Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Sunday, September 02, 2001

Front Page | National | Southern States | Other States | International | Opinion | Business | Sport | Entertainment | Miscellaneous | Features | Classifieds | Employment | Index | Home

Features | Next

Breakfast with evil

Vijay Tendulkar is to be conferred the Katha Chudamani Award for literary work of exceptional merit, by Mahasweta Devi on September 3. Exclusive extracts of the foreword by ASHIS NANDY to Tendulkar's 'The Last Days of Sardar Patel and the Mime Players: Two Screenplays', to be published shortly.

TO most of those who will read this note, the chronicle of the first five decades of Independent India is a history of modernisation, industrialisation, and the emergence of a democratic polity. Less frequently, it is the story of a myriad communities turning reluctantly into a nation, with growing pockets of mass culture and atomised individuals. Few seem aware that there are people in India who read the five decades as a story of gradual but consistent increase in violence - manifest and covert, active and passive, outer- and inner- directed.

Dramatic or spectacular social changes extract a heavy toll in any society. After a point, many begin to feel uprooted, deracinated and buffeted by forces that, increasingly, strike like natural calamities, without notice, without scope for appeal or remedial action. The uprooted then come to see the new world unfolding before their eyes as one running on principles and conventions that are clearly disjunctive with the older moral order, ways of life, and familiar gods. It is not easy to live with such an experience and the result, often, is vague, unfocussed anger, anomie and anxiety - these become nagging, integral parts of the self. The blend can be deadly. Violence - wide-ranging, unpredictable, seemingly unprovoked - is almost always a natural outcome of it.

Few want to study such violence. For, our political sensitivities, visions of a desirable society, systems of knowledge, and techniques of social interpretation are all enlayered within the dislocation we see around us. We suspect that we may be culpable, and we do not want to be certain that we are. In this sense, the violence unfolding before us is doubly orphaned: it has neither acknowledged parents nor willing observers.

Vijay Tendulkar is an exception. His consistent, prolonged engagement with human aggression has made him one of the most distinguished social theorists of violence in the country. He will be surprised by this compliment and may find it difficult to make sense of it. He considers himself a writer of plays and film scripts on a wide variety of subjects, not a closet philosopher or a sociologist who has missed his vocation. In addition, like all prolific writers, he has other incarnations; it is a trifle unjust to read his entire work as a commentary on human violence. However, those caught in the hinges of post-Independence intellectual life and public affairs in India cannot but recognise the way Tendulkar has, over the last few decades, scanned the life-world of contemporary Indians in order to identify the sources and nature of the violence that have come to pattern it. Even when violence is not ostensibly his theme, it casts its shadow on his characters - their cultivated or panicky reactions to it, their numbing fear of their own selves. By bringing their world close to ours through his creative powers, he has shaped the way we look at ourselves.

Tendulkar's perspective on violence is bifocal. In works like "Giddh" (staged in 1971; written in 1961) and, lesser directly, in "Shantata, Court Chalu Ahe" (1968), "Kanyadaan" (1983) and "Ghasiram Kotval" (1973), violence tends to become an end in itself. It is the easiest way left for many ordinary citizens to cope with their fractured selves and problems of living. No longer does violence come from ideology, faith, or even self- interest. On the contrary, it seeks outlet through ideology, faith and perceived self-interest and latches on to these "causes" to find public expression and legitimacy. In this paradoxical world, violence is prior to its causes.

Tendulkar's violence, therefore, is sometimes tinged with - as the psychiatrist would diagnose it - the psychopathic. It carries the impress of an empty interpersonal world and a maimed conscience. "The Mime Players" in this volume is an example. It is a film script that has grown out of a powerful Bengali story by Dibyendu Palit. However, the original story does not possess the disturbing ambience of sinister, psychopathic, narcissistic violence and uncanny, stylised, surreal, counterviolence which confront the reader here. That ambience is almost entirely Tendulkar's.

However, while such violence may not have causes, it has sources. It is free-floating mainly because these sources are inaccessible to the conscious selves of the violent and their victims. In many of Tendulkar's works, you stumble inadvertently upon these sources. He often invokes a milieu where the individual is caught in a crosscurrent of social forces that he or she does not understand. Buffeted by these forces, the individual finds the traditional concept of evil diffused, fragmented or invalidated at every step. Evil lurks everywhere, yet it rarely takes tangible form, and when it is tangible, the victim's survival frequently demands his silence. In such a milieu, violence - unprovoked and gratuitous - becomes a way of fighting unknown demons outside and, more crucially, within. It becomes a means of grappling with a world shot through with an unpredictable, dangerous, undefined evil that threatens to destroy you unless you strike out at it pre-emptively, through your version of violence.

Violence can also come from attempts to exorcise parts of one's own self that have been violated, and to fight other parts that have made unacceptable compromises with a ruthless, cruel world. One hates oneself for being a victim and tamely giving in to aggressors. One blames oneself even for being a passive, impotent witness of someone else's victimisation. But that self-hatred can also lead to self-destruction, and the fear of self-destruction helps project the hatred outwards into the interpersonal world. One sets up demons as targets of hate, so that they symbolise disowned aspects of one's own self. The anomic violence that finds expression in religious and ethnic riots in the lonely streets of urban India is an example of that self-hatred.

There is a third, related, but less obvious coordinate in this anthropology of violence: Victims of violence turn out to be excellent tools of violence. Being at the receiving end of a system of dominance, being a helpless witness to oppression or corruption - as happens to the protagonist of "Ardhasatya" (1983) - produces a psychology of vulnerability. Such victims hate themselves for allowing others to objectify them, for turning them into something akin to merchandise - saleable and purchasable by the highest bidder. Victims of this kind hold themselves culpable. The resulting self-denigration and vague search for mastery over fate propels them to do to someone else what has been done to them. The heroine of "Nishant" (1975) is only an apparently passive witness; she virtually identifies with the killers of her husband and his family. This is not revenge or simple scapegoating, for such violence often has as its target people close to oneself, people more than normally vulnerable. In the domestic space, these could be women and children; in workplaces, subordinates who cannot strike back. In "Giddh" it is an infirm father.

Such displaced violence is not always a matter of volition or self-controlled choice. The personality of the victim is often so distorted - violence, humiliation and exploitation in daily life can be so overwhelming - that the traumatised begin to seek voice and audibility through violence: as does the protagonist in "Akrosh" (1980). Violence speaks, and through it speak the secret histories of uprooting and oppression. Even outwardly extroverted victims, through their episodic engagements with violence, acquire a new, hidden depth in personality, as does the anti-hero in "Kamala" (1982). A rich, extravagant underworld of violent fantasies crystallises and constitutes a substratum of the victim-aggressor's personality. Years ago, in the wake of World War II, psychoanalysis identified the forms of sadomasochism that underlie mass violence and authoritarianism. Tendulkar's diagnosis parallels that discovery and has ominous implications for the long-term well being of Indian public life.

The three co-ordinates of violence are silently at work even when Tendulkar deals with issues and situations involving little overt violence, as for instance in "The Last Days of Sardar Patel" in this volume. For violence can be latent not merely in statecraft and organised politics, it can also power the most trivial forms of everyday politics. For an ordinary citizen, living life as a silent victim of a silent violence or fighting inner demons in a situation of flux, ordinary social exchanges sometimes become a means of coping with violence. In this respect, Tendulkar is close to the other great, time-transcending chronicler of violence that South Asia has produced in recent decades, Sadaat Hasan Manto. Neither gives any respite to the reader. As you read them, you read yourself. And it is not a pleasant experience.

Readers of this volume should be warned that Tendulkar never guarantees a good bedtime read, not even when dealing with "dead" history. He never fails to make you feel that you have entered a dentist's chamber with an undiagnosed abscess in the molars. The two scripts within these covers give you ample scope to dislike his world. You should be well prepared to put the book down as a perverse aside or an ill-motivated intrusion into your private life.

* * *

The Last Days of Sardar Patel and the Mime Players: Two Screenplays, Vijay Tendulkar, foreword by Ashis Nandy, Permanent Black.

Send this article to Friends by E-Mail

Section  : Features
Next     : The enigma of India's arrival

Front Page | National | Southern States | Other States | International | Opinion | Business | Sport | Entertainment | Miscellaneous | Features | Classifieds | Employment | Index | Home

Copyrights © 2001 The Hindu

Republication or redissemination of the contents of this screen are expressly prohibited without the written consent of The Hindu