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What Really Did Happen in 2004? - Part I

Ramakrishna said: Listen to a story.

Once a man entered a wood and saw a small animal on a tree. He came back and told another man that he had seen a creature of a beautiful red color on a certain tree. The second man replied: ‘When I went into the wood, I also saw that animal. But why do you call it red? It is green.’ Another man who was present contradicted them both and insisted that it was yellow.

Presently others arrived and contended that it was grey, violet, blue, and so forth and so on. At last they started quarrelling among themselves. To settle the dispute they all went to the tree. They saw a man sitting under it. On being asked, he replied: ‘Yes, I live under this tree and I know the animal very well. All your descriptions are true.

Sometimes it appears red, sometimes yellow, and at other times blue, violet, grey, and so forth. It is a chameleon. And sometimes it has no color at all. Now it has a color, and now it has none.’

- A Parable by Sri Ramakrishna

We − and my reference is to the universal human “we” − are fond of telling stories, and we can’t resist seeing ourselves as actors at the center of narratives we construct. Understandably, our natural perspectives are subjective, and our first inclination is to adopt a vicarious stance − to sympathize with one or another actor in a story, and to believe the messages of our senses. The so-called objective and critical views are indeed perspectives we adopt, are nothing but constructions on a base of subjective perceptions. We interpret the evidence of our senses, guided by received wisdom, by culturally-defined interpretations arrived at by personal interpretative filters we maintain in our own wetwarethe new name, these days, in computing for the human brain.

Given this background, are you surprised reading different and differing versions of what happened in 2004 as to who should head the motley group, the United Progressive Alliance that the Congress Party had cobbled together before the general elections? What really happened? How and why Sonia Gandhi decided not to stake her claim, why was Manmohan Sigh chosen to head the UPA government and, more importantly, why were the claims of many another veterans overlooked?

Let me attempt an answer (or rather possible answers) by adopting a seemingly unusual – but really very effective − method of analyzing a film. And that film is Rashomon, the world-renowned Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 Japanese period drama film. (The name of the film refers to the enormous city gate of Kyoto.)

It is based on two stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. The film is known for a plot device which involves various characters providing alternative, self-serving and contradictory versions of the same incident.

There are certain books and movies that assume the status of landmarks in the intellectual history of the time in which they appear. The movie “Rashomon” is certainly one of them. Like Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, which too chronologically dates to the beginning of the first decade after the world war that reshaped history. “Rashomon” is deeply disturbing and lingers long in the viewer’s mind, forever casting doubts about an individual’s perception of reality and understanding of the concept of “truth,” and ultimately the meaning of life.

Like the Beckett’s play, the movie’s cast of characters is small, but unlike the play, “Rashomon” is packed with action and stirring emotions. It could perhaps be compared to Shakespeare’s play, “King Lear,” in its emphasis on different interpretations of apparently simple actions, although Shakespeare’s play is, of course, much more complicated.

As Concept and Meme

It’s rare indeed for any film’s title to become permanently ensconced in English language usage – and of all the films that too the production of Japan − then still recovering from the ravages of a humiliating defeat in the Second World War that the country was trying to forget. The phrase it gave rise to was “one of those Rashomon situations.” To a large number of well-informed people (only a miniscule fraction of whom might have ever seen the movie) it means – “he says one thing, she says another, the third guy says something else, and who knows what reality is anyway?” The phrase has deeply infiltrated all cultures.

The classic Rashomon story, in which the very participants in the same event see it from different viewpoints, naturally raises the perennial questions of truth versus history, fact versus perception, and the interaction between all those concepts. Is truth something factual that happened or an event which unfolded, or is truth the way people understand or relate to those happenings? Is truth culture-bound or is it universal? Is it an objective, measurable quantity, or a subjective, value-laden quality? Is what historians tell us the Truth, or is every narrative, presented to and by the historian, a section of the Truth? Can history, fact, and truth be related by anyone objectively and independently of values and perceptions? What is more operationally true: something that happened but people dismiss as insignificant, or something that did not happen but occupies the center of their concerns and activities?

Rashoman Story

And now back to the film. It opens on a woodcutter and a priest sitting beneath the Rajomon city gate to stay dry in a heavy downpour. A commoner joins them and they tell him that they’ve witnessed something disturbing, the story of which they then begin recounting to him.

Woodcutter Story

The woodcutter claims he found the body of a murdered samurai three days earlier while looking for wood in the forest; upon discovering the body, he narrated, he fled in a panic to notify the authorities. The priest says that he saw the samurai with his wife traveling the same day the murder took place. Both men were then summoned to testify in court, where they met the captured bandit Tajomaru, who claimed responsibility for the rape and murder.

Bandit’s Version

Tajomaru, a notorious brigand, claims that he tricked the samurai to step off the mountain trail with him to have a look at a cache of ancient swords he had discovered. In the grove he tied the samurai to a tree, and then brought the samurai’s wife there. She initially tried to defend herself with a dagger, but was eventually “seduced” by the bandit. The woman, filled with shame, then begged him to duel to the death with her husband, to save her from the guilt and shame of having two men know how she was dishonored. Tajomaru honorably set the samurai free and dueled with him.

In Tajomaru’s recollection they fought skillfully and fiercely, but in the end Tajomaru was the victor and the woman ran away. At the end of the story to the court, he is asked about an expensive dagger owned by the samurai’s wife. He deposed that, in the ensuing confusion, he forgot all about it, and that it was foolish of him to leave behind such a valuable object.

Wife’s Story

The samurai’s wife tells an altogether different story to the court. She says that Tajomaru left after raping her. She begged her husband to forgive her, but he simply looked at threateningly. Nonetheless, she freed him and begged him to kill her so that she could get rid of the deep sense of shame. He continued to stare at her with a look of loathing. His expression disturbed her so much that she fainted with dagger in hand. She awoke to find her husband dead with the dagger in his chest. She attempted to kill herself, but failed in all her efforts.

Samurai’s Version

The court then hears the story of the deceased samurai, told through a medium. The samurai claims that Tajomaru, after raping his wife, asked her to travel with him. She accepted the offer but asked Tajomaru to kill her husband so that she would not feel the guilt of belonging to two men. Tajomaru, shocked by this request, grabbed her, and gave the samurai a choice of letting the woman go or killing her. (“For these words alone,” the dead samurai recounted, “I was ready to pardon his crime.”) The woman fled, and Tajomaru, after attempting to recapture her, gave up and set the samurai free. The samurai then killed himself with his wife’s dagger. Later, somebody removed the dagger from his chest.

Woodcutter’s story

Back at Rashomon gate (after the trial), the woodcutter explains to the commoner that the samurai’s story was a lie. The woodcutter had actually witnessed the rape and murder, he said, but just did not want to get too involved at the trial. According to the woodcutter’s very different story, Tajomaru begged the samurai’s wife to marry him, but the woman, instead, freed her husband. The husband was initially unwilling to fight Tajomaru, saying he would not risk his life for a spoiled woman, but the woman then criticized both him and Tajomaru, saying they were not real men and that a real man would fight for a woman’s love. She spurred the men to fight one another, but then hid her face in fear once they raised their swords. They were visibly fearful as they began fighting. They began a duel that was much more pitiful than Tajomaru’s account had made it sound, and Tajomaru ultimately won through a stroke of luck. After some hesitation he killed the samurai, who begged for his life on the ground, and the woman fled in horror. Tajomaru could not catch her, but took the samurai’s sword and left the scene limping.


At the gate, the woodcutter, priest, and commoner are interrupted from their discussion of the woodcutter’s account by the sound of a crying baby. They find the baby abandoned in a basket, and the commoner takes a kimono and an amulet that have been left for the baby. The woodcutter reproaches the commoner for stealing from the abandoned baby, but the commoner chastised him. Having deduced that the woodcutter in fact stole the dagger from the scene of the murder, the commoner mocked at him, “a bandit calling another a bandit”. The commoner leaves Rashomon, claiming that all men are motivated only by self-interest.

These deceptions and lies shake the priest’s faith in humanity. He is brought back to his senses when the woodcutter reached for the baby in the priest’s arms. The priest is suspicious at first, but the woodcutter explains that he intends to take care of the baby along with his own children, of whom he already has six.

This simple revelation recasts the woodcutter’s story and the subsequent theft of the dagger in a new light. The priest gives the baby to the woodcutter, saying that the woodcutter has given him reason to continue having hope in humanity.

The film closes on the woodcutter, walking home with the baby. The rain has stopped and the clouds have opened up revealing the sun in contrast to the beginning where it was heavily overcast.

During shooting of the film, the cast approached Kurosawa en masse with the script and asked him, “What does it mean?” The answer Kurosawa gave at that time and also in his Something like an Autobiography (1982), is: Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings − the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are.

Isn’t it a fact of epistemology that no one ever really tells the truth? All of us tell a part of truth and that too deeply tinged by our predilections − known or unknown to our own selves. In case of an event to which there were several witnesses, each one recapitulates as to what happened in a way to make him emerge in the best possible light.

Types of Chameleons

Chameleons are famous for their quick color-changing abilities. However, it’s a common misconception that they do this to camouflage themselves. In fact, chameleons mostly change color to regulate their body temperatures or to send out signals to each other. And since chameleons can’t generate their own body heat, changing the color of their skin is a way to maintain a favorable body temperature. A cold chameleon may become dark to absorb more heat, whereas a hotter chameleon may turn pale to reflect the sun’s heat. Another manifestation of the universal law of self-preservation!

But how do they pull off these colorful changes? The outermost layer of the chameleon’s skin is transparent. Beneath this are several more layers of skin that contain specialized cells called chromatophores. The chromatophores at each level are filled with sacs of different kinds of pigment. And varying the activity of the different chromatophores in all the layers of the skin, the chameleon can produce a whole variety of colors and patterns.

Politicians − and Sonia and Rahul and Natwar all belong to this genre − are, like chameleons. They are possessed by two basic drives: fight to survive in the rat race and crave for power. They are also born actors constantly trying to play different roles as per different scripts, to keep them in the limelight.

We, the spectators are, like the man living under the tree in the Ramakrishna parable, who aren’t taken in when politicians change color like chemoleons. That’s in their nature to do it.

Continued to “Sonia Gandhi: A Consummate Operator who Tumbled”

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Comment The changes in a chameleon's body skin colour is a dramatic representation of the phenomenon of skin colour in humans, dark or light according to climes, whose most expressive involuntary skin reaction is the blush - noticeable even on dark-skinned faces. What is interesting is that language as an expression of understanding distinguishes between the voluntary and the involuntary subject, but identifies them as the same in any given life form. This leads to anomalous constructions whereby the voluntary subject is attributed involuntary actions not least of those internal operations, cell formation and organ function. Science is prone to this construction. Thus, it is said that the pattern on a butterfly wing (involuntary) is created by the butterfly (voluntary) to camouflage it from predators, whereby we credit the voluntary subject with astuteness that it indeed it conducts itself with; or that the prowling tiger subject has evolved its stripes (invol) to camouflage it against the foliage it moves in (vol) to which we credit the voluntary subject with powers of cunning adaptation. If a general subject is ascribed as a formative agent in nature it is called 'evolution' - not because such a voluntary subject exists it but because it is virtually observed in the effects to act. Science is constrained in its language because what it observes implies its own virtual subject at base. But what if each subject of every living form is derived from such a virtual subject, whereby what is perceived to be acting in a voluntary way is really the continuation of the involuntary that is its make-up? What if each named subject, as various as there are individuals, is but a virtual manifestation of the subject that formed them, most apparently in the involuntary aspect of a given body and mind, in the first place, and this real subject, unlike evolution, we call God?

08/18/2014 19:42 PM

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