A Study of Mridula Garg’s Anitya
Ten steps forward … ten steps back … forward again … nowhere to run to …the nails were not in the chair but in the (his) flesh. (p.112)
This sentence could be a statement summarizing Mridula Garg’s novel Anitya. This novel is also subtitled Halfway to Nowhere. Originally written in Hindi in 1970s and translated into English in 2010, this is a powerful piece of writing which impresses the readers for its deliberation and discernment. The novel poignantly describes the pain and anguish in the human condition and reveals tears in the nature of things. It is not a mere political, social or revolutionary novel.
Anitya is not the chief protagonist though he is an important and significant one suggesting a nowhere progress. Avijit the elder brother and Anitya the younger one are both the most important protagonists. They are foils to each other, both driving home the truth of the futility of life. Mridula Garg is a unique novelist for she is far above the Marxist doctrine, the mythological overtones, feminist thrust and regional culture fix as pointed by Manohar Shyam Joshi, quoted in the introduction.
The Family is the title of the first chapter. Shyama, daughter of Justice Singhania is Avijit’s ever sickly wife has four children, Shubha and Prabha, grown up daughters, a younger one called Khokee (Sumitra) and an autistic boy Sudhanshu. Anitya is Avijit’s brother, a discerning man with a revolutionary character in spite of his affection for his sister-in-law. The brother liked revolution and participated in the freedom struggle which runs as a undercurrent for Avijit’’s thought processes which lead to a lot of befuddled self-pity. At one level, the younger one is more discerning and thoughtful than the elder one Avijit, who is washed away in the flood of escapades with Kajal and Sangeeta and hopes to get reprieve with a confession to his sister-in-law Ranjani. Kajal who knows Avijit for long is a revolutionary in the sense that she wants to show her aplomb for fight. She teaches history in a college in Delhi.
Sangeeta is the daughter of Yagyadutt Sharma. Sharma had only two passions, fighting for independence and collecting mistresses. But he is kind enough to send rupees twenty-five to Sangeeta’s mother till her death. Avijit helps her getting education and takes her to the position of a doctor but is entangled in sexual relation with the young woman. She goes to jail saying that she killed husband Suresh Mandelya. The servants in Avijit’s house first Swarna and her husband Lachchman Maharaj first and then Shukhla are the cast in the novel with individual characters and interesting foibles.
Prabha the eldest daughter of Avijit has a revolutionary penchant and Kajal teaches history in the college where she studies. Kajal, first Mukherjee’s wife, gets separated from her hubby. She goes away leaving behind her son. Avijit has some illicit relation with Kajal, though the woman is not good looking and dark skinned with pock marks. After his marriage the revolutionary ardour in Avijit just evaporates and what remains is his lust and then his disillusionment. Avijit’s younger brother knows all his weaknesses but treats him with both respect and understanding. As General Manager of his father-in-law’s company Avijit is dedicated to his job spends his time with his always unwell wife, an autistic little son and three daughters.
Avijit goes into flash backs of the freedom movement and remembers often the book on Bhagat Singh he was writing years ago and his careful activities during the struggle along with true revolutionaries like his friend Chadha. While young Avijit also goes to jail, the freedom struggle haunts him as a disappointment. Kajal, another character feels frustrated. The struggle for independence did not achieve anything except being a change of governance. Anitya still believes in revolution and struggle though Chadha was dead after incarceration, injuries and disease. He does not have the courage of even Kajal whom he uses as he does Dr Sangeeta.
Sangeeta was only sixteen when she teetered on the threshold of trust and distrust. But Avijit was thirty-two then. (p. 36) She remembers what her mother told her. This is what Dr Sangeeta says to Avijit: “You know, widows are a no-no in India. A woman has to keep her husband whether she wants to or not. If she has a husband, she can do what she likes, but once in a widow’s attire, all doors close. Unlike the West we don’t have a merry widow here.” (Sangeeta to Avijit) (p.14) She is bitter and hates herself and tells Avijit once: ‘remember two things. One, girls who are educated on donations always put “ji” after the names of their lovers. Two, they take care to marry the sons of rich men.” (p.no 15) It is helplessness along with bitterness that ultimately ruins her. Sangeeta remembers her mother’s words very distinctly and very often:
whether you sell your love to your husband or your lover, always put high price on it. Nobody values something that comes cheap. The only difference between a wife and a prostitute is that the prostitute gets her wages in lump sum whereas the wife barters her body for life in the hope of securing a pension. (p.203)
Though educated and beautiful, she never got what was her due. Her end was pitiable. She fiercely claims the murder of her husband Suresh Mandelya, a very rich person whom she hated and surrenders to the police. The man who educated and ‘used’ her doesn’t go to see her in spite of her request. Anitya reminds his brother of Sangeeta’s request sent through Anitya But Avijit, the guilt stricken one, doesn’t have the courage to see her just fearing that he might be implicated. (Surprisingly by her!) He does not go any far except ratiocination, self-pity and guilt consciousness. Compunction makes him think only of Ranjana, Shyama his wife’s cousin.
The important characters are all given to thinking aloud within. Each appears to have come to a little piece of understanding of tears in the nature of things. Avijit is a failure and he is shown at the end as one in delirium both in living and in thinking. He contracts a condition of cerebral malaria returning from Barni, where he goes even while not doing well in strict obedience to his father-in-law’s instruction, to sell a piece of land, which he bought very cheap years ago. This adamancy is the outcome of his guilt, lust and ineffectual action. In a delirium he thinks of his guilt with compunction and believes in getting some relief from a confession to Ranjana.
… There must have been a fire raging in the turbulent river which has thrown me up. But I don’t have the energy to stay afloat. Nor can I succumb passively to the wild onslaught of the waves and go under. I can only push my head up and scream … Help! Help me! Take my hand and pull me out. It’s you who will have to try hard, I can’t. I have no strength left. Still the fire would take time to die out … If you pull me, I’ll offer no resistance. True, my will to live has dwindled, still …(p.244)
A blazing fire within torments him even at the beginning of the novel. Looking back (there is a chapter with this title) this is what he feels:
…If I had married Kajal, I would have been free of all crosses … Syama, Sangeeta … inaction, guilt. Could I really? Would not the heat of the raging fire in my body still fling me on this scorching wasteland! Did I really think of every woman as a body? Did I not respect Kajal’s personality, admire her rationality, and give her the affection of a friend? I did. The only thing that I did not give her was love. No, I did not think of every woman as a body, never.
Aren’t you forgetting something?
Sangeeta! God, will I never get peace in this life? (p. 60)
Guilt consciousness bothers Avijit from the day he found Chadha more courageous and committed than he himself is. The sum of twenty thousand rupees Chadha kept with him to help rebellion is spent. He tries to justify himself but guilt keeps burning him. We are told Avijit’s voice weakened as he tried to justify himself
‘The last time you met Chadha, did you ask him where he lived’ he heard a voice ask him.
‘Of course I asked him. He was the editor of some magazine in Allahabad. In fact I asked him because I wanted to know if he had an income.’
‘You could have written to the magazine and found out where he lived.’
‘I wrote to him a couple of times but he did not reply. I thought he did not want ot continue the friendship. I could not force myself upon him …’
‘When you saw someone else’s name as the editor, what did you think? That Chadha had died?’
‘I never saw the magazine. I didn’t know when Chadha gave up the job and left Allahabad.’
‘You did not feel the need to find out?’
‘I was busy …the house …Shyama …office …the business …’
‘Money, my dear brother, money. The only way to make money is to make money only.’
‘I did not make money illegally. I earned it for my family …’
‘And for that any method is legitimate.’
‘I did not say that.’
‘No, I did. That’s the beauty of capitalism: people may be illegitimate, money, never.’
‘It’s just a saying. Why get upset?’ (p.112)
As an idealist in the hot blood of youth, Avijit was fired with ideas of struggle and independence. He wrote a book on Bhagat Singh.
How is one to define the scorched-earth policy in the colonial context? ... Britain is willing to arm the Indians on the war front to turn British defeat into victory but not for protecting their own country! Our soldiers fight in the blazing desert of Egypt, Syria and Iraq with exemplary bravery just to prove their outstanding courage. And look at the reward their families get for the display of courage!
Sentence upon sentence from the book resounded in Avijit’s ears, as if it was emoted on the stage. He had to begin to write the book in 1940 when Churchill became the prime minister of Britain.
… Freedom at what cost? The answer was clear to them … at the cost of others. … Who can say what is right? Who except history and has history not always been written by the victorious…. (p.51)
In his delirium when Avijit’s wife tells him that God would set things right he only thinks he was listening to Justice Singhania. ‘God!’ Avijit laughed. “Good, Justice Singhal, very good! Your religious faith is quite exemplary. We are not far different, Justice Singhal, you and I. We both know that when a cat eats a rat, it’s justified but when a rat hunts a cat, it’s a crime! After all, justice can’t go against nature.’ (p. 253)
We are told ‘Anitya was the black sheep of the family. Avijit’s late mother was his mother too but he was four years younger than Avijit … He was a cynic, an irresponsible vagrant, and very dear to Avijit. Anitya knew that Avijit loved him and took full advantage of it. ‘Apart from Avijit, he took advantage of only strangers.’ (pp 30-31)
Apart from it is Avijit who remains in the readers’ mind for his judgment and understanding, discernment and deliberation.
With his uncanny ability to look through, Anitya is not happy after the struggle and the new condition called independence.
Martyrdom should not come easy. Anitya used to say, one day this country would collapse under the load of its martyrs. A thrashing from the police was enough to put one in the list. Martyrdom should not come so easy! Avijit knew - had always known - how insignificant his so called great sacrifices had been. (p.30)
Kajal is another very interesting character with her own discernment. She could have married Anitya. She had regrets after she broke up with Mukherjee, the man who made good use of his political gumption to get into the government. Kajal realizes that Anitya is a better man.
‘What a blunder I made! When he said, “I love you.” I should have grabbed his hand and never let it go. One thing Anitya would never do is to let you down.’
Avijit laughed and, immersed in memory, did not pay heed to the latter part of what she ( Kajal) said. (p. 55)
Chadha is a contrast, rather a foil to Avijit. He believed in struggle, got beaten, jailed and finally died making sacrifices. Avijit remembers Chadha.” ‘One has to pay a price for one’s penchant for revolution, my friends’ he had taken a deep breath, laughed uproariously, and choked. Avijit also remembers his conversation with Chadha. He is sincere and appears convincing. Avijit does not appear to have real concern for him. Chadha asks Avijit ‘What about you? Did you go to jail?’ We are told Chadha had been a C class prisoner. He had high fever … got beaten during it … his leg broke …/. He was incarcerated in solitary confinement … his blanket was taken away … the fever turned into pneumonia … (p. 66)
Avijit was also in jail in 1943 in Calcutta. But his revolutionary ardour is not limitless. We have this conversation between Avijit and his daughter Shubha who is very much interested in theatre and action.
‘Mummy was saying you went to jail in 1932 too and that’s why you could not become ICS.’
“No big deal’.’
‘My friends say your father should be a minister since he spent time in jail.’
‘No, Shubha, no. don’t think that. We all fought for independence, each in his own way. Some of us got recompense and some did not, but we did not fight to be rewarded….(p.77)
Avijit knows how to ‘live’. He plays hard to tire the body to deal with his wayward mind. Things become hard for him with office work, looking after his sickly wife, obeying his father-in-law Justice Singhania and libidinous sexual escapades. He thinks: ‘Sangeeta, Kajal, Chadha! They were the reality, the living truth. The past was our present … no, not the past but the ghost of the past! That past possessed us just the way a ghost did’. (p.158) He is clever but not really honest. He has ways of dealing with things, however hard they are for him. ‘The best way to deal with a wayward mind is to tire the body, keep it on its toes, not letting it rest for a moment. Work or play, just keep at it … every moment, every second.’ (p.104) Avijit tells his daughter on the way to the club to play tennis. We are told: The members of the club were intrigued. He (Avijit) had always been a good player but now he seemed driven by a demon that did not allow him to lose a single game. A vanquished man’s lust to win is a terrible thing indeed. (p. 190)
Avijit thinks and thinks very deeply whatever may be his failings. Thinking well does not make one’s actions noble. He has a belief and tells his wife: ‘Thinking generates pus in the mind. … the mind of a man, know what it is? A pustule. A putrid boil, that festers and ripens little by little each moment. The more you think, the greater the stink. The boil has to ripen fully, how will it burst otherwise?’ (p. 247)
Sangeeta at one point becomes a pain in the neck to Avijit. He is afraid of Sangeeta telling his wife about his lusty behaviour. The trembling accusation in Sangeeta’s eyes matched the pulsating fear in his heart! The days passed … it became a habit to live with guilt. One day Sangeeta asked,
‘Will you marry me, Avijit jee?’
Cold sweat poured from every pore as he said, “I’m married.’
‘But you don’t love her.’
‘Who said I don’t?’
(Avijit’s hands were round Sangeeta’s neck) He would have killed her. But that was exactly what he had done. There were many ways of killing. (p. 154)
Out of the many ways of thinking, the worst as we see in the case of the treatment meted out to Sangeeta is to make the young woman marry Suresh Mandelya. Sangeeta married Suresh Mandelya an ugly person (though a millionaire) and gets humiliated when he does not sleep with her. Trapped in his strong hands, she was forced to look at him. His thickset, dark skinned face glistened with sweat. His heavy jaw was clenched. His broad nostrils flared and fluttered. His small pig-like eyes smouldered like embers. His thick, red lips trembled. Touched by a plaintive lust, his face looked even more hideous. (page 209) At this point she bursts out:
‘Why did you marry me?’ she asked as if she was a street vendor hawking her wares.
‘I love you Sangeeta’, he (Suresh) said in a broken voice.
‘Do you? Then love me. Why whine?’
We are told:
Her heart kept calling, Avijit…If only this hand was yours. If only it were you who had waited so ardently for my love. Why couldn’t this body be yours, which had turned back upon its lust though wracked with the torment of love? If I could have one more chance with you Avijit, I would destroy you completely! (p.210)
Prabha loved revolution and went far beyond where her father could go. She turns a revolutionary, marries Kailash Rao without telling anyone. She is impressed by a teacher in Sitabadi College, Kajal, her father’s friend. She has her own ideas and opinions.
‘…What is the point of an Independence which leaves the administration and education policy unchanged? The government kept the bureaucracy intact because it could not find easy options. By that token, Lenin should have continued with the officers of the Czarist regime after the October Revolution. What do people want Independence for, to bring revolutionary change in the country or to give free hand to opportunists to rule it?’ Prabha kept on (p. 163)
‘How can one person continue to represent the people if he is elected once in five years and not questioned in between? What if the euphoria of power makes him work for himself rather than the common good? In any case class differences can’t be eliminated without a revolutionary change in the common system. The only difference between people who sell their labour for money and slaves is that they can change their master, they sell themselves, instead of the master doing it.” (p. 181) ‘There is no such thing as a representative government’, Prabha goes on some time later:
Avijit’s heart grows restless when he thinks of the man who may love Kajal:
I can’t be that man … I can never be … I never was. Kajal wants martyrdom. The euphoria of martyrdom is a terrible thing. When someone like Lenin, Tito, or Bhagat Singh embraces it he can elevate the sentiment into a war strategy. But not many martyrs manage to win the war. Does Kajal have the discernment and realism to mould the notion of self-sacrifice into a strategy? Perhaps she has. But what about her partners? What about Prabha? Does Prabha know what she wants? Isn’t she too young? Bhagat Singh was only twenty-three when he was hanged. Does discernment increase or lessen with age?
Does age have nothing to do with it?
Prabha may not know what she wants but what about me?
Do I know what I want?
Do I want to know?
Did I ever? (p.199)
When he is told about Prabha’s running away, Avijit feels very unhappy and tells himself:
Yes, Prabha and Kailash Rao were in love. I know of it. No, she did not ask me to see him. Why not? Really! Whoever heard of the younger sister meeting the future bridegroom of the elder one? Why did she not inform anyone at home? You know Prabha, a girl of independent views, against dowry too. A contrary girl; took pleasure in shocking people. Take this letter. She had planned it all. Written it and pushed it under the ash tray… (p. 219)
The really lousy quality in Avijit surfaces when he does not go to Sangeeta when she sends word to him through Anitya, when she is in a dire calamity. Suresh was killed and Sangeeta wants to tell the police that she herself killed him. She hopes that Avijit may help her being a lawyer. Hoe does not go but we are told:
Avijit broke into a sweat. Had she really murdered the man? A girl like Sangeeta could do anything. But why was she calling him? Was she trying to pin the murder on him? Was it a conspiracy to trap him? (p. 222)
The newspaper reported that Dr. Sangeeta, wife of the famous industrialist Suresh Mandelya, had admitted shooting her husband. The belongings of the house were safe and there were no signs of a forced entry. But … when Prabha and Kailash left Suresh’s room it was Suresh who was holding the pistol, not Sangeeta. (p.235)
Shubha is an interesting girl, the only one being truly pleasant. Dr Jain promises Shubha that he would get her admission to the Film and Drama Institute at Bombay. We are told:
All she knew was that she had the making of a great coward. Intellectuals who felt bound to look at the dark side of every bright project and the bright side of every dark one, turned into passive cowards. Artists did too. One could either live in the real or the fantasy world. What better ruse to invoke the fantasy than the mask of an actor?
This surely is one way of thinking. She opened the suit case and started packing her clothes in it slowly. After a while, she paused and mumbled again
Slowly, ever so slowly falls the deodar tree
Entangled in the curtain of make believe
As its own shadow it lives happily ever after (p.243)
Deliberation and discernment in the novel make it thought provoking. All the important characters have deliberation and discernment though in different degrees, which only contribute to pain and anguish to each at the end. The novelist looks deep into things. The way she took the narration forward and backward, filling it with the inward musings of various characters makes the readers think. The interior monologues of the important characters reveal the depth of the novelist’s cerebration. The novel ends significantly with delirium, not death of any of the protagonists. The readers understand the tears in the nature of things.
Anitya Halfway to Nowhere by Mridula Garg, Translated from Hindi by Seema Segal. Oxford Univ. Press, New Delhi, 2010
Page numbers given in brackets in the essay refer to this text .