Recently, I finished reading a book called Machhli Mari Hui, by Rajkamal Chowdhary.
It is not a new book – probably written in the sixties, certainly set in Calcutta of that time.
I began by liking the book, especially since the introduction itself was written well. I liked the lusciousness of certain phrases. The extreme qualities of the characters, even though some of them didn’t ring true. The way the city and the stock market players are described.
There were flaws but one goes on, thinking the flaws are only logical, sequential failings… but by the time one gets to the end, one is worse than disappointed!
The author just doesn’t understand his material.
The trouble with books like Machhli Mari Hui is that they deal with multidimensional subjects with a unidimensional vision. Sex is a multidimensional subject. Homosexuality is a multidimensional subject. It is a mistake to approach such subjects unless you’ve either got some first-hand experience of it, or you’ve talked to a lot of people who had first-hand experience. This author, clearly, doesn’t know s**t about women’s sexuality or their feelings.
In the introduction, the author claims to have read almost everything there is to read on the subject of female homosexuality. From early medical books by psychologists, to Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. He makes references to Sappho, and to lesbians’ autobiographies. With this wealth of knowledge and this spectrum of perceptions, how he could end his book the way he did, is beyond my comprehension!
In the last chapter, his female protagonist Shirin is described as shedding her homosexual skin, and turning into a ‘woman’, instead of a fish. The fish is now dead. (That is where the title’s reference to dead fish comes from. In the book, the fish is used as a symbol of lesbian desire. The image of two fishes swimming are used to represent a lesbian encounter between Shirin and a younger girl, Priya)
What is most appalling is the sequence of events after which this ‘transformation’ comes about.
I’ll try to tell the story straight, in some sort of sequence as events happen, and not in the back and forth flashback style adopted by the author.
(Shirin’s husband) Nirmal Padmavat is the main protagonist, the ‘hero’ if you like.
He is a tall, dark, strong, hard-working, honest businessman with humble origins, who neither tells lies, nor bribes, nor discriminates on the basis of colour or religion etc. People think of him as either a magician or a monster.
From a village in Bihar, via Lahore and Bombay, he reaches New York, where he meets a beautiful woman called Kalyani. She used to be a medical student but has now become a ‘model’ (the author uses quotation marks) and a prostitute. She is sexy, fearless, alcoholic.
Nirmal falls for her.
Kalyani uses his support when she needs to. Hard times fall upon her. She empties his bank balance and offers herself to him. But there’s a problem. He loses his erection (or maybe ejaculates too soon – the details are not clear; there are euphemisms like ‘he was like a tiger/wild animal’ and then suddenly ‘he was cold; the fire was gone’)
So, Kalyani insults him and screams at him to go away and never come back. He never comes back.
But he returns to India when he hears of her death, some years later, in Calcutta. She is buried there, in a cemetery, by her husband - a well-known neurosurgeon, Dr Raghuvansh. The good old doctor has a daughter by Kalyani, six year old Priya.
A leap of some fifteen years - Nirmal is now a very rich man in Calcutta. Fortyish. He has built a thirty-storeyed skyscraper – the tallest building in the city – called Kalyani Mansion. He has married the socialite, Shirin.
She was married earlier to another rich businessman called Vijay Mehta, who made the mistake of insulting the dead Kalyani (he was one of her clients in New York). Nirmal punches him in the face. Shirin is curious about the man who punches her husband; she likes powerful men. So she lives with Nirmal and divorces Mehta (in that order).
Sex is awful.
Nirmal turns into a ‘wild animal’ (author's descrption; I don't believe wild animals behave as he does) and loses erection after erection, hurting Shirin both physically and emotionally.
In the meantime, since Priya is Kalyani’s daughter, Nirmal is attracted to her too. (The author suggests that she is both afraid and attracted, though she stays away from boys in general. )
The good old doctor smiles upon this, and is open to the idea of his daughter marrying her mother’s lover... oh yes, he knows all about his wife’s past. He is full of nothing but empathy for Nirmal.
Priya gets friendly with Shirin. They begin having sex. Shirin is described as ‘cheap’, as being obsessed with her looks and her body, and as scarred – because she saw her parents having sex, because her mother died during childbirth, because her mother disliked and was afraid of men, because her elder sister introduced her to some awesome lesbian sex.
In short, Shirin cannot enjoy men, because she is afraid of getting pregnant and wants to sleep with girls – like herself, like her elder sister. Her room has a painting of two women looking at each other with fire in their eyes. There’s a statue of a naked Negro woman, red eyes and red lips, in that room where ‘the two fishes swim and play’.
Nirmal wants Kalyani; he sees her image everywhere – in Shirin, in Priya.
One day, Nirmal goes to Shirin’s room. (The marriage is a clear disaster; they live on different floors of Kalyani Mansion). He begins making out, but loses it – both his temper and his erection. Shirin goes wild – calls him names, screams at him. Repeat of what happened with Kalyani.
At this point, Priya walks into the room. Nirmal gets dressed and orders her – Priya, not Shirin - to come to his own flat. Priya wants to go back to Shirin… Shirin is crazy already, and is tearing at her own body… but Priya is stuck with Nirmal. She is frightened, but reproaches him for mistreating his wife. Priya is a medical student herself and has seen the scars on his wife’s body.
Nirmal loses his temper and rapes her : please note, this time, no loss of erection... He rapes her repeatedly. He almost kills her.
When she leaves his place, she throws up, and rolls down the stairs. The lift-man and building guards have been warned to expect Priya, they come looking for her. They find her and deposit her unconscious body at Dr Raghuvansh’s house. He takes one look, and understands what has happened. Since he’s a doctor, he dresses her wounds, treats her, bathes her, puts her to sleep, and Nirmal calls to ask how Priya is, and this empathetic father says ‘she’s alive’.
After three days, Priya seems to be better. She doesn’t go out anywhere, doesn’t take calls. Not even Shirin’s calls.
Dr Raghuvansh sits down to write a letter to Nirmal, saying that he knows his daughter has been raped, repeatedly and brutally. He was afraid this would happen. But at least, he is glad that his daughter has helped him get over the sexual maladjustment (author’s words), for he knew Priya could cure him of it. He was hoping that Nirmal would marry Kalyani’s daughter, and would have if he hadn’t ended up marrying the unfortunate unhealthy homosexual Shirin (authors’ description) – whom he has tried to cure earlier (author’s words), but who is a gone case, quite hopelessly lesbian.
The empathetic doctor is also glad that his own daughter has been ‘cured’ of her lesbian ways; she is now 'healthy'. Normal. He insists it a great thing to be normal. It is easy to be extraordinary/abnormal (the author uses a word that is interchangeably used for both).
The doctor wills away his whole property to the medical college, leaving his brutally raped daughter penniless, and overnight, drinks himself to death.
His daughter goes through the funeral. At the funeral, she imagines that Nirmal is not only carrying the dead body of her father, but her own, and that of Shirin and that of her own mother.
But what does this girl do?
She takes her father’s last latter to Nirmal’s house. Back to the same house where she was raped. Puts the letter on the table, and offers to make some coffee.
Shirin is still waiting – for Priya. For Nirmal. For somebody. And while she waits, she drinks and drinks, and drinks. If some cheap society ladies (author’s phrase, not mine) come to visit, she makes a little noise, then goes back to drinking, and waiting.
In the meantime, Nirmal has been surrounded by 'enemies', mostly led by the old and vindictive Vijay Mehta, whose wife got carried away by Nirmal’s power and stature, not to mention, relative youth. His little coterie of capitalists is bribing people in the audit and income tax department to ruin this honest ‘black prince’.
Nirmal’s little business empire is crashing because he refuses to pay bribes. And the workers are ungrateful – the more he does for them, the more they want. So he gets rid of them, by selling his mill to his arch-enemy Mehta. But still, he is losing everything. He doesn’t mind losing everything, only wants to keep Kalyani Mansion. His home, his sky-scraper.
Honest and incorruptible to the last, the black prince loses everything (how this happens is very vague). But to save Kalyani Mansion, he is forced to lie – that he had taken a huge loan from Kalyani, Dr Raghuvansh’s wife, to construct this building and that he is now forced to sell it to their daughter Priya.
Priya knows it is only a paper transaction, but she plays along.
At the end of it all, Nirmal realizes that he has never even looked properly at his beautiful wife, Shirin. Never looked into her eyes properly. So he goes to her room, looks at her, caresses her. She, meawhile, is all admiration and adoration. He spends the night. When he wakes up, he sees Shirin is emerging from a bath, with sindoor in her hair, and face glowing with empathetic love.
She is no longer dead fish. She is a woman (author’s description).
I cannot describe how I felt after readin that last chapter. It nullified the author and whatever virtues the writing itself may have had.
One can deal with complexes and sexual ‘maladjustments’. One can even understand a situation where a woman wants to be raped (have read of similar situations in other books, written much more realistically, much more empathetically). But one fails to understand the concept of a violent man and a lesbian girl being made ‘normal’ through rape. Or, that all this violence makes him into a tender, caring husband (with his dead lady-love’s daughter thrown in for free). It is more than unpalatable. It is disturbing.
The author is either completely insensitive, or completely clueless.
Homosexuals do not overnight become ‘normal’. After great lesbian lovemaking, somebody gets raped, and wham! Everybody’s happy...? Even if a reader goes along with the theory that a woman will feel ‘normal’ and wholly ‘woman’ only if she has sex with a man (idiotic though the presumption is, even if one agrees to go along with the theory), this book would have been worth the paper its printed on, only if the author explored the psychological complexity of the idea.
I personally do not like authors who think in terms of ‘fish’ and ‘woman’. But personal opinions aside, the book could have handled so differently.
Imagine the plight of a girl, whose father just died, deliberately leaving her penniless, leaving her at the mercy of her rapist, whom he is thanking for having ‘cured’ her of lesbianism. Imagine the plight of this girl who goes back to her rapist, knowing he was her mother’s lover, and that she might have to depend on him now – where else will she go? Imagine that she is love with this man’s wife…. Imagine what is going on inside the mind of the lesbian wife, who lives with a powerful man, who has just raped her lover.
Imagine what is going on inside the man’s head. This wonderful powerful incorruptible business genius – who has raped the daughter of the two people he loved most.
It is plot with potential, but the author fails it.
He thinks in grandiose terms – tall, black, strong, built like a rock, incorruptible ‘black prince’… the lesbian’s bedroom, the negro’s naked statue, red lips, an old empathetic doctor, a prostitute who loved so long, lived so little… Cliché-ridden to the last.
The author seems to be able to think only in black and white. His hero, Nirmal, is a larger-than-life hero: neither anti-hero nor merely human; his sexual ‘maladjustment’ is more like a fatal flaw, his hamartia, if you like, which, instead of destroying him, is sorted out eventually… at the cost of two women’s happiness and ravaged bodies.
When you finish reading it, you cannot help thinking that this is a judgmental book. That is the final, fatal flaw.
In some ways, it is a man’s book. I doubt if the author even understands women’s bodies. I doubt if a woman could have written a book like this (though I shouldn’t be making sweeping statements; time and time again, women have unpleasantly surprised me by going ahead and behaving exactly like men...much to our collective shame and despair).
A writer is a creator. Like all creators, he/she has to shed his/her skin. Nothing except your own writing style is permissible. You cannot be any gender, if you’re going to be a good writer. You can adopt the cover of a gendered voice. But your mind must be gender-free. Your values must be gender-free… and race-free, shape-free, nationality-free, colour-free, class-free, sexual orientation-free.
If you’re not free, you’re merely a peddler of words with X amount of skill... And words alone do not a writer make.