Saturday, July 19, 2008

who is Manthara?

Looking forward to the move to the city, but also slightly intimidated by it. Reading Marshall Berman's All That is Solid Melts Into Air has provided an odd sort of comfort:

To be modern...is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one's world and oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air. To be a modernist is to make oneself somehow at home in the maelstrom, to make its rhythms one's own, to move within its currents in search of the forms of reality, of beauty, of freedom, of justice, that its fervid and perilous flow allows.

Entranced by his dialectical exploration of the relationship between modernisation and modernism in the work of Faust, Marx, Baudelaire, and a slew of great Russians whom I have now vowed to read, I could not pass up the chance to hear him deliver the Southbank Centre Lecture entitled 'Comedy in New York After 9/11: Immigration and Gentrification'. In comparison with the book, which is breathtakingly fertile and wonderfully readable even if you haven't read the texts he is working with (he makes you want to read them), the lecture was rather more casual, impressionistic, almost off the cuff. As a speaker, Berman manages to be both erudite and endearing, establishing an almost instant rapport with the audience and providing much amusement with his slightly distracted and absent minded asides. The talk focused on comedies of the city: 'Sex and the City' as a comedy of gentrification and 'You Don't Mess with the Zohan' as a comedy of immigration. As ever, Berman exuded a kind of liberal, humane Marxism - one that embraces the entire range of human experience and inclination, including those that sometimes prove inconvenient for theory. In one revealing aside, he dwelt at length on the relationship between shopping and happiness, departing from orthodox Marxist critiques of commodification and consumerism and suggesting that shopping and commerce created public spaces in which people encountered one another, that the satisfaction of needs and desires did in fact bring happiness, and that even if most of the commodities on offer were trash, the very process of sifting the worthy from the forgettable was in itself a form of bildung. In keeping with the title of his lecture, I wanted to ask him what, if anything, the ongoing furore over the most recent cover of the New Yorker revealed about the possibilities for satire as well as for humour across race lines in post-9/11 New York. But alas, I didn't get the chance.

***

Went to the British Library's free exhibition on the Ramayana. This is an exhibition of illustrated manuscripts, commissioned by Rana Jagat Singh of Mewar (1628-52) in Rajasthan. The carefully selected and arranged manuscripts provide as complete an account of this 2000+ year old epic as one could possibly get in a couple of hours. Some things about this story, which was first told to me by my great-grandmother and which I first encountered in print in the pages of Kamala Subramaniam's telling of it, struck me for the first time. The two pivotal events of the narrative are Rama's banishment to the forest and Sita's abduction by Ravana. Both are triggered by the actions of women, and in both cases women from the very margins of society. When the old king Dasaratha is all set to name his eldest son Rama as his heir, one of the younger of his three senior queens - Kaikeyi - overcome by jealousy, prevails upon him to banish Rama to the forest for 14 years and to name her son Bharata to succeed him. I'm not entirely clear what sort of hold Kaikeyi has on Dasaratha, but she in turn is influenced by her maid Manthara, who poisons her mind with the suggestion that Bharata's life would be in danger if Rama became king. Bharata is disgusted by these machinations on his behalf and bitterly reproaches and repudiates his mother; Kaikeyi in turn blames Manthara, and in a rage, Bharata's younger brother Shatrughna tramples on Manthara and drags her around the palace by her hair until he is dissuaded by Bharata with the reminder that Rama would have condemned such vengeful behaviour. So who is Manthara and why does she push Kaikeyi to do something she might never have done? Is she simply looking out for the best interests of her perhaps not-very-worldly-wise mistress? Does she have an agenda of her own? What could it be? If Bharata had become king, Manthara, as PA to the queen mother would have held a position of great power and influence. But what did she hope to do with it? Was she just greedy, seduced by how tantalisingly close a woman of low stature could get to the very heart of power? Was she in it for herself? Or were her ambitions more political? Or, as is usually the case, both?

The second pivotal event is that Sita is abducted from forest exile by the demon king Ravana. But this in turn is provoked by an incident in which Ravana's sister, the rakshasi Surpanakha, propositions Rama, who, instead of brushing her off like a gentleman, cuts off her nose. Surpanakha appeals to her brother Ravana to avenge this insult. And then all hell breaks loose. On trying to find out more about Surpanakha, it turns out that there are multiple accounts of what she was trying to do. In one, she actually desires revenge on Ravana for having killed their grandmother and uncle, and sets up the encounter with Rama, knowing full well that Rama is the only true match for Ravana. And see also this entry on Manthara, which though frustratingly brief, suggests that she may have been set up by Indra.

In the epic war that follows, there is much that is recognisable - good old balance of power politics (Rama makes an alliance with the monkey king Sugriva, agreeing to help him recover his throne from his usurper brother Bali in return for help against Ravana; Ravana's better brother Vibhishana joins the good side - so the axes of confrontation aren't entirely or even largely familial or tribal or ethnic), guerrilla warfare (particularly in the scenes depicting monkeys attacking the enormous Kumbhakarna - good guerrillas v. bad despotic centralised power), interference and sovereign acts of recognition and de-recognition (Rama's declaration of Vibhishana as the true king of Lanka), etc.

And finally running through the story like a stuck record, there is Rama's uniquely annoying personality - a mixture of piety and moralism and self-mortification, matched only perhaps by the equally insufferable Yudhishtira in the Mahabharata - which if you ever encountered in real life would in all probability make you want to scream. There are many stages at which wrongs can be righted, bad things can be undone, Bharata says forget about my mother, come back home and rule the kingdom, etc. But Rama refuses, citing the absolute imperative of a parent's command (a command, it should be noted, that the parent himself regrets almost immediately and seeks to rescind), demonstrating an obstinacy and inflexibility that makes me want to smack him. On greater reflection, I realise that this annoying personality trait is written into the character to illustrate an important philosophical tendency - that of the rigid deontologist, unleavened by the logic of consequences, prudence or anything else. Kant may have been equally annoying in real life, much as I like him in text. (But why like Kant and dislike Rama? Maybe because Rama shows you what Kant might require in a determinate situation, suggesting in turn that something that looks great in ideal theory might end up looking deeply unattractive in the non-ideal world. disclaimer: obviously there is no one-to-one correspondence between Rama and Kant; many aspects of their thought and behaviour are simply incommensurable; but in my hazy philosophical mental map, they're vaguely kindred souls.)

***

Why do we believe what we believe? This was the underlying theme of Gautam Raja's The Invisible River, which premiered in the UK at the Theatrescience India in London festival this week. A government doctor in Allahabad is waging a host of losing battles - against villages and industries upstream who dump their waste in the mighty Ganga, generating the cholera epidemics that he must fight against in his professional capacity; against his fervently religious mother who sees the river as holy and purifying and whose dying wish is to be cremated on a sandalwood pyre by its banks and to have her ashes scattered in the sangam. A scientist from Bangalore is in Allahabad to collect water samples from the river to study the behaviour of the mysterious bacteriophages that appear to break down organic matter, thereby potentially providing scientific vindication for the popular belief in the river's purity. An intrepid pujari plies his trade by the banks of the river, tending the faithful and bantering good naturedly with the sceptics. A politician (brilliantly played by Sukhi Aiyar in a marvellous conflation of Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mayawati) shrewdly exploits every idea on offer to mobilise her political base. As they rub up against each other along the banks of the Ganga, the characters challenge but also reinforce each others' beliefs in intriguing ways. I was particularly struck by the way the religious characters seemed oddly pleased by the newfound scientific vindication for beliefs that they had long held; but I wondered if the rationalist characters also developed a new appreciation for irrational or non-rational belief systems. It's something I've wondered about in the context of the interest that pharmaceutical companies have evinced in indigenous knowledge as a shortcut to product development - that knowledge has still to be put through the meatgrinder of scientific verification before it is considered reliable and marketable, but do those technicians in white labcoats look at indigenous witch doctors any differently once their practices have been appropriated? Or are they still seen as essentially irrational and superstitious, trapped in age-old structures of unreflective blind belief? As a story, I thought GR accomplished a much more skillful bringing together of this microcosm of modern India - much better than, say, the bus in Mr. & Mrs. Iyer which, serendipitously and pretty incredibly, just happened to bring together every shade of religious belief in India in the context of a communal riot. I thought this was a thought-provoking script because it got beyond the usual cliched juxtapositions of software engineers and bullock carts to think about the ways in which those different worlds relate to each other.

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