Parables, flying scrolls and fiction: What is evil?

Mahashweta Devi

It is easy for derivative theoreticians who cannot creatively comprehend the deconstructive nature of creative texts to dismiss creative processes and their decentered layers and structures by highlighting a single element of a creative text, ignoring the fact that there are innumerable elements in the texts that act on each other to produce multiple levels of meaning and experience.

‘Walking Over Water’ is a cinematic text that has the great courage to take upon itself the danger of being reduced and interpreted as a work that is all about the distinctions between fiction and reality. A superficial viewing of “WOW” is most likely to regarded as a cinematic text that easily juxtaposes two opposing entities – fiction and reality. There are certain fallacies built into such shallow reading. First, the notions of fiction and reality can never be absolutely determined at any stage of human existence. A particular generation can never “fix” them as dead entities for all times to come. Each age, going by its experiential state and conceptual apparatus, revises, restructures and reconstructs notions of fiction and reality – there can never be overarching and totalizing definitions about them. The whole point is that human beings come with their expiry dates, whereas experiences, concepts and ideas do not. They are not limited by spatial and temporal boundaries. For a sensitive student of philosophy, science and the arts one of the most absorbing concerns is with the very fluid and unstable nature of ideas and ideational positions. Actually, “WOW” is about the conflict created by a very narrow and reductionist theological understanding of the Holy Book – The Bible in this case – as regards the spirit of a fictional work and the truth of reality.

“WOW” is not so much about misreadings or misinterpretations as far as theological positions are concerned. In fact the focus is on the kind of utterly negative, puritanical judgments that myopic theological positions shape for believers who approach the text in a shabby literal manner without seeing the Holy Book as a poetic text full of great metaphors and splendid images of transcendence. “WOW” is a cinematic text that lends itself to all kinds of extrapolations through which dogmatic and absolutist discourses that annihilate the rich and exciting poetic visions of religious texts can be confronted. “WOW” also opens up possibilities of interpretations even for hard rational secularists, who, paradoxically and ironically, reduce religious poetic visions into fascist pronouncements in their attempts to resist religious fanatics and insane fundamentalists. The large issues embedded in the narrative structures of “WOW” need to be met with sensitivity and empathy.

The aural and visual layers of “WOW” are indeed fascinating. The organic manner in which ‘sound’ and ‘sight’ converge throughout “WOW” could be to suggest the need to create alternative spaces and realms of sensorial and cerebral understating of imagination and scientific reasoning – the two components that shape human consciousness. The disparate, seemingly unrelated and apparently chaotic and disconnected visual images (of the Scottish Church College, the bust of first missionary Alexander Duff, paintings of Jesus at the background, the Pope’s address, the Howrah bridge, the expansive rural landscape, the city of Calcutta, at various locations, the football crazy Calcuttians watching a football game, the loneliness of the woman at home, the resistance of rural women whose lands have been devoured by land sharks, etc etc) foreground the multiple quotidian realities of life, but, most crucially compel us to look at the tragic destinies of human beings in their respective existential locations. It requires a bit of concern and caring to realize that these images unite to engender a vision of life that is built on the edifice of compassion and love. The unifying principle comes through the image of Christ evoking the noble sentiments of mercy and grace that find full expression in “The Sermon On The Mount”. It is against these visual images that the aural element surfaces only to hint at the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrial life in outer space that would, at some stage in the future, open up to the experiences of human beings on Earth. The apogee of all these comes through the magnificent voice of the irrepressible, intransigent Pandita Kesarbai Kerkar, one of the magnificent paradigms of the Jaipur – Atrauli Gharana of the Hindustani classical music tradition. The ‘spectral’ and the ‘aural’ invoke both the transcendental spirit of human existence and the indomitable temper of the commons while fighting for justice and equality.

“WOW” is filled with such subtle and sophisticated aesthetic strategies through which emerges its philosophical content. “WOW” is an autobiographical narrative too. In an impersonal manner it unfolds the personal stories of three figures – of the father, the mother and the son. There are three different trajectories that point out the divergent states of mind of these three figures around whom the structure of the text is constructed. For the mother, a devoted Christian, but a literalist in her understanding of the Holy Book, Fiction is Evil, and to create fiction is akin to inviting “Flying Scrolls” that are going to enter the house to destroy its “Timber and Stones”, and would also most severely punish liars and thieves. The book mentions it in unequivocal terms. Bency, the mother, is up against fiction for it is a forbidden area that the “Good” shall not enter. Bency’s commandment checks the advances of the father, the filmmaker Joshy Joseph, and controls the mind of the son, fondly called Ozu. This is not a simplistic rendering of the clash between fiction and reality. On the contrary it raises deep philosophical and ethical questions about the relationship between theological readings and fictional endeavours. It is at this juncture that the husband turns to the Parables that Jesus gave his disciples in order to initiate them into a life of ethical awakening. If fiction is like “Flying Scrolls”, unreal and Evil, then the Parables too are not empirically verifiable and should force one to conclude that they are indeed Evil. “WOW” does not, ever, resort to constructing vacuous debates between the two antagonistic positions. If Bency equates fiction with “Flying Scrolls” fully believing that is a “curse” to engage with it, Joshy turns to invoke the “Sacred” through Jesus and his Parables. The cinematic text does not privilege one position over the other, but in a very refreshingly open and transparent manner juxtaposes the two in order to establish a wise, transcendental and reconciliatory position. With great maturity and wisdom the cinematic text goes beyond the clichéd discussion between fiction and reality and religion and secularism that mark many of the unprofitable debates of our times that we are a witness to. It even transcends the controlling agency of the man, the director, through the lovely image of the broken mug lying forlorn on top of the wall, with the word “director” imprinted on it, suggesting the self-effacing temper of the director whose “will” shall not turn out to be a commandment determining the tone and structure of the text. The culminating “vision” of the film through the image of the broken mug constitutes the ethical fibre of the film which does not mock at the woman or ridicule her belief. The ambivalence of “WOW” is truly edifying. It is precisely in this sense that “WOW” refers to Jesus turning water into wine without asserting it be accepted as a literal truth. It is left open to one’s belief to accept it as a ‘Phenomenon’ that did happen. “WOW” does not push it down our throat as an incontrovertible truth. Such a construction comes from the author of the text who unhesitatingly remarks that he is indeed no Jesus. These are the healthy, sane balancing principles that hold the narrative layers of the text.

However, in the secular, temporal world there is an inevitable need to turn to a genuine historical figure, an authentic “witness” whose integrity and deep humanism are beyond any kind of doubt or reproach. “WOW” creates a counter-position to the irreconcilable difference between the wife and the husband in the form of a venerable figure who, as an eminent writer of fiction, also unflinchingly stood by the struggles of tribals, the marginalized and the oppressed sections of society, fiercely challenging the inhuman hegemony of the ruling State. To turn to her fiction is to negotiate with all the realities of post-independence India and to recognize the brutalities of the Indian Nation State in relation to the subaltern communities of the land.

Mahashweta Devi1

Mahashweta Devi is the ‘witness’, the ‘ethical counterpoint’, to the dichotomy and the irresolvable conflict between fiction and reality. Ozu, the son, is brought to Mahashweta Devi only to help him realise that the venerable figure before him is a creator of fiction and a conscientious activist who, all through her life, fought for “the meek and gentle”. It is fascinating that one beholds in “WOW” an archetypal figure like Jesus being juxtaposed with a contemporary historical figure. It is for this reason that the Parables of Jesus and the fictional works of Mahashweta Devi meet to erase all redundant contradictions between fiction and reality. Just as all visionaries have been martyred at various phases of human history Mahashweta Devi too has been martyred,as a writer can be….by banning her works.It is astonishing that the academia which ought to go all out to fight for creative and intellectual rights stoops so low as to ban a writer like Mahashweta Devi.

“WOW” is indeed a creative individuals agonizing metaphorical walk on water, totally devoid of self-aggrandizing tendencies. It ethically rejects ‘Hubris’ that most creative individuals succumb to. In a very evolved way “WOW” is a great tribute to the truth of fiction and reality, and subtly reveals that the two are inextricably bound to each other.

(N. Manu Chakravarthy is an author and national award-winning film critic)


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