The Philosopher’s Stone

By MITALI CHAKRAVARTY

“…the destruction of what you people call evil, is less just and desirable than the conversion of this evil into what you call good…”

 — The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Is it possible to change evil to good? Are we the right people to judge what is evil or good and go on a witch hunt and start a riot that disrupts lives? The words above were mouthed by a humanoid robot at the end of the novel — in a society where differences among humans persist despite technological advances. Human nature then seems similar to what it is now, though in a futuristic setting.

Recently, reading Devaki Jain’s autobiography, The Brass Notebook, made one thing clear. If you really want something, you can get it. But the desire has to be strong enough to override the feeling of having lost out because one often needs to pay a price. The other thing that is noticeable is Jain’s ability to override societal values with their judgemental outlook of good or evil, of what is acceptable and what is not. A South Indian Brahmin, born in 1933, she cast aside the patriarchal norms surrounding her to reinvent her life in the way she wanted. In the process, she was touched by many great lives and she touched many lives with her own work. She was a woman who with her convictions helped many less privileged and went on to prove that economics needed to be redefined beyond the reaches of patriarchal and colonial thought processes. 

Jain was sexually harassed a couple of times — the kind of molestation which could well be fodder for the ‘me too’ movement or for a less vocal woman, the incident could result in a feeling of being abused and losing self-worth. But she treated them as events to be merely brushed aside and moved forward to live the life she wanted — a strong woman and an influencer. The most impressive thing is that she published her autobiography after having crossed her eighties, at a point when most are obsessed with geriatric issues. Would she have been judged evil by the patriarchal society whose norms she upended? Would she be judged good by the people whose lives she changed with her open outlook and daring theories?

A woman similar to her was created by Aruna Chakravarti in her novel Suralakshmi Villa. Suralakshmi found her own groom late in life — a married irresolute man who she dumps when she finds him sexually molesting and trying to rape her ward, a young Muslim girl. She goes on to open a thriving hospital in rural Bengal and helps the less privileged. Suralakshmi would probably be living in a time parallel to Jain. Again, a strong woman not given to regrets and with the ability to brush aside smaller issues. 

One of the features that is truly inspiring about Chakravarti’s women in novels like Suralakshmi Villa and Jorasanko, her story of the Tagore family, is the strength she portrays in her women, who despite being surrounded by patriarchal values are able to stand for themselves and hold on to their sense of self-worth and independence, as seen in the character of Jain in The Brass Notebook. This is a recurring theme in Chakravarti’s short stories too, like Through the Looking Glass, where the protagonist despite being a victim of patriarchal abuse lives a life of struggle but feels like a princess near the conclusion. The “old, ugly, unloved Pomo Dasi had vanished. Rajkumari Promoda Sundari, only daughter of  Sreel Sreejukta Raja Raghobendra Chandra Rai, seventeenth in line from the Chandra Rai dynasty of Garh Bishnupur, was sporting with her companions in the royal gardens.”  

What could be this philosopher’s stone that makes a human regain their self-worth? It could be a truth as uncovered in this story by Pomo, the daughter of a widowed cook forced to serve her master in bed. It could be an ability to strain the positive and good out of a batter of good, evil and indifferent, as in the cases of Devaki Jain or Suralakshmi. This made them more optimistic in their outlook and they were able to achieve their dreams. “High optimism will predict high effort and success,” Liz Mascolo, a top business executive, stated in a discussion on CNBC on how optimism affects success1

Reading Chakravarti’s translation of The Witch (Daini) by Tarashankar Banerjee, first published in 1940s, one is struck by the initial gumption of the protagonist, Surodhoni, a low caste girl, who is eventually nicknamed the witch by villagers as she moves from place to place in an attempt to run away from what people claim is ‘the evil within her’. Everyone tells the beautiful orphan that she has devoured her parents and augurs bad luck. She finds whenever she falls in love or cares for someone, the person dies. Perhaps, if one reads the story closely, one will realise that each time she tried to help the sick and weak. They were already near death. Because of the taboo woven around her very existence, her so called ‘victims’ are fearful of the evil in her and feel her very presence condemns them to death. 

Eventually, Surodhoni starts believing in the evil within herself till she is caught in a tornado and dies. Could we see the hurricane as an externalisation of her own inner turmoil? That she loses faith in herself and falls victimised by a society that believes in witch hunts, literally and figuratively, is borne out by the narrative. However, at no point does she despair. She lives unregretfully with her lot but perceives herself in the same negative light as the villagers, who condemned her very existence and deprived her of a sense of home. 

Her plight brings to mind the stories about witch hunting in puritanical America in the seventeenth century, stories like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, set between 1642 and 1649, or written much later, Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, a story based on the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93. What did these societies have in common? 

Other than patriarchal values, could it be blind beliefs — beliefs that these women despite their attempts failed to override? In those times, the society believed these women were satanic. Therefore, they would be punished to death. Women were as judgemental as men. Perhaps, lack of education makes not just women but the whole society lose sight of optimism and drown itself in a pessimistic and fear filled outlook of the world. Perhaps looking at the earlier stories, some could argue that women from an affluent educated background – like Devaki Jain and Suralakshmi – had the ability to override these values; whereas poor ones like Surodhoni lose out due to lack of education. But is that a truth?  Surodhoni though a poor dalit who accepts her own ignominy and lives as a social outcaste, does have a sense of warped self-worth. She draws strength in the happiness of memories from her short-lived romance and marriage. Her adoring husband had died of what seems to be a description of tuberculosis. Perhaps, Pomo Dasi might have been closer to the truth that it is not merely an education that gives a sense of self-worth but something beyond that, in her case the identity of her father and her understanding that he loved her. A feeling of not being cherished does come into play in the story of a real, highly educated woman who was overwhelmed by the sense of abandonment.

In the early twentieth century, a privileged woman called Dorothy Bonarjee 5(1894- 1983) defied many social norms when she not only studied in England but refused to return to India post her studies. She was honoured as a Welsh Bard at the young age of nineteen, but with all her education, she wafted into oblivion at the end of her life. She lived with a feeling of abandonment as her boyfriend betrayed her due to racial prejudice. Alongside one of her poems, Bonarjee had jotted down a note: “Written at the age of 22 when a Welsh student after 3 years of secret engagement dropped me because his parents said ‘She is very beautiful and intelligent but she is Indian’.” 

In an article in BBC, her niece who shared confidences with her aunt about the failed romance said, “It destroyed her. She was distraught.” She lost her optimistic outlook burdened by the sense of being a social outcaste, much like Surodhoni. Both were strong women who lost optimism due to judgements made by the society which surrounded them. Affluence or education could not give her back what Bonarjee lost. Later, her brief marriage with a French artist ended in a divorce. She is known for her youthful achievements, being awarded the Bardic chair while a student and for being the first woman lawyer to graduate from the University College of London.

Another South Asian woman who upended societal norms with her powerful writing lived in Bengal, long before Tarashankar wrote his story or Devaki Jain was even born. She was a Muslim by birth and marriage without the privilege of Western University degrees6, Begum Rokeya (1880-1932). Rokeya wrote in three languages in those days, Bengali, Urdu and English. She knew five – in addition to these three, Persian and Arabic. She wrote a number of books, including Sultana’s Dream which is often a part of gender studies curriculum in today’s world. Sultana’s Dream, first written in English by a Bengali woman in 1905, is about a society where roles are reversed: women are in the open and the men are in purdah — the ‘oborodh bashindas’. It also weaves in climate lore. A powerful story where women are fully empowered and which stuns with its lucidity and clarity of expression. 

Exploring these few strong women drawn through life and literature, some of them even creating literature, one wonders were these women critiqued at any point for breaking rules in society? For all of them, even Surodhoni who succumbed to thinking of herself as evil and Bonarjee who felt unloved, created their own rules. While I am not talking of breaking rules for the sake of defiance, I am questioning the foundation that makes societal norms label actions or individuals as evil or good? Is it right to fall victim to them, an ‘oborodh bashini’? Or do we succumb to a riot, a protest disrupting all lives? The way I see it is that these women have shown us an alternative path – to overlook the negatives and move forward to achieve our dreams.  If we were to seek equality — is that even a possibility — would it be an extension of the Orwellian comment that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”? This could be an endless polemical debate. 

To me, being honest to oneself is important in our discovery of the strength and the excellence that lies often dormant within each human. The ability to see ourselves as we are, accept it and move forward towards a better self is an asset. Madame Rokeya wrote in Bengali: “I repeat the same truth, and, if required, I will repeat it a hundred times.”2 That is why perhaps her works impact our reading and thoughts even today. The same thing was repeated much later by a well-known historian, RC Majumdar. “I have not hesitated to speak out the truth, even if it is in conflict with views cherished and propagated by distinguished political leaders.”3 

The emphasis should perhaps be on the truth of the experience and not on gender or margins or the acceptance of laws laid down to give in to norms that divide. Avik Chanda, the CEO-Founder of a human resource development company, and the bestselling author of From Command To Empathy: Using EQ in the Age of Disruption, suggested in a recent article4 in Economic Times that women, despite the patriarchal handicap around us, should be trained to complete a task rather than trained only keeping gender biases in mind. 

Redefining values that hold back mankind in its quest for excellence should be beyond gender. The reason I have picked women is because they are often perceived as marginalised or helpless. However, some of them have managed to get in touch with the ‘truth’ that lies dormant inside each human. Perhaps, these women have lived out an ideal described by Tagore, another person who sought to get in touch with the best in mankind. They have journeyed to the domain described in his poem Where the Mind is Without Fear:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high

Where knowledge is free

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls

Where words come out from the depth of truth

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection…

Such women and men, including Tagore, have found their individual Eldorados and in the process have perhaps opened our minds to the concept of human excellence that lies dormant in each one of us.

References:

1 https://www.cnbc.com/2017/10/05/why-should-you-be-highly-optimistic-if-you-want-to-be-successful.html

2 https://www.thedailystar.net/literature/news/remembering-and-rereading-rokeya-patriarchy-politics-and-praxis-2006077

3 https://www.dailypioneer.com/2013/columnists/he-was-a-man-with-a-mind-of-his-own.html

4 https://m.economictimes.com/news/company/corporate-trends/why-india-inc-needs-to-revisit-leadership-development-programmes/articleshow/80059090.cms

5 https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-55430717

6 https://www.dailyo.in/variety/begum-rokeya-sakhawat-hossain-muslim-women-feminist-sultana-dream/story/1/19620.html

(Mitali Chakravarty is writer and the editor of Borderless Journal. She has been published widely in journals and anthologies. She writes and translates for harmony, humanity and kindness and looks forward to a world beyond borders.)