singh and his wild bull Neela. A critique of the oppression of the marginalized and organized crime, this feels a little too stretched in places. The similarities between Thakur and Neela are anything but uncanny and their end seems befitting. But too much is lost before the end arrives, thanks to the terrorizing duo.

While the animals and more so the humans from the stories instil fear in you, Syed offers you some respite in the form of nature. Since all the stories are based on a rural setup, Syed makes sure you walk through the sugarcane fields, watch the sunset, and wake up to a frozen lake.  While I will never know how the original work in Urdu sounds, the translated prose certainly reads beautifully. If you are ready for some pondering and re-reading until you find all the answers, this is the book for you. And did I mention that I loved the cover of the book too?

Toni Morrison’s Beloved Brings Back the Ghosts of More Than 60 Million Victims of Slavery in America

B-e-l-o-v-e-d, these were the only seven letters Sethe could get engraved on the tombstone of her two year old daughter, letters she thought would be enough. It is the spirit of this dead baby girl that haunts 124, Bluestone Road- a house that had no visitors- colored or white, newspapermen or preachers, speakers or friends. It’s not simply the house they are avoiding but the people in it.

There is little I can write here that can do justice to the experience of reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The horror that resides in its pages is not the vengeance of the ghost living in this house or the inescapable past of its characters. It is the horror of slavery, its routine separation of families, sexual violence and dehumanization. When you read Beloved, words can sting, laid bare before you is pain of the sort real people suffered. It is not an easy read, yet it is a novel you must read.

Being set after the end of the Civil War when slaves were emancipated, Beloved has most of its characters looking back to a time when slavery was not outlawed. The narrative opens in Cincinnati, the town Sethe, a runaway slave had escaped to 18 years ago, from the Garners’ farm in Kentucky- Sweet Home, which was neither sweet nor a home. It is repressed memories of Sweet Home that come back to her like  blood gushing from an open wound, when she finds Paul D, the last of the five male slaves that ‘belonged to’ Sweet Home, waiting for her at her porch.

The ghost that lives in Sethe’s house, leaving hand-prints on cake and shattering mirrors is not an evil ghost but a sad spirit. This spirit comes back in flesh as the ghost Beloved, she is an embodiment of Sethe’s past that haunts her and feeds on her. It is Morrison’s incredible literary genius that has given a mythic dimension to the historical and psychological suffering of slavery. Beloved is a historical novel dealing with slavery at its best and worse: the Garners’ patronizing ‘principled’ slavery, Sethe’s mother being a survivor of the infamous middle passage, the School teacher’s violent and abusive slavery which goes to the extent of studying African American slaves as animals; and Mr. and Miss Bodwin, abolitionists whose attitude to slavery presents an irony.

It is a novel dedicated to the sixty million and more who died because of slavery. It tells you about the personal experience of slaves, their lives, something the history of an institution won’t say. At the heart of Morrisson’s novel are separated families, it is the knowledge of Sethe’s separation from her husband that embitters the sweetness of her love for Halle, a devoted son who worked on Sundays for five years straight to free his mother. Baby Suggs’ eight children are reduced to memory. To Paul D and Sethe, whose loved ones are always vulnerable to slavery, freedom is “to get to a place where you could love anything you chose – not to need permission for desire.” Sethe’s fierce love for her children  gives a new weight to the idea of maternal love. As an enslaved woman, she is willing to go to any extent to protect her children from the inhumanity of slavery.

Slavery is an experience that is different for men and women in a patriarchal society and Morrison represents both in all their complexities. The slavery that devalues maternal care in enslaved women by taking away children, degrades men by denying masculinity. Mr. Garner can call his male slaves ‘my men.’ By presenting both male and female survivors of rape, she foregrounds sexual assault as an act of both gendered and racial domination. To Paul D, his not being a ‘man’ is a source of trauma, his memory of feeling less of a man than a farm rooster is both dehumanizing and emasculating. He is a man whose trauma has forced his memories into a tobacco tin heart. Beloved narrates suffering that no one wants to remember.

However, it is also a novel of resistance laced with a glimmer of hope. Sixo is an embodiment absolute resistance to slavery. He fights the white men even when his hands are tied. An old and drained woman, Baby Suggs, who gives up on living life, still continues to look for colour in the house- blue, yellow, and green. She shows little fear of the ghost living in her house. As she says, “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. We lucky this ghost is a baby…” Beloved is representative of this collective experience. The act of recording this experience is in itself an act of resistance, an attempt to restore the historical record, revealing history to be incomplete if not distorted. A Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Nobel prize in Literature later, the significance of Morrison’s writings and its impact on American literature cannot be overstated.

Cover Image: Zarateman, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons