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)