The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The stream of alterity that runs through Bengali bourgeois life

A few years ago, my wife and I had gone to see Split Wide Open. We’d bought expensive tickets; but the man who’d sold them to us had, inexplicably, given us seats in the second last row, while the first two rows in the dress circle were largely empty. After intermission, we decided to move up. We appropriated two seats in the second row; we were alone, except for a middle-aged couple before us. It was too dark to catch their faces; before us hovered the figure of Rahul Bose. I sensed the man was displeased he was no longer alone with his lady friend on his island. While I’d been groping my way towards my seat in the dark, I had caught the man sniffing the woman’s hair; sensing my presence (unexpected and unwanted after the intermission), he stiffly raised his head and returned, outwardly at least, to the film. This over-emphatic revision of posture, rather than the hair-sniffing, had, for me, all the incongruous awkwardness of youth and adventure; it determined, for me, that these two people were not married.

I whispered to my wife: “I think we’re disturbing this couple.” She peered hard at them, and said: “You know, I know the man — he’s a friend of a friend. He is married, but not to this woman, I think.” Later, after the film, we emerged into daylight and blinked, leaving behind the film’s precipitous fantasy, and also the cinema hall’s artificial middle-class nocturnal dark, with its buried, inappropriate desires. The middle-aged couple, descending before us, casually disappeared. “What is that man doing'” my wife laughed. “He’s not separated from his wife.” Daylight excited us with these questions.

Calcutta: moving here has instructed me that the Bengali middle-class family is a stranger entity than I had thought. It is capable, every now and again, of becoming its own parodic, or alter-, self. In the West, the oppositions and dichotomies are fairly clear, or at least clearer than they are here. There is the “happy family”, which largely exists now in the manifestos of conservative political parties. Then there is the dysfunctional family; and, finally, the break-up of the dysfunctional family into its individual components. In marriage, there is fidelity and unfaithfulness; there is the (increasingly rare) happy and fulfilled marriage on the one hand, with its long-drawn-out contentment, and, on the other, the “affair”, with its brief impetuosity and intensity.

In many middle-class families in this city, I find these oppositions don’t hold; nor does the dichotomy implicit in Tolstoy’s great opening sentence: “All happy families are the same, but each unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.” Marriage itself (unlike the marriages in Anna Karenina, in which happy and unhappy families are apportioned to parallel narratives), marriage itself is the site of the sort of contradictions that should enervate and annul it: affection, indifference, individualism, empathy, dependence, deception, routine. For some people in this city, conjugal happiness seems not to be a legitimate or even a realistic or useful aspiration. Marriage has its uses: oddly, as a context, and platform, for the search for individual happiness, and the fulfilment of individual desire. The “affair” itself is a euphemism for something more complicated, which I still can’t pretend to understand: “affairs” aren’t always affairs in the Western sense, because they are sometimes not consummated.

It is a half-adult, half-childish world we are speaking of, then; but, since we have only one life, it is the only life that some people will, or do, have. People subscribe to their own definition of loyalty; I know those who have been in a series of exhausting emotional entanglements, but can’t and won’t abandon their spouse because of some deep sense of compassion and commitment: what, in ordinary circumstances, would be called “love”. Although adultery isn’t sanctioned by society, it appears to be occasionally sanctioned by the spouse — who will neither acknowledge it, nor deny it, nor confront it. Can we say that this is one of the many definitions of a happy marriage' Jibanananda Das asked this question in his comfortless, strangely beautiful prose writings. In his fiction (unpublished in his lifetime), Das is not so much a chronicler of the conventional marital breakdown, as an anatomizer of marriage becoming its alter-self. On the evidence of his prose, it would appear that the bhadralok marriage, as a site of alterity, of otherness, is not exactly a recent phenomenon.

The other site of alterity is sanity itself. I remember looking, once, at family photographs of a friend of my father-in-law’s. This friend is now dead, and I always saw him alone, as if he were a bachelor. “This is Ajitesh uncle’s wife,” I was told, as I held a colour photograph in my hand (Ajitesh, of course, is not his real name). “This is his son. This one is his daughter.” There was something slightly strange about these people, as if they were in the middle of a birthday party, or taking part in amateur theatricals. “They’re not all there,” said my wife. “The wife and the son are a bit mad.” But they lived at home, I was told; not in a home.

Madness is ascribed to people too easily in our culture; or not acknowledged at all. It is both the abnegation, and the assumption, of a role. Like adultery, it doesn’t seem to exist at all in bhadralok society, except as fiction or in private conversation; and sometimes it seems to exist everywhere — and even that all-permeating existence has a disquieting fictionality about it.

At one point, after moving to Calcutta, it seemed all the stories I heard from friends and acquaintances were either to do with marital unfaithfulness or personality disorders; either their own, or others’. The bourgeois family in Calcutta appeared to me a doorway through which the “normal” and “abnormal” had free and constant passage. Ajitesh uncle’s life, with hindsight, is no less remarkable than that of his family members; the way he’d go out in the evenings for a drink with his friends, discuss politics, reminisce about America, offer an opinion or two on music; his penchant for wearing striking kurtas. Was this entirely normal' Just as he’d allowed “madness” to reside at home, his family too seems to have acquiesced to his own aberrant behaviour.

Nandikar’s latest play, Khunje Naao, taps into the stream of alterity that runs through bourgeois Bengali life. I saw it about two weeks ago — it is a harrowing play; harrowing, not because of its difficult subject — a few years in the life of a gifted but psychologically disturbed girl, played marvellously by Sohini Haldar, and her family — but because, like Das’s fiction, it maps the way — one possible way — in which the Bengali family slips into its alter-incarnation. It is not as if this is not a happy family; it’s not as if this is not a happy child: the play is held together by the logic and glue of Diwali parties, swimming competitions, classroom lessons, restaurant outings (with a particularly terrific and disastrous scene of soup-eating). All this is punctuated by visits to hospitals, doctors, asylums, and epiphanic instants of disorder and violence: the same sparse props metamorphose, guided by Swatilekha Sengupta’s superb and self-effacing directorial instinct, from social and festive spaces into pathological ones.

The play is a translation; but the very act of translation can lend cultural specificity to a work. The pain and power of Sohini Haldar’s performance doesn’t only have to do with the tragedy of madness; it has to do with the paradox of the Bengali bhadralok family being a space for what it can’t wholly and unconditionally love, nor wholly disown. The Bengali family, as yet, has found no other, or easier, definition.

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