Pablo Neruda was once a consul in Sri Lanka. At that time, a Tamilian woman used to go to his house to clean the latrine. Neruda raped that woman. Although he didn’t use the word ‘rape’, that’s what he did.
Indian English writing doesn’t attract me because it is either mediocre or boring. Of course there are a few exceptions like G.V. Desani and Irwin Allan Sealy. I tried Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger, which was interesting but lacked the nuances of a serious work of literature. Hence, I always have a cautious approach towards Indian English fiction. And I never dare to touch the writing of those who are famous in a different field. That’s the reason I never read Tarun Tejpal’s novels, although I am a Tehelka fanatic. I have kept copies of Tehelka when it appeared in tabloid format, along with the copies of Granma from Cuba, which I was receiving 20 years ago. Whenever I shift houses, my wife gets angry with me since these copies travel with me in the truck. It’s against this backdrop that I happened to read Tejpal’s The Alchemy of Desire six months ago.
When Mario Vargas Llosa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, I received more than a hundred messages since I, having read all his novels twice, was the one promoting his name in Tamil Nadu for the past 30 years. Even though I am a fan of Llosa, he never influenced my writing. People call me a transgressive writer, but my transgressive comrades like William S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker and Georges Bataille too have never influenced me because they are boring. But for the first time ever a book influenced me a great deal and it was Tejpal’s Alchemy. It changed my outlook. Then I read his other two novels. When I finished reading, I thought Tejpal should be placed among masters like Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Nikos Kazantzakis. But still I don’t understand why Tarun — who has written such extraordinary novels — is just known as a journalist in India. Now, unfortunately, Tejpal has been given the “rapist” title even before his literary contributions are realised. He is still just an “accused”, but the media seems to have forgotten that the accusations are yet to be proved in the court. If proved, he will be punished. If not, can the media take back the colossal damage that has been done to him? I keep wondering if this is how Indian society wants to identify a literary genius. The television coverage of this case reminded me of a colony of vultures hovering for a carcass.
At this juncture, a few things come to my mind. The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was once a consul in Sri Lanka. At that time, a Tamilian woman — probably a dalit — used to go to his house to clean the latrine. Neruda raped that woman. Remember, he was a communist! Although he didn’t use the word “rape”, that’s what he did. He has narrated this happening in his memoirs as follows:
“She walked solemnly toward the latrine, without so much as a side glance at me, not bothering to acknowledge my existence, and vanished with the disgusting receptacle on her head, moving away with the steps of a goddess.
She was so lovely that, regardless of her humble job, I couldn’t get her off my mind. Like a shy jungle animal she belonged to another kind of existence, a different world. I called to her, but it was no use. After that, I sometimes put a gift in her path, a piece of silk or some fruit. She would go past without hearing or looking. The ignoble routine had been transformed by her dark beauty into the dutiful ceremony of an indifferent queen.
One morning, I decided to go all the way. I got a strong grip on her wrist and stared into her eyes. There was no language I could talk with her. Unsmiling, she let herself be led away, and was soon naked in my bed. Her waist, so very slim, her full hips, the brimming cups of her breasts made her like one of the thousand-year-old sculptures from the south of India. It was the coming together of a man and a statue. She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive. She was right to despise me. The experience was never repeated.”
In his Living in the End Times, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek describes the above incident as follows:
“This passage is remarkable not only for obvious reasons: a shameless story of a rape, with the dirty details discreetly passed over (“she let herself be led away, and was soon naked in my bed” — how did she come to be naked? Obviously, she didn’t do it herself), the mystification of the victim’s passivity into a divine indifference, the lack of elementary decency and shame on the part of the narrator (if he was attracted to the girl, wasn’t he embarrassed by the awareness that she was smelling, seeing and dealing with his shit every morning?). Its most remarkable feature is the divinisation of the excrement: a sublime goddess appears at the very site where excrements are hidden. One should take this equation very seriously: elevating the exotic Other into an indifferent divinity is strictly equal to treating it like shit.”
However, while we read Neruda’s poems, this incident doesn’t come to mind. Likewise, Karl Marx had a son, Freddy, born to his maidservant, Helene Demuth. Will Brinda Karat, who is whipping Tejpal now, disown Karl Marx?
In 1997, when he was in the US, Polish film director Roman Polanski was accused of raping a 13-year-old girl. He was convicted, but he fled to France to escape being imprisoned. He has not returned to the US since. Three years ago, he talked about the incident as follows: “I have regretted it for 33 years.” No one identifies him as a rapist. He is recognised as a genius who has made classics like The Pianist.
I’m neither justifying Tarun Tejpal nor am I accusing him. I’m a person who believes that it is a crime to even stare at a woman. But one can only be convicted by the court, not by the media.
Published in Deccan Chronicle, Nov 27, 2013