The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Philip Roth is among the most widely read and respected novelists of today. In the Nineties, he won America’s four major literary awards in succession: the National Book Critics Circle Award for Patrimony (1991), the PEN-Faulkner Award for Operation Shylock (1993), the National Book Award for Sabbath’s Theater (1995) and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for American Pastoral (1997). There were a dozen others.

Roth is a Jew. Most of his novels are about American Jews and their gradual assimilation into the mainstream of American society which to this day has a deep-seated layer of anti-Semitism. His witty prose is strewn with Yiddish words; the message that comes through is though Jews are looked down upon and discriminated against, they have self-assurance, they can outsmart other races in any field of activity because they are god’s chosen people.

I try to read all of Roth’s novels I can find in our local bookstores. I did not have to buy American Pastoral; it was gifted to me by Justice Louise Gruner Gans of the supreme court of New York when she dropped in on a brief visit to Kasauli. It is as rivetting a story as Roth’s other stories but has a strange episode of faith healing which will be of interest to Indian readers. The story is about the third generation of a Jewish family settled in Newark, New Jersey. They have made it good as glove manufacturers. The main character is Seymour Irving Levov, popularly known as Swede because of his Nordic looks: tall, blond, powerfully built and a champion athlete. Also gentle as a lamb. He marries a petite Irish girl who becomes of beauty queen. They have a daughter, Merry, who inherits her mother’s looks and her father’s height. They make an idyllic picture of a happy, prosperous family living in a stone-built house standing on 100 acres of pasture with their own herd of cows and a stud-bull. They are loved by their relations and friends, they love everyone they meet.

One day, while the Swede is driving his daughter home from school, she asks him to kiss her. He kisses her forehead. “Not like this,” she protests, “do it the way you kiss Mummy.” He refuses to oblige. Merry starts going to pieces. She develops a terrible stammer. Her parents spend a fortune consulting doctors, speech therapists and psychiatrists. Nothing helps. Merry’s stuttering becomes worse, and she puts on weight. The family are very worked up against American involvement in Vietnam. While others vent their spleens writing rude letters to the president, senators and governors who support American intervention in Vietnam, Merry joins a communist group which believes that American capitalism is the source of all evil and deserves to be demolished by violent means. Bombs explode in Newark destroying stores and killing four people. Merry is suspected to be the killer. She goes underground, changes her name and identity. Her parents are distraught.

After five years of frantic searching Swede finds her living in a stinking under-ground cellar. She is reduced to skin and bone and wears a veil against insects entering her mouth or nostrils. Roth writes: “She had become a Jain. Her father didn’t know what that meant until, in her unhampered, chant-like speech — the unimpeded speech with which she would have spoken at home had she ever been able to master a stutter while living within her parents’s safekeeping — she patiently told him. The Jains were a relatively small Indian religious sect — that he could accept as fact. But whether Merry’s practices were typical or of her own devising, he could not be certain, even if she contended that every last thing she now did was an expression of religious belief. She wore the veil to do no harm to the microscopic organisms that dwell in the air we breathe. She did not bathe because she revered all life, including the vermin. She did not wash, she said, so as to do no harm to the water.” She did not walk about after dark, even in her own room, for fear of crushing some living object beneath her feet. There are souls, she explained, imprisoned in every form of matter; the lower the form of life, the greater is the pain to the soul imprisoned there. The only way to become free of matter and to arrive at what she described as “self-sufficient bliss for all eternity” was to become what she reverentially called “a perfect soul.” One achieves this perfection only through the rigours of asceticism and self-denial and through the doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence).

“The five ‘vows’ she’d taken were typewritten on index cards and taped to the wall about a narrow pallet of dirty foam rubber on the unswept floor. That was where she slept, and given that there was nothing but the pallet in one corner of the room and a rag pile — her clothing — in the other, that must be where she sat to eat whatever it was she survived on. Very, very little, from the look of her; from the look of her, she could have been not 50 minutes east of old Rimrock but in Delhi or Calcutta, near starvation not as a devout purified by her ascetic practices but as the despised of the lowest caste, miserably moving about on an untouchable’s emaciated limbs.”

On one of the walls are printed her vows: “I renounce all killing of living beings, whether subtile or gross, whether movable or immovable: I renounce all vices of lying speech arising from anger, or greed, or fear, or mirth; I renounce all taking of anything not given, either in a village, or a town, or a wood, either of little or much, or small or great, or living or lifeless things: I renounce all sexual pleasures, either with gods, or men, or animals; and I renounce all attachments, whether little or much, small or great, living or lifeless; neither shall I myself form such attachments, nor cause others to do so, nor consent to their doing so.”

The miracle of miracles is that Merry has got over her stuttering and stammering.

Pleasures and pains of opium-eaters

There is a genre of humour about opium addicts (amlis) which is confined to the Punjab. It is not sophisticated but does convey their unconcern about reality. Gurdarshan Singh of Chandigarh has sent me a few examples:

Two amlis from a village were on their first visit to a city. They were impressed by the size of the buildings and decided to take a sky-scraper back to their village. They took off their clothes, put them on the roadside, and clad only in their langotis, began to push the skyscraper. While they were at the job, a thief took away their clothes. After they had been pushing for a couple of hours, l they stopped to see how far they had got. They were not sure till one looked back and remarked: “We must have gone quite a distance; our clothes are out of sight.”

Someone spotted an Amli looking for something under a street lamp. A passer-by asked him if he lost anything. “Yes,” replied the Amli, “I dropped my wallet full of money.” The man asked “Where do you think you dropped it'” The Amli pointed the dark and replied, “somewhere there.”

“So why are you looking for it under the street lamp'”

“Because I can’t see in the dark.”

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