21 April 2012

Book Review: The Resignation

The Resignation
Jainendra Tr. by Rohini Chowdhury
200 pp; Rs 250

Divided Virtue

Published 75 years ago, Jainendra’s quiet condemnation of an extant middle class morality echoes through time.

I FIRST stumbled upon Jainendra’s Tyagpatra (The Resignation) as a play staged by Delhi theatre doyen Rajinder Nath in 2007. What struck me most then — and again now, when reading the novel in this new translation — is how startlingly honest it is about relationships, marriage and middle-class morals. The narrative centres on a woman called Mrinal and her struggle to find a space for her desires within the constricted contours of middle-class society. The tale is told by Mrinal’s nephew Pramod, now a highly-regarded judge, who has just received news of her death and is accosted by guilt at having failed to stand by her all his adult life.

Jainendra wrote Tyagpatra in the first person, crafting the internal dialogue between the younger, often baffled Pramod and the older, anguished one into a deceptively simple narrative. Like the 13-year-old Leo of LP Hartley’s classic 1953 British novel The Go-Between, or the precocious (also 13-year-old) Briony Tallis of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Pramod is the classic child in an adult world, forced to deal with things he doesn’t quite understand — but is deeply affected by. “If she didn’t like that place, then she shouldn’t go there — that’s all there was to it!” thinks the young Pramod, unable to grasp why his beloved Bua must return to her husband’s home. The adult Pramod, sadly, knows better: “The matter wasn’t as simple as I made it out to be — this I understand very well today. Marriage is a knot that ties two people together but one that ties them to society as well. It does not break merely because one wants it to!”

The adult voice of Jainendra’s narrator can be banal in his verbosity — “Upon which beach do the waves of that ocean end?” — but the child narrator fixes charmingly upon the irrelevant detail. So when Pramod, like Leo and Briony many years after him, finds himself delivering letters between Mrinal and her friend Sheela’s brother, he is arrested by the letter itself: “I wondered if I too would one day have such good handwriting. The ‘My dear’ with which the letter began — I liked the way it had been written so much that for a long time I tried to form the ‘My dear’ of my letters in the same manner.”

At the novel’s core, however, is Mrinal’s disillusionment: her failed efforts to found her marriage on honest foundations, followed by her radical break with “civilised society”. The episodes where Pramod — now an LLB — tries unsuccessfully to confront his Mrinal Bua astutely plumb the depths of middle-class schizophrenia. Is a woman like Mrinal, abandoned by her husband, a tragic victim? Or is she a sinner, because she has chosen to live outside the bounds of middle-class morality? All Pramod’s books cannot give him his answer.

Mrinal’s letter to Pramod, on the other hand, is a model of clarity. The people amidst whom she now lives may be “the dregs of society”, but they are honest. “In this place, it is inconceivable that anyone would present himself as being of good character, or that he would wish to or be able to do so… Here, pretence and deceit are impossible… Good breeding that is only a veneer is revealed here for what it is.” Elsewhere, she reassures Pramod that she is not about to become a prostitute: “I can understand the necessity of giving one’s body. I will be able to give my body, perhaps that will be necessary. But to take in return?”

As contemporary writer Mridula Garg points out in her afterword here, Tyagpatra is perhaps the most quoted and discussed of Jainendra’s novels. Jainendra must have known that a heroine like Mrinal would shake up most readers in 1937, when the book was first published. I imagine my late grandmother, born in 1927, as a reader who would have connected with Mrinal. It’s almost tragic that her candour can still surprise us in 2012.

Published in Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 17, Dated 28 April 2012.

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