May 3, 2013

Ghatak and the Woman Question

I watched Meghe Dhaka Tara after many years last night. And saw in it, a story of middle-class pangs of lost honor, with the partition and refugee-life acting as a stage on which to display it. Ghatak’s own refugee origins, and portrayal of lives of desperation in Calcutta, are widely spoken and written about. But I saw in it, stories of a precarious male honor strung across father, brother and lover. A father and brother are shamed into emasculation by the disarray that the Partition-move brought for them. This is essentially a story of a fall from middle-class, middle and upper-caste equilibrium – petty respectabilities of spouting Yeats, ruing at family quarrels, worrying about daughters, and disappointment at son who join factories. Not different from the story of a shaken American masculinity in the wake of recession and layoffs. And a spectral woman figure rises amidst all of this. She is not the inner coterie of virtue and spirit, of Partha Chatterjee’s description, that the nineteenth century Bengali elite male had used to shield themselves against the colonial erosion of sovereignty. Ghatak's partition-heroine is the vehicle of male rehabilitation. Ghatak, himself, seems uncomfortable with the possibilities of such a character, hence, imbues her with myth-tones. She is aligned with a myth-domain of sacrificing mother-goddess, never opportunistic, never aligning with capital, holding the last strands of communitas in her palm, dispensing hope for an indeterminate ethnonational future, as men struggle to reconstruct manly dignity. She becomes the space of solace that these men must return to in the nightmare that is this historical turn. She must see their true inner heroism, even in their state of abjectness and utter defeat. She must dream for them. They must dream through her. She must remain empty land, even as all others move towards cultivation, vegetation. Empty lands waiting for their delayed realization of masculine potential. Joy Goswami writes, decades later, in the voice of such a woman who makes ends meet as a neighborhood needlework-teacher, who envies the moral abandon of her younger sister who ran away towards an alluring un-respectable future. Ghatak’s sympathies are far from the location of such a younger sister, the conniving opportunist, who bags her sister’s promising beau, in the hope of secure matrimonial futures. The ones that left their struggling menfolk of unrealized masculinity behind, are probably corrupted in shadows of capital, in Ghatak's lens.

The figure of the elderly, usually government-employed, or high-school-teaching aunt or grandaunt is not unknown to Partition-affected Bengali families. Many fit the bill of the austere aunt who carries family-lore of having fed many mouths through the difficult decades. Some turn into bitter autocrats of joint families, ones that sneer at mirth of young daughters-in-law and grand-daughters, ones that are unable to grapple with the onslaught of consumer pleasures from the 80s (beginning with television) onwards. Ghatak almost anticipates the ruin-figure that his sacrificing daughter/sister/lover/goddess, Khuki must turn into. Deathly disease is the only catharsis Ghatak can gift her. A fantastic mountainous cleansing is his homage to her. After he has extracted from her body every element of vitality from which a diseased male must be resurrected to former glory of class, caste and respectability. Ghatak turns out, very much, to be the parasitic, narcissistic Bengali male, ever-awaiting the true recognition of their genius.