In the instinctive mode of western scholars, I had once thought of Tradition and Modernity as individual chapters, each of them thinking about its topic as an entity to be understood in its respective essence and unity. But I have come to understand in perhaps an equally perennial move by western students of Indian culture that these two terms do not in themselves exist. But they do function, dialogically. They work in relation with each other. Modernity functions as an economic and social tool to achieve some wealth, flexibility, and innovation for individuals and groups; Tradition functions, partly and at times largely, as a mythological state which produces the sensation of larger connectedness and stability in the face of shockingly massive social change over the last half-century. One might also say that Modernity is an economic force with social, cultural, and political correlatives; Tradition is a cultural force with social, economic, and political correlatives. Satisfyingly asymmetrical in their relation, they require us, in talking of one, to talk also of the other, just as they induce us to move as nimbly as possible between theoretical abstraction and experiential reality. But their separation is itself part of the mythological drama in current Indian thought, just as their mutual implication is the import of the same ironic smile that brings to an effective close any conversation one hears here about them. And so we take them in turn only, finally, to see them speaking to each other through the lives of acquaintances, informants, and fictional protagonists.
It is a very western question to ask what is the Indian tradition, and finally we will shift to the more pertinent question of what Tradition in fact does. To play the two questions against each other, however, may be the most "Indian" response to the difference between them, since the interplay between abstracted systems and daily contexts is repeated ad infinitum in the culture. Even as one considers those abstract systems, one must choose to emphasize either their institutions or their logical or cognitive structures. Putting by for a bit the second, we'll think first about Village, Joint Family, and Caste, the latter being the point at which the distinction fully collapses between "Institution" and "cognitive structure."
"Village India" is both the title of a popular coffee table book and the national shibboleth of self-identity. Why the Village, why so obsessive a return to its troubled texture, to crises for its acharya (teacher), to conflict for its young, to disaster for its women? I think the Village is never real, even for those who work the hardest to evoke what they remember very specifically from their early experiences there. There are, of course, many quite real villages, their populations struggling to resist the false promises of urban prosperity and the deadly lures of cinema life and high tech commodities, struggling for fuel, water, harvests, health, and reprieve from developers and environmental exploiters; down infinite unpaved roads are built structures, small corners of which are glowing in the night with lanterns and candles, its people gathered here, walking there, frozen only when a stranger drives by and mutual stares log away snapshots of scarcely imaginable difference.
But in the mytho-cultural life of the nation, Village is always already a sign for the urbanites dream of a community raised with sufficient homogeneity of culture and blood that warmth and deeply shared assumptions bind together its members. Though in reality bound together by established power and unofficial violence, Village functions as the place holder for the harmonization of social and gender differences. It is the sign for an ideally functioning caste society in which reciprocal responsibilities bind everyone in humanely conducted relations of caring and tending, a feudal utopia. It is the constellation of points that makes one map of South Asia, confusing the boundaries between nations, and among linguistic and other communities.
The reality of the Village, even in the fiction which struggles most directly to connect myth and actuality, is complicated. Stuck six vehicles wide on a three-lane Delhi street corner, the commuter can only clear the black phlegm from the world's worst urban pollution and project a contrary ideal of an easy stroll across the home village toward the John Constable stream scene omnipresent in Village fiction. But the real stream may contain enough pollutants to work as a laundry bleach, and the Village behind one not only has the predictable internal dissensions of close living, but also the external menaces of other groups (like Muslims), other eras (the modernity of commerce and industrialization), and other social schema (the hulking secularity of the state and central governments).
The second key institution of tradition is the joint family, a usually patrilocal system in which the bride comes to live under the rule of her mother-in-law (in many areas customarily in a village far from her own family) and any senior daughters-in-law, and in which the sheer number and confusion of generations and cousins within close quarters makes both privacy and individuality scarcely relevant values, let alone easily achievable. But the joint family is just as semiotic a figure as Village: it is a sign for a kinship system that goes beyond the orderly distribution of women and property to what Sudhir Kakar calls "a therapeutic model of social organization" (124), with relations of trust, respect, and responsibility nurturing and guiding one at every step, an extended familial utopia.
Kakar is eloquent about the capacity of the joint family as an institution to address "deep needs for connection and relationship to other human beings in an enduring and trustworthy fashion and for ongoing mentorship, guidance and help in getting through life and integrating current experiences with whatever has gone before and with an anticipated future" (124). But he is also eloquent on what happens in the daily realities of life in such a family. "It was great when I was growing up," one friend told me, "but the older I got the more claustrophobic it became." When patriarchs abuse their unchecked power, when matriarchs smother their sons and terrorize their daughters-in-law, the joint family changes from a "therapeutic" system to a neurosis machine.
The third institution is that of caste, and here one must distinguish between varna, the four castes idealized in the Vedas, and jati, the much-proliferated and regionally quite various denominations based mostly upon actual occupations. The second moves us into the power relations of daily life in which one's Brahmin friends complain that jobs are there only for the "Scheduled Tribes and Backward Classes," as the reservation (or quota) legislation terms them, while one's friends from the other end of the spectrum complain about the Brahman (or, alternatively, the Tamil) "mafia" that runs everything. In a social reality being rapidly restructured within a "modern" class system subsidiary to the global consumer economy, there may be plenty of truth in both perspectives. But jati, the occupational castes, organize social life, economic contacts and often basic options, value systems, and family customs, and even ethnosociological profiles of the sort statisticians love best. The varna order tidies into four classes the functional divisions of Indian social organization and derives its authority from its Vedic origins. As an abstract, conceptual order it trips us over into the other emphasis in thinking about tradition, namely its logical or cognitive system.
One of the more illuminating book about caste is by Veena Das, Structure and Cognition: Aspects of Hindu Caste and Ritual (Second Edition; Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982), a book which balances a structuralist sense of culture as a language with a very open and flexible model of linguistic structuring, and which draws upon Das's career of fieldwork to temper her readings of the Sanskrit texts upon caste theory. We in the west typically confuse "caste" with "class," and though there is positive correlation between economic standing and caste, it is also true that particularly since Independence the two are increasingly independent variables. (It is, for example, the middle castes from which many of the nouveaux riches emerge, and feminist Madhu Kishwar has argued that it is upper and middle caste peasant family structure that in its vertical and geographical spread through Indian society is worsening the condition of rural women.)
If caste is not strictly economic, nor is it purely hierarchical as class strata tend to be. Brahmans, that is, are the "highest" caste from a spiritual or religious perspective, but the kings were kshatriyas. Das argues that the king and the Brahman were bound in reciprocal but not hierarchical obligations, and moves swiftly to make us understand the implications of the "statuses" (as she calls them) distributed within the systems of caste and asramadharma (the Way, Christians might call it, appropriate for one's age-related stage in life). That is, these statuses dont need the geological metaphor of sedimentary levels, but the linguistic metaphor of how, syntactically, a culture articulates its social relations. We can glimpse in what follows just what Das achieves with this metaphor:
Down inside the version of social realities represented in a novel like Samskara, the details of this summary matter greatly. For the moment, most useful for us is how this reading of caste complicates the typical and simplistic Western interpretation of caste as class oppression. That oppression certainly exists, but Das wants us to understand how these social categories and their associated ways of living are more than a rationale for privilege. These dharmas segment existence and enable individuals to transpose the paradigmatic morphology of Hinduism into the syntagmatic realities of history. Amorphous experience becomes the words and grammar by which one's life is spoken.
Das's work is analogous in its effect to that of T.N. Madan's Non-Renunciation: Themes and Interpretations of Hindu Culture (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), which corrects the Brahmanic skew toward otherworldliness in Western caricatures of India. Again and again, Madan takes pairs of terms that strike Western ears as oppositions and shows they do not participate in the valorization inherent in Western binary thought but are instead like Nandy's "exclusive parts" within an enlarged "inclusive whole." [For example, the asceticism of the holy elder and the worldly concerns of the householder are age-appropriate phases of one life, not opposed metaphysical belief systems; the Brahman's management of ritual and the sudra's management of offal are unequal in status and pleasantness, but equally essential dimensions of human community.] Paralleling Das's argument at several points, Madan argues that rituals and categorical schema are "efforts to establish the proper relations between [the relevant terms]" (141). Ultimately, one infers from Das, such cultural forms as ritual performatively maintain "bounded and articulated states as opposed to liminal and disarticulated states" (144). Hence if jati castes proliferate, compete for relative status, disappear, subdivide, then, from the privileged perspective of the ascendant groups, the varna castes continue to parse the grammar of utopian social relations bequeathed from the Vedic tradition.
To conceive of caste not simply as a Western pyramid of power, but as a circular graph of an intimately contiguous set of relations within an inclusive whole, means that we will get quite different summaries of basic principles of life depending upon where in that circle we stand. It is male Brahman voices that have historically held the attention of Western listeners, and only comparatively recently have the effects of that dominance begun to change in response to post-Independence study of Dalits, tribals, and women (to name the most sensationally excluded groups from many ethnosociological studies of India). Ramanujan's "context-sensitivity" prods us toward trying to complicate our imagery of Indian social reality; Das and Madan start us toward a relational grammar with glimpses of the often unheard speakers of non-Brahmanical social dialects.
But it will help also to appreciate the kinds of self-differencing observable through a triad of categories proposed by Chicago ethnosociologist McKim Marriott in a remarkable collection of essays, India Through Hindu Categories (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1988). His essay wont help us with, say, the Islamic dimension of Indian culture any more than it is fully congenial with tribal or Dalit life. But he begins with a very useful caution. Assuming that "the Western sciences often do not recognize and therefore cannot deal with the questions to which many Indian institutions are answers" (1), Marriott lectures aspiring sociologists in a way important for those of us who would read India through its fiction:
Though it is a bit traumatizing to use any existing vocabulary at all after so sweeping a list, we might recover our balance a bit by seeing how Marriott's terms work. He has distilled these from his own years of fieldwork, trying to infer from the daily life of Indians the crucial structuring categories by which that life is organized. "Mixing," "matching," and "marking," he suggests, name the vectors of the three-dimensional graphing he recommends for understanding virtually any phenomenon of Indian culture. These terms name three points at which a society applying Hinduism, so to speak, encounters ambiguity, even liminality, and hence considerable collective anxiety. Each thus characterizes a continuum along which social practice has measured out fundamental values and natures. To decide under what conditions and in what form differently valued elements can come together is to regulate their mixing, as in the various protocols and rituals pertaining to pure and impure elements. "Mixing" can thus chart the range from an almost classical Western identity to an all but poststructural self-difference.
To place different elements coherently in their interrelations, one grades them from the most transcendentally comprehensive (perhaps the all-seeing Brahma or oversoul) to the most degraded particle so marked up by differentiation and thus degeneration from the absolute as to be at the very bottom of the existential ladder. This marking is a performative process which enacts the cognitive privilege of (s/he who is the) marker and the relative subjection of the marked. To decide where to sanction relative disorder and where to maintain scrupulous fidelity to a conceptual scheme is to preserve sanctuaries where experience matches the ideal while allowing the inevitable scenes where we must cope with the mismatch between experience and expectations.
It becomes a bit complex to work out the shifts in any given cultural formwe Western academics are not accustomed to thinking by triangulating three-dimensionality. But with the example of caste, one can begin to see how Marriott's terms might work. The Saint and the King would share, on a two-dimensional graph, the extreme positions of unmarked (both are at the heights of their respective spheres) and matched (the worlds of both are thoroughly prescribed and organized); but along the third vector of mixing they are at opposite extremes, the King obligated by his dharma to nurture his ties with all in his realm, the Saint obligated to minimize contact with worldly ambitions. And while the Saint and the Outcast might not seem to have much in common, they share the same polar extreme of unmixed, though poles apart on the other two continua.
One begins to understand, then, that the varnas of vaisya and sudra (as a shorthand, the business and service castes) have delegated to them immersion in the unmatching liberal states of commerce and of cleansing and disposing. Commerce requires a more thorough engagement with the "disarticulated" realities of trade than even the Brahmans of the householding stage must achieve as the latter balance material and spiritual concerns. Cleaning and disposing confronts one with the liminal states of decay and death, and to have varnas that are valued and respected for managing the potential metaphysical ambiguities of such events while others attend to the meticulously matched worlds of sacrament and governance is to constitute an inclusive whole quite unlike the dismissive Western reflex of "someone has to do it." Such a relational matrix is an ideal, to be sure, and the thinking machine it constitutes is often betrayed by the sordid realities of abused power and arrogantly displayed prerogative. But it does help explain why the latter are in fact transgressing the dharma (the way of living) of the individuals whose failings they represent. Clearly this system has served to excuse and impose inequality and exploitation, but at the same time, we do well to recognize the terms it offers for a radical critique of excesses among those who find themselves in its privileged but also ethically demanding positions of leadership.
For those of us reading Indian fiction, these categories name the vectors along which traditional thought would perceive experience, even if that perception is now complicated by the inmixing of western categories, individual temperament, and the strengthening voice of the formerly silenced. Both the Englishman and the Indian will think poorly of a prideful Brahman, but only the latter will think the Brahman is "mixing" too much in political and social strata and arrogating to himself the personal glory more appropriate to kingly kshatriya than priestly Brahman. The individual whose moral flaw is noted by the Englishman risks, for the Indian, "unmatching" the distribution of responsibilities and statuses and thus imperils social equilibrium. One might even feel that by rating himself in relation to other social strata, rather than dissolving himself within larger transcendental being, our prideful Brahman "marks" and thus lowers himself.
Finally, perhaps, the Western reader will never read particular narratives in a truly Indian way (and, of course, rather few Indians will either since we are here describing only that part of the Indian consciousness most informed by Brahmanical cultural roots). But we still need to know what we can of this particular version of a nonwestern language of thought if we are to read the fiction that evidences its historical effects. And it is mainly a desire to keep our competency in such a language at its keenest that I remind us here of Kakar's trio of concepts that are considerably more than merely theological. For karma extends individual being across the time line of a person's lifetime as decisively as moksha expands it beyond the boundaries of individuality itself; dharma reminds us that even our stereotypically unmixed matched and unmarked Brahman must mix as a householder, must invoke the sternest of rituals to confront the potentially unmatching effects of a liminal state like death.
These village utopias, these joint family harmonies, these caste reciprocities, can also be argued as blinders to the history of class oppression, gender violence, and power struggles among regions and dynasties and religious communities. Tradition, that is, is always inflected by rulers and carries ruling class interests. But they dont monopolize the language either. The lexicon and syntax of the language remains amenable to a variety of interests and quite capable of so penetrating the consciousness of a population that it provides the basic terms and mechanics for addressing social and personal issues alike, and from more perspectives than those implied by its valorized terms and categories. I know, in other words, that this modeling of Tradition is not the whole story, but it does provide its most typical narratology.
Perhaps a nonfiction tale may help transform these different elements into a more clearly focused tool. I know well an Indian family with seven now grown children, one which I don't claim as "typical" but rather as typifying the frequent erosion of the family as an Indian social institution. Traditionally, the family is the most Brahmanically high of the class from Madras, where a remaining aunt now blind from cataracts (caste does not equal class) once suspended my wife in a mango swing inside her house, eating her bright orange mango chunks only from silver plates (keeping unmixed the food prepared in a kitchen where non-Brahmans did not go). She took Jane to the family jeweler (whose grandparents were jewelers to her grandparents in the matching of generations to stations) and, at an "auspicious" hour (that is, an hour matched to the deed), had the jeweler cut the chain in half, garlanding (at a second well-matched auspicious hour) Jane and her friend (a "marking" of them as equals bound to each other; the act was untraditional only in the kind of attention accorded an outsider, not in its logic of relation).
The rest of the family is part of the last generation's Tamil diasporathe still continuing exodus of talented and well-trained Tamils all over the world, particularly in the scientific and technical fields (what would Silicon Valley or the Arabian peninsula be without them?). The father settled in Bombay many years ago, and up to about five or eight years ago, you might even have called them a perfectly normal clan of over-achievers. But one sees since then a microcosm of social change in the multiple registers in which outside destructive forces have played on the internal fissions of a family. The father's authority has exceeded its dharma, hardening into an abusive tyranny under the embitterment of a collapsed career in engineeringfist fights with his sons, the jagged edges of a bottle broken on his daughter's head still traceable in the stitches in her scalp. The oldest son has sublimated his ambitions to usurp his father's place as patriarch in a complicated psychosomatic ailment and a six and a half lakh condominium, the funding of which draws all his resources, the moneys he has held for the sisters, and whatever contributions trickle into the mother now that the father earns nothing. Those contributions, as one might expect, show the effects of the paradigmatic favoritism of the Indian mother toward her first-born son, the figure whose birth validated her as a young wife and who remains the key signifier of her personal success. The Bombay son gives only meals to his parents (and of those, he specified, "only two per day"), busy as he is in the upwardly mobile game of acquisition, a game which has included "taking over" one daughter's share of the patrimony in the form of a prime Mathunga apartment in the scarce housing scene of Bombay. Another son can give nothing because he lives meal by meal on freelance writing assignments (is this the contemporary version of the Sanskrit acharya?). Yet another son mismatches income and expenses in Scotland, while the son most belittled by parental tongues in the wretched comparison game of a large family, won't give anything of his ninety thousand dollar Florida salary because the other (long-favored) sons don't. So the mother wonders how to feed the father, unable to live with the daughter comfortably married in Bangalore (because his parents are still living: what would they say, behind their son's back, to her daughter?).
The mother is also impossibly at sea over how to relate to her youngest daughter (the one whose arm she burned with a flatiron, hissing "don't ever presume to ask for a second helping again: remember, you're not a son"). This is the daughter beaten into a divorce, exploited thereafter into pregnancy, wobbling on her own shaky two feet trying to find a combination of housing, job, and support that would preserve some kind of life for her ("illegitimate") infant son, not easy in the conservative and not particularly friendly margins of low income Delhi. There is more alcoholism than joy in the family, more obliviousness than rapport in the marriages, more frustration and disillusionment in the careers than anything remotely resembling fulfillment. The grandchildren know each other more by photos than personality, their family lives virtually as nuclear as suburban America's, only less comfortable, less secure, less assured about the future.
How foolish it would be to feel that family life in India has gone all to hell, that this despairing saga is a norm rather than a symptom of pressures affecting a more successful norm. Economic necessities break the continuity of family structures, economic reversals transform pressure into catastrophe, and the disruption and violation of traditional reciprocal caring and giving produce the psychological malaise signified by paternal alcoholism and the cardiovascular afflictions of sons in their forties. The "mediated oppositions" within the social language Das defines can become destructive cultural contradictions, all but Western style; the "inclusive whole" within which traditional roles and functions articulate individual parts can become precisely those "liminal and disarticulated states" tradition once sufficed to bound and connect.
This family saga is the darkest possible representation of the fates of the traditional institutions of village, Joint Family, and Caste, the first forgotten, the second dispersed and alienated, the third experienced as a burden (clearly enough for anyone to recognize when a forty-year-old Brahman man with two healthy sons and a good, secure job can look at you through drink-slitted eyes and say, "What is there for us here?"). Perhaps it is fair to say these family members fell from the virtues, but it may be more truthful to say that they were shaken out of the mythic time in which those virtues cohere, drawn into a commercial logic incommensurate with the grammar of dharma and the cognitive style of meditation, faced with an economic and sociopolitical reality in which the sustaining institutions of Village, Family, and Caste have transformed into the menacing new social forms of City, Marriage, and Class.
In a City the fabric of village microcosm unravels into skeins of isolated, disconnected lives with bureaucratic rather than personal interface. In Marriage two individuals fail each other's cornucopia of expectations rather than finding themselves sorted out into a haveli full of mutually accepted predetermined roles. And in Class everyone is a worker but with purely economically determined and defined roles, statuses, privileges, and responsibilities, all conceived within the categories of job skills and consumption rather than of social purpose and reciprocal responsibility. Again the caveat applies: the reality of the traditional is often, as we shall see, horribly abused, but it also implies an ideal vision and other critical resources, both theoretical and practical, against such abuses.
In Indian visual art repetition means something very different from the alienation and failure of individual creativity connoted by western mass-produced uniformity. Copying is a form of meditation. The carvers' repetition of one Ganesh after another; the rangoli-maker's repetition in rice flour or paint of curvilinear borders and floral or geometric mandalas; the embroiderer's image repertoire of animals, icons, and stylized margins; the silk painter's typologies of Moghuls and divinities; the Tibetan thang-ka makers precise knowledge of Buddhas "ideal," fixed proportionsall these are like visual mantras, performatives which in the doing thereby continue a configuration of wisdom and transform the viewer into a participant in a harmonized conjunction of time, place, and event, the very type of which is the parameter-laden but also extemporized raga or rice rangoli at the threshold of an exhibition or a performance: their temporariness and sheer physical vulnerability are part of the point, signifying the moment of that conjunction which performs tradition's immanence within event.
Tradition thus depends upon a certain ongoing coping with the relation between the matched and unmatched, one which integrates the unmarked and variously marked, which invokes the relatedness of unmixed and mixed within a comprehensively inclusive whole, which itself places human life within an ecosphere of being that is intricately interfiliated and vibrantly alive. Finally, then, we have shifted from the question of what tradition is to the more engaged question of what it does. We have followed Ashis Nandy's trajectory from a scholarly understanding of a culture to understanding its strategic use of Tradition to resist the homogenizing, atomizing, and alienating effacement of history and particularity, a cost of postmodernity that to many seems inevitable in the new global order.
The brother-in-law now trying to usurp the role of the elder brother and restore some order and stability in the family I described is in his way invoking Tradition slightly edited, or perhaps simply extemporized within. Playing traditional patriarch to counter the effects of patriarchal capitalism is a neat trope and successfully counters, to some extent, the reification of this family into Workers and Discards. If a rangoli is like a dharma is like a raga is like a mantra, then the relational grammar parsed out by ethnosociologists, the nostalgia for myths of Family or Village, the ecological metaphysics in the back of the mind, and any number of other formulations of the utopian ideal behind Tradition may be mobilized in new and perhaps disorienting contexts in the effort to confront, consider, and resist what menaces the culturally as yet Non-Aligned Members of the global community. We won't understand much about that confrontation unless we try to detect the extent to which Tradition enables and disables the combatants.
Gita Mehta's A River Sutra (New Delhi: Penguin, 1993) is, the cover's blurb tells us, "a seminal book." It is, we are also told, "a lyrical series of interlocking stories that transport the reader to a contemporary India that is also the living present of myth," the present seeded by myth but also, the argument runs, "the mysteries of the East that need no confirmation from the West," as if the book somehow were part of the battle against the old masters. It is, finally, a novel that "reflects the depth and complexity of India's spirituality like a diamond reflects light." I both agree and am put off by this paragraph collectively written by premier review media. The book does involve myth, spirituality, and contemporary India, but not in relation to the West, but rather at the turning point between being in the world and being, in both senses of the term, "out of it." Myth, religious asceticism, art, and, well, obtuseness, all are varieties of being "out of it" when "it" is understood as the galaxy of upper level bureaucrats deserted by the narrator at the outset of the story, the world of police and corruption and poverty and market places that filters through the stories, and the busy expedition with which Professor Shankar pushes closed the otherwise open narrative.
As a book looking for its own version of the Middle Waybetween reason and instincts, world and renunciation, ego and its beyond, artifice and genuine love, the fleshly mix of daily life and the pure spirit of religion or artit can neither permit itself to become an essay, nor slip altogether into the encompassing identifications and seamlessness of a traditional novel. And so it pulses between, on the one hand, the commentary of its obtuse scribe and his wily associates (his clever administrative assistant and a wise old mullah), and, on the other hand, its stories told by a variety of narrators. These stories are to some ears incompletewe meet them as the old priest says we meet people, "like water flowing water through our lives .... We learn something from the encounter, then they are gone. We never find them again" (259). The stories teach us, touch us, for a time and then are gone, but are not sealed and delivered with more than a grace note or two of exposition. Each story disturbs, the way a sage should, taking from seekers the security of a Way and forcing them back upon the answer within. In that sense, the book is Gita Mehta's love song to the spirituality that rouses her ironies in Karma Cola, the nonfiction book in which she devastates the westerners coming in for a hyped up hit of orient wisdom from gurus both pure and reconstituted. But these days, even Indians are in many ways westerners, sometimes as befuddled as this narrator who "withdraws from the world" before he knows the world he "leaves." And so Gita Mehta shifts her course, in this book recovering the character of oral discipleship and of wisdom not taught, but allowed.
To look at any of the episodes of A River Sutra in the light of "How Art Works" is to understand why some might feel that the book's only flaw is its ending, the point at which the ruthlessness of the Novel's form requires Mehta to scurry about like the dickens (Charles, to be exact) to impose an ending that does not too brutally crush the living spirit of this sutra. The narrator keeps hearing extraordinary stories of those who are highly accomplished falling under the power of the banal. From the past of tradition is the awesome ascetic Naga Baba, living embodiment of the millenia. From the present, Professor Shankar (his name is another word for Shiva) busily writing up the river in academese. Moderns and Venerables fill the stories and interstices between making its lore as Heraclitian as the river Narmada itself. When Naga Baba and Professor Shankar turn out to be mutual mirrorings, one worries, they may break the book. The terse ending fails to heal or even negotiate "his" division as two halves of the same spirit, however great. On the sublime plane of spirituality, the ending can be made to work, but not so easily on that of quotidian reality where, as a novel, its ending seeks its beginning, Shivite to Shankar. It is deeply satisfying to think that reality has been finessed for us. But its troubling when we read that the narrator who has all along been profoundly obtuse about the stories he hears, is suddenly "wondering for the first time what I would do if I ever left the bungalow" to which he has retreated (282). His initial break from the world was too amateurish, too recreational for his return to resonate at all like Shankar's. My unease is, perhaps, the knell of postmodernity sounding for the distance between world and whichever contrary you choose to set against itmyth, spirituality, even art. But we must come back to Professor Shankar after a digression through these stories to see just what sort of experience Mehta has staged for this narrator and, of course, for us. It may be that we must rethink this apparent mesalliance between Sutra and Novel.
These half-dozen stories are stones on a thread, and, just as a Tibetan jeweler knots his string to keep the stones from striking against each other, so this narrative ties knots of puzzlement between each story with the responses of the narrator, taunts from "the wisest of my friends" Tariq Mia (the old mullah), Mr. Chagla's one liners, Dr. Mitra's rowdy secularism, and finally Professor Shankar's enigmatic ironies. These knots space the narratives but do not resolve them, and they segue into the next story, sometimes on the teller's pretext of "answering" the riddle of one story with another tale. "I don't know the answer, little brother," Tariq Mia tells the narrator after one such story when the latter begs for the bottom line. "It is only a story about the human heart" (91). For Tariq Mia, Sufi singer, teacher of young clerics, the love in the human heart modulates unproblematically between the love of a woman, the love of a river, the love of god. He delights in staging episodes that show up the narrator's excessive restraint, and is given to "mischievousness" that ends in gentle teasing: "Think of your misfortune. To hear of love without ever having melted in its embrace. To acknowledge beauty with your eyes and never carry its image in your soul" (229). His Sufi songs are full of the imagery of disfigurement, beheading, melting, and other violations of the individual ego in religious ecstasy.
Dr. Mitra, on the other hand, thinks the Narmada "is already too holy by half" (151), and his "eyes shine with excitement as if he is describing a work of art" when he tells of "some particularly horrible form of elephantiasis" (151). Sarcastic about Indian mythologizing, fascinated by the tribals, impressed by the density of Brahmin scholars along the riverbank, he says "it is as if reason and instinct are constantly warring on the banks of the Narmada" (153), the continuing saga "pitting Aryan reason against the primal beliefs of the tribals" with their earth goddess religion (150). Dr. Mitra collects stories about the Narmada, shedding their mythic garb to savor instinct demystified. He is not of much use to our narrator, though he does take him to meet Professor Shankar "as if he were leading a patient with a migraine into a darkened chamber" (261). He is the converse of Tariq Mia it seems, for if the cleric dissolves the gulf between the flesh and the divine with a nonrational surge of deeply felt love, Dr. Mitra finesses the gap between instinct and reason with his buoyant scientific sophistication.
The tales themselves repeatedly stage breakdowns of just what these two so easily, perhaps too easily, manage. The first tale, for example, is about a Jain monk who discovers too late "that [he] should have heeded his [father's] warning" (38), realizes that "I do not have the strength to endure the deprivations of my new life" (39), but knows he must "abandon all hope of retreat" because "the ceremonies of renunciations have progressed too far" for him to retreat or recant (37). He must endure "shame," for his wealthy father has decided to duplicate the mythic extravagance of Mahavira's own renunciation ceremonies (from the founding of Jainism in the time of the Buddha), complete with painted elephants, showers of pearls and banknotes, and meals for twenty thousand at a sitting, all at the cost of some sixty-two million rupees.
His response to renunciation, in other words, is complex. It is too hard, the ceremony is too mortifying, the shift from luxury to extreme asceticism too muchbut it is also "the ritual with which I gained the freedom to pursue this [one thing I] love" (14). His response to his father, an apt representative of the World with his massive diamond business, is equally complex. The sheer waste of the ceremony brings to a head his recent realization that his father "was unmoved by the conditions under which the diamonds are mined, or the distressing poverty of the miners" (25). More sweepingly, he tells the narrator that
As that last comment suggests, he does have his own difficulty with the way wealth makes other people into abstractionshe speaks of the "shell of numbness" for which only his old Jain preceptor seems to know "a secret of the heart" as antidote (31). With his own father, the "secret" happens during the ceremony when he sees his father's fear at the riot that breaks out because "people might kill each other for the chance to escape their lives with a handful of gems thrown by his son" (26). His father's grief and sorrow further the effect of being "overwhelmed by tenderness at his anguish" (33). Before his decision to renounce had become final, he has a brief episode of the attitude that becomes his new life's object: "I was overcome by compassion for him, for myself, for my concerned and curious wife, for the human helplessness that linked us all. It was my first experience of ahimsa" (35), that state of compassionate nonviolence that is the aspiration of Jain asceticism. At a far enough remove, perhaps, theres also a touch of "cold mathematics" in the austerities of renouncing his ties to family and society.
I lay this tale's foundation lines so clearly because the Jain undoes the simple logic by which ascetic renunciation is supposed to be the pure inverse of the materialist world, his regret over his decision and his uneasiness over its extremism undermining the one, while feeling deep compassion in his last margin of the world discovers within it the secret on which the old Jain monk finally has no monopoly. Both contain their other; both make a mirage out of the theological rhetoric in which worldly sign is thought to mirror a spiritual referent. Once he has "finished" his tale, the Jain begs leave of the narrator lest his fellow monks go on without him, requiring him "to join a new sect of mendicants. ... I am too poor," he ends, ironically, "to renounce the world twice" (41). His comment is witty, sad, and complex in its undermining of every option he can imagine for himself, as if he were a player in India's spiritual game who failed to stem those tides of displacement by which the silt from one field is washed on to another (perhaps the way the Narmada washes down to her husband, Lord of Rivers, the ocean). "My father is looking for me," he concludes his narrative, "but he will not find me. I have become a stranger, my features hidden behind a muslin mask" (41).
Tariq Mia's reading is simple enoughthat the "one thing" sought by the Jain was "the capacity to love" (48). The narrator doesn't get it. Tariq's "answer," as we've already seen, is "only a story about the human heart," and it puzzles the narrator as much as the Jain monk does. But Tariq Mias is in fact a chilling tale of the Music Master, his inhuman wife, and Imrat of the angelic boy's voice who actually makes the record the Master himself just missed making as a child. On the threshold of fame Imrats throat is cut by a rich sahib to "steal an object of worship so no one but himself can enjoy it" (90). But with tears on his cheeks at the boy's sufi songs, the great sahib says, "Such a voice is not human. What will happen to music if this is the standard by which God judges us?" (89). More than just a perversity of "the human heart," more than exposing the lust for ownership among the wealthy, the tale seems more about just this mirage of the beautiful voice that seems to cross with purity from the human to the divine, the perfect sufi transubstantiation. In this story we are talking about the perfect purity of art rather than the muslin mask of religious asceticism, but a similar absolutism distorts everyone's perceptions of reality. The sahib kills this power, Tariq Mia worships it, the Music Master kills himself over the loss of its vehicle, and the narrator is "upset by the old mullah's accusation that I did not understand the world" (92). Extremes will not do, the worldly sahib and greedy wife are no less killers than the ascetic Jain or the Music Master, neither of whom could "understand the world" either until it was too late.
The story of Nitin Bose comes next, a young man who enjoys his retreat from the Calcutta business world as manager of a tea plantation, especially the nightly love of his mysterious tribal Rimi who arrives like a dream after he's asleep and leaves before he awakes. Until, that is, his recall to the city breaks the spell and leads him to see Rimi's real squat form and try to pay her off. He is also unsettled that her husband is a "coolie," a class degradation that offends his suave and urbane Calcutta alter ego. She cups his soul between the halves of a coconut shell during the eclipse of the moon, and the gothic tale of possession by a female soul runs its course until his ritual exorcism in the Narmada. The narrators assistant tries to explain the ritual to him:
The narrator is "wondering if [Chagla's] open face and rotund body hid an understanding that I did not possess" when he keeps going on about how "desire is the origin of life. For thousands of years our tribals have worshipped it as the goddess" (143). But all his talk about "the harm a man does when he is ignoring the power of desire" is difficult for this staid narrator. Chagla is, in other words, pretty well aligned with Tariq Mia who tries at one point to sway the narrator by saying, "Don't you realize you were brought here to gain the world, not forsake it?" (228). "But, sir, without desire there is no life" (142), Chagla remonstrates.
Both the narrators bureaucratic dullness and Boses class-saturated reaping of sexual harvest displace the intensity of any relationship as well as its connections to the other scales of significance. Thanks to his decadent youth in Europe, the Jain from the earlier story has acquired a consumerist ego that obscures his ability to grasp ahimsa until it is too late, and the Music Masters own frustrated childhood ambitions drive his ego to push Imrat into harms way. Similarly, Bose has lived a period of decadent privilege which feeds the ego, makes it a consumerof women, of the residual Britishness of his status on the tea estate, and hence itself a thing to be consumed in turn by the of Rimas magical coconut shells. Not till he immerses himself in the larger flow of the Narmada does he "get" the sheer mixedness of Being imaged in the mythical underground Naga kingdom about which he had developed a mainly intellectual curiosity. Human and serpent, above and below ground (the unconscious?), sexual and spiritual, the Nagas imply a fluency in the relatedness of contraries. That conversance is quite unlike allowing their reification within the order of ego, commerce, class, or gender, each of which stakes Modernitys claim on young Nitin Bose, until the only outlet for the privileged term of a neocolonial binary is his transvestitism, his infantilism (chanting childrens songs), and his psychological disintegration from Ego to multiple identity. Ritual ultimately heals him, perhaps by performing his daily immersions in the rivers inclusive flow that suggests our inclusive relational whole of Tradition. A westernized ego, in other words, functions for these characters as an exclusive part that walls them off from feeling the flow of energy across such cultural boundaries.
In the next tale, the sheltered old-school courtesan, mistress of all arts and learning, triumphant concert artist of the nonmodern even in New Delhi, uses the seductions of form to drive wild her notorious outlaw abductor. But the ground shifts as her "brittle artifice" shatters before the love relation he claims across reincarnated lives. She realizes that Modernitys criminal is the nonmodern Robin Hood who struck back out of honor at landowner abuse and police corruption. Once he is killed, however, it is clear that even in the jungle beyond the towns there is no place for this kind of relationship: rather than become the accomplice jailed amidst the cruelties of a provincial police station, she commits suicide in the Narmada. Her arts transform from an egos sterile power to a form of sexual relation resonant with the artistic and religious analogies to her physical presence. It is the modern world that crushes them.
Consider too the tragically ugly young musician whose father manipulates her and his other pupil. He agrees to teach them only if the young man promises to marry his daughter. The young man readily agreesthe musician father is pre-eminentand their love grows along with the musical abilities. The training is as spiritual and intellectual as it is musicological, just as the courtesans training bridges many cultural categories kept fully separate in the West. But that larger vision does not prevent the father from excusing the boy at the end of their education, expecting his daughter to sublimate her heartbreak into an even richer music. This scheme to concentrate her being into the pure veena of transcendent beauty is a failure: "it is an impossible penance that he demands of me, to express desire in my music when I am dead inside" (226). Once again, , desire is badly abused and its value misplaced amid manipulation, exploitation, and the loss of a comprehensive arts traditional relations with its spiritual wisdom of compassion. The paternal ego, echoed by the young mans, devastates this young womans life and art. She has learned the lessons of his Tradition better than he lives them.
After all of this, the narrator can still say no more than that "I was suddenly overcome by a sensation ofhow shall I describe itbeing adrift in the strangeness of other people's lives," feeling that "all this emotion alarms me" and "strikes me as somehow undignified" (228). In his frustration, Tariq Mia pulls out his ultimate story of Naga Baba, the ascetic of a sect respected and feared for its extraordinary powers, acquired through long years of penances and training, and the little girl he saves from prostitution and to whom he spends years teaching the songs of the river. This story ultimately exceeds even the old mullah's understanding, because he cannot understand why Naga Baba left Uma to become a famous river minstrel and disappeared on his own quest for further enlightenment. "Maybe it's only an old man's foolishness, little brother. But if the Narmada was born from Shiva's penance, then surely Uma was born of the Naga Baba's penance. Tell me, what higher enlightenment could he acquire by leaving her?" (258).
It is a genuine question in a novel in which Desire has been floated as a sufficient rationale. Having created a minstrel seems to this Sufi singer a sufficient accomplishment, but he has not seen Naga Baba for years, and would not know how to think about his subsequent career as Professor Shankar, "the foremost archaeological authority on the Narmada in the country" and "chairman of the Indian Preservation Trust" (260, 262). The narrator doesn't either, of course, and though he is warmed in the bones by the liveliness of the Professor's young work crew, it is not until after he has been all but melted by a minstrel's performance of the river cycle that he overhears her and the Professor recognizing each other as Uma and Naga Baba.
With an irony that unravels every code for desire, or the life force, except the fluidity and movement and transformation imaged by the river Narmada itself, the Professor finally answers the narrator's agitated questions with his own riddle:
The narrator is a few lives-in-training short of having become a man, although this is no usage according to the gospel of machismo. To "travel through" births demythologizes under the spin of that "ironic smile." It has to do with a metaphorical travel that is nonetheless real, experiential, and that takes him through his own multiplicities, through the Sanskrit literary densities he alludes to at lunch (264-5), through "the unbroken record of the human race" that the river is for him (268), and through "the individual experiences of the human beings who have lived here" (267). The rest is "mere mythology!"
Earlier, ill-equipped by the premature character of the question, we tussled with the split between these two very strongly drawn characters of Naga Baba and Professor Shankar, their names both rooted in Shiva worship. Premature, because the sequence of Mehta's flow subjects us to the seductions of any number of historical and religious and aesthetic forms within which the relation between reality and transcendence can be managed. It is as if we needed to be baffled and confused at times, aroused to desire this satisfying conclusion or that engaging oversimplification.
It may be, finally, that this pure split between Naga Baba and Professor Shankar is the schizoid residue of a culture of survivors that found itself at the bullseye of millenia of imperial ambitions. The utter intensity of the energy that exalts flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, the stars of bharatiyanatyam, the shivite ascetics, and the variously configured "saints" of these stories, was placed in these vessels of excess where the nomadic warriors of central Asia and central London would never find it. The fury of communal rioters, the venality of political poltroons, the obtuseness of A River Sutras bureaucrat of narratologythese are what's left when the good stuff has been secreted elsewhere. Is this a tiresome rerun of India, Kingdom of the Spirit? Nobecause that audience watches only Naga Baba and lumps together modern types like Professor Shankar and the friendly IAS officer.
Mehta's practice is different: despite our difficulty seeing them her way, her Naga Baba and secularist Professor Shankar are the same person. We are no less obtuse than the narrator if we cannot come to some understanding of this narrative tropethis placing of a temporal distance to explain the spatial form of modern Indians. But this is no fundamentalist reversion on the part of the urbane Mehta. We must do more than honor in passing a passage in which Naga Baba turns professorial ("The elegance of his translation made me wonder what he had been before he became an ascetican academic perhaps, or even a scientist with his grasp of the botanical terms he was using," 235), or in which Professor Shankar acts the part of the sage ("Minstrels sing about gods and goddesses. I am a man, and only understand songs about other men. The rest I leave to you," 269). He emerges with his intense sense of the human history that is a residue in all these historical forms of belief, not with the arresting distractions of myth itself. Holding the relation between these two is the Indian's art of survival. Resting in one of them, even imaginatively, the way a politico's true believer rests in a saffron daze, is the loss of the bicameral soul to the reorganizing mania of Postmodernity. Inclusive whole rather than exclusive parts, Shankar articulates a demythologized version of the Shivite insight implicit in the half-male, half-female ardhanarishvara, or in the lingam with its phallic totem emerging from the vaginal base rather than heading into it.
The form of the Novel is ill-suited to this project, confirmed as the genre is in the convention of the unitary psyche, the univocal voice in which we grow acquainted with the Style that is the (Wo)Man. And so we are distressed at Naga Baba's return in a different identity, we mark the gap, the schism, and name it the cultural contradiction River Sutra tries to suture. But it is a schism only to a true believer in the Novelless so to the reader of Ovid, much less so to the culture of tales, great pouches of puranic (not puritan) multiplicities. ... The book is a mirage in its formal exactions, and Gita Mehta has found one of the ways to mirror that mirage artfully enough for us to find ourselves midway between the two, or three, or more. That kind of self is more multiple than the novel has commonly found its protagonists to be, and if we are to shift our thinking to flow along with the Narmada, we must learn its lesson:
There is no going "back" to some simple harmony with nature, as if it ever existed. But Traditions vision of inclusive models of both being and doing remain relevant. Speaking generally, narrative provides forms for sustaining the continuous struggle to hold in healthy relation as many as possible of the forces and elements of a peoples experience. Such a narrative may seem to have passed through 84,000 variations along the way before enabling readers to re-enter the world without the illusion of a fixed, singular rule that would constrict a context-sensitive playing of the historical givens. The interplay of A River Sutras lush tales and its austere frame succeed in engaging with the nature of traditional Indian narrative and its values without either sentimentalizing them or subjecting them merciless degrading of postmodernity. And that interplay also sets us vibrating the way the tantric Madhubani paintings do and with some of the same intensifying effects even as we find the novel inflecting traditions language in postmodern syntax.
Gita Mehta arrives at an almost Jamesian sense of Experience, though far more charged with life force than anything Lambert Strether really grasps, as what lies behind all the forms of fervor in India. But not many writers demystify Tradition so relentlessly, even if they share her impatience with the anesthetized spirit of bureaucratic man. While she writes about recovering the energy of engagement that has been formalized as mysticism and art and historiography, others redeploy the values and perspectives of Tradition. A short Dogri novel by O.P. Sharma, "Sarathi," is a case in point (Churning of the City [New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1983). From Sarathis point of view, what sweeps in with Modernity churns and destroys the cityIndian collective lifeand its citizens very core. The book is Kafkaesque, for its narrative is both simply told and fantastic. Language is utterly mundane, but eventsthe mortgaging of brains and eyes for masks, for exampleare surreal.
The episodes of this nonrealist narrative work by making literal or external scenes out of concepts and relations. When the neighbor of the focal "he" wants to become a big man, common Indian slang for someone important enough to address meetings, his mahatma rigs up lightbulbs to throw a huge shadow on the wall behind him. To the neighbors anxiety that he wont be recognized as a big man unless the mahatma is there to manage the lighting,
The "great soul" (the literal meaning of mahatma) who has set up shop where a waterhole used to be gives out the waters not of life but of media presence. It "is now part of the charter of development of the city" that the way one is seen by Everyman determines ones image more than ones inner nature, real beliefs, or actions.
Repeatedly the protagonist returns home with his neighbor, confused, dispirited, and restless. "In the recent churning of the city," the novel begins, "it had been difficult to make out who were gods and who were demons" (5). The allusion is to the story of the gods battling the demons for the nectar that surfaces when the ocean is churned, with Vishnu the Preserver intervening to be sure the demons fail. There seems to be no Vishnu in Sarathis city, and the novel opens by saying "He was no Siva," no destroyer of the city and its regime, just a writer who "had to take poison" from this modern churning. He loses his job to automation (15), his beloved trees to corruption-filled construction projects (14), his belief in politics to the cult of the big man (19), his respect for religious institutions to their commercial exploiters (24), his respect for fellow citizens to their sale of their "essential nature" for the masks necessary to success (26f), his admiration of marriage to its cash for beauty economics (33), and any number of other evidences of the reorganization of life according to the priorities of wealth and commerce. Indeed, it seems that "churning" is what Marxists call reification.
That pervasive social poison causes the writer "sadness" when his questionnaires about nearness and relations make a husband dismiss the neighbor as having "a screw loose," and draw from a wife her sense of being split into two parts, one tired of worldliness, the other choked with desires, and "close to no one" because of her schizophrenia. He starts painting eyes on his posters, trying to see what is no longer apparent in the churning city around him:
He wishes that "people started thinking about the meaning of" all the pieces of this narrative, but he also knows that trying to write or show such meaning may be futile. Even after people start taking over for themselves the right to make their own posters, instead of obediently reading those prepared by the mask vendors, he notes that "whatever was written did not, however, find any correspondence with what existed. Whatever existed as reality did not find any place in what was written on posters" (45). Posters proliferate. And in that proliferation of views and counterviews, no "straight and right" version of "truth and reality" seems in evidence.
The posters began with one paradigms repressive message ("a new way to happiness has been found. the way is to stop seeing, hearing, speaking and thinking"36). They end with a postmodern proliferation of stories in the wake of the master narratives. By the penultimate chapter, we have half-page vignettes of the violent disintegration of relations between brothers, married couples, friends, worshippers. The decay of the social is represented by the man who spends the collective purse making a brain factory that makes people mechanistic nihilists ("Man is nothing ... The machine is man, the machine is god ...."59). And the decay of the relation between the writer and reality is most telling of all:
He still has the structure of belief in both truth and representation, but it is lost in the sheer multiplicity of the age. Both his subjects and his mirrors, a metaphor intended here with great if unfulfilled confidence, are lost. Life, that is, has a true patternno doubt some version or another of traditional beliefs haunting the novels subtextbut that pattern is not visible in contemporary culture.
The final segment contains the ultimate loss. We read of a gathering "at the crossing of the roads" at which a series of thefts are reportedof "the pictures which could never be stolen," of brains, of the bundle of "whatever was left of the pride and name and self-respect of my ancestors," of a womans road (through life, one assumes). But most devastating is the man who laughs uncontrollably, for "I have lost my I" and "I myself am the thief" (63), as all are who participate in a churning culture of decodification that takes up such terms not in the older sense of "decode," that of interpreting, but in the ruthlessly postmodern sense of stripping a term of its densely humming roots in the workings of an older art, leaving it, instead, a sign with amnesia. The kind of "I" that flows out of traditional cultures interpellation of selves is fragmented, multiplied, and reconfigured in this narratives mirror works. The writer experimented with ripping up the new cultures masks (31), and he experimented with posters critiquing the effects of the media-driven simulations that replaced traditional reality (37), but without effect. He has become, as we have seen, a "nothing" who has "lost everything."
As they leave the crossroads, the writer muses, "I do not understand if it is the beginning or the end of the play" (63). Beginning and ending are indistinguishable in his perspective, for the narrative structure that sustains his traditional way of seeing, with its beginning, middle, and end, is displaced by the postmodern babble that is "pandemonium," "cacaphony," in his ears. That babble works like the screen-refresh function of television monitors, pulsing with a continuously renewed simulation that is to be received as representation, as a window upon, or mirror of, reality. Other than the writers dismay and nostalgia for what has been swept away, the narrative finds no way to put that lostness into words. It functions as the Unsaid, the absence that Tradition desires as the complement and corrective to the presence of what is.
Once or twice, the book slips into a different Indian voice than that of the narrative artist, into something like that of the Sage. Two thirds of the way through there appears an unexplained, partly cryptic paragraph in the genre of spiritual teaching:
I love the gaps in this teaching, its choice of unexplained metaphors and aphorisms in place of the novels detailed representations of social reality. The paragraph is the writers commentary on a poster of a reaper of gold to which pursuit all citizens are required to conform. The lesson is about the misrecognition of the needful and the needless, and the loss of those who would arise to stop us all from the posters materialist pursuits. But the cryptic, gnomic character of the paragraph indicates how difficult it is to take up the voice of traditional wisdom in the churning city.
The novel ends with a similarly stingy, almost stillborn parable. The writer and his neighbor "started walkingwalking on the road which belonged to all but to whom nobody belonged, which joined everybody but was itself alone" (63). Much had been made in his questionnaire about things belonging to people and people belonging to things, the implication being that we no longer "belong" to the world we have made. We have lost the reciprocal relations that bind the traditionally conceived polity together. The road, classic metaphor for the path of wisdom or life, still joins everybody in the common human fate (however differently it may be understood across the panoply of traditions). But nobody belongs to its straight and true spiritual line through the pandemonium of history, and hence nobody belongs even to themselves any more. Sarathi finesses a fusion between the genres of fiction and spiritual teaching, modulating at those points when his narrator is most disfranchised from his role as writer. People spill blood to defend what has no ultimate value, but the writer can barely find the ink and words with which to mirror such emptiness. Such is the state of affairs for writing that is from tradition, in the hybrid zone of fiction writing, and within the world of (post)modernity.
Mehta and Sarathi represent logical extremes in relation to Tradition. Neither, that is, has lost tradition, but they split over whether Tradition is alienated, even excluded, from contemporary reality (Sarathi), or whether its intensities are transmutable within the contemporary arena. Most fiction that finds itself tangled in this relation between Tradition and Modernity works out an even more complicated negotiation of competing, seemingly irreconcilable demands. Rama Mehtas Inside the Haveli (New Delhi: Arnold-Heineman, 1977) demonstrates just how disturbing such negotiation can be for western readers. Few institutions challenge more deeply our western beliefs in individual freedom and equality than that of purdah, the separation of women from all men except husbands and brothers, and their sequestering in the womens compound of gendered mansions like the golden sandstone Rajasthani "havelis." The cover blurb begins the assault upon ones feminist sympathies: "In the havelis of Udaipur, where the story is based, still exists the tradition of women who must justify their presence by upholding the customs of their proud ancestors." We read with increasing uneasiness the story of Geeta, a Bombay girl educated to be outspoken, spontaneous, the equal of anyone regardless of generation or gender. By choosing Bombay as her protagonists home, Mehta has taken on the vanguard of westernization and modernity in India and transplanted it to one of the most culturally conservative spots left in upper class society. Geetas parents arrange a match for her with Ajay Singh, heir to the second most wealthy and most respected of Udaipurs three-hundred year old havelis, one under the patronage of the Maharana until his powers were absorbed by the newly independent state of India.
Geeta is no more prepared for the daily realities of purdah than is the western reader. Even the geography of Udaipur epitomizes the problems we face. Inside the ancient walls is the old city, complete with bazaars, alleys, throngs of people, the havelis, and the palace. "The palace with all its splendour was near the humble huts and houses of the people. They looked at the lights and heard the grunts of the elephants and were content. Their king the Rana was there to take care of them" (2). An even clearer indication of how nostalgic the book will become follows shortly after this sense of closeness: "the people in the Old City remember the days when everything was bright and gay, when the Rana sat on his throne and received his people, rich and poor alike. No one in the city can forget those days when Udaipur belonged to the people" (2). In the light of The Churning of the City with its ruptured reciprocities of belonging, we may be able to sense a little how Udaipur belonging to the Rana could belong "to the people," a phrase otherwise indelibly populist for American readers.
It is easy enough to read past this opening description as one waits for the characters to move into place "for the story." But it is necessary for the Westerner to think twice about the passage, neither skipping it indulgently (out of unthinking deference to cultural difference) nor consigning the volume to the purgatorial fires for its unreconstructed patriarchal feudalism. Neither a patronizing pluralism nor a fervent individualist critique can grapple with this narrative in its own complicated terms. Why does so current a book argue, almost insidiously, as we follow Geetas life in the haveli, for the value of seventeenth-century social practices? Of what is this unlikely utopia woven? And to what is it opposed?
Most immediately it is opposed to the New City, with its
Note that this road is utterly emptied of the metaphoric charge Sarathi places on his road of parable, and that modern city planning realigns topographical and economic boundaries. The population is a labor force, mercenaries in Indias industrial modernization. Their structuring consists of individual connections to corporate entities, not webs of reciprocal and traditional relationships woven around an agricultural economy. Mewar is a landscape to be consumed, not the presence of a sociohistorical "soul" as sensuous as cowdung smoke.
The "enemy" to the havelis is the "broad tarmac road" of social mobility and economic fluidity. Along its concourse moves the machinery of political and economic change that removes ancient structures like that embodied by the Maharana, lures the talented aristocrats with prestigious appointments and government posts, and displaces the economic base that had supported the feudal havelis. This force remains the barely mentioned Other to the havelis through the novel, but many signs of it appear in the book. They must worry over shrinking budgets for the elaborate traditional entertainments and expensive repairs to the buildings themselves. They are tempted by seductive offers like a chief ministership for Ajays father, or a professorship in Delhi for Ajay himself, posts in new social machinery that are lucrative and prestigious. Though both turn down these posts to preserve the haveli, less wealthy havelis feel more keenly the lure of relocating "because of work". All feel considerable anxiety over the inevitability of change and how to manage it (best exemplified in Geetas "school," to which well turn shortly).
Hence the emblematic design of the havelis themselves. They "may have no shape from the outside, but inside there is a definite plan" (3). Geeta sees no shape or form to the life when she first arrives as a terrorized bride. She learns that the haveli "expanded through the years but without any plan, it recedes in places leaving empty land, and yet it pushes out in other directions" (3), ebbing and flowing with history rather than according to the gridlike conceptions of the modern township. The "definite plan" is the interiority of a culture behind fortress walls with their high aloof windows and gendered spaces. Allowed no exteriorityfemale protocol is neither to speak nor to reveal emotion in the presence of eldersGeeta finds her interiority quite transformed from the gay and spontaneous individuality she feels as a Bombay schoolgirl raised by her indulgent and progressive parents. She becomes something the book struggles mightily to convey as a nostalgic, utopian ideal. More communal than individual, her interiority relates diachronically to the continuity of tradition, represented iconically by the six generations of portraits Geeta sees early on when she sneaks into the male half of the haveli. Her interiority is more immediately determined by the chain of command from the grandmother-in-law to mother-in-law to Geeta as utterly unempowered daughter-in-law, barely able to hold her own against the senior servants, let alone Kanwarani Sa or the more fearsome Bhabha Sa. This hierarchical weave of generations of mistresses and generations of servants, complex in its patterning of personal loyalties and power rivalries, is the synchronic pole of communal identity, for the book shows repeatedly the emotional investment everyone has in everyone elses lives. "There are no secrets; there could be none in the haveli. It is one household, all the courtyards are connected" (4).
This weaving of lives into an interconnected whole greater than any of its parts is the utopian social ideal which the novel endeavors to rescue from our preconceptions about purdah. Geeta, who begins as a resentful outsider to the haveli and ends as its advocate, shows us the transformation of assumptions one must undergo to embrace the ideals inside the haveli. When she first arrives in Udaipur, the shocked women "exclaimed in horror, Where do you come from that you show your face to the world?" (14). One of the books many emblematic moments, this scene makes clear how far away that other world of townships is felt to be. More strikingly, it suggests how thoroughly the women disapprove of the face as a text of individuality, especially since all of them throughout the novel are always trying to study it through the veils they wear even to each other. Such attempts to read a face do not come during those scenes in which the protocols of the haveli are unshakenthe magisterial visit of Daulat Singhjis wife, Sitas wedding, or a number of similar scenes in which communal harmony and linear tradition are preserved. But whenever anything like individuality threatens, the reading begins in earnest. Everyone scrutinizes Geeta at the wedding, helped by her slipping veil; the daughters, their mother, and Geeta study each other when the sisters criticize Geetas school for maids; Kanwarani Sa reads and is read when she goes to her brothers sickbed to insure that his will is honorable and fair rather than favoring his second wifes sons at the expense of the son of his first marriage. These "interpretive" moments are more important in their performative than in their hermeneutic effect: they blank out the text to be read, effacing individual interests by the force of a gaze bearing the communal values and interests. They perform a discipline more significant than the clues they might yield to individual desires and feelings. The effect is to restore the equanimity of the haveli society.
Under such an onslaught of collective will, Geeta early on struggles and falters, flares and retreats, rebels and regrets. She can see Ajay only in the eveningsappropriately enough, he is more a sign than a character in the novel, and he stands for an inactive supportiveness. The potentially individuating marriage is peripheral to a daily round of deference, listening, and chores among the women, for even their spats are monitored through the latticed partitions. "Geeta got no confidence from her college education. Nor did the admiration and constant reassurance from her husband make her feel more at ease" (25). Neither the other world of modern education nor the private world of marriage are of real consequence here, so that neither principal resource by which her Bombay friends could change their lives have any effectiveness for her. Her child is one locus of her resistance:
Fortunately for her, only their servant Dhapu overhears. For her and the other servants, the celebration for Geetas baby is "a very special day" for which they have waited "for twenty-seven long years." What for Geeta is an issue of individual determination is for Dhapu a figure repeated at intervals along one familys line in the Udaipur haveli tapestry. The confrontation concretizes the clash between worlds Geeta lives through as she changes over the fifteen or more years covered in the novels three sections. Perhaps she never quite submits to the havelis, for her last great rebellion also concerns her daughter, only many years later when a marriage proposal comes from another haveli. "If I have ruined my life, the children are not going to ruin theirs" (164), and she tells her husband that she cant "be fooled again. I know nothing matters more than money and prestige to you all" (165). She feels immediately punished, for so individualist a thought, by the communal discipline she has internalized: "the violence of her thoughts sent shafts of pain through her head" (164). For the haveli, the union of the two most distinguished houses in the community is the issue, not whether "my Vijay would languish in that vast haveli" (175).
There is no danger of her husband becoming a factor in Geetas confrontation with purdahmen are simply outside the frame of discussion in the womens world. But her children do become one sign contested between the Bombay girls desire to set her own life aright through her childs and the communitys need to weave another generation of reciprocal relations among its elements. Significantly, though she does not accept the proposal before the novel ends, she has begun to rethink her reaction against it and to see the boys virtues.
The other point of contest is education, beginning with the havelis distrust of Geetas when she marries Ajay, and recurring through Geetas efforts to moderate the effects of purdah by educating first Sita, a runaway servants abandoned baby, then Ravi, a bright servant boy, then increasing numbers of servant children, then servants, then daughters of the havelis. For Geeta, education has served the modernist function of individuation, and she desires that for Sita and the others with whom she spends hours telling stories and teaching basic literacy. Its modernizing effects are tangibleservants children start getting jobs, Ravi goes on to regular schooling, Sita undergoes a positive personality change, and maids begin wondering if they really should stay maids. Rumors and delegations from other havelis arise at the point when the ability to attract and keep servants seems threatened. Those who had approved the ideal of education suddenly denounce it for "undermining our authority and making rebels out of our servants" (134). Pari, the senior servant, is quick to notice the economic underbelly of the complaint: "Their own daughters and daughters-in-law come and sit for hours with Binniji [Geeta]. Its only the poor that they prevent from coming" (153). Those already literate can get work; they "dont have to depend upon the havelis" (152).
The matriarch chooses to defend Geetas school, but for two reasons that hold her despite her own disapproval of the modernizing effects Geeta and Pari (momentarily, perhaps) espouse: she defends her haveli by reflex from outside criticism of its members (if necessary, she will disciplinebut privately), and she must acquiesce in the general approval her husband has given Geetas project. Hence while the novel may toy with this sign of modernization, its value shifts almost treacherously. Whatever it means for Geeta or Ravi or the poor seeking economic escape, it is something else within the larger economy of the havelisa way to make purdah less tiresome to the daughters and Geeta less bored by her fate among them. Indeed, once education becomes an issue of the masters judgment and the havelis reputation, even Geeta discards it. "She had no right nor the desire to humiliate her mother-in-law or compromise the name of Jeewan Niwas [her haveli]," she thinks after her mother-in-law defends her publicly. "The desire to change the life in the haveli seemed to have subsided in her. Instead she said to herself, How dare anyone say a word against the haveli, these classes are not worth having. I will stop the girls from coming" (136-7).
Nor is this an isolated shift in her valuing of education. Sita does very well, but a good marriage proposal for her includes the proviso that she cease school. Though Geeta rebels at first, she is easily brought around by Kanwarani Sa when she says, giving Geeta credit for insisting upon the education that triggered the proposal for Sita,
Womens education is to be limited to an asset for the marriage market, just as education of the poor is limited to those the community can afford to lose to the wage forces in the townships modern economy.
Just as children and education shift as sign values, so too does Geetas position as speaker. Throughout the novel she must be the often silent deferential daughter-in-law. On the last page, she takes her mother-in-laws place as mistress of the haveli. In between, her attitude and position in relation to that finally achieved center correlate perfectly. The more an outsider she isalone, individuated by her out-of-placenessthe angrier is her resentment of purdah. But the more implicated in its web of relations she becomes, first passively dependent and gradually as more active heir, the more positive her judgment of life in havelis becomes. In Marriotts terms, her mixing diminishes, her marking dissolves, her match to her place aligns.
Early on she calls Ajay and his gender "pampered" and willing to treat women as "chattel" (45); the women are "no companions at all" but rather "little canaries in a cage who sang and twittered but seemed to know no passion" (69); the rooms "suffocate her" and she feels "trapped" (81); she feels herself "an outsider, an onlooker" to the "fortress protecting them [the women] from the outside world" (93). Throughout the first half of the novel, in other words, Geeta feels her exclusion and experiences the havelis as a trap; her speech is forbidden except in private and her public expressions are diffused into formula and indirection.
In the second half of the novel, however, she has lived long enough to have grown into the web of relations herself; she has scored her successes, performed her obeisances, and earned enough of a place to change the position from which she speaks. We see this most clearly when her mother-in-law defends her school against a delegation of critics. Suddenly,
It would be easy enough for a western reader to understand this as an egoistic discovery of love and acceptance, bought and paid for by her mother-in-laws defense of her. And with Geeta, this reading may well be part of the story. But I think it far more significant to track the shift of her voice into the communal registers of the havelis network of reciprocal and hieratic relations. Those who speak at its nodes voice not the westernized individual self from which Geeta has begun to emerge, but with the resonance of the feudal collective the novel anatomizes.
If children, "education," and "self" are signs that shift into a radically different semiotic constellation, perhaps we can follow more gracefully the shift "male" undergoes as we step with Geeta into the havelis world. At the novels end she loses her earlier restlessness with male privilege (mobility, special foods) and remoteness (its more than a decade before she speaks directly to her father-in-law, and even that is called a "relaxation" of tradition). The great Bhagway Singhji lies dying, the haveli is already mourning, and Geeta reflects in a passage a bit hard on the western reader:
The passage is not quite done with its flourishes, but the identification of the collective with the patriarch and his monopoly of individual subjectivity are two crucial features structuring haveli life for the women. What they "surrender" in order to merge with the communal ideal accrues to the exaggerated persona of the master (though with haveli logic that persona is a role with as little individuating force, as much "self"-repression and control, as much ritual and communal responsibility, as the womens roles evince). But the masters role is clearly the emotional linchpin of the structure, the point at which the emotions binding the community are most fully invested.
The novel draws its readers into what the cover self-consciously insists is a "world that is very much a part of India today," seeming to hope that our sympathies will follow Geetas transformation of her private worlds crucial structuring agents of family, education, selfhood, and gender. Haveli life is an easy target of Marxist critiqueeven the characters know that with the forfeiture of feudal estates and the demise of Mewar and its Rana, the havelis economic base is gone and only that of the township remains. It is an equally easy target of feminist critiqueGeetas "proper" western self is fading away at novels end as she enters into a bargain of complicity in exchange for the limited power of "matriarch." But perhaps the book can be too easy to use as such a rhetorical target. It is also interesting to consider its efforts to rescue the internal logic of a utopian ideal from its isolation in the "anachronism" of Rajasthani society. As a crosscultural document, that is, it embodies the difficulty even a sympathetic writer has with nostalgia for precolonial models of social structure.
Leaving aside for the moment the fact that, stylistically, Geetas resentments and rebellions are more convincing than the purpled swoons of surrender to the haveli, enough bubbles exist in the textual logic to disrupt the equanimity that seems to close over its final pages. Sitas mother Lakshmi refuses either to speak to her former haveli-mates or to return to the haveli. She achieves an economic independence earned perhaps in part with her body, but it is one she finds preferable to submergence within the haveli. Even after her submission to Bhagwat Singhjis mystique, Geeta remains unresolved about the marriage proposal that he clearly favors (and recent in the readers memory is her sense of a "ruined life"). But perhaps most peculiar is the return of the just married Sita after two days in her husbands village. She returns with "her head uncovered and her hair flying all over her face. a dove that had been released from captivity" (196). When reproved for her improper dress, "Sita paid no attention; she did as she liked." Even the mistresss direct questions are, unforgivably, ignored: "she giggled and ran away. No one could get a word out of her about her two days in the village" (196). Perhaps the blockage of the Word here has to do with Sitas discovery of an incommensurability between these rival cultures contending within modern India.
Rama Mehta skillfully and meticulously sounds out the culture Inside the Haveli, but that cultures strength is at best sufficient for survival, not hegemony, its economic base engulfed in the townships contemporary commerce and politics. For characters like Lakshmi and Sita who escape it, the havelis world remains the tightly stitched ground to the colorful figure their lives become as they gain the ability to circulate in the world outside. For Geeta, the havelis seem to contain elements of mutual support and love she finds missing in the alienating, atomizing world of Indias newly "liberalized" economy. Given her emotional agonies during her years in the haveli, given the intensities of her outbursts even near the end of the novel, the nest seems an expensive haven. But all this close tracking of the novel is an effort to attain an empathetic sense of the credibility of that haven for someone who has worked her way into its matrix. The novel is as symptomatic of the collision between Modernity and Tradition as A River Sutra or The Churning of the City. Geetas strategy is negotiation, not transmutation or Sarathis stunned, understated rant. Her tradition is transformed a bit from within as she takes over the role as Traditions voice at novels end, the one charged with inflecting its rhythm and phrasings in the pandemonious cacaphony of contemporary debates. Geeta "changes" Tradition, and her version of Tradition can still strike readers as restrictive and minutely legislated. But nonetheless we see "relaxations," we see its rules altered, we see it as a language learned and spoken even by this Bombay girl. She makes it a living and livable structure rather than experiencing the sense of being "nothing" or having "lost everything" like Sarathis writer.
How real is the narratives vision? Several writers to whom I mentioned this book called it an autobiography. Perhaps it is; I dont know. But the world it describes certainly exists, or has existed. Tourists today in similar cities like Jaisalmer in western Rajasthan encounter havelis as tourist destinations, their once splendid rooms converted to curio shops. Indeed, I am often haunted by the view back down into the still private quarters of such a haveli, across a sunlit courtyard, to an ancient matriarch lying weakly on a thin mat, still surrounded by attendants of several generations and classes, her tea beside her, her forlorn eyes turned up to the window from which a tourist gazed who had just bought a smoothworn silver Durga medallion that could have come from her own chest of treasures hard-earned from a now long-dead mother-in-law. Mirror to mirror.
Few Indian novels have won such wide respect as U.R. Anantha Murthys Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man
Question:”Traditional marriage is an outdated concept”To what extent is this true in your society. Marriage is defined as a man and woman being together by legal ties. Although the world are becoming modern nowadays. The concept of traditional marriage is still being practiced. The beauty of marrying opposite gender ,the construction of family tree and the responsibilities in a marriage world remains unchanged as the time passes. However, there is a side effect of the modernity that has defeat the purpose of marriage which is the marriage of same gender that are recently increasing. These factors do not affect the tradition of marriage wholly. Marriage has only occured between different genders. It has been that way since the olden days, occasionally it occurred to be the other way. Although there are the opposite of traditional marriage in this aspect, the number of traditional or normal marriage will forever overpower the non-tradition marriage that was actually brought up by the modern people. Singapore is a conservative country, therefore any act that is out of the country’s law is either known as crime or nuisance.
In this aspect, Singapore has not legalized any sorts of marriages except for normal marriage ,also known as traditional marriages. Therefore, the concept in this bearing is not considered as outdated as it is still used in many religion and country. In the scope of family structure, a marriage is performed to indicate the readiness of a couple to build a family. Marrying and building a family is part of the traditional way of a family strata. Nothing could change the society perspective towards a complete family. The society belief will always stick to having a child after marriage rather than before marriage. The child that is born out of wedlock will face social stigma if the society know that the child is born illegitimate. As the government encourages parenthood as a part of increasing the population scheme, it can happen legally after marriage. Therefore, the purpose of traditional marriage is not taken as outdated as the concept of building a family through marriage is still preserved and I believed that the society will also belief that way as not only it protects the family name and reputation but also keeps the modesty and purity of the family’s background.
A traditional look in the responsibilities in a household is divided into the strength and gentleness of the role being played by each figure. Traditionally, the man as the head of the family will be in-charge of the income coming in and out from the family expenses. Thus, the man or husband will have to go out and work for the family while the woman will take care of the household chore and their children. As a woman, the gentleness and love being potrayed in a family resulting to the woman being the most suitable candidate as a mother and wife. Up till now that custom is not majorly changes. Based on Singapore’s statistic newsletter in 2011 the amount of married women who are caretakers including housewife is 68.8%.Hence,this shows that the divided responsibilities that are stated traditionally is still being practice in this 21st century.
Although, the tradition customs are not altered critically, the juices of the modernity affects the tradition as time passes by. The tradition of opposite gender marriage is already given a touch of rebel. The purpose of marriage is defied into same sex marriage whereas traditionally a marriage can only occur between a man and woman. As a record of 21,000 LGBT typed of people join 2013’s pink dot event held at Hong Ling Park which is the corner to express freedom of speech. Although there is an increase in LGBT as tears pass by, Singapore being a conservative country will never allow any such behaviours such as requesting same sex marriage under Section 377A of the Penal Code (Singapore) and section 354 of penal code(outrage of modesty) , to be approved in Singapore.
Therefore, those who desire to get married to their ‘same-type’ partner will have to fly to United Kingdom to get married as UK is among the countries that legalized LGBT marriages. In conclusion, the traditional concept of marriage is still going on overpowering the modern concept of marriage in terms of opposite gender marriage, responsibilities in the household and structure of a family. Although, it cannot be denied in certain aspect modern influence have cause a whirlpool in the society such as LGBT as to having them being part of the society even if there are many negative responds towards them. Therefore, by continuing the legacy of practicing traditional marriage ,the modern insane concept can be abolished.