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May 26, 2016

A Fine Balance

 Rohinton Mistry “A Fine Balance

At the bottom of page 511 of Rohinton Mistry’s novel “A Fine Balance”, one can read the sentence: “the lives of the poor are rich with symbols”. One might just as well say: the book of the poor, not forgetting the fact that the book is indeed about the poor, who remain poor throughout, even if their lives is made richer by symbols. But this 600 page volume enriches us with more than symbols; this is what I would like to speak about.

The story would be very long to tell in detail, but here it is in the broad outlines: 4 people from varying origins converge in a Mumbai flat in the mid-70s, and learn to live together and appreciate one another: Dina Dalal, a head-strong, middle-class widow who has rebelled against her comfortable milieu, is fiercely independent and does not wish to be included in her brother’s circle of affluent friends. Her brother is the only family she has left. She depends on him in times of worry, but has started a life of her own as an independent employer of tailors whom she has hired to make clothes for an exporting company.

The two tailors, an uncle and his nephew, come from the lowly caste of chamaars, or tanners, leather workers. A despicable and impure status, under the caste system, which the uncle’s father has transgressed by making his sons go the neighbouring town and train as tailors. Events linked to this transgression, and the inevitable resentment it has created among jealous representatives of higher castes, has led to the shameful destruction of their family and has sent Ishvar and Omprakash (Om) to the city to find work. This is how they get employed by Dina.

The last character is a young student of 17, Maneck Kohlah, who comes to Mumbai to pursue his studies and is looking for lodgings away from the hostel where he was first sheltered but where he has been bullied by other students. He’s from the mountains up North, his parents own a village shop there and are counting on him to look after the shop when they stop working. He’s their only son, and Dina is related to some of their family in the city. So he knocks on her door one day, and meets also the two tailors.

The book tells of the hard life the four of them lead, how they slowly learn to know about one another, once the prejudices are proven not only wrong but sometimes destructive, once the crust of appearances and false assumptions breaks thanks to shared hardships, once they can move beyond the brazen law of mistrust which is that of the oppressor and oppressed, in a society where everything is corrupted by the all-powerful God Money. At first the tailors (who have been looking for work for a long time) are in a position of obedient workers, but then they soon resent being paid too little, especially young Om, who resists what he believes is exploitation. On the other hand, Dina insists on distances being kept between herself and Maneck on the one side, and the tailors on the other. She soon complains about their lack of collaboration, but has no choice: she is stuck between her tailors’ grumpiness (the uncle is too soft-hearted not to side with his nephew a little) and the deadlines of the export company for whom she makes them work. Maneck is adapting to the new life in the city, rather lost at having been sent away from his beloved mountains, and when he starts befriending Om, the young tailor, he gets scolded by Dina who cautions him against such connections.

More events take place, which originate from the tailors’ poverty and will precipitate their destiny. They live in one of the city’s jhopadpattis, a slum made of shacks and rubbish, situated on the city’s railway outskirts, where hordes of poor people share a leaky roof and flimsy walls and where more oppression is to be found, that of the slumlords, of the rent collectors, of “facilitators”, parasites who live off the ignorance and general lack of means. All these poor survive thanks to carefully calculated systems of expedients. One day, after obscure political events involving the Prime Minister, the state decrees Emergency, and the fragile balance of laws and tolerated unlawfulness is shattered. Emergency allows the state to lawfully reorganise the lives and rights of the population, especially of course the part which can’t buy its right to exemption. One of these absurd programs, called “beautification” involves the pure and simple bulldozing of the slum where Ishvar and Om live. In a matter of hours, they are homeless, and have to shelter under a porch before the police picks them up and trucks them away to an irrigation project, miles from the city, leaving an ignorant Dina to pester that her tailors are unreliable and worrying about her future. The irrigation project is a forced labour camp, where the beggars are a cheap but derelict workforce, and the tailors owe their survival to a new character, Beggarmaster, who comes to the camp to buy back the beggars that the authorities had cleaned the streets from. The tailors explain they have jobs, that their presence is a mistake, and he grudgingly accepts to truck them back, on one condition: they will become chained to him by the obligation to pay him the equivalent of three days’ work at Dina’s during one year. 

More twists and turns occur, some good, some bad, one of good ones being that Beggarmaster changes from tyrant to saviour. When the rent “goondas” come to evict Dina (and her tenants) from her flat, on grounds that she is using the flat professionally, they start breaking everything and mentally torturing the four inhabitants with Nazi-like ruthlessness. Dina’s business and the tailors’ work are hopelessly lost. Then Beggarmaster comes, to collect his rent, and upon seeing the chaos, promises to “pay a visit” to Dina’s tenant, and miraculously tilts their broken world back on balance. How has this miracle been possible? Ishvar and Om at the camp have befriended a beggar called Worm, or Shankar, who has no legs and no fingers, but stupefies everyone thanks to his energy and good-will. Back in their Mumbai district, they remain his protectors, and even caste-conscious Dina agrees to make him a special garment. And Beggarmaster, who rules his begging business (in which Worm is very profitable) according to his own laws, has now a debt towards the tailors and they have benefited from his powerful protection.

So Mistry’s novel shows a society where individualistic values are possible if and only if you are rich or powerful enough to indulge in them. If not, you are at the mercy of feudal lords which use you at their advantage, and whether or not what they do is against the democratic laws is pointless. Money makes the laws, pays the police, performs whatever those in power have decided. Only a limited amount of solidarity can find its way through to build a more human type of relationships. We see beautiful figures pass us on their way to their destiny, but unless these men, women or children have the proper supports, they are ultimately doomed. The huge Wheel of personal or bureaucratic self-interests crunches along, monstrously slicing into the little constructions that the poor have set up to have a chance at something decent and pleasurable in life. The only salvation is to jump into one of the wheels, but then you might end up rolling over former friends, and if you jump out to save them, you know you too have decreed your own undoing.

The title “A fine balance” thus refers to that extremely fragile situation of the poor who have temporarily managed to secure for themselves a little niche in the ever dangerous and destructive Indian urban society of today. They have been lucky enough, or intelligent enough to find a loophole in the relentless economic system of giving and taking, and have taken advantage of it for the time it will last, until something happens to blow their straw house to smithereens, and they must rush to another shelter, if there is such a shelter. Otherwise the greedy wolf – the institutionalised apetites of the rich and powerful - will gulp them up. The caste system is a very efficient way of providing for those above with a ready means to continue to benefit from the advantages they have always had: food, health, comfort, security, education, hygiene. Those in the lower castes do not have a right to all these amenities. Why? Because they are in their lower caste. It’s as simple as that. The order of the world (its dharma) dictates it. If one low-caste individual breaks that order, any form of jealous retaliation, any punishment, however brutal cruel or inhuman, is considered a god-sent balancing of the eternal order of things. Whoever upsets that balance understands he faces a terrible Kaliyug-like frown an all-powerful Destiny. I won’t disclose what shape this divine retaliation takes at the end of the book, but it left me shuddering and tearful. And I wonder: to what movement of history, what combination of social, political and cultural factors do I owe the peace and justice that is mine in France today? How come I can breathe and eat, work and love without being afraid, while so many people in the world are deprived of that luxury? What is the normal state of humanity? Is it hunger and strife? Or peace and plenty? Are places like India the norm, and places like Europe the exception? Why has development gone faster in one area than in another?  How many more thousands, tens, hundreds of thousands will have to be the victims of this march towards a decent life for all? And is such a future likely one day?

There is an extensive reflection on time in the novel; obviously for Mistry it is one of his main themes. The characters always refer to their past, muses Maneck in this passage:

“How much Dina Aunty relished her memories. Mummy and Daddy were the same, talking about their yesterdays and smiling in that sad-happy way while selecting each picture, each frame from the past, examining it lovingly, before it vanished again in the mist. But nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended, when it suited them. Memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred its own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair, that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain. So what was the point of possessing memory? It didn’t help anything. In the end it was all hopeless (…) No amount of remembering happy days, no amount of yearning or nostalgia could change a thing about the misery and suffering – love and concern and caring and sharing come to nothing, nothing. Maneck began to weep, his chest heaving as he laboured to keep silent. Everything ended badly. And memory only made it worse, tormenting and taunting. Unless. Unless you lost your mind. Or committed suicide. The slate wiped clean. No more remembering, no more suffering.” (p. 336)

Throughout the tailoring years, Dina is seen to keep squares of castaway material and sew them into a quilt, and one often is made to notice how the quilt grows to incorporate the events that are connected to the squares which are sewn together. Towards the end of the novel, the inhabitants pore over it and reminisce their happy or sad times that are spread in front of them, so to speak, and what they unanimously say is: how beautiful, how harmonious, how well the colours and materials have been chosen to match one another and form a unity of impression. So the question is: if the quilt represents the balance of fortunate and unfortunate events which have marked the life of the four main characters of the novel, if it represents their life together, mustn’t we deduct that happiness comes from togetherness, and unhappiness from solitude? And indeed, it is Ishvar and Om, in spite of their tragic destiny, manage to continue to give meaning to this life of suffering. They are the ones that keep alive in Dina the little flame of meaning shining in the night of this absurd world. Without friendship, seems to say Rohington Mistry, without that love, 

“Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more;
It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” (Macbeth, V, 5)

So time acquires meaning only if it is quilt-like. That is to say, only if one person’s memories are part of another person’s. Only then does it have a pattern. It’s the “fine” of the title, which also means beautiful, remarkable. That “fine balance to be maintained between hope and despair” (says Vasantrao Valmik, an enigmatic lawyer who is present three times in the story, and has a highly symbolical value as proof-reader and speech-writer) is what remains possible if one can cling on to another to avoid falling. Shankar could cling onto Beggarmaster, Dina to Rustom’s memory (her dead husband), Monkey-man to his monkeys, and then his children – but he becomes mad when they are taken away from him. Rajaram the hair-collector is also more or less driven to a form of madness through dispossession.

In A fine Balance, there is a kindness at work, a benevolence, a compassion in spite of the rushing roar of meaninglessness. It is first exemplified in the magnificent character of Ishvar, the tailor Uncle who always tries to mend, to sew together, to iron out differences and potential conflicts. He is the first to excuse, the last to complain. He’s always open to finding a solution, and almost never despairs. He is Hope. Then, in spite of his longing and aimlessness, Maneck is also a soother of pains. His good-natured charm is part of the story’s pleasure. At one time, for example, when the tailors are missing once again, he manages to drive Dina out of despair and trouble by deciding that for three days he doesn’t have any classes, and is going to help her sew the batch of dresses in time for her to meet the deadline. They work day and night, and he does it out of benevolence, or companionship. The hint of an affair between them never materialises, and soon disappears. By the way, there is no romance in the novel (apart for Dina’s quick meeting with Rustom), an amazing feat for such a long book. Now this benevolence is perhaps one of the novel’s most cherishable charms. We follow the stories of the characters because they are deeply human, in the sense of kind-hearted. Even the “sour-lime” Omprakash has a good enough heart. One easily sympathises with his good-humoured pranks, his freedom, his lively and youthful rebelliousness. And Dina, under her prim and proper principles has also a yearning heart, a soft and generous nature which slowly grows and then blooms at the end. We have also loving characters such as Ashraf Chacha, the splendidly generous muslim tailor who apprentices the two chamaar boys in spite of having a grudging wife and a family to feed, then there’s the compassionate Rajaram who welcomes and helps the tailors when they arrive in the slum.

All this kindness is contrasted with the cruelty, violence and absurdity of both people and administration. Mistry has masterfully depicted the crushing forces of destruction that wreak havoc wherever power is joined to indifference or (worse) hatred (often based on caste difference). One often has the feeling he’s known all this, it’s so unbearable. While I read, I couldn’t help thinking about other accounts of torture, humiliations, violence of all sorts which satisfied executioners inflict on their defenceless victims. The Nazi camps and their horror, the pitch-dark night of Apartheid, the Soviet gulag prisons, the Khmer fury all came to mind. It’s incredible how, without any planned genocidal intentions, the same sort of mutilating frenzy can exist in humanity. People say: never would beasts behave like that. In India’s slums and governmental projects, abject inhumanity has raged and maimed and defiled innocent beings, often with the blessing of those in power, and the ignorant (and superstitious) acceptance of the victims themselves. This monstrosity exists, and aims not only the body, but also at the mind, the honour, the dignity of human beings, and if certain people still hope that evil is never 100% evil, that there always remain that 1% of humanity in all of God’s children, well, I think Rohinton Mistry’s experience is that no, in some torn beings, there is no more divine spark, therefore no more humanity. Only beastliness.

Looking for references as I was slowly walking through the story, I was reminded of Dickens, and perhaps Balzac. First there is the sheer length of the story, the number of its characters, the variety of situations, the urban setting (cities often accentuate drama), the miracles and disasters, the sense of destinies reunited, and then torn apart, the general pattern unfolding before you, with its symbolism and creativity. Dickens is an optimist, Balzac an analyst. What is Mistry? I don’t know his other books, but I’d be tempted to say a pessimist, in spite of all the beauty and simplicity brought forward, or perhaps because of them. So much purity destroyed… There is, as far as I can sense it, no redemption in A fine Balance. In Dickens’ novels on the other hand, there is an ultimate meaning beyond the pale, all suffering is not in vain, and injustice will finally be punished. In Balzac’s works, an underlying democratic movement, and freedom-creating revolutionary forces are there to guarantee the future of the nation. But I’m not sure what saves India in Mistry’s eyes. The fine balance of hope and despair seems to me too fragile to ensure any lasting salvation. What can be said is that it’s at least a balance, however precarious. Kindness and loving humour balance the forces of indifference and craziness. In the face of monstrous tyrants, half-hidden behind a street porch, a little tailor is laughing benevolently, and sewing clothes for his neighbour.

A Fine Balance would make a majestic movie, even if the director would probably have to cut here and there, and select only certain parts of the story. While I was reading, I had the gentle features of Alok Nath in mind. He was my Ishvar. Deepti Naval would be a great Dina, and I’m sure the two younger ones wouldn’t be hard to find. And for those who have seen Dharavi or the recent Amu, well the background is all too real.

Fot those interested, you might like to have a look at another review of Rohinton Mistry's works on this blog: Family Matters.

[1] I will be quoting from the Faber & Faber paperback edition of 2006.

May 17, 2016

History of IPTA


IPTA is the short form for Indian People’s Theatre Association. In the Hindi belt it is called Bhartiya Jan Natya Sangh, in Assam and West Bengal, Bhartiya Gana Natya Sangh (Gana Sanskriti Sangh)and in Andhra Pradesh, Praja Natya Mandali. The mission statement of IPTA is ‘People’s Theatre Stars the People’. The symbol/logo designed by the famous painter Chitta Prasad is a drummer (nagara vadak), which is a reminder of one of the oldest medium of communication. IPTA was established at the national level on May 25, 1943 in Bombay (now Mumbai). The Government of India issued a commemorative stamp in 1993 on the occasion of its Golden Jubilee.

The history of IPTA runs parallel to the people’s cultural movement in the country and relates to the independence and the anti-fascist movements.

The origin of IPTA followed the first Progressive Writer’s Association Conference in 1936, the Establishment of Youth Cultural Institute at Calcutta in 1940, and setting up of the People’s Theatre at Bangalore by Anil De’ Silva of Sri Lanka in 1941. Anil De’ Silva assisted in formation of IPTA in Bombay in 1942. Various progressive cultural troupes, theatre groups and other progressive cultural activists came together spontaneously and at their own initiative for the formation of IPTA. The name People’s Theatre was suggested by the renowned scientist Homi Jahangir Bhabha who was inspired by Romain Rolland’s book on the concepts of People’s Theatre.

The devastating man-made famine of Bengal in 1942 inspired many a progressive writers and artists. One of them was Binoy Roy who organized Bengal Cultural Squad to sensitize about the impact of famine on the people and to collect money to support the victims. The Squad traveled through the breadth of the country presenting their choir ‘Bhookha Hai Bengal’ created by Vamik Jaunpuri and other songs and plays. Musician Prem Dhawan , drum player Dashrath Lal, singer Reva Roy, actress Usha Dutt were also a part of the Squad. Motivated by the Squad, several cultural groups were formed, including the Agra Cultural Squad. When these groups became effective in their regions, a need was felt to organize them at the national level. Ideologically these groups were inspired by the left movement and the then General Secretary of the Communist Party of India, P.C. Joshi, played an instrumental role to bring these groups on a common forum. General Secrtetary of Progressive Writers’ Association Sajjad Zaheer also contributed a lot.The Indian People’s Theatre Association was thus born.

IPTA came into existence on May 25, 1943 at the National Conference at the Marwari School in Bombay. It was attended by creative artists from all over the country. In his Presidential Address, Professor Hiren Mukherjee gave a call to all those present: “Come writer and the artist, come actor and the play-wright, come all who work by hand or by brain,dedicate yourselves to the task of building a brave new world of freedom and social justice.” The first National Committee comprised of Trade Union Leader N.M. Joshi as the President, Anil De’ Silva as the General Secretary, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas as the Treasurer, Binoy Roy and K.D. Chandi as the Joint Secretaries. The National Committee and regional committees comprised of leading progressive artists from Bombay, Bengal, Punjab, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Malabar, Mangalore, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and representatives of various mass organizations. Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru had sent his message for the Conference. In Conferences that followed Smt. Sarojini Naidu, Dr. Rajendra Prasad and other leaders also sent their messages.

The second and the third Conferences were also held in Bombay in 1944 and 1945. The fourth Conference was held at Calcutta in 1946, fifth at Ahmedabad in 1948, sixth at Allahabad in 1949 and seventh at Bombay in 1953. During this period many progressive thinkers took organizational roles including Anna Bhau Sathe, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Vallathol, Manoranjan Bhattacharya, Niranjan Sen, Dr. Raja Rao, Rajendra Raghuvanshi, M. Nagabhushanam, Balraj Sahani, Eric Cyprian, Sarla Gupta, Dr. S.C. Jog, Binoy Roy, V.P. Sathe, Sudhi Pradhan, Bimal Roy, Tera Singh Chann, Amritlal Nagar, K. Subramaniam, K.V.J. Namboodri, Shiela Bhatia, Dina Gandhi (Pathak), Surinder Kaur, Abdul Malik, R.M. Singh, Vishnu Prasad Rawa, Nagen Kakoti, Janardan Kurup, Nemi Chandra Jain, Venkat Rao Kandilker, Salil Chaudhry, Hemang Biswas, and Amar Sheikh.

The eighth National Conference was held at Natraj Nagri - Ramleela Maidan, Delhi from December 23, 1957 to January 1, 1958. The conference was attended by more than 1000 artists from all over India and inaugurated by the then Vice President Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. The National Committee comprised of Sachin Sen Gupta (Calcutta) as the President, Vishnu Prasad Rava (Gauhati), Rajendra Raghuvanshi (Agra) and K. Subramaniam (Madras) as the Vice Presidents, Niranjan Sen (Calcutta) as the General Secretary, Nirmal Ghosh (Calcutta), Radheyshyam Sinha (Patna), Dr. Raja Rao (Andhra Pradesh) Mughani Abbasi (Bombay) as the Joint Secretaries, and Sajalrao Chaudhary as the Treasurer. Other members of the committee comprised leading artists from Bombay, Assam, Manipur, Bihar, Orissa, Delhi, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Mysore, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

IPTA’s cultural movement portrayed contemporary reality through visual art, traditional art forms with modern thought. It created awareness for socio-political change. The members of IPTA who favoured Art for life (Kala Jeevan Ke Liye) developed a new vision towards arts and aesthetics. They established a new definition of the relationship between art, artists and the audience. IPTA absorbed the live elements of Indian culture, established relationship with the progressive assets of world culture and itself contributed to the world of art by its creativity. IPTA members were oppressed time and again by the power for their progressive and revolutionary ideas and expressions.

The modern choir singing in India was initiated by IPTA. Pt. Ravi Shankar composed Iqbal’s ‘Sare Jahan Se Achha…..’ for the Central Cultural Troupe of IPTA established in 1944. Binoy Roy, Salil Chaudhary, Hemang Vishwas, Prem Dhawan, Narendra Sharma, Sahir Ludhianvi, Shankar Shailendra, Makhdoom Muhiuddin, Sheel, Vallathol, Jyotirmai Moitra, Jyoti Prasad Agrawal, Bhupen Hazarika, Anil Biswas and many others penned and composed songs in different languages. They were responsible for initiating Janasangeet (people’s music) and led it to new heights.

The dance drama of the Central Troupe, namely, Bharat ki Atma (The Spirit of India) and Amar Bharat (Etenal India) made a historic contribution. These presentations involved Ravi Shankar, Binoy Roy, and Aboni Das Gupta as musicians, Shantivardhan and Nagesh as dance directors and Prem Dhawan as lyricist. Simultaneously, traditional folk forms were provided contemporary context by Jyotirmai Moitra in his ‘Navjeevner Gaan’ (dance drama), and by Dr. Raja Rao of Andhra Pradesh in Burra Katha, Veethi Natak, and Hari Katha. The Machhua dance of Malabar and folk dances of North India also gave a new identity to the people’s art. Amar Sheikh’s folk songs in Marathi and Magai Ojha’s Assamese folk instrumental music also found their place in the movement.

IPTA gave a new direction to Indian theatre. It presented people’s pains and sorrows, dreams and ambitions in a new form breaking down the existing and conventional forms. Bijon Bhattacharya’s play ‘Navaanna’ (The New Crop) proved to be path breaking. Shankar-Vasireddy’s ‘Maa Bhumi’, Toppil Bhasi’s ‘Tumne Mujhe Communist Banaya’ (You Made Me a Communist) along with the plays of Dr. Rashid Jahan, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Ali Sardar Jafri, T. Sarmalkar, Balwant Gargi, Jaswant Thakkar, Mama Varerkar, Acharya Atrey, and others established the realistic theatre in the country. Directors and actors included Balraj Sahni, Shambhu Mitra, Habib Tanvir, Bhishma Sahni, Dina Pathak, Rajendra Raghuvanshi, R.M. Singh, Uttpal Dutt, A.K. Hangal, Rameshwar Singh Kashyap, Shiela Bhatia and others. Shadow plays and extempore plays were experimented. Tapas Sen made his contribution in stage light effects and Shilpi Kumar in set design. The professional repertory KPAC (Kerala People’s Art Club) is celebrating its diamond jubilee (60th) this year.

IPTA produced a film Dharti Ke Lal in 1946. This was based on Bijon Bharttacharya’s dramas ‘Navaann’ and ‘Antim Abhilasha’. This film was directed by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas with music direction by Pt. Ravi Shankar, dance direction by Shanti Vardhan and lyrics by Ali Sardar Jafri and Prem Dhawan. Shambhu Mitra, Tripti Mitra, Balraj Sahni, Damayanti Sahni, Usha Dutt, and hundreds of farmers, students, and labourers acted in the film. Many other artists of IPTA including Ritwik Ghatak established their own identity in the film world and affected the realistic cinema stream.

The phase of disintegration (1960-1984)
Around 1960, IPTA disintegrated at the national level though units in Bombay, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and some other places continued their activities. Many theatre groups continued to extend their progressive ideology working independently. During this period Shambhu Mitra’s theatre group ‘Bahuroopi’, Habib Tanvir’s ‘New Theatre’, Ruma Guha Thakurta’s ‘Calcutta Youth Choir’ ,M.B.Shrinivasan’s ‘Madras Youth Choir’ made a mark. Shanti Vardhan, Uttpal Dutt and many others also had performing groups. Inspired by the legacy of People’s Cultural Movement, Jan Natya Manch, Jan Sanskriti Manch, and many other organizations also came into being. In early 1980’s a dialogue was established between IPTA units across the country and attempts were made to reconstitute the National organization.
IPTA’s national convention was called in 1985 at Agra, where 300 representatives from 15 states participated. This was an initiative to reconstitute IPTA at the National level. After more than two decades, in 1986, the ninth National Conference was held at Hyderabad. The noted film director Shyam Benegal inaugurated the Conference. Kaifi Azmi was elected as the President. Hemang Viswas, Rajendra Raghuvanshi, C. Nagabhushnam, A.K. Hangal, Dina Pathak, M.S. Sathyu, Bhishm Sahni, Subrat Banerjee, Sayyad Abdul Malik, Toppil Bhasi, Rameshwar Singh Kashyap, Narayan Surve, M.V. Sriniwasan, Jaswant Thakkar, Surinder Kaur and Ruma Guha Thakurta were elected as Vice Presidents. Other office bearers were: Govind Vidyarthi as General Secretary, Abid Razvi, K. Pratap Reddy, Jitendra Raghuvanshi, Tanvir Akhtar, and Amitabh Pandey as Secretaries.

The Conference declaration said: We, the old and new workers of IPTA re-dedicate ourselves to organize IPTA into a powerful and effective National Movement. We trust the people of India who are countering the divisive forces in the country and we take pride in building live cultural relationships by joining hands.

The Tenth National Conference was held at Jaipur in 1992, the eleventh at Trissure (Kerala) in 2001,  the Twelfth at Lucknow in 2005 and The Thirteenth at Bhilai(Chhattisgarh) in 2011. Freedom fighter, renowned theatre and film artist Padma Bhushan Shri. A. K. Hangal is currently the President of IPTA National Committee and Senior dramatist–director Ranbir Singh is the Working President. Presently more than 600 units of IPTA are active in 24 states and union territories across the country.
- Jitendra Raghuvanshi
General Secretary

May 1, 2016

Woolf's "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown"


"Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown"
by Aleksandar Stevic

“Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” is a 1923 essay by Virginia Woolf. However, it should be noted that much of the argument of the essay Woolf also developed in a number of other texts, including “Modern Novels” (1919), “Character in Fiction” (1924) and “Modern Fiction” (1925). In fact, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” is just one of several closely related versions of Woolf's account of the state of the modern novel, and it seems appropriate to read the essay with other versions of the argument in mind.

There are at least two central features that “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” shares with texts like “Modern Fiction”; first, there is the shared concern with representation, and especially representation of character; and second, this concern is almost always explored with respect to the literary practices of Edwardian writers.

It is typical of Woolf to define her theoretical position against the generation of novelists that immediately precedes her own. Woolf assesses the state of the novel and voices her own expectations of the genre precisely trough the analysis of what she felt were the failures of Edwardian novelists. “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” is written as a polemical answer to Arnold Bennett's claim that the novel is in crisis due to the failure of Georgian novelists in the art of “character-making” which he finds crucial for successful novel-writing. Woolf partially accepts both Bennett's account of the current state of the novel and agrees with the claim that the representation of characters is central to the novel as a genre. She accepts that “the novel is a very remarkable machine for the creation of human character” (384), and agrees that it is precisely the crisis in character-making that sparks a wider crisis of the genre: “And it is because this essence, this character-making power, has evaporated that novels are for the most part the soulless bodies we know, cumbering our tables and clogging our minds” (383-384). The point of contention for Woolf is primarily the question of the origins of this crisis. While for Bennett Georgians are to be blamed, Woolf, predictably, locates the problem in the previous generation of writers – Galsworthy, Wells and Bennett himself.

Obviously, the dispute bears clear marks of a conflict between two literary generations, but in doing so it also touches on some crucial theoretical questions, and is highly instructive on the issue of Woolf's stance on representation and on the status of character in fiction. The charge against Edwardian writers in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” is that while representing a vast number of details, they fail in creating believable characters. In their writings “every sort of town is represented, and innumerable institutions”, but “in all this vast conglomeration of printed pages, in all that congeries of streets and houses, there isn't a single man or woman we know” (385). It appears that in the Edwardian fiction Woolf sees signs of excessive pedantry and attention to detail, but lack of ability to convey complex characters. In this failure Edwardians are firmly opposed to the “astonishing vividness and reality of the characters” of the Victorian novel (385). Woolf apparently believed that after the end of the Victorian period, a crucial change took place in the English novel, undermining the task of character-representation.

Woolf identified several causes of this change. First, the turn towards moralism and social reform visible in authors like Galsworthy. The second factor was the influence of Dostoevsky whose characters appear to be constructed in such a way that undermined both the Victorian understanding of character and any attempt to seriously deal with character in English fiction. “But what keyword could be applied to Raskolnikov, Mishkin, Stavrogin, or Alyosha? These characters without any features at all. We go down into them as we descend into some enormous cavern. Lights swing about; we hear the bottom of the sea; it is all dark, terrible, and uncharted” (386). Although Woolf doesn't go into great detail in juxtaposing Dostoevsky's method of characterization with that of Victorian novelists such as Dickens or Eliot, it seems clear that she sees Victorian characters as clearly defined and coherent, while those of Dostoevsky bear a certain dose of unprecedented complexity, internal conflict and lack of definite shape (386-387). It seems that that the influence of Dostoevsky has brought the Victorian character into a state of crisis which Edwardians were not able to overcome.

For Woolf the dispute over character is clearly crucial. Character is both the central category of life outside literature and the constitutive element of fiction: “To disagree about character is to differ in the depths of the being” (387). And it is precisely the centrality of character that makes the failure of Edwardians so fundamental. It is also clear from Woolf's argumentation that the success of “character-making” is inextricably tied to the category of verisimilitude.

Several far-reaching conclusions can be drawn from the Woolf's argumentation in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”. There is an assumption that the novel has character representation as its central purpose. It seems that for Woolf, this is not historically conditioned, i.e. “character-making” is not a function of any particular period of literary history, but rather an inherent feature of the genre. The question for Woolf is how is this task to be carried out. It is apparently at the level of the means of representation that historical change takes place. Portraying characters is central, but our understanding of what character is changes. As her discussion of Dostoevsky shows, the introduction of a new understanding of character can render certain ways of representing characters obsolete.

But while in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” Woolf tends to provide an intrinsic explanation for the change that needs to take place in literature, in many other instances the argument runs somewhat differently, the emphasis being on the actual historical change in human character and human relations. Thus the famous comments on human nature radically changing around 1910 (422-423). Although this point is not voiced particularly strongly in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”, it is clear from the claims made elsewhere that creating a believable character, “a flesh-and-blood Mrs. Brown”, means abandoning Edwardian interest in outside details and embracing the full complexity and incoherence of what is to be represented. This can then easily be construed as a plea for a new kind of psychological realism. As Woolf puts it while praising Joyce in “Modern Fiction”, “let us record the atoms as they fall on the mind in order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.” (161)
All quotations are taken from Virginia Woolf, Collected Essays, Vol. 3, London: Hogarth Press, 1966

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