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The Psychological Sense of Exile and Alienation
|by Dr. Amit Shankar Saha|
The sense of exile and alienation is a complex issue because of its psychological origin. At any point of time, human beings live in a definite geographical location and within a particular social setting. They are also tuned-in to certain cultural norms and have specific emotional investments. Basically they live in ‘spaces’ that have either physical presence or are born out of such concrete parameters into conceptual presences: geographical and social spaces fall into the former category whereas cultural and emotional spaces belong to the latter. But all these spaces are external and hence to communicate with them human beings need something intrinsic that would reach out to various synaptical points outside. This ‘something’ that arises internally and connects with the external is the mental-space. It connects then procures, engulfs and envelops to form a personal universe for each individual; making every individual’s world a psychological manifestation of the individual’s mind. This phagocytic nature of the mental-space fuses the external with the internal creating a spectrum of senses. Different people perceive the same thing differently. If reality is a constant, its perception is a variable and this difference in perception is because of the distinctive quality of each individual’s mental-space.
The sense of exile and alienation has different connotations for immigrants and for non-immigrants. For the diaspora it stems from their geographical and social dislocation and from cultural and emotional displacement. On the other hand, the sense of alienation and exile in technically purely indigenous and non-diasporic social settings does not have any of those extrinsic causes except in the case of internal exile that generally arises due to political reasons. So for a native the cause is the claustrophobia that arises due to the feeling that one is pressed around by a crowd with which one cannot identify. There arises the sense of non-belonging and the sense of being an outsider despite living within a milieu in which one is born and bred. Claustrophobia is a psychic phenomenon and hence a characteristic of the mental-space. When the mind cannot reconcile its differences with the world, it begets the sense of exile and alienation as symptoms. The symptoms arise because the growth of the mental-space is hampered, as it cannot compromise with the external spaces. In extreme cases the individual becomes a misfit in society or in a family and is in an ambivalent position like being in a diaspora but without the consolation of any hope of escape into any pre-exilic state.
Anita Desai (nee Mazumdar), who is born of a German mother and a Bengali father, has dealt in her fiction with the sense of exile and alienation in both diasporic setting and non-diasporic setting. In fact in her 1999 Booker shortlisted novel, Fasting, Feasting, she presents a comparative picture of the state of exile for a native Indian and an immigrant Indian. Most of her earlier works deal with Indians living in India and the high-point of that period is another of her Booker shortlisted novel, Clear Light of Day (1980). Apart from Indian immigrants in the West, she has also dealt with Jewish immigrants in India, Italian immigrants in India and even an Egyptian immigrant in India. Both her novels, Fasting, Feasting and Clear Light of Day, are rich in details in exploring various themes adhering on their psychological aspects. Bimla Das or Bim of Clear Light of Day and Uma of Fasting, Feasting are two well wrought characters brilliantly portrayed by Desai. But it is not only the protagonists: there are other characters like Aunt Mira, Jaya and Sarla from Clear Light of Day and Mira-masi, Anamika and Ramu of Fasting, Feasting who all contribute poignantly towards a similar goal. That is the greatest quality of Desai’s work; giving them a varied perspective, a Chekhovian irony and a psychological insight.
Aunt Mira of Clear Light of Day and Mira-masi of Fasting, Feasting present two pictures of individuals trying to overcome their sense of alienation but in rather contrasting ways.
Aunt Mira, being a widow, is useless to the family and hence when the Das family requires someone to look after their children she is ‘sent for’ and is ‘allowed to leave’.
Although Aunt Mira is called especially to look after the youngest child, the mentally- challenged Baba, she hopes for more. She comes with presents, made by herself, for Bim, Tara and Raja; she comes to make mango sherbet for them; she comes to play with them. If it was ‘a season of presents, green mangoes and companionship’ for the children, it was so for the aunt also. Widowhood has made Aunt Mira an outsider and she utterly wants to belong - to a family, to care for them, love them and her ‘darting eyes and trembling fingers, were searching for friends and she was happy to have them’.
Mira-masi of Fasting, Feasting is also a widow. Mira-masi has lived a part of her life in obscurity in the company of her husband.
After becoming a widow she realizes the loneliness facing her is daunting and yet it has provided her an opportunity to emerge from obscurity. She knows that no relatives are going to take a useless widow into their family. So she takes up ‘religion as her vocation’ and conveniently slips into all the branches of the family every now and then thus making up her social life. Mira-masi fears exclusion-ism, especially because of her previous obscure existence, and hence she fortifies herself with gossips and annals of the family even though it is difficult for some to ‘consider it her family’. Both Aunt Mira and Mira-masi face ostracism because of their widowhood and it is this that make them feel exiled and alienated. Both try to escape from their condition - one in the seclusion of a family where she is of some use and the other as a recluse hopping from one destination to another.
Aunt Mira’s and Mira-masi’s escapes into renewed lives are in actuality proxy living. Both of them need something that will keep them oblivious of their real condition. Aunt Mira indulges in drinking brandy and Mira-masi finds refuge in her devotion to the idol of her Lord; but the props to sustain their illusion of reality become their nemesis. Aunt Mira gets addicted to brandy and Mira-masi gets possessive about the idol. Hence the psychological underpinning of living in exile comes into the fore. With time, as the children grow up, Aunt Mira feels her control over them slackening and she ultimately succumbs to schizophrenia. As for Mira-masi, when the idol of her devotion is stolen she becomes frantic; ‘travelling from one city to another from temple to temple, ashram to ashram’ in her search for it. She spies a similar idol as the presiding deity in a brassware shop in Benares and becomes hysterical. She claims it to be hers and narrates her dream in the Himalayas that revealed to her where she would find her lost Lord. She ‘laughed and wept’ until ‘the poor shopkeeper, a peace-loving man, and superstitious too, parted with the idol’. Mira-masi retires with it to the Himalayas to devote herself in its worship in her old age. Both the aunts’ conditions in the end prove that they have not been able to overcome their sense of alienation after all.
The case of Bim in Clear Light of Day is starkly in contrast to that of Aunt Mira or Mira-masi. No extraneous circumstances forced her into an alienated existence; rather it is because of her complex relationship with her brothers and sister that she gradually drifts into an exilic state. Bim is not exactly pretty but is attractive; yet she has remained a spinster. As children, Bim’s elder brother Raja, Bim herself, her younger sister Tara and her youngest brother Baba under the care of Aunt Mira had formed a bonding of love among themselves. Bim acknowledges the same and confides to Tara that she would never marry.
So, after Tara marries the diplomat Bakul and makes ‘the complete escape… right out of the country’, Bim finds herself nursing Raja who is sick, looking after her aged aunt who has fits of madness and caring for her invalid brother who will be dependent on her all his life. And when Dr Biswas comments –
‘Now I understand why you do not wish to marry.
she is shocked ‘at being so misunderstood, so totally misread’. She never wanted to make any sacrifice: her decision not to marry was not a sacrifice. As children Raja and Bim had said that they wanted to be a ‘Hero’ and a ‘Heroine’ respectively when they grow up and they had laughed when Tara had said that she wanted to be a ‘mother’. Tara used to be ‘happiest at home’, Bim was the rebel who ‘used to want the world outside’, and Raja was the quintessential poet. When they grow up Bim is appalled to find their dream pact broken and no one is as much in pain as she is. She can hardly forgive Tara for abandoning her - becoming a world citizen from a homely creature - and ironically Bim is stranded at home forever. Aunt Mira dies and Bim could do nothing about it. But the greatest shock comes from Raja - the eldest of them, who was to take the responsibilities, to care for them, to be a ‘Hero’ is found to be utterly careless and wanting. His admiration for Hyder Ali Sahib is so great that he marries Hyder Ali’s daughter and goes to Hyderabad leaving Delhi and Bim to care for Baba alone. It was the crudest thing to do for it belittled Bim’s love for Raja - the love that has grown since childhood.
When Bakul says that children are too busy playing or chattering to stop to think and hence they may see but not comprehend, Bim disagrees –
No doubt Bim and her siblings had dreamt of an image of living together as adults and only Bim has adhered to that dream. She is left with the custody of Baba, making her the sacrificial scapegoat and stagnating her ambition. Thus when she recalls that dream-image to Tara it is with bitterness.
Bim cannot forgive Raja - she cannot forgive Raja for the letter he wrote to her from Hyderabad when Hyder Ali Sahib died that changed the brother-sister relationship to that of landlord and tenant; she cannot forgive Raja for never being present to deal with Mr. Sharma about their family business; and she cannot forgive Raja for deserting her and Baba in total disregard of their ‘heroic’ days. But Bim has to forgive if she has to come out of the darkness of her seclusion into the ‘clear light of day’ and ultimately Bim realizes –
If Raja has failed to live up to Bim’s estimation it is because ‘Raja’s ambitions were so modest and unassertive. Far from playing the hero, he had only worshipped the heroes of his youth’. Bim was fain to admit this fact for long because her love and feelings were so overwhelmingly strong.
Like an immigrant who carries the baggage of one’s native land, Bim has carried the baggage of her memories; but unlike an immigrant who has definite geographical, social, cultural and emotional spaces into which one can hope to go back, Bim has no such definite space. Time has passed and Bim cannot go back in time to retrieve those ‘heroic days’. So when Bim agrees with Tara that they never wish those days back - ‘I would never be young again for anything’ - an invisible cricket ‘at that moment’ begins to ‘weep inconsolably’, giving a Chekhovian touch to her comment. The only way that Bim can console herself is by altering her mental-space: she has to wipe from her memory the apparition of Aunt Mira slipping past the hedge, she has to curb her suicidal urge to end up in the well at the back of the house, she has to stop talking and gesturing to herself when alone and she has to overcome her disillusionments.
Uma of Fasting, Feasting is equally a victim of the psychological sense of exile and alienation but her circumstances are totally different from that of Bim. If Bim is attractive, Uma is unattractive; if Bim is educated, Uma is not so; if Bim is independent, Uma is dependent on her parents and unlike Bim who is abandoned, Uma is suffocated by the overbearing presence of her parents. It is to be noted that Bim’s claustrophobia is caused because she is left alone to care for Baba thereby confining her dreams. Whereas Uma is claustrophobic because she is never left alone. Uma’s life is guided by her MamaPapa - she is not allowed to work; she is not allowed to meet people; she is not allowed to travel to places; she is not allowed to have her own opinion; and she is not allowed to have any ambition. Although Uma has a rebellious streak and occasionally asserts herself, the constant presence of MamaPapa makes her wilt under pressure. Uma is not bright but she is neither dumb and hence has aspirations, which unfortunately are not allowed to flourish - they are smothered.
A likely escape for Uma from her miserable condition seems to be marriage but here also her experiences are painful. When the Syals come to look at Uma, they choose Uma’s younger sister Aruna instead. Uma is just ‘startled’ to know about it but Mama is ‘too scandalized’ and ‘too outraged’. In the second attempt MamaPapa are duped of a hefty dowry by the Goyals, who postpone the engagement indefinitely. MamaPapa were worried.
At last Uma is disposed off to a ‘not so young’ man along with another dowry. Uma finds herself deserted by her husband at her in-laws’ place and after a few days Papa arrives and takes her back home. MamaPapa are yet again duped for this time the bridegroom is already a married man with a family.
Thus for all the matrimonial misadventures the blame falls squarely on Uma without any proper justification and at the end of it all Uma ‘was never quite certain if she had never actually married or if she was now divorced’. Uma has a circumstantial crisis of identity and what was to be her escape only intensifies her exile.
Uma is to realize later that marriage is not always an escape. Aruna is able to bring off a good marriage but for their beautiful and bright cousin Anamika it is a disaster. Bakul uncle and Lila aunty had used the letter of acceptance that announced that Anamika has ‘won a scholarship to Oxford’ not for the purpose it was meant for; they used it as pretty Anamika’s marriage-passport. Anamika ended up dead, burnt. Anamika’s in-laws said that it was suicide; Anamika’s family said that it was fate; Uma said nothing and only when the family assembled to mourn and immerse Anamika’s ashes –
Uma is insensitive, only because of her muffled empathy with Anamika. Uma could realize how much more unbearable Anamika’s prison-like existence must have been at her in-laws’ place when compared to her existence with MamaPapa.
Uma is able to sustain herself through occasional periods or moments of relief from her sense of alienation and exile like when Mira-masi visits and takes Uma to the temple, to bathe in the river and once for a month to an ashram. Again when Anamika’s ‘misshapen, deformed, dark misfortune of a brother, Ramu, with his club foot, his hunched back, his nearly sightless eyes’ arrives and takes Uma to dine out, it lifts her spirits. Occasionally, Mrs O’ Henry invites Uma to coffee to the utter dismay of MamaPapa. Uma also has the neighborhood Mrs Joshi who is compassionate and friendly towards her. And once Mother Agnes from the convent gives Uma ‘a day to remember’ when she asks her for help to put up Mrs O’ Henry’s stall at the Christmas bazar. All these help Uma to realise that she is at least of some worth. But the real chance for Uma to prove her worth is an employment opportunity brought by Dr Dutt. MamaPapa outright rejects it. One day when MamaPapa are not at home, Uma unlocks the telephone box and calls Dr Dutt to tell her to persuade MamaPapa to allow her to work. So it is quite ironical when Papa returns to find the telephone box unlocked and shouts –
Uma is denied the chance to embrace the opportunity that comes her way and she herself stands accused.
Uma has her little indulgences like her Christmas card collection, her collection of bangles, and reading Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s Poems of Pleasure. Once when Aruna’s in-laws are on a visit and they go to bathe in the river along with Uma, Uma jumps into the ‘deep dark river’ and ‘she went down like a stone’. Uma’s feelings were:
Like the fits that Uma has at inopportune moments, Uma is constantly getting ‘saved’ and is unable to realize what she wants. If drowning feels good to Uma it is because her mental-space has devised it as a route of escape. Uma, Bim, Aunt Mira, Mira-masi and even Anamika suffer from a sense of alienation though all their conditions are so very different. This proves that though circumstances give origin to one’s exilic state, its implications are definitely psychological and even in technically non-diasporic and indigenous social settings it has its manifestation.
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Comments on this Article
Amit Shankar Saha
08/10/2014 10:40 AM
08/10/2014 04:41 AM