On the Anvil


Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Reading a book whose plot hovers around Russia is like looking up the menu of a south indian sweets and savories shop. No, I'm not referring here to racy thrillers from Ludlum, or pacy chases from Follett, or twisting tales of Archer nor espionage churners from Forsyth. They may differ in writing styles or narrating genres but still share that common trait - a top gear approach to story telling, courtesy the submission to this fast-food generation of readers. If you want the Russian life in all its severity,pomp,poverty and frivolity yet with that unavoidable subtle undercurrent emphasizing humanity, it would be worthwhile to go native,pick up a classic. A Gorky or a Tolstoy. Thats when you get to feel like you are looking up the menu of a south Indian sweets shop, viz-a-viz, the characters' names. There are mentions of khovas, and one's taste bud immediately dragoons the mind to a familiar dish, the paal-khovas, a top 5 starrer in the sweets menu. Belly apart, the classics have the power to whet your appetite where they ought to, a inqusitive mind.

When it comes to reading, I am a bit intuitive. I see a book and my mind sees it too. The next moment its either in my hands or out of consideration. Thats how 'Resurrection' by Tolstoy blessed my holy hands. I was lucky to have this copy, an original from Raduga Publishers straight from the home base,Moscow. It had illustrative sketches rendered by Pasternak in his trademark fashion - the main characters given the right of light while the support cast being underplayed via darker hues. Nothing could have prepared me for the wonderful journey it could take me.

Resurrection is a novel set in Russia and about Russia of the middle to late 1800's. It is based on a true life incident, that Tolstoy came to know from his lawyer friend, Anatoly Koni. During a trial, one of the members of the jury, an aristocrat comes to realize that the woman being tried is a woman he had once seduced and then castaway. Though the jury is convinced of her innocence, a procedural lapse on their part leads to the woman being sentenced to four years hard labor in the notorious prisons of Siberia. The aristocrat, guilt fast catching up with him, decides to set things right and rushes from pillar to post, to get her acquitted. In the process, he discovers the world in its varied realities - the vanity that marks the so called high classes, the misery that haunts the landless peasants, the corruption that blights every rung of the official hierarchy, the fallibility of human institutions, the fragility of religion on the face of human brutality and the sheer resilience of the human spirit. No wonder, Tolstoy took ten years for this work, which clearly ought to be his magnum opus. Tolstoy combines the gifts of meticulous description, the diligence of painstaking research, the blessing to gauge humanity on its highs and lows and the courage to confront the truth, however unsettling it may be, to weave together a masterpiece that's Resurrection. Here are some excerpts from the work which will highlight Tolstoy's abilities, albeit, to a bare minimum extent.

There's this incident, where a little lad steals old mats worth just 3 roubles and he's condemned
to prison with a harsh sentence. Tolstoy puts the words via Nekhlyodov's(the protagonist) lips:
"Terrible! One hardly knows which is the greater here - cruelty or stupidity. Both, it seems, have been carried to the highest possible degree."
Yet, in another place Tolstoy reads the human character perfectly and provides the views that people drawn into less-worthy acts as debauchery, use to justify their condition. Here's one Maslova, the condemned castaway of Nekhlyodov uses, to justify her present unavoidable condition of promiscuity.
"It is usually imagined that a thief, a murderer, a spy, a prostitute, acknowledging his or her profession to be evil, is ashamed of it. But the contrary is true. People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position that may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and permissible. In order to maintain this view, these people instinctively keep to the circle of those who share their concept of life and of their own place in it. This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murderers boasting their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. But can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth - that is, of their robbery; when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories- that is murder; and when those in high places vaunt their power - that is violence? We do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it."
Tell me if this is not a sharp incisive peep into human nature, what else is?

In yet another place, Nekhlyodov in an introspective frame of mind arrives at the cause to the troubles plaguing the common man.
"There was the great mortality among the children, the overworking of the women, and the underfeeding, especially of the aged. The people come to this condition so gradually that they did not realize the full horror of it and we therefore considered their condition natural and proper.Now it was as clear as daylight to him that the chief cause of the dire poverty was one that they themselves knew and always pointed out, namely, that the land which alone could feed them had been taken from them by the landlords."
Hear bells ringing in our ears, to us in India? Think Vidarbha and the farmer's suicides and the citi-zens, residents of the cities and the phrase "we therefore considered their condition natural and proper" reveals to us our callous attitude on this front.

As for the solution, Tolstoy seems greatly influenced by the American, Henry George.
"The earth cannot be anyone's property; it cannot be bought or sold any more than water, air, or sunshine. All have an equal right to the advantages it gives to men."
Now water is bottled, air is tanked. Thankfully, at least sunshine comes unpackaged and I believe only because human ingenuity and business have yet to arrive at a way to pack it up. Tolstoy wouldn't have liked this about our times.

When Maslova(the lady Nekhlyodov once seduced and castaway) gets wrongly condemned, Nekhlyodov decides to relinquish his redundancies. That is, all the paraphernalia associated with his ostentatious aristocratic position. He gets rid of his very big house, his set of pompous attires and other such needless attachments. The money, he uses to help innocent prisoners in the gallows, reprieved. On one such occasion, long after the sacrifice of his princely comforts, one of his old friends from the aristocrat invites Nekhlyodov for a dinner and an over night's stay at his palatial residence. Tolstoy, gets on the top of his game here. Nekhlyodov, empty except for ennui, becomes the dancing stage for the monkey mind. As he hits the tender bed with finely laid linen, the desire to go back to his princely ways allures him in the distance. Temptations to be the aristocrat of yore with all the seeming splendor check in into his head. But thankfully again, the sleep does him a world of good. Here are Nekhlyodov's thoughts on waking up to what surely means a new dawn for him -
"When Nekhlyodov repeated in his mind the thoughts of the day before, he was surprised that he could have believed them for a moment. However novel and difficult it might be to do what he had decided on, he knew that it was the only possible way of living for him now; and however easy and natural it might be to return to his former state, he knew that state to be death."
(Here comes my favorite part)
"Yesterday's temptation seemed to him now to be something like the feeling one has when, awakening from deep sleep one wants to loll in bed a little longer, knowing full well that it is time to get up and begin the glad and important work that awaits one."

Tolstoy also nails down the reasons for crime and the classes of criminals. Nekhlyodov decides to tail Maslova even unto Siberia. Along the way, he becomes quite conversant with prisons,prisoners, lawyers, inspectors, warders and the prison priests. On his interactions with them, he comes to classify the prisoners, the so-called criminals, into five classes.
1) Perfectly innocent people, victims of judicial blunders much as Maslova herself
2)People condemned for actions done in exclusive circumstances: passion, jealousy, or drunkenness;circumstances in which those who judged them would surely have committed the same actions. Majority of the prisoners fell in this category
3)People with their own notions of the law. Illicit arrack dealers, smugglers, tresspassers
4)People who stood morally higher than the average level of society;Political prisoners, socialists,etc. A large percentage of prisoners belonged to this class and among them were some finest members of society, condemned for resisting the authorities.
5)Persons who were far more sinned against than sinning in their relations with society. These were castaways, stupefied by continual oppression and temptation.The conditions under which they lived seemed to lead on systematically to those actions termed as crimes. Thieves,murderers and other such demoralized, depraved and abnormal types against whom society had sinned, only here not directly against them, but against their parents and forefathers.

Continuing on this vein of judgement, Nekhlyodov once distraught over the ubiquity of corruption and the invulnerability of the officials to feelings of compassion and sympathy that stare at him at every place, observes the road he's travelling and quips:
"As officials they are impregnable to the feelings of humanity as this paved earth is impregnable to the rain. Perhaps it is necessary to pave slopes with stones, but it is sad to look at earth deprived of vegetation, when it might be yielding corn, grass, bushes or trees like those on the top of this cutting. And it is the same with men. Perhaps these governors, inspectors, policemen are needed; but it is terrible to see men deprived of the chief human attribute: love and sympathy for one another. The thing is, these people acknowledge as law what is not law, and do not acknowledge as law the eternal, immutable law written by God in the hearts of men. Indeed, they are terrible than robbers. A robber might, after all, feel pity, but these officials can feel no pity; they are inured against pity as these stones are against vegetation and as this paved earth is impregnable to the rain."

But the novel is not always bleak. It has its moments of humor and emotion. One humor moment is when an official who is so full of alcohol that he drinks yet never gets drunk or ever goes tips gets into this lively exchange with Nekhlyodov.
Officer(with a blurp after emptying the glass for the umpteenth time, yet standing stable):
"I am a virtuous man. I surely am. Do you know that?"
Nekhlyodov:"Sir, I do have my reservations about it. You have to prove it."
Officer:"You know this proverb - Two virtues hath the man who drinks but keeps his head. Now how about that?"
Nekhlyodov:"Maybe sir. I think you are after all rig...................................(the officer tumbles, the drink finally getting the officer)
Nekhlyodov smiles and the reader can't avoid smiling too.

One of the most touching moments of the narrative comes when Maslova, carrying Nekhlyodov's yet undelivered child, comes to know that the train carrying him is due for a short stop over at her town. Nekhlyodov, now serving in the millitary regiment as an officer is being transported to a different battle theatre. He's long lost touch with Maslova, after that one night of infatuation and is unaware of the latest developments. When Maslova loses her way in the rainy autumn night to the station(has to go there by foot), she finds that the train is about to leave. She begins to hurry. Her heart racing faster. She even sees Nekhlyodov, but the train has started moving. As the train outraces here, she almost falls trying to catch up. The train moves out of the distance and vanishes too is hope for Maslova. So given her fate and its cruelty, she decides to commit suicide throwing herself under a train. But just when the moment is about to arrive, she feels that soft tug in her belly. Her child playing a little soccer in her belly and Maslova comes to realise that she has the right to kill herself but to take the life of her child? Maternity rules and disaster is averted.

Resurrection is not just about Nekhlyodov coming to be reborn in a new light. Its the story of humans and their capacities to launch institutions in such a stupid manner to make their means totally tangential to their ends. Thus we have a justice system, that makes a monster out of a man about town. An farming system, that denigrates the landless peasants to such a state that they rather use their sickles against wealthy necks than healthy crops. A state, that revels in its show of epic grandeur - where every pearl is the solidification of an famished infant's tears, Every svelte velvet official uniform is strewn together by sinews exerted in thankless effort. Every royal red carpet comes dyed in the hue of wantonly bloodshed.Where every gold's glitter is reflected off a harassed sweat and every diamond's glow is deflected off a thousand lives sacrificed in vain.

But Resurrection stays devoted its title. It ends on a ray of hope and the promise that we all, each of us humans, have in us the strength and the resolve to discover within ourselves our very own true Nekhlyodovs. Therein lies our redemption or better put, humanity's resurrection. Spassibo, Tolstoy. Enjoy your time in paradiso.

No comments: