Monday, March 21, 2011
The Company of Women - Khushwant Singh
Having read ‘Train to Pakistan’ and ‘Delhi’, a true masterpiece by Khushwant Singh, I find it difficult to resist a book by this author when I see it in a bookstore. And I end up buying it with great expectations set by the aforementioned books.
Clearly, I made a mistake when I bought a short story collection ‘Paradise and others…’. It was just titillation and that too in bad taste.
This one was not as big a mistake as that, and certainly I don’t totally regret reading it.
At first glance, this book is about the reckless debauchery of a high society guy in Delhi, his different girlfriends and the details of his clandestine adventures.
What saves the book from being complete trash is the way it shows how waywardness makes a person hollow from within, the brief allusions to the tenderness within the otherwise soulless protagonist (yes, I am someone who believes that when life is guided chiefly by lust, eventually it corrodes the insides and kills the soul of a human), the discussions on religion and the inetersting though occasional facts about people and places brought into the narration.
It’s the story of Mohan Kumar, a man giving in to the temptations of youth without a care for anything in the world.
His debauchery begins with his college life in the US. He beds a score of women, easily available in plenty in the university - Jessica Brown, Yasmeen...and more. He returns to India and gets married to Sonu. When his wife gives birth to his son, there arrive two nurses to take care of the child, one of which, Mary Joseph, he takes to bed secretly.
Sonu turns out to be a querulous and cantankerous woman.
Perpetual nagging and quarreling are followed by separation. His father dies too, and he is left alone, a high society wealthy business man with all the material wealth in the world but returning to an empty house every day.
Sex being the most important preoccupation of his life, he tries to find it one way or another.
Finding his sweeper woman Dhanno very convenient, he gratifies himself with her.
After sometime, he devises a means more convenient.
He advertises in the newspaper for a female ‘companion’, who will live with him in his house, as long as mutually desirable to both, no strings attached, money and perks thrown in, of course.
Women respond to his advertisement and move to Delhi to live with him. One liaison follows another. Sarojini, Molly Gomes, Susanthika…
Once during a visit to Bombay, where he lives in a star hotel, he sends for a ‘bai’ one night. He uses no protection and after a month or so, his otherwise robust health begins to deteriorate. A visit to a doctor reveals that he has AIDS.
Not willing to live until his condition grows worse, until his shameful disease is discovered, he commits suicide.
My Reading experience
The first few chapters give the impression of yet another crappy material full of cheap titillation. A rich Punjabi guy from Delhi studying in the US, life being a casual affair and not a serious business at his age, convenience mattering more than culture or morality...his morally loose ways (‘morally loose’ in my language, ‘having liberal values', in their language)…
His leching at women and his advertising in the newspaper for a concubine after his wife left him...
Only when the narration in first person begins, it seems like the authentic story of someone who has a heart, mind and soul, his wayward ways notwithstanding.
The author presents a man indulging in pleasures without a care for anything or anyone, without a thought for morality but shows now and then, how, eventually, sex, money, prestige, comfort, convenience make him hollow from inside.
Though having become completely westernized, moving in high society circles, focused on show business, he still longs, once in a way, for the experience of seeing the Ganga Aarti at Harki Paudi at Haridwar. The sight of the Ganga lifts his spirits.
These mentions are very brief in a book filled with debauchery.
And to me, they reflect the fact that the protagonist keeps these moments very brief, perhaps, for fear that dwelling upon them too much may stir his conscience and change his life, perhaps for fear of upsetting the existing order, perhaps fearing a return to his home. When you have gone very far away from home, you fear coming back.
It made me think, that It is like that with most people on the wrong path. Once in a way they hear their inner voices but stifle them.
For if they hear that voice for long, they may be giving it strength and that inner turmoil may become a revolution and upset the existing order.
Most people believe they cannot make that return, that they are beyond a point of return.
During a conversation with one of his concubines, he makes a passing remark ‘my sins need a lot more cleansing’ – here too, there is momentary prevalence of conscience upon convenience and acknowledgment of wrong doing, a prick of conscience in spite of all the arguments to support free sex, the liberal way of living etc.
Our protagonist has deep attachment towards his father. When his father dies, he goes to Hardwar to immerse his ashes in the Ganges. He spends the night in the same room as he had during a previous visit with his father and he clings to the ashes while sleeping, crying like a baby.
When he realizes he is dying he starts reading the Bhagavad Gita. With each sleeping pill that he swallows, he chants the Gayathri Mantra once.
The author takes up the subject of religion and through casual exchanges between his various characters, presents interesting views (perhaps his own opinions) about religions.
His protagonist chooses comparative religion as a subject at Princeton in the US.
His girlfriends belong to different religions - Yasmeen a muslim from Azad Kashmir, Molly Gomes a Goan Christian, Susanthika a Buddhist from Srilanka.
His choice of characters seemed to me, like part of a premeditated plan to bring up the subject of religion.
In one of the classroom discussions, Yasmeen, a proud Muslim, from Azad Kashmir dreaming about liberating Kashmir from the clutches of Hindus, aggressively proclaims the superiority of Islam and points to the many flaws in the Hindu society. She mocks at Hindus washing away sins by dipping in the Ganges.
A Jew claims that Muslims borrowed everything from Judaism or Chritianity and had nothing new, and Yasmeen proclaims with more ferocity than before that the Prophet was the greatest. One whole chapter is dedicated to this.
It ends with Yasmeen (a married woman with 2 children) dragging Mohan Kumar to bed, taking him by surprise, and reluctantly admitting that Islam provides for washing away of sins by a pilgrimage or something.
Molly gomes (Maria Manuela Francesca Jose de Piedade Philomena Gomes) tells Mohan that Hindus outnumber the Portuguese Catholic in Goa and are much richer too but Christians have more style and enjoy life. But there are more cathedrals than temples, they attend masses more regularly than Hindus do Puja and they look down upon Hindus and don’t intermarry.
Mohan Kumar tells Susanthika that a lot of stress is laid on ‘Dukkha’ in Buddhism; Sorrow, to be overcome by overcoming desire; for food sex and good things in life. The strength of Hinduism lies in the fact that it is a happy religion. The rituals allow fun and frolic, drinking dancing gambling and flirting. “I go by that rather than fasting, penance...”
There are some interesting facts thrown in here and there which contain the reader’s interest. I have noted them below as is my habit.
The inventiveness of Americans- A six story building in Princeton designed by Japanese - when they found it to be too close to the road, they raised the structure from its foundation and placed it in its new site without disturbing even its furnishings...
They turned an empty site into a forest in a month by planting half grown trees...
Business opportunities at the Ganges offered by death - sifting of silver or gold fillings of the teeth of dead persons from their ashes by urchins standing waist deep in the river shining mirrors into the water to catch the glint of precious metal. They partnership with the paandas who empty the urns close to the banks to make retrieval possible...
Americans disdain jealousy as a medieval emotion…
Singing and dancing are in Goan blood…
Delhi is the capital city of gossipmongers…
These, combined with snatches of religious discussions here and there try hard to take the book to a higher level but without much success. At best, this book warns people lost in debauchery. That is, if such people don’t scoff at the ‘moral story’ that the book tries not to be.