By Farah Ahamed
The aim of tragedy, according to Aristotle is to bring about a ‘catharsis’; to arouse in the spectators’ pity and fear and to purge them off these emotions so that they left the theatre with an understanding of the ways of gods and men. The audience witnessing the changes in the fortunes of the protagonist creates the catharsis. He wrote:
“Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of action and life, of happiness and misery.”
To Die in Benares*, (2018) translated from the French by Blake Smith, is a collection of seven stories, which have this cathartic effect. I will illustrate this by analysing the first story “A Paper Boat in the Ganges”, which centres on the life of Fougerre who has to confront Aristotlean obstacles in his life; colonialism, mythological gods, and fate. Set in Pondicherry at a time when it was still under French occupation, the story covers almost fifty years and presents a compressed montage of brisk, vivid scenes each with intense gesture and detail.It opens with these weighty lines:
“India is probably the only country where fate’s grip on the lives of individuals is so easily accepted. Life isn’t fair. People say it a lot. People hear it said still more often.”
The introduction sets the sombre mood for fate to hijack the character’s life with the ‘epic proportions of the cruel Gods of ancient Greece’. We find the two protagonists — Manu and his Tamil friend, Fougerre — in the sixth grade at a school managed by the French Government. The school is attended by French, and Indian students whose fathers are retired French soldiers or French functionaries, who have a strong attachment to French culture and some Tamilian students like the narrator, Manu, and Fougerre who are less so.
Fougerre, in particular, is an “outsider”. He is a dark-skinned Tamilian, which his white French classmates associate with their servant classes. A reticent and timid boy from a more modest background than his white French classmates, Fougerre is hardworking, bright and meticulous. His white peers copy his perfect homework, and resent “his remarkable brilliance”, because he reminds them of their servants. Manu, in particular, is jealous of Fougerre’s artistic skills.
Fougerre, brought up in a colony where Tamilians were used to being targeted, accepts his burden — he is used to the strain of being sidelined and consequently his background and psychological conditioning are such that he cannot retaliate. Like any tragic Aristotlean hero, Fougerre has his fatal flaw.
The real trouble starts when the beautiful Madame Armeil, a white French teacher asks the class to sketch the “most significant symbol of the motherland”. All the students of “Gallic”ancestry draw French symbols from “Marianne of 1789 to the tricolour flag” with their expensive coloured pencils. Fougerre, however, presents a magnificent black pencil sketch, shaded with “restraint and flair”, of “Ashoka’s column, topped with three lions and the famous cosmic wheel”. Madame Armeil, quick to show her colonial superiority, says Fougerre’s drawing is an “act of treason” and shreds it “into a thousand pieces”. This incites his peers and they mock him for thinking he is not French but Indian.
Fougerre, estranged not only by the cheap, black pencils he used for his drawing, but also by his own understanding of his distinctive identity, “hides behind an old banyan” and scratches its ancient roots pretending to look for something — a metaphor for his desire to be “rooted” in his true Indian self.
The drawing incident is followed by a vicious and deliberate act by a French boy, whom Manu ironically refers to as ‘the Other’, which causes Fougerre to split and disfigure his harelip. Suddenly Fougerre who “loved to be invisible in any situation” is exposed in front of the whole school, but instead of defending himself, he behaves as if he had “committed a detestable crime”. Either his nature or his environmental conditioning prevents him from fighting back. His father takes him away from the French school and he joins an inferior Indian one. Cast out and isolated, but Fougerre does not resist whatever fate hands him.
The story picks up some years later when Manu returns to Pondicherry, after being in France and working in Delhi. He finds the “brilliant” soft-spoken Fougerre, who could have been a surgeon, architect or engineer, working behind the counter at a bus ticketing office. The counter, a separator from the rest of the world, which could have lent Fougerre some occupational authority, is instead where he hides and takes refuge.
Fougerre tells Manu that he has a wife, Meenakshi and a son Karthik, born after twenty years of marriage. Karthik, has all of Fougerre’s “brilliance”, his “seriousness and the way he drew”, and Fougerre encourages Karthik to excel, trying to realise his own ambitions vicariously.
Fougerre explains with pride that Karthik is the result of the mercy of gods. On the night of Shivaratri, the Hindu festival marking the “overcoming of darkness and ignorance”, Meenakshi and he had met a beggar to who he had given a hundred rupee note. However, the beggar had returned it to them, saying they should fold it into a paper boat, take it to Benares and float it down the Ganges. If it sailed, they would have a child. The scene has two powerful conflicting emotions. While Shivaratri conjures up mythological images of a white diety annihilating a black demon and offers Fougerre a glimmer of hope, the beggar echoes Macbeth’s witches and from this point, there is a deep sense of foreboding.
According to Aristotle “without action there cannot be a tragedy”. But in Fougerre’s case, it is not action but a series of “inactions”or failure to act which contributes to the final harrowing ending. Manu meets Fougerre one last time as Fougerre is preparing to leave his home. Meenakshi tells Manu that Karthik, after missing for two months, was found dead in a classroom. He had fallen asleep there after preparing all night for his exam and writing his final paper on the last day of term. Neither the class teacher, security guard nor the school administrators had noticed him before locking the school compound for the holidays.
However, more importantly, when Karthik did not return from school, Fougerre, instead of challenging the school authorities and insisting on a thorough search of the school premises, accepted what he was told without a fight. Aristotle said for a tragedy to work, the audience’s pity should be “aroused by unmerited misfortune”, “brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgment or frailty”. Here it is Fougerre’s natural reticence, compounded by his conditioned refusal to challenge authority, which are his weaknesses.
Unable to escape from the classroom, Karthik died crying, while his parents searched the streets for him in vain. When his decayed body was at last discovered in the classroom, they found on the blackboard, his last drawing; a picture of his family and his house.Fougerre’s story, which started in a classroom with a picture drawing, has made a full circle.
Manu compares Karthik’s tragedy to that of Abhimanyu, the son of Arjuna, in The Mahabharata. In that epic, not only does Arjuna fail to save his son, but Krishna too, a god who could have intervened chooses not to for a greater good. But was there a higher reason for the gods not intervening to save Karthik? No response is offered, except to show that every character in the story was tainted by the incidence. The school gardener left his job, the principal was transferred to another school and the guard disappeared. Meenakshi and Fougerre were separated in their grief and Fougerre, like Arjuna, blamed himself. He saw himself as a murderer and his guilt drove him mad. All he could say is:
“It’s not fair … Why?”
After all, he could not deny that it was his own fault, his unquestioning acceptance of superior powers, that had contributed to the outcome.
After tolerating Fougerre’s self-imposed exile and madness for many years, Meenakshi sent him to an asylum because she knew “he no longer wished to live this life”. As Fougerre entered the car, which would take him away from his village and home, it was
“…without a glance of regret for anything, as if he had been waiting his whole life for this event.”
He is a tragic hero: humane, flawed and unforgettable.
‘Paper Boat’ has an Aristotelian ending — Fougerre is wretched because of himself, Meenakshi poignantly finds a paper boat made from a hundred rupees bank note lying on the windowsill in Fougerre’s room and Manu is irreconcilably alone. There is not even a glimmer of mercy or solace to be found in the story, but we leave it feeling we have understood this must be so because these are the ways of gods and men.
*To Die in Benares by K Madavane and translated from the French by Blake Smith is published by Pan Macmillan India.
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