Saturday, November 15, 2008
Calcutta, secret garden
A few days ago, I was moving through the city of Calcutta (where I live). My movements nowadays are very limited and I hardly have occasion to be in the city proper. But when I do, it never fails to affect me, positively. Most of the time that I'm going somewhere on my usual route, I'm extremely angry and disgusted with everything around me that I see and hear. One's sensibilities are assaulted in every way. Anyway, as I was going through parts of the city proper a few days ago, and being in a very, very different frame of mind that day, an ecstatic, euphoric, blissful, inspired state, things took on a different appearance.
I realised Calcutta was still an exquisitely pretty city, notwithstanding everything else. Pretty - like a maidservant. People living in Calcutta would definitely have encountered or observed beauty amidst poverty. Calcutta is like that. The pretty maidservant is a pretty woman, like any pretty woman anywhere, standing out among the crowd. But she is also poor and subject to all the ramifications of that. So to the person who is sensitive to her beauty and aware of her poverty, she remains an enigma, a tragic figure, and a desired but unattainable object. Also inevitable is the fact that the pretty maidservant will also eventually suffer the ravages of her poverty, until her beauty is only a distant memory, perhaps a faint hint of that may be discerned by the perceptive observer. Eliza Doolittle's transformation into a classy lady - was, after all, only a story.
If she is unmarried, her middle-class or wealthy admirer is at a loss regarding what to do about his attraction. For the two can never meet, and that is simply fated to be so. And any attempt to counter this fact can only result in disaster. Or rape, or forced prostitution, which bring their own consequences.
The exquisitely pretty maidservant can only be seen and admired from afar. And in that lies the possibility of transcendence.
Notwithstanding poverty, beauty shall continue to emerge, and shine, howsoever briefly.
King Santanu, in the epic, Mahabharata, was besotted with Satyavati, a fisherman's daughter. He asked for her hand, but her father laid down the condition that their children must inherit the king's throne. Santanu demurred, but his son Bhishma, seeing his father's sad plight, came to his rescue by renouncing the throne and embracing celibacy. And thus was the king's lust and desire fulfilled. But the story did not end there, it ended only with the horrific destruction wrought by the war in Kurukshetra. But though Santanu's desire and lust had to be paid for so dearly, redemption lay in the fact that Satyavati did get justice, albeit because of Bhishma's spontaneous sacrifice.
Reflecting along these lines, the phrase from the nursery rhyme, "... pretty maids all in a row" came to mind. That has an association with Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. So, I thought Calcutta was my own secret garden.
Image: Detail from Judith and her Maidservant by Artemisia Gentileschi.