Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Brief Note About Jainendra Kumar's "The Resignation"

I came across Jainendra Kumar's The Resignation (Tyaga-Patra ; 1937) as I was combing through the library looking for work associated with Ajneya, a figure I have been mentioning on and off in a number of recent blog posts. It turns out that Ajneya translated a novel by Jainendra Kumar, a Hindi novelist who was well-known in the 1930s but who has in more recent years dropped off the map. Jainendra Kumar seems interesting as a misfit in his era -- while his peers in the 1930s were generally somewhat optimistically Progressive, Jainendra seems thoroughly alienated, anticipating in some ways the turn towards the New Story in Hindi fiction in the 1950s and 60s.

Ajneya's preface to The Resignation gestures at Jainendra's oddness:

Jainendra Kumar appeared on the literary horizon in 1929, his first published work being a book of short stories. (This was followed shortly after by a novel, Parakh (The Criterion) which won immediate recgonition from critics as well as from the general public, and was also awarded the Hindustani Academy prize. Thereafter the author's rise to prominence was phenomenal, and within a few years he was probably the most talked of figure in Hindi literature, not only because of the high literary quality of his subsequent work, but also, and possibly more, on account of the disturbing originality of his creative outlook. His thought, his story material, his characters, even his language, was provokingly different, and each new novel seemed to define more clearly a philosophy that was in startling contrast with the nationalistic aspirations current at the time.


The novel itself covers some familiar territory -- a boy named Pramod in a middle class family has an intense attachment to his aunt Mrinal (his Bua), who is only five years older than himself. Mrinal (or Mina) has lived with Pramod's family since she was orphaned as a child. As a teenager, she develops an attachment to a local boy who is off-limits as a marriage prospect. She is married off against her wishes by Pramod's parents, and is immediately unhappy. She continues to be in touch with her sweetheart from before marriage, and comes under suspicion from her husband of committing adultery. After several years, her husband leaves her, and she is effectively excommunicated from Pramod's family, and by middle-class society in general. She sinks through the ranks, taking up with laborers who mistreat her among other things, and finally dies.

All of that isn't particularly interesting in and of itself -- the subject of forbidden love and unhappy arranged marriage is common to many Indian stories, as well as more than a few bad melodramatic films and television serials.

What's interesting about Jainendra Kumar's treatment is the actually absence of melodrama. Rather than fight the dominant social order, Mina accepts her fate, and refuses Pramod's help when he attempts, at various points to 'rescue' Mina from social sanction:

I interrupted her. 'I won't come again,' I said.
 'Yes, you shouldn't come. I meant to tell you that myself. those who belong in society must also maintain it. that is their duty. Only those who are outcasts and prefer to be outcasts, are exempt from that duty. Only they have the privilege of experimenting with life. Truth demands these experiments, Pramod, but they can only be carried out by and on those who no longer have much social value. 

I, a student, failed to grasp the meaning of these words. [...]

'You will not see me here again, aunt. I came wanting to help but no I see that nobody wants my help. Well! I shall never come back!

 I wonder how I could have brought myself to say anything so petty. I remember well her reply.

'Pramod!' she said, 'Do you think I don't want help? And if I want it, why should I refuse it from you, my only possible support? But isn't it true that what you mean by 'help' is lifting me up into the orbit of respectability? My dear, you had better leave me in that case. That is not my ambition. The help I want is strength--to enable me to remain whole beneath the lash of the oppressor, and to take upon myself the burden of his sin in addition to my own, praying forgiveness for all the world. Why should I seek for respectability? I must find my solace in whatever comes.' 

The fate of Pramod's aunt gets under his skin, alienating him from his family and his professional life as a lawyer (and later, judge) -- in effect, derailing his entire life. Some of the key passages late in the novel reflect that growing feeling of alienation:

Gradually a kind of knot formed itself in my mind. It could not be untied. It would not disappear spontaneously, while the slightest touch entangled and tightened it still further. I wanted something drastic to happen for something was fundamentally wrong somewhere--with creation, with society, and with the way my own life was organized. The whole of existence was illogical; it lacked cohesion and unity. It had no meaning. Something had to be done about it, but what, and how?
At the end of the novel Pramod visits Mina one lasts time to try and save her from utter destitution. At this point she is living in a tenement amongst "aging prostitutes, coolies out of work, professional beggars and hunted criminals." Mina addresses a long letter to Pramod, explaining her circumstances and urging him not to come:

'You can come if you feel like it, but come with no expectations or illusions about me. The people I live among are the scum of society. And one would be hard put to it to prove that they deserve anything better. Nonetheless they are human. And thrown in their midst as I am, I see the genuineness of their humanity more and more clearly; however uncertain and tenuous it may at times appear to be, it is upon this humanity that I base my hope and faith. [...]

'Only the real and the living can survive here--conventional morality withers beneath the burning contempt of these people. Civilization-culture-decency : these polite myths lose all meaning. The beast rules--untamed and unashamed--and calls to the beast that is in every man. It does not matter how deeply hidden the latter may be. You may have buried him beneath mounds of inhibition and convention to hibernate. Rampant and alert he will come forth. [...]

Pramod, you will not understand. But take my advice and do not come. You are sensitive by nature and live in a world of high ideals: here there is only baseness and filth--stark reality. I can breathe here in this poisonous atmosphere because I have grown immune. Or, perhaps I too have grown callous and insensitive. Be that as it may, it is better for you not to come.

What I like about this, again, is its unsentimentality. Mina doesn't idealize the poor or suggest that they are somehow morally at a higher ground than the wealthy people who exploit them. Nor does she glamorize her own suffering; she rather accepts it as a kind of bitter evidence of the amorality of the world. The harshness of this vision, where no liberation or solidarity is really possible, puts Jainendra clearly at odds with the major Progressive voices of his time. 

3 comments:

Amrit Hallan said...

It reminds me of a few characters in "Of Human Bondage"... people are just the way they are and sometimes we can attach no meaning to their behavior. A story doesn't always have to tell why the person is how he or she is.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me you are missing a possible spiritual undertone here - in Hindi, Tyaga also means self-sacrifice or renunciation which has traditionally been one of the highest values of Indian culture - "The help I want is strength--to enable me to remain whole beneath the lash of the oppressor" sounds a bit like the concept of "sthtitha prajna". In a way, Mina sounds somewhat similar to Pushpa in Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadyay's Amar Prem - which also has a similar theme - Anand Babu wants to rescue Pushpa from a life as a prostitute, but Pushpa does not want to be rescued.

Rupert Snell said...

In writing Tyagpatra, Jainendra silently followed the plot line of Andre Gide's celebrated French novel La Porte Etroite, published in 1909; he had presumably read this in its English translation, Strait is the Gate. While Tyagpatra is a fine novel in its own right, the comparison between the French model and its Indian avatar adds a further layer of interest.

No translation can do full justice to the poignancy and economy of Jainendra's Hindi; but the recent translation by Rohini Chowdhuri is more faithful than the much earlier version by Ajneya, who perhaps could not resist letting his own sublime talents influence his rendering of Jainendra's prose.