The Moon and Sixpence

Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ is loosely based on the life of the French post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin. ‘Charles Strickland’, the character representing Gauguin in Maugham’s novel, is a comfortably positioned London stockbroker, who on the spur of an instinct, deserts his dependent wife and children, and relocates to Paris to pursue painting. Strickland does not desire fame, or any formal recognition of his talents. He is, in fact, genuinely uninterested in how others perceive or evaluate his art. He is simply motivated by a visceral need to visually express what his mind conceives. Strickland’s monomaniacal fidelity to his art, however, coexists with a brutal indifference to any human claims upon him. Maugham was always fascinated by this paradox of the supreme artist who is simultaneously utterly callous in his human interactions. This theme also surfaces in Maugham’s other works. E.g. In ‘Of Human Bondage’ Gauguin features in a conversation between art students Clutton and Phillip, and Phillip criticises Gauguin’s conduct towards his family. Clutton responds as follows:

“Oh, my dear fellow, if you want to be a gentleman you must give up being an artist. They’ve got nothing to do with one another. You hear of men painting pot-boilers to keep an aged mother–well, it shows they’re excellent sons, but it’s no excuse for bad work. They’re only tradesmen. An artist would let his mother go to the workhouse.”’

I can’t say I share Maugham’s fascination for Gauguin, who in the person of ‘Strickland’ is projected as a sardonic brute- a man who has zero compunction in using and disposing those who help him, and is merciless towards those who make the mistake of seeking any kind of emotional succor from him. The narrator describes Strickland as ‘an odious man, but a great one’ with a singular artistic vision, and an uncompromising zeal in realising it. My own indifference to Strickland, no doubt, partly ensues from my ignorance of the art form. I don’t understand the medium, and cannot distinguish between what is considered pedestrian and what is regarded as high art. In the novel, the subjective, sensory response a painting evokes, plays such a strong part in how it is evaluated. I think this somewhat distinguishes paintings or sculptures from other art forms. E.g. When critiquing a novel, there will always still be some objective parameters which the critic consciously or subconsciously applies in responding to a text. These parameters may vary widely depending on the nature or genre of the text, but they are nonetheless present in some form.

I also don’t see how it’s possible for any literary writer to produce a work devoid of any normative content; her work will necessarily say something about how she perceives what is happening around her. Strickland eschews all norms; literally everything outside of his canvas and paintbrush is a superfluous encumbrance. He lives to paint and doesn’t care about anything else. So then what informs his paintings? What was it that he was trying to put on his canvas? Is it a purely sensory process? After reading the ‘The Moon and Sixpence’, I looked up Gauguin’s paintings, and was mildly interested in what I saw, without really gaining a sense of what he was seeking to express, beyond what the paintings obviously featured. The qualities that rendered his art great, are only inchoately described in the novel, with one perhaps needing to have some knowledge of the medium and art history to understand how the paintings reflect the ‘strange, tormented and complex’ personality of their maker.

For me, the highlight of Maugham’s writing, is his genius for bringing to light the many contradictions that are inherent within most individuals. In ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ there is the obvious discrepancy between the greatness of Strickland’s art and the baseness of his actions. However, I think this talent of Maugham’s is best displayed in his portrayal of secondary characters such as such as Dirk Stroeve. Stroeve is a bumbling fellow-artist who himself only knows how to produce hackneyed, trite artworks, but has an exquisite and instinctive appreciation for anything uniquely original or beyond the ordinary. He sees something exalted in Strickland’s paintings, and becomes doggedly devoted to the man himself. This devotion is met with open derision and humiliating sarcasm on the part of Strickland. With reference to Stroeve’s own work, the narrator comments:

“I discovered in Paris he had been painting just the same stale, obviously picturesque things that he had painted for years in Rome. It was all false, insincere, shoddy; and yet no one was more honest, sincere and frank than Dirk Stroeve. Who could resolve the contradiction?”

The novel is very elegantly written, and abundantly exhibits Maugham’s characteristic wit and perspicacity. When reviewing Maugham’s work, I am always strongly conscious of not being able to do justice to it, and feel tempted to quote entire passages so that the prospective reader can perceive its highly impressive quality first hand, without having to rely on my clumsy attempts at paraphrasing. In the course of the novel the narrator makes many astute and penetrating observations on a wide range of subjects. These are seamlessly woven into the novel, and never feel in the least obtrusive. Take for example, the narrator’s perspective on those who claim to be unconcerned about what others think of them:

“When people say they do not care what others think of them, for the most part they deceive themselves…It is not difficult to be unconventional in the eyes of the world when your unconventionality is but the convention of your set. It affords you then an inordinate amount of self esteem. You have the self-satisfaction of courage without the inconvenience of danger.”

This reflection is made in the context of understanding Strickland’s rare and complete immunity to societal censure.

There is also so much humour imbedded in ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ with several passages of the novel causing the reader to chuckle out loud. Take, for example, the unnamed narrator’s introductory remarks on the unanimous critical acclaim Strickland’s art came to acquire, a unanimity not reflected in the responses to, and accounts of, his life. The narrator drolly relates how poor Reverend Strickland, abandoned son of the departed artist, is perturbed by many facets of his father’s life and writes a sanitised biography of Charles Strickland, perhaps seeking to reconcile the man to himself, as much as to anyone else. This biography is reviewed by ‘psycho-pathologist’ Dr. Weitbretch –Rotholz, who promptly proceeds to tear it to shreds, and castigates the author in the most unreserved terms.

“…it is difficult to avoid feeling a certain sympathy for the unlucky parson. His decent reticence is branded as hypocrisy, his circumlocutions are roundly called lies, as his silence is vilified as treachery. And on the strength of peccadillos, reprehensible in an author, but excusable in a son, the Anglo-Saxon race is roundly accused of prudishness, humbug, pretentiousness, deceit, cunning and bad cooking….Dr. Weitbrecht-Rotholz was an enthusiastic admirer of Charles Strickland , and there was no danger that he would whitewash him. He had an unerring eye for the despicable motive in actions that had all the appearance of innocence. He was a psycho-pathologist, as well as a student of art, and the subconscious had few secrets from him. No mystic ever saw deeper meaning in common things. The mystic sees the ineffable and the psycho-pathologist the unspeakable.”

Also very amusing are the circumstances in which the narrator becomes acquainted with Charles Strickland, and seeks him out in Paris. The narrator is an up and coming young writer who frequents the lunches and tea-parties thrown for London literati by their socialite admirers. It is on one such occasion that he becomes acquainted with the amiable Mrs. Strickland who enjoys listening to, and mingling with, the writers and artists of the day. Her husband, stockbroker Charles Strickland has never taken her into his confidence with respect to his artistic inclinations, and when he bolts to Paris, she is convinced that it must for another woman. The narrator, her friend, is dispatched to Paris, with the mission of bringing Charles back. The narrator prepares the speeches he is going to deliver, and thinks through the methods he will employ to shame Strickland into returning, determining to resort to strong invective if necessary. He is thrown off balance when Strickland blithely admits to all charges, and unperturbedly proceeds to state his indifference. Herein, also lies the only flaw I found in the novel. How does Amy Strickland’s amicable enough husband of seventeen years, turn into such an ogre overnight? His actions may have resulted from his artistic compulsions and protracted boredom and ennui, but the total change in personality that accompanies his flight to Paris is slightly discordant.

Like many of Maugham’s works ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ is brilliantly and seemingly effortlessly written. Cerebral, and yet wholly unaffected, it makes for a very enjoyable read for art enthusiasts and novices alike.©


Falling Walls (Girti Deewaaren)

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  • Major Spoilers

Upendranath Ashk’s ‘Falling Walls’ is set, by turn, in 1930’s small town Punjab, Lahore and Shimla and follows Chetan from his brutal childhood through his struggles to make something of himself and find artistic fulfillment. ‘Falling Walls’ is not just an engaging novel for social-history enthusiasts, but is also a rewarding read because of the proximity one often feels to it’s characters, particularly it’s central protagonist Chetan. Daisy Rockwell clearly felt this closeness, as evidenced by both her quite personal introduction to the novel, and the many years taken in translating it -her translation is a labour of love. In writing ‘Falling Walls’ Ashk sought to distance himself from his earlier more fanciful, one-dimensional works of fiction and authentically depict the trials, pleasures and interior life of a younger self- the novel, it appears, is heavily autobiographical. As Ashk himself eloquently puts it in his lively introduction to the 1951 edition of the novel, he wished to illustrate that:

“…man is not artless enough to be a deity; that he is not made of pure gold but is a mixture of alloys; that it is not just his exterior universe that is a boundless mass of complications, but rather that many layers of entanglements exist within him as well, and below these are caves so dark that just a glance at them could cause one to tremble.”

The novel begins in Jalandhar, and we are introduced to Chetan’s family and his prospective wife as well as characters populating his mohalla, who have a more tangential presence in Chetan’s life. It would not be harsh to describe Chetan’s father as a monster. One would be hard-pressed to think up ways in which Pandit Shadiram could be a worse husband and father. Chetan’s sufferings at the hands of his alcoholic father are very substantial and are further expanded upon in the more contemplative Shimla phase of the novel, but his Bhai Sahib has had an even tougher time, and is one of those children rendered almost insensate from the abuse and violence frequently and gratuitously meted out to him. Their mother Lajwati’s life has been truly wretched and her situation is more pitiable than that of her children. Given what she has been through, it’s a real wonder that she remains an empathetic and kindly woman, and never turns into an embittered daughter-in-law torturing harridan.

Bhai Sahab diverts himself by way of chess and cards while Chetan’s natural leanings incline him to take pleasure and respite in a diverse range of pursuits; learning and then writing his own poems and bhajans, acting them out, toy-making, music and drawing. Chetan throws himself into these activities feelingly and wholeheartedly. An anecdote is related where a young Chetan observes that his neighbour is in possession of many birds and keeps them all entrapped in one small cage. Chetan is saddened by the plight of the birds and composes a bhajan exhorting his neighbour to release them. This, he literally sings from his rooftop. The neighbour goes on to sell the birds for a profit, but when Chetan views the empty cage from afar he is elated and ascribes this state of affairs to the transformative potential of his verse. He is spurred on by this perceived victory to compose more bhajans.

The adult Chetan is just as sensitive, impressionable and ambitious, and seeks to emerge from the squalor and despair that surrounds him and distinguish himself in some creative field. Embarking upon a career as a translator and occasional story-writer for a Lahore based newspaper Chetan earns little, but is buoyed by dreams of the future and continues to approach the arts with similar ardour; writing and reciting poetry, attempting a novel, and later acting and learning how to sing and play various instruments. All of these activities he undertakes with gusto, but the results are often not commensurate to his efforts, and are a poor reflection of the passion and sincerity put in. Chetan is also eager to make Chanda (the wife selected for him) his equal in learning and education. His efforts in this area, however, initially gravitate between delivering motivational lectures and getting hot and bothered when prompt answers to his questions are not forthcoming. A complaisant and hardworking Chanda is willing to cooperate. Ashk, does however, also amusingly enlighten us as to the sentiments these efforts on Chetan’s part occasionally inspire. The formerly recreational walks of the the couple are now utilised by Chetan for pedagogic purposes.

“Golbagh’s empty paths, trees, plant flowers, leave, grassy lawns and tar-black streets looked beautiful and dreamlike in the milky moonlight of the month of Kartik, and Chanda tired of listening to the curses and harsh voices of the Changar ladies all day long, was eager to hear the sweet rustling of the leaves….she wanted to sit for a few moments by the side of the road where there was a tiny cannon from olden times on the top of a platform , but her boring husband who longed to be a poet and a fabulist…”

Money remains scarce despite the mutual support Bhai Sahib and Chetan proffer one another. Time, however, becomes less so when a naive Chetan is lured to Shimla by quack Kaviraj. Susceptible to the latter’s false promises and flattery, Chetan arrives in Shimla where he is disabused of any illusions regarding Kaviraj and spends lonely days penning Kaviraj’s book. But, it is also in Shimla that Chetan is able to devote spare hours first to lessons in classical music, and then rehearsing for the play ‘Anarkali’. He is very much invested in both undertakings. The lessons culminate in a classical music recital where Chetan is anxious to display his vocal skills. He is practically jeered off the stage and runs ‘home like a thief in the night’. The play is also a tragi-comic event where the fuming director stalks on to the stage and tears off the glasses which Chetan has forgotten to remove. A maturer, more successful Chetan may, in some years, be able to look back at these incidents with a bemused if somewhat wistful smile, but the pathos generated by these events is very real. At times, in reading fiction, you find characters with which you feel an affinity, or with which you share attitudes and particular personality traits . Chetan is one such character, and you find that he possesses certain tendencies which you have still have not outgrown. There is what Chetan himself describes as his ‘overblown sentimentality’. He is easily hurt and depressed and just as easily happy and euphoric. He has a distaste for open confrontation in some situations and tends to withdraw further into himself. E.g. Though he is seething at Kaviraj’s many deceptions he finds it impossible to openly raise the subject with Kaviraj. Assuming that Chetan is a close representation of Ashk himself, it would be interesting to know how Ashk went from being this fairly diffident young man to later on writing scathing introductions to his works, in which he would lambaste one and all (critics and contemporaries). I will probably have to read the other volumes of the Girti Deewaren (Falling Walls) series in order to find out.

In Ashk’s introduction to this novel, however, his appraisal of some of the observations made by his critics appears to be fair enough. Written with verve, the introduction simultaneously expands on the literary influences which had a bearing on his stylistic and thematic choices. While his influences were diverse, Ashk had a particular regard for Premchand, and specifically cites Premchand when explaining his decision to refrain from writing anything outside the ambit of his own experience. In my view, some writers do need to abstain from wandering too far away from the particular world or worlds they inhabit in order to avoid hitting false notes. Others have strong intuitive powers, and a sort of perspicacity which enables them to not only ‘stand in the shoes’ of very disparately habituated individuals but also understand the most intricate workings of their minds. How they do it, I don’t know, but the most stunning recent example of this I have read is Eleanor Catton’s ‘The Luminaries’.

In Ashk’s case, his determination to write only what he had direct knowledge of, results in a persuasive and affecting portrayal of the early phases of Chetan’s life. His experiences are often fractured, bitter-sweet and inconclusive, and sort of plaintiveness runs through significant portions of the text. The novel is also set in a time where (more so than today) small indiscretions and acts of thoughtlessness could have very momentous and damaging consequences. Chetan, after some resistance eventually reconciles himself to his impending marriage with Chanda. Their wedding night constitutes the first real meeting between the couple, where they are able to openly speak to and discover one another. Chetan is delighted to find out that his wife is not only more attractive than he earlier envisaged, but has qualities which are conducive to their living a contented and meaningful life together. However, while he has an affection for Chanda, his senses are completely enthralled by her younger cousin Neela. Chetan’s own acute receptiveness to Neela’s charms and, at one point, uncontrolled expression of this desire, cause him to obtusely prompt Pandit Veniprasad (Neela’s father) to start looking around for a husband for her. The lengthy Shimla months intervene between this phase and Neela’s marriage. These months bring Chetan some solitude, some frenetic activity, humiliations, and upsurging recollections of a brutal past carried on into the present. Kaviraj specialises in sexual health, and when Chetan is about to take leave of him, he does dispense some advice which Chetan considers valuable and is desirous of implementing on meeting Chanda again. Chetan is now keen to make Chanda ‘his true partner’ so that the two of them can together ‘find their bliss’. These good intentions are thwarted by a situation, the making of which Chetan has significantly, if inadvertently, contributed to. Because of the careless haste with which the match is arranged, and a misleading photograph of the potential groom, Neela is married off to a painfully ill-suited military accountant, thrice her age, thrice widowered, and utterly uncongenial to her. While Chetan had no knowledge of, or involvement in the getting up of this match, prior to his chat with Neela’s father, Pandit Veniprasad had been in no hurry to get his young daughter married. Aghast at viewing the groom’s visage, and filled with anguish at the role his own idiocy has played in bringing about this turn of events, a bitter regret and emptiness come to settle inside Chetan. Neela’s marriage extinguishes his former ardour, causing him to derisively scoff at his erstwhile plans.

“Chanda was sleeping soundly. Chetan went and quietly lay down next to her. He thought about Kaviraj’s sermon on sexuality; he also remembered his own vow and laughed at himself. Where was that vow now, where was that desire…even lying right next to her he felt they were miles apart, as though an impenetrable invisible wall stood between them…..As he lay staring into the dark void with sleepless eyes, Chetan felt that these walls stood not just between himself and his wife , not just between Neela and Trilok, but that countless similar walls stood between all women and men, classes and castes in this subjugated nation ….there was no end to such walls. ”

It is on this ironic and quite bleak note that the first volume of the ‘Falling Walls’ series ends. Ashk’s novel is a very worthwhile read and I certainly want to know what the future holds for Chetan, Bhai Sahab, Chanda, Neela and Ma.©

Of Human Bondage

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*Please note that the following review contains spoilers

Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ is an exceptional novel. A semi-autobiographical bildungsroman focusing on the emotional and intellectual development of Philip Carey, ‘Of Human Bondage’ easily qualifies as a classic. Philip Carey is orphaned at the age of nine, and falls under the guardianship of his uncle, the Vicar of Blackstable, and his wife. The novel explores Philip’s emotional and intellectual development from his childhood and school career to his years as a student of diverse disciplines. Philip initially studies languages in Germany, and following an attempt at chartered accountancy in London, considers the prospect of becoming a painter. While Phillip’s two years in Paris as an art student are far from fruitless, he feels that he can never be more than a second-rate painter. Returning to London, Philip ultimately decides to embark upon a career of medicine.

The novel so far introduces us to several superbly drawn and utterly believable characters whose lives have traversed Philip’s in some way, such as the masters at Kings school, the complacent self-satisfied Vicar, his loving and fragile wife Louisa Carey, Miss. Wilkinson, the disagreeable yet pitiable Fanny Price, Hayward, Cronshaw etc. However, never have Philip’s thoughts and feelings been so strongly and compulsively fixated on one object as when he meets Mildred Rogers- an anaemic waitress and the devouring, all-consuming love of Phillip’s life. Mildred Rogers has to be one the most vicious characters in all of fiction. She is indifferent to Phillip, and insensible to his attentions and desperate entreaties for her love. Loving him is something out of her power. Yet, she is not above benefiting from his generosity, humiliating him, abasing him, making him grovel before her, and using him to the utmost. Philip’s love is not blind. He sees her for what she is, but a sort of inexorable force constantly draws him towards her. Every time she enters his life and wreaks havoc, he is helpless before her:

“He did not care if she was heartless, vicious and vulgar, stupid and grasping, he loved her…..He hated her, he despised her, he loved her with all his heart”.

This sort of attachment may seem uncanny and bizarre, but is very convincingly depicted in the novel. You feel for Philip, his self-destructive love for Mildred may be exasperating but you never want to blame him. He loves her inspite of her and inspite of himself. This relationship is one form of bondage Philip eventually manages to extricate himself from. Another force dominating the early part of his life, which Philip also perceives as a form of bondage is religion. His religious education begins at home in Blackstable and is augmented by what he learns at King’ School. Philip suffers from a clubfoot. His faith is first somewhat shaken when as a child he ardently prays that his clubfoot may be miraculously cured, so that he can run around and play like the other boys. His foot remains as it was. However, his real spiritual inquiry begins through his conversations with Weeks and Hayward in Germany. Some of Philip’s concerns will probably find an echo in the private thoughts of many theists of different faiths: what of non-believers? So much of faith seems a matter of chance, the role of fear in the retention of faith etc. At core, however, Philip is unable to believe in the existence of God. To Philip suffering, loss, success and happiness all seem to be so indiscriminately apportioned and he observes that the ‘rain fell alike upon the just and upon the unjust, and for nothing was there a why and a wherefore’. Attending this is his conviction in the meaninglessness of life which he regards as a liberating force:

“Suddenly he realised that he had also lost that burden of responsibility which made every action of his life a matter of urgent consequence. He was responsible only to himself for the things he did . Freedom! He was his own master at last. From old habit, unconsciously he thanked God that he no longer believed in him.”

‘Of Human Bondage’ in some ways reminded me of another very different novel: Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. The context which informs the strong nihilism underpinning this novel is the communist order existing in Czechoslovakia. In ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being” Kundera presents the lightness/weight dichotomy, first postulated by Parmenides in the sixth Century B.C. whereby one acquires a state of lightness by divesting actions or life experiences of any deeper meaning or resonance. These actions are purportedly just the product of an individual’s exercise of his own volition, and have no place or special significance within the larger scheme of things or a “super-imposed grand narrative”. During the Cold War, in the Eastern block the most trivial and minor events were automatically invested with tremendous meaning by being positioned within the exhausted and impoverished State narrative, or being viewed as auguring a predicted turn in the larger dynamics at play. Of course, because the State ‘grand narrative’ was very much at odds with the economic and social realities encountered under Communist rule, this perfunctory or mechanical mode of imbuing events with broader significance had the effect of inducing extreme weariness. It had the effect of rendering life “pervasively, oppressively meaningful” (1). The cynicism and weariness generated by the imposition of a communist order was not confined to matters directly involving the state, but infused all aspects of life. As one critic John Bayley articulates:

‘The only escape from the congealed political kitsch of the regime is into the lightness of total irresponsibility… the regime corrupts totally the private consciousness of the citizens….Communism in practice cannot conquer the private life, but it makes it light and meaningless, weightless and cynical.’ (2)

Yet the response ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ evoked in me was radically different to that generated by ‘Of Human Bondage’. The former novel filled me with a sense of bleakness. For all it’s brilliance a sense of morbidity permeated every page. Kundera’s himself appears to be one of those supremely cynical citizens (or former citizens), whose private consciousness has been corrupted. His vision repelled me and I found myself totally recoiling from the actions of some of his characters. With ‘Of Human Bondage’ you can agree, disagree or have a mixed response to the novel’s underlying philosophy, but you never cease to like Philip. He is a very nice person. Sensitive and thoughtful, the overriding quality you associate with him is kindness. He hurts Norah Nesbit by leaving her for Mildred, but he is never actuated by malice. While your own perspective may diverge from his you never lose sight of the fact that his questions are legitimately grounded, emanate from his own experiences, and don’t have easy answers. A disavowal of faith and belief that he is only responsible to himself, does not induce any difference in the way Philip conducts himself towards others. Philip is of the view that while he no longer believes, he cannot divorce himself from Christian ethics, and that this implicitly informs some of his behaviour. His friend and, to some extent, mentor Cronshaw has a different theory. Cronshaw maintains that whatever good people do, is ultimately for their own pleasure. Taking up pain and hardship with a view to achieving certain results, is merely delayed gratification. He states:

‘It is pleasure that lurks in the practice of every one of your virtues. Man performs actions because they are good for him and when they are good for other people as well they are thought virtuous: If he finds pleasure in giving alms he is charitable; if he finds pleasure in helping others he is benevolent, if he find pleasure in working for society he is public spirited; but it is for your private pleasure that you give twopence to a beggar as much as it is for my private pleasure that I drink another whisky and soda. I, less of a humbug than you, neither applaud myself for my pleasure nor demand your admiration.’

On the face of it, Cronshaw’s argument is sound enough. Ultimately we do things for our own satisfaction. Our ‘pleasure’ in performing a particular service may just be avoiding the guilt or potential regret of not doing it. But obviously numerous complex and even contradictory variables will enter into a decision to do or refrain from doing a particular thing. What is to be gained from reducing these variables and the competing motives which underlie them, and bringing them all under the overarching umbrella of ‘pleasure’? That we do things for our own pleasure may even seem like a trite statement of fact. It’s more interesting to ask why certain things or acts of kindness commonly confer pleasure (on both the recipient and the giver) . The answer seems inextricably linked with some concept of innate morality.

‘Of Human Bondage’ is beautifully written. The prose is sophisticated and expressive without ever sounding verbose. Maugham is aiming at the direct expression of Philip’s thoughts and experiences, and the writing retains a simple elegance. Amongst Maugham’s chief strengths is his understanding of people and his insight into their psychological make-up, and one of the outstanding features of ‘Of Human Bondage’ is just how effectively the diverse characters which populate it are rendered. All of them have something interesting to impart, and you have absolutely no doubt that they were at least partially drawn from real life. Maugham is known to have referred to himself as being ‘in the very first row of the second-raters’. I think he was being modest in the extreme. There is nothing second rate about ‘Of Human Bondage’.©

(1)Terry Eagleton, ‘Estrangement and Irony’, Salmagundi, 73 (Winter 1987)
(2)John Bayley, ‘Fictive Lightness, Fictive Weight’, Salmagundi, no. 73 (Winter 1987)

Agatha Christie


As a teenager, I devoured Agatha Christie crime fiction. I wasn’t interested in the novels because I had some kind of acute observatory faculty, or was keen to solve the puzzle myself before the author divulged the identity of the murderer at the end. I often didn’t even bother paying much attention to the details (who had an alibi when? Did this suspect’s leeway of opportunity adequately coincide with the time of the murder? etc). I just loved the process of mystification and subsequent de-mystification as the array of suspects were assembled, the motives and opportunities of each duly considered, with the identity of the murderer ultimately being revealed to us (or quite often sprung upon us). Agatha Christie’s puzzles were not always amenable to solving, in the sense of the reader being able to arrive at the answer by adopting a deductive approach and rationally scrutinising the evidence presented, but in the (very few) cases where I did figure out who the guilty party was well before the end, it was always a bit disappointing. It was the surprises which I delighted in.

When I began reading her crime fiction, I had no idea that Agatha Christie was a famous author; I must have considered her novels to be my personal discovery or something. I would not have known that she was the bestselling writer of the twentieth century, (her novels only being beaten in sales by Shakespeare and the Bible), had it not been for the inside covers of her books constantly informing me of this. When I discovered her books, they were simply no longer as ubiquitous as they must have once been. Soon enough though, I was hooked. I didn’t read all of them, but I must have read at least a good fifty of her eighty crime novels. My personal favourites are ‘Death on the Nile’, ‘And Then There Were None’ (being thirteen when I read it, it thoroughly creeped me out then), ‘A Murder is Announced’, ‘The Moving finger’ and a selection of short stories under the title of ‘The Hound of Death’. Unfortunately, I had unwittingly read a spoiler of ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ and thus deprived myself the pleasure of reading what many regard to be Agatha Christie’s masterpiece. Christie’s best can be picked up and enjoyed in subsequent re-readings, but generally, the stuff which totally engrossed and captivated me for much of my teens, is difficult to read and be enthused by in the same way now. E.g. I recently re-read ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’ (a novel which intrigued me on first reading) and found it very clumsy and contrived this time round. However, this criticism cannot legitimately be made of most of Christie’s crime novels, which were by and large very well constructed; her best works exhibiting a high level of craftsmanship and ingenuity.

I suppose my present lack of enthusiasm in reading Christie, ensues, in a large part, from the very nature of the crime fiction genre. In the context of popular fiction, character and character development is often believed to be subordinated to plot and narrative. Characters are frequently constructed to serve the specific purposes of the narrative, rather than the narrative constituting a vehicle through with psychological depth and unique human insights can be relayed. (1)  This common understanding of the nature of ‘popular fiction’ does not always hold true. However, I think it is absolutely applicable to most of Christie’s crime novels. Realism and psychological depth are eschewed in favour of ingenuity and skillfulness in plot construction. Hercule Poirot is good enough for a fourteen year old, but by the time you’re through several Poirot novels and are a couple of years wiser, he comes off as a caricature more than anything else. He became a source of considerable irritation to his creator as well, and she toyed with the idea of killing him off, but ultimately refrained from doing so. The characters are, for the most part, two dimensional figures, yet they never quite amount to stereotypes. Christie sketches them with a few succinct lines, but also deliberately imbues them with an attribute which subverts the stereotype (2). There are also gradations in the quality of characterisation amongst Christie’s crime novels. E.g. The characters in ‘Sparkling Cyanide’ or ‘The Hollow’ cannot be termed ‘cardboard cut-outs’ (as Christie’s characters have sometimes been labelled); and it is perhaps more appropriate to think of Christie’s characters as comprising of ‘two and a half dimensions’ rather than two dimensions, as M. Vipond has observed, tongue in cheek. In the later stages of my engagement with her novels, I would think that to create her cast of characters, all one needed to do was the following: take a several small bits of paper and label on each a quality or attribute; ‘ambitious’, ‘charming’, ‘upright’, ‘avaricious’, ‘affectionate’, ‘mercenary’ etc. You would then randomly mix them up in a box, and draw them out by two and three’s. Those three attributes you drew out of the box without looking, would form a character. To Christie’s credit, the formulaic manner in which she approaches characterisation, only becomes apparent after you’ve read a good number of her crime novels, and know what to expect (more in the way of characterisation, rather than in terms of plot). In the beginning the characters appear realistic and convincing enough; their surface quality really manifests itself to the seasoned Christie reader. Christie’s object was to construct an interesting puzzle, the unraveling of which fully engages and satisfies the reader, and in this she was spectacularly successful. Her purpose was not to tackle core existential questions or reveal fundamental human truths.

That is not to say that Christie did not have her own individual perception of the world, or her own moral vision. She did, and these perceptions obviously colour her texts. One critic observes:

“As Colin Watson, John Cawelti and others have pointed out, the enormous appeal of the classical mystery novel of the Golden Age of the 1920’s and 1930’s seemed to lie in its success in providing reassurance for it’s middle-class readers- reassurance that crime is an individual matter, not a social one, that it is logical and soluble, and that it is neat and relatively painless, explicable, and not a matter for collective guilt.”(3)

The above is a fairly common criticism leveled against Christie; i.e. that her texts almost completely fail to advert to the structural causes of criminal behaviour. It is practically always the individual who is deviant; broader society and vicious social dynamics are largely absolved of responsibility for the transgressions of the erring individual. This critique is valid, but only to a certain extent. Christie’s characters were broadly representative of the British middle and upper-middle class; the suspects and murderer are also drawn from this stratum of society.  Some of these suspects or would-be murderers are temporarily in a tight patch, but they are for the most part reasonably well-off.  Each of these people are in possession of moral agency, which they choose not to exercise, in what appear to be, not particularly overwhelming circumstances. Their crimes are mercenary and repugnant, and it is difficult to exculpate them on the basis of deeply rooted structural inequalities or economic deprivation. Mental disease, or genuine psychiatric disorder may have a mitigating effect, or may even exonerate the accused, but in most cases (whatever his/her economic situation) murderers retain some degree of moral agency, and it’s important not to near-glorify them as bastions of individualism, as some writers have been inclined to do. A better way of understanding Christie’s moral vision, and conception of criminality, has been articulated by Julie Aguiar who comments:

“…Christie’s presentation of criminality, or what might be termed evil, in these novels as being not an abnormality afflicting a few, as her predecessors in the genre assume, but an underlying proclivity common to all human beings.” (4)

All the assembled suspects have diverse motives to finish off the potential victim. The temptation is present for all of them, but only one or two (if the murder is a joint venture) succumb to it, and are willing to take life in achieving their ends.

Like millions of other readers around the world, I derived many hours of enjoyment from Christie’s crime novels. If I am unable to read them now, it is partially because I’ve already had too much of a good thing; after fifty novels it’s difficult for her basic template to not seem formulaic to me. There are the issues of characterisation adverted to above, but Christie was extremely effective in what she sought to do; adroitly create a complex puzzle which the reader would become immersed in. The mystery would subsequently unfold with seamless, and sometimes quite dazzling effect.©

(1) Stephen Knight, “..done from within’: Agatha Christie’s World’, in Form and Ideology in Crime Fiction (London: Macmillan Press, 1980) 124-125

(2) Earl F. Bargainnier, The Gentle Art of Murder: The Detective Fiction of Agatha Christie, (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980) 39-40

(3) M. Vipond, Agatha Christie’s Women” International Fiction Review 8 (1981) 123

(4) Julie Aguiar, “Rethinking Retrospection: Temporality and Criminality in Christie’s Detective Fiction” Explorations: The UC Davis Undergraduate Research Journal 14 (2011): 1-19

Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray

Charlotte Bronte imagewilliam-makepeace-thackeray image

Charlotte Bronte’s tremendous admiration for William Makepeace Thackeray is well known. Not only did she express reverence for his work and belief in his abilities in biblical terms in her famous preface to the second edition of ‘Jane Eyre’, (1) but her personal correspondence is replete with praise of, and commentary on his novels. I liked Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’ but the zealousness and intensity of Bronte’s praise for Thackeray has always puzzled me a little. Several reasons underpin this slight perplexity at Charlotte’s almost boundless regard for the author of ‘Vanity Fair’.

There are radical discrepancies between the two authors in their conception and delineation of female characters; Bronte being far more naturalistic and egalitarian than her contemporary in this respect. Thackeray’s ideal women were not exactly simplistic but were heavily sentimentalised: ‘Amelia’ of ‘Vanity Fair’ is a loving, soft-hearted, doting wife and mother (she, in significant respects, embodies Victorian ideals of womanhood). She is also weak, undiscerning, and possesses no real notion of selfhood independent of her status as wife and mother. Amelia is wholly unintellectual. Thackeray decidedly disliked intellectual women, and while ‘Amelia’ is subjected to significant criticism in the novel, there is no denying that Thackeray was simultaneously drawn to, and in a large part upheld, the model of womanhood she represented.

Thackeray repeatedly sought to distinguish himself from Dickens by his emphasis on ‘realism’: resistance to drawing caricatures and eschewal of too many improbable plot contrivances. (2)  There are important thematic differences between the authors as well. Though Thackeray partially idealises Amelia, ‘Vanity Fair’ exposes the tyranny weak people like her can also exert, their capacity for selfishness and their desire for domination.  In a work of Dickens, it is probable that a character like Amelia would have been uncritically extolled until the final chapter. However, stylistically, Dickens and Thackeray are much closer than is often acknowledged. For all the ‘Greek fire of his sarcasm’,(3) gushing sentimentality is as much a fixture in Thackeray’s work as it is in Dickens. Indeed, in the case of the former, the narratorial voice not infrequently becomes tinged with smugness.  Lest I be misunderstood I do think that both Dickens and Thackeray were genuinely great authors, but aspects of their writing and characterisation do ruffle me.  Their heroines, be it ‘Amelia Sedley’ of ‘Vanity Fair’ or ‘Florence Dombey’ of ‘Dombey and Son’ are a far cry from the ‘Jane Eyre’s’ or ‘Lucy Snow’s’ of Bronte’s novels. Bronte’s work is marked by a naturalism that is not measured up to by either Dickens or Thackeray. She exhibits the interior lives, and interesting and expanded minds of her heroines with a skill, eloquence, and power which is matched by few, if any, of her contemporaries. Bronte’s heroines were highly intelligent, intellectual women (indeed, how could they be otherwise when they often constituted varied versions of Charlotte herself at different stages of her life). As Jane observes as she wanders about the halls and grounds of Thornfield:

“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” (4)

In Charlotte Bronte’s novel ‘Shirley’, Shirley (a heroine Charlotte modelled on her sister Emily) Shirley remarks to Caroline:

“If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women. They do not read them in a true light; they misapprehend them, both for good and evil. Their good woman is a queer thing, half doll, half angel; their bad woman almost always a fiend. Then to hear them fall into ecstasies with each other’s creations—worshipping the heroine of such a poem, novel, drama—thinking it fine, divine! Fine and divine it may be, but often quite artificial—false as the rose in my best bonnet there. If I spoke all I think on this point, if I gave my real opinion of some first-rate female characters in first-rate works, where should I be? Dead under a cairn of avenging stones in half an hour.’” (5)

It can safely be assumed that Charlotte Bronte here is giving expression to her own objections regarding the way women have been characterised by her eminent male contemporaries. Indeed the ‘half-doll, half-angel’ woman and ‘fiend’ at the other end of the spectrum sound remarkably like ‘Amelia Sedley’ and ‘Becky Sharp’ of ‘Vanity Fair’.  I actually think that despite Thackeray’s emphasis on ‘realism’ Becky at times appears to be something of a caricature herself. Even amongst the passages of extensive praise for Thackeray, Charlotte did occasionally voice these objections.  She, however, never really expands on this theme. In an 1852 letter to George Smith she writes:

“As usual, he is unjust to women; quite unjust. There is hardly any punishment he does not deserve for making Lady Castlewood peep through a keyhole, listen at a door, and be jealous of a boy and a milkmaid. Many other things I noticed that, for my part, grieved and exasperated me as I read; but then, again, came passages so true, so deeply thought, so tenderly felt, one could not help forgiving and admiring.”(6)

While Bronte had almost unabated enthusiasm for Thackeray’s writing and faith in his calling as the ‘first social regenerator of the day’, Thackeray’s own opinion of Charlotte Bronte and her novels was far more mixed. He was considerably moved by ‘Jane Eyre’ and recognised the genius of the woman who had penned it,(7) but their personal interactions were marked by an uneasiness and perhaps mutual misunderstanding. (8) George Smith, the publisher and close friend of both Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray offers the following significant insight:

“Thackeray’s wit was not a ready one and he had not the quickness necessary for repartee. A clever woman always, and easily, had the better of him in that respect, and, to tell the truth, Thackeray was not fond of the society of what are called “clever women”; women, that is, whom he felt to be critical and with whom talk involved any mental strain. For that reason he did not like Charlotte Bronte, and the two did not get on well together. She was vexed because he, in his talk with her, would never be serious about his literature. He would talk in a bantering and burlesque way, as though he were ashamed of it. But this was only by way of defence against Charlotte Bronte’s earnest and heroic views of the “sacredness” and “dignity” of literature.”(9)

On pursuing ‘Villette’ Thackeray stated “There’s a fire and fury raging in that little woman, a rage scorching her heart which doesn’t suit me.” (10) His condescending and supercilious extended comments on the novel are contained within an 1853 letter directed to Lucy Baxter:

“So you are all reading Villette to one another- a pretty amusement to be sure- I wish I was hearing you and smoking of a cigar the while…. And it amuses me to read the author’s naïve confession of being in love with two men at the same time; and her readiness to fall in love at anytime. The poor little woman of genius! The fiery little eager brave tremulous homely-faced creature! I can read a great deal of her life as I fancy in her book, and see that rather than have fame, rather than any other earthly good…she wants some Tomkins or another to love her and be in love with. But you see she is a little bit of a creature without a penny of good looks, thirty years old I should think, buried in the country and eating her own heart up there, and no Tomkins will come…here is one a genius, a noble heart longing to mate itself and destined to wither away into old maidenhood with no chance to fulfil the burning desire.”  (11)

I understand Charlotte Bronte’s regard for William Makepeace Thackeray to a significant extent. I do think he was a fine writer, even if his prose did (not infrequently) lapse into sentimental gush, and even if his female characters were at times poorly conceived. There are numerous passages of ‘Vanity Fair’ which I genuinely admire (most notably the confrontation scene between Dobbins and Amelia near the end of the novel). But I don’t think that the flaws identified above are insignificant, and accordingly I find it somewhat puzzling that Charlotte Bronte hero-worshiped him to the extent that she did. ©



(1) Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre (Essex: Longman, 1991) xxvi-xxvii

(2) Charles Mauskopf, “Thackeray’s attitudes towards Dickens’ writing” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 21 (1966): 21-33

(3) Bronte, Jane Eyre, xxvi

(4) Ibid, 113

(5) Charlotte Bronte, Shirley, (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1993): 264

(6) Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Bronte, (London: Smith, Elder and Co, 1857)

(7) Richard Mullen, “Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray” Bronte Studies 36 (2011): 85-94

(8) Ibid

(9) Charlotte Bronte, “The Letters of Charlotte Bronte: With a Selection of Letters by Family and Friends: Volume II: 1848-1851”, Margaret Smith ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000): 416

(10) Mullen, “Charlotte Bronte and William Makepeace Thackeray”, 92

(11) William Makepeace Thackeray, The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, Gordon N. Ray ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1945-46)


I have always loved the film ‘Pakeezah’ and in the last year or so have become both utterly obsessed with it…and its hero ‘Salim’ (Raaj Kumar), the unknown lover of the courtesan ‘Sahibjaan’ (Meena Kumari) on whom he confers the name ‘Pakeezah’ (pure). The songs of Pakeezah are widely acknowledged as classics, and for good reason; they constitute one of the most beautiful soundtracks ever composed. However, I strongly feel that the film itself, though well regarded, remains considerably underrated. Any short article or fleeting reference to the movie always states something to the effect of “Pakeezah received a lukewarm reception/flopped upon release, and became a big hit, acquiring cult status on Meena Kumari’s death”. This statement is true to the extent that Pakeezah’s commercial success may, at least partially, be attributed to the premature death of it’s heroine, the talented and extremely popular Meena Kumari. The film may well have flopped otherwise. However, the statement is unjust in that it totally ignores and undermines the tremendous intrinsic merit of the film itself, whether evinced in its poetic, understated and nuanced dialogue, powerful characterisation, authenticity of representation, or aesthetic beauty. The last point is amongst the most commonly mentioned, with the first three scarcely being acknowledged. I do believe the grand sets were integral to the film and important in evoking a certain atmosphere and time period, as well as being a manifestation of Kamal Amrohi’s highly developed and refined aesthetic sensibility. However, the greatness of any film, particularly ‘Pakeezah’, cannot predominantly be attributed to a bunch of exotic and beautifully finished sets. They merely comprise one significant factor amongst several other (more important) ones. In this post I would like discuss some of the more neglected aspects of Pakeezah.

Stylistically, Pakeezah is extraordinarily subtle and understated for a Hindi film, and is heavily metaphorical. Key visual metaphors include the ‘ghungru’ which adorn Sahibjaan’s feet, the train, the entrapped bird which has its wings clipped by the brothel madame (Nadira), and the torn kite which Sahibjaan likens to herself, as “kati hui, namuraad, kambakht” or “torn and uprooted, unnamed, and ill-fated”. Sahibjaan’s friend Bibban (Vijay Laxmi) seeks to dissuade her from building hopes upon the letter penned by her distant lover, and says “yeh paighaam tumhaare liye nahin….us waqt tumhare paon me ghungru nahi bandhe the”..i.e. “this message is not intended for you..the ghungru (dancing anklets) were not bound around your feet then”. Nature vs Artificial civilisation also constitutes an important trope, with the romance between Sahibjaan and the gentleman stranger developing and unfolding in it’s environs, away from the artifically adorned Gulabi Mahal (Rose Palace) or the magnificently constructed bazaar in which the ‘Inhi Logon Ne’ song is picturised. (1) Colour is also key; when in her own element, away from the artifice her profession requires her to espouse, Sahibjaan is usually wearing white. (2) When pleasurably reflecting on her lover’s note with her head leaning on the edge of the fountain, or when with Salim, during their third encounter, Sahibjaan sports white, as does he- a colour representing purity. When she sings of her heartache and unfulfilled prayers at Salim’s (aborted) wedding, giving expression to her genuine grief, she is again in white, as is he.

waterfall 1

waterfall 2

waterfall 3

A seriously neglected aspect of the film is Raaj Kumar’s powerful role and performance as ‘Salim’, the gentleman smitten by Sahibjaan’s beautiful hennaed feet, and who proceeds to take on his grandfather and break away from the family home in asserting his right to love and protect her.  Raaj Kumar has been endowed with an extremely attractive character in the film, being extremely shareef, generous hearted and courageous.  For me, Raaj Kumar as ‘Salim’ is one of the most attractive male protagonists to have ever graced the Indian silver screen. He plays an integral part in many of film’s most powerful scenes. Indeed,  I think one of the most poignant and beautiful scenes both within Pakeezah, and in the history of cinema, is when having broken away from the family home, the couple are standing on a bridge with a picturesque yet roaring waterfall in the background. Sahibjaan (Meena Kumari) is aghast and internally tortured at his having forsaken home and family for her sake.

Salim Ahmad Khan: Tum shayad hameesha apne aap ko bhul chuki ho, aur ab mujhe yaqeen ho gaya hai ki tum koi nahi ho sirf meri taqdeer ho. Udhar deko..saara alam tumhaare qadmo par jhuka hai, aur ye subh tumhe salaam karahein hain.

Perhaps you have forgotten yourself forever. Indeed, now I am convinced that you are no one, but my destiny.  Turn that way, the world is bowed at your feet, and this morning offers its salutations to you.

Pakeezah: Lillah! Chup hojaiye. Intne pyar se meri jaan mat lijiye. Main iqraar kiye leti hun, mujhe sab yaad hai ki mai kya hun, kaun hun.

Dear God! Please be quiet! Don’t take my life with so much love. I confess, I remember everything, what I am, who I am.

Salim: Kaun ho tum? Kaun ho?

Who are you? Who?

Pakeezah: Main beqasoor hun. Aap ne yeh samjhaya tha. Aap ayen. Apneh khat likha aur phir aap ne kabhi mujhe chain se sone nahi diya. Haar raat aap mujhe pukaarte hue guzarte rahe. Har roz, meri ruh meri badan se khich ti rahi. Door hi door main aap ki hasrat mein doob kar mar jaati, magar aap ne mujhe doobne bhi nahi diya. Main bhaag jatin, lekin aapke kheme ne mujhe gher liya. Aap agaye, aur aap ki dil ki dharkano ne ye mujhe keh ne bhi nahin diya ke main ek tawaif hun!

I am without guilt. You taught me this. You came. You penned that letter, and then you took away all respite. Every night, you passed by calling out to me. Everyday, my soul tore away from my body. Far away, I would have drowned, consumed by my longing for you, but you wouldn’t let me drown. I would have run away, but your tent encompassed me. You came, and the beating of your heart didn’t even permit me to say that I am a prostitute!

The extent of his love for her, his idealisation of her, and his evocation of all natural creation bowing at her feet, tears at her heart. Her knowledge of her reality, the artificially adorned yet sordid environment from which she has come, compel her to cry out. At the same time, her words ‘Main beqasoor hun’/’I am without guilt’ are a fundamental affirmation of her inherent innocence; her profession is something she was born into, something the film adverts to as ‘dozakh’ or ‘hell’,  with it being near impossible for women entrapped in it to extricate themselves from it.  More important than what is said, in this scene, is what is left unsaid. The way she falls sobbing at his feet, and the tenderness with which he picks her up, after a pause, means much more than all that preceded it. I have always found the part where he lifts up and comforts her very moving, the music in the backdrop also  being key to the effect created. While this film certainly employs very cultivated sounding Urdu, none of the characters are overly voluble in it, and it’s understated character and extensive employment of metaphor is something rare in Hindi cinema. An example of this understatement is where Pakeezah and Salim are riding away in a horse drawn carriage. They are doggedly pursued by a ‘Hashim Khan’, one of Sahibjaan’s former patrons who has recognised her, and attempts to accost her. Salim inquires of Pakeezah ‘Kaun hai ye?’ -who is this? And she responds ‘kis kis ka naam poochenge aap’ –(this is harder to translate but roughly means ‘how many names will you ask of me?’).

tent 1

tent 2

tent 3

Another scene which is both deeply romantic and accurately captures the manners and sensibilities of the era is where Salim enters upon Pakeezah in his tent, who overwhelmed and made acutely self conscious by his arrival, feigns sleep. Having observed her feet, and recognised her he walks outside the tent and addresses her from the other side of it (improvised purdah).  He begins with a ‘tasleem’ (a sort of more ornate word for salaam) and proceeds to ask her about herself. Now, I am pretty sure that the practice of purdah had very regressive implications,  and did severely curtail women’s opportunities and thier capacity to interact with and experience the broader world. That said, this particular scene did for me bring out a certain beauty and charm in it. The respect and courtesy he wishes to accord her, and his desire not to affront her by addressing her directly, is evident in his chosen means to conduct the conversation with her. As he is about to leave the following day she coyly speaks from behind the tent side saying ‘sunye, raat hone se pehle zaroor laut ayega’/‘please return before night fall’ and he smilingly responds ‘zaroor’- /‘most certainly’. It was simply another age. While the movie was released in 1972, it is obviously set in and captures the aura of an earlier period. The total absense of modern forms of transport and utilities (excluding trains and telegrams which had been around for ages) suggests that it was set prior to independence (pre-1947) or even earlier.  It is  just so difficult for people today, to envisage romance of that sort, relations between the genders were far more restricted then but when there was interaction of this kind (which was itself very modest and restrained), perhaps its pleasures and charms can only be grasped at fleetingly by us.

hakim saab 1

The movie is incredibly authentic in how its portrays North Indian Muslim upper-middle class culture of that era. We only see fifteen minutes or so of Salim Ahmad Khan’s family, and yet the portrayal is highly authentic and not overstated. The house (or haveli), the manner and conversation of its inmates, the intimidating visage that is Salim’s grandfather ‘Hakim Sahab’ (played by Sapru) all appear quite true to life. The character of Hakim Sahab was evidently a representation of Kamal Amrohi’s own father, and some of the exchanges between Salim and the head of the household, are verbatim reproductions of domestic exchanges which took place in Amrohi’s own household. E.g. the line “Jo log dudh se jaljaate hai woh chaon bhi pukh pukh ke peethe hain”/”those who are burnt by milk take care even in drinking the froth” and Salim’s response “absos ki log dudh se bhi jal jaate hain”/ “It’s a pity that people are even burnt by milk” constitutes one such line extracted from Amrohi’s own life. (3) Domineering, intimidating and tyrannical patriarchal figures were not, in those days, just the stuff of story books. Many families of that period would have a comparable reference point, and Salim’s actions required great courage and conviction, given the times. His parting lines “Yeh kisi dal dal kohre se bani hui havelli hai..yeh kisi ko panah nahi de sakti hai…yeh bari khatarnaak jaga jai…chalo yahaan se”/”This mansion is made of fog…it cannot offer anyone protection…this is a dangerous place…let us leave here” is a powerful indictment of the society which he seeks to break with – one without compassion, harsh, rigid and rendered fragile by it’s pompous self-importance.

new giggle maid 1

“Tu bya toh kar, mai tujhe kade hi kade pehna dunga”/ “First marry, and I’ll fill your arms with bangles”

giggly maid

“Maine toh apna kar liya, aap ke intezaar mein kab thak baithi rahtein?”/ “I have already done so, how long was I going to hang around waiting for you?”

home 3

I also like smaller details which are etched out and are (and are meant to be) highly suggestive of character. When Salim first takes Pakeezah to his home, the nature of his interaction with the women of the family and others, shows the kind of man he is, and we adore him. His affectionate and playfully reassuring demeanour towards his (I think) grandmother who breaks down crying when she relates that Shahabuddin (Ashok Kumar) is ill at a government hopital in Hyderabad. His respect and observance of ettiquete towards the older women of the family, his more casual kindliness towards his other cousin, and lol…his gallantry and amusement when the giggly maid (I think milkwoman) flirts with him.  Yet, she can try to flirt with him so openly and make passes at him without fear, because she knows he’s a decent man. Her overtures will never be presumed upon. I’ve seen the movie so many times that even its minutae is very memorable for me. The scene where Salim takes Pakeezah to the mosque to be married, and she flees from the marriage ceremony crying “Nahi!..Nahi!”/ “No! No!” in response to the Kazi’s (priest’s) solicitation of her consent to the marriage is another powerful scene, as is her return to Gulabi Mahal (the Rose Palace) where she likens prostitutes to adorned corpses, whose souls are dead.

fleeing marriage

The film is not without flaws: Admittedly Meena Kumari is a little too passive in the first half of the film, with the first half being a little too languidly paced. Amrohi has deliberately kept it so, but I do think he becomes slightly self-indulgent at the expense of the viewer. Though not something one would term a ‘flaw’, one also can’t help wishing that Meena was as beautiful in the latter part of the film as she was in the first half. Several of the romantic scenes bear the stamp of her illness and deterioration (and yet succeed in being deeply romantic). I think some of the inflections of tone and acting are also reflective of the demeanour and gravity of an older woman, not the seventeen year old she is playing. Though the song is intensely romantic as it is, just think of the even heightened romantic potential of the “Chalo Dildar Chalo, Chand ke Paar Chalo”/ “Come beloved, let us go beyond the moon” song had Meena been able to show her face, with the camera being able to focus more on this joyous couple, and less on their surroundings. She is so young and beautiful when around all these creepy, dissipated nawabs, but when the real hero of the show comes along, we have a considerably older and very ill Meena Kumari.

chalo dildar chalo

I totally melt at Raaj Kumar’s expression here.

However, these are things that could not be helped or avoided (given the background to the completion of the film; Meena’s separation with Amrohi, subsequent alcoholism and illness). Thank God they still decided to complete Pakeezah! Kudos to Sunil and Nargis Dutt for their intervention. To think that such a film and such songs might never have seen the light of day. Ghulam Mohammad, the music composer of Pakeezah, died in poverty and obscurity well before the release of the film. His  relatively early death, and inability to ever see the huge impact his sublimely beautiful songs would have, remains a real tragedy. For Meena Kumari, completing the film in her condition (she was virtually a dying woman) was no mean feat, and must have required tremendous will power. The film remains an extraordinary achievement for all those involved in it’s making, and though considered a ‘cult classic’ it has not yet recieved the kind of recognition and appreciation it merits. ©

pakeezah bride

(1) Shweta Sachdeva Jha, “Frames of Cinematic History: The Tawaif in Umrao Jaan and Pakeezah” in Narratives of Indian Cinema (ed) Manju Jain. Primus Press, 2009.

(2) Ibid

(3) An interview with Tajdar Amrohi: “Celebrating 40 years of Pakeezah” at Rediff Movies. See