Saturday, August 26, 2006

Sati as a Literary Device

I'd promised you that we'd soon have a guest column on this blog, so here it is. Indian writer Sunny Singh writes about why she choosese to write about sati in her latest novel, With Krishna's Eyes, and also about how Indians living in our big city metros today are incredibly adept at juggling multiple realities in their daily lives.

As a writer and person, I have always been interested in how societies and communities deal with change – and not to handle it at a macro, huge level but to examine how individuals cope with changes. So when I began my new novel, With Krishna’s Eyes, I wanted to deal with the contradictions of being an urban contemporary Indian. And I wanted to write a novel about Delhi – the Delhi I have known and loved over the past ten years or so.

As a child growing up in Varanasi and in outreaches of the country’s mountainous borders, Delhi was as exotic and faraway as New York or London. So when I finally moved to Delhi, I was fascinated by all of it: The faces, the interlinked social structures, the arcane social codes. All the idiosyncracies of a grand capital. And slowly, without ever realising, I got hooked. I endlessly observed the ostentatious, brash Punjabis, the gorgeous but often thick Jat mundas from Haryana, the hardworking but generally ill-starred Biharis , trying to make sense of their lives and dreams. And of course, the political intrigues. Corruption that was refined over generations by leading families. The veneer of Westernized sophistication was used as adornment for dining at the Habitat, but discarded in favour of the orthodox feudal core at home. Oxbridge degrees and Harvard MBAs lived within the same minds as caste prejudices and religious bigotry. Somehow each of us seemed to veer madly between two polar extremes: modern and traditional, conservative and liberal, rural and urban, tolerant and bigoted. And somehow we managed to hold ourselves together despite the contradictions. So With Krishna’s Eyes grew out of this experience of Delhi.

All the characters in the book are people you may well run into while shopping in Dariba Kalan or at the India Habitat Centre or in Lajpat Nagar. They are Dilli-walas, but like many Dilli-walas, they also have their roots in a village that is geographically close to the capital but psychologically may as well be in another century. And my characters go back and forth as they juggle both realities. For me that is also Delhi – a capital city that hosts Rumsfeld and Clinton by day, and murders models and politicians’ daughters by night. Where glitter and sleaze, satellite phones and paan-stained teeth go hand in hand.

Writer Sunny Singh

So my characters also juggle violence with urbane grace.

Strangely enough, when the book began to do the rounds, people focused in on the sati angle. The book has been called “provocative.” Another critic suggested that the characters choices “suggest a moral vacuum that is unacceptable today.” Why must fictional characters make acceptable choices? Or indeed why should human beings live their lives by making “acceptable” choices? And acceptable to whom? Imagine asking Dostoevsky or Camus to construct characters that would function morally. Even the choices made by Yudhisthar – the most righteous of all - in the Mahabharata are complex and never quite entirely moral.

Oddly enough, the sati angle was not that important for me while I was writing the book. I did realize that people make choices that seem self-destructive and violent. Yet to understand something is not to justify it or condone it. And that fascinates me. The choice to kill oneself for an ideology was very much in my mind also because the book was born in the rather tumultuous year of 2001. References to 9/11, the Kutch earthquake and the Mahakumbh wove themselves into the book. And perhaps because of those events, the book constantly raises questions about death, violence and spirituality.

In fact, for me Damayanti – the Miranda House-educated lawyer planning to be sati after her husband’s death - is a very complex person. One can’t understand her decision in terms of “poor, oppressed, superstitious.” In fact through out the novel, Damayanti is unable to articulate her own motives for choosing sati because they are far more complex than simply about devotion to her husband or religious faith or even evading the law.

There is a reason for her turning inarticulate when faced with her own actions. Human beings never take drastic action for one sole reason. So a Tamil Tigress doesn’t blow herself up because of a single motive. And people don’t fly airplanes into buildings as a result of a single monolithic ideology. Nor do people kill their brothers in an alleged “fit of anger” for one single reason. When we simplistically try to classify human actions as results of one sole motive, we refuse to understand the multi-causality of human behaviour and actions. And that means we refuse to understand human beings! As a writer, my intention is to make sense of who we are and why we behave the way we do. So Damayanti’s decision to be sati is something that is driven by a number of reasons, all of which are internally coherent. That doesn’t mean that I agree with those reasons or for that matter fully understand them. But it is important to explore them and at least try to reach some comprehension.

Some critics have alleged that Krishna’s job (as the protagonist and narrator) to document Damayanti’s last days also is an attempt to justify Damayanti’s decision to be sati. For me, that is a slippery slope. For example, that sort of neo-conservative reasoning ends up believing that to study, document or write about terrorists is to support them. We know where that slippery slope can lead us: to silencing of speech, to stifling of thought. And those are privileges that I refuse to relinquish to politically correct exigency of our times to find pathetically simple explanations and fallacious certainties.

We must – as writers and thinkers – differentiate between understanding and justifying a phenomenon. And the first step to understanding is to realize that human beings are complex, and to recognize their humanity. Even if that means we are left with uncertain conclusions.

In my novel this means Damayanti is not a “madwoman”, or even a particularly oppressed one. She laughs and cries, loves and is afraid. In other words, she is human. Just as Krishna is – despite her inability to understand Damayanti’s decision. For me, the lesson Krishna has to learn from filming Damayanti is not to justify sati, or even to understand why someone will make such a drastic choice. Krishna’s lesson – and I truly believe that is what Dadiji wants her to learn – is to respect another’s free choice even if she cannot agree with it or understand it.

And I truly believe that particular lesson is the hardest of all to learn, and to practice.

With Krishna's Eyes is out in India, in all major bookstores, published by Rupa Publications. It is also available in Spanish, with the title, La Mirada de Krishna, from Ediciones El Cobre.

Author photo courtesy Tarun Vishwa. Book jacket cover image courtesy Rupa Publications.


Maja said...

... to respect another’s free choice even if she cannot agree with it or understand it.

That's something I've always tried to live by and something we all should follow, especially in these last few years when the world seems to get crazier every day.
This book sounds like it's a fascinating read and I'll definitely try to get a hold of it.

anamika said...

Are you sure she is the writer? Doesn't look like one. Agree with what she says though about respecting other's choices.

Anonymous said...

So happy to have discovered your blog! I'm surprised I haven't stumbled on it earlier. Will bookmark you and return often.

Thanks very much for the guest review - I cannot wait to get my hands on "With Krishna's Eyes". I don't recall seeing it in any of the bookshops in Bangalore when I visited last month, but that could be because I wasn't looking for it.

Lotus from LotusReads@blogspot

The Buddha Smiled said...

Hi Lotus Reads,

I'm really glad you like the blog - took a look at your blog as well, and its definitely one to keep returning to! I hope you keep coming back as I continue along our journey of self discovery, and hopefully we'll keep each other entertained with our insights about life, the universe & everything along the way...