Quest for Identity in Amit Chaudhuri’s Freedom Song
Dr. Ganpatrao Baburao Patil.
Asso. Prof., Dep. of English,
Shri Shiv-Shahu Mahavidyalaya,
Sarud, Dist. Kolhapur.
Amit Chaudhuri, like other contemporary South Asian novelists, explores the theme of quest for identity in his novels. However, he deliberately avoids magic realism, the form practised and made popular by Salman Rushdie and his followers. Instead he depicts the theme of quest for identity by focusing on individual’s domestic life in a public world. In Freedom Song, Chaudhuri depicts individual identities of the protagonist, Bhaskar and his wife, Sandhya. He explores dual identity of Bhaskar, as a staunch Communist Party worker and an irresponsible husband. Though Bhaskar succeeds in his quest for identity as a husband by marrying Sandhya, he fails to become a good husband due to his double identity. As he is a devoted Communist Party worker, he spends a lot of time and money on various activities of the Party. He tries to inculcate communist ideology in the minds of the youths by distributing the newspaper, ‘Ganashakti’. He also tries to bring in communal harmony between Hindus and Muslims by staging plays. As a result, he is unable to give enough time and pay attention to the demands of his newly wedded bride. Chaudhuri, in this novel too, depicts Sandhya’s character like a shadow in the service of the viewpoint of the protagonist. She is just a passive observer.
Keywords: quest, identity, protagonist, inculcate, ideology, harmony, dilemma.
Chaudhuri’s third novel, Freedom Song (1998) is the most accomplished work which takes on a larger canvas than his first two novels. It ironically explores the story of two closely related middle class families in Calcutta during the winter of 1992. According to Bruce King this novel can better be compared with Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy “For both works use a family’s quest to find a spouse for an arranged marriage as a way to examine a society and its history” (391). In both the novels, the domestic life becomes representative of the culture. Both the novelists are concerned with the culture of Northern India, especially Calcutta. Chaudhuri specifically depicts the life of Bengali middle class families of Khuku and her brother Bhola Biswas. Bhaskar, the protagonist of the novel, is the eldest son of Bhola. He is a member of the Communist Party. He tries very hard to organize and stage a Marxist inspired street play to bring in unity, harmony and tolerance among all communities. He brings his family into double dilemma to find a suitable bride for him and to persuade him to concentrate on his own life instead of indulging in Party work. In this novel, Chaudhuri explores Bhaskar’s quest for identity as a communist activist as well as a husband.
Bhaskar, a twenty eight year old eldest son of Bhola, is a Commerce graduate. He joins his father’s company, Goodforce Literod and earns rupees two thousand as a salary. As he is a staunch and devoted Communist Party member, he gives five hundred rupees to the party from his monthly salary. His mother is worried about his too much involvement in the party work and politics. While commenting on Bhaskar’s quest for identity as a Communist, Indu Kulkarni observes:
Bhaskar, the eldest son of Bhola, [is] the hero of the novel. He is a rebel who distributes ‘Ganashakti’ (People’s Power) papers and produces street plays on tolerance. … He shocks his middle class respectable clan by joining the C.P.I. unit. The author’s quest for identity is queerly mixed up with Bhaskar’s search for self esteem and freedom in the novel. (160)
Bhaskar gets up early in the morning and goes to his party office to collect the newspaper, ‘Ganashakti’, which propagates ideology of their party. He distributes the newspaper to the people who are faithful and believe in the ideology of the Communist Party. His parents and relatives think that Bhaskar has a strange taste for politics generally not found in middle class people. Though Bhaskar is lazy, he is intelligent and hard working young activist who aspires to develop an independent identity. His role models are Swami Vivekananda and his guru Shri Ramakrishna. He has read the book about Swami Vivekananda’s life and “The story he liked best was the one about Swami Vivekananda, who once was an ordinary man called Narendranath Dutta. … Ramakrishna, seeing Narendranath was a great disciple, gave him the name Vivekananda (299-300). Bhaskar is much influenced by Vivekananda’s changed identity and his speech before the Parliament of World Religions. While discussing about Bhaskar’s identity, Indu Kulkarni further remarks:
Intelligent, lazy Bhaskar is a representative of the Bengali middle class as he wishes to cultivate a separate identity, his role models are Swami Vivekananda and Shri Ramakrishna. His pride in Vivekananda’s pioneering speech in Chicago at the Parliament of Religions shapes Bhaskar’s religious, cultural and spiritual leanings. He is an idealist who has to constantly modify his ideals as the circumstances of life buffet him and force him to make compromises with his career and even in the choice of his partner. (162)
Bhaskar’s concern for the masses and longing for true freedom, secularism and communal harmony forces him to stage a street play. He is almost hypnotized by the message written on the wall outside of C.P.I. (M) office saying “Unity and Harmony among all communities” (252). His concern for the down trodden is well understood by his mother. The narrator brings out feeling of Bhaskar’s mother about her son as he says “Sometimes when Bhaskar’s mother heard them rehearsing, she thought about Bhaskar worrying for the poor people in the world and she thought just how difficult a place to live in and understand the world was. Look after your own, was her own view” (313).
Chaudhuri depicts identity of Bhaskar’s mother as a typical Indian mother who loves and takes care of her children. Though she expresses her concern about future and career of her eldest son, she knows that he is not going to listen anybody. He is a devoted Marxist activist. His physical suffering due to backache and limping will not stop him from doing his party work. Every day he spares time for party work and rehearsals of the play he is going to stage. Bhaskar and his other party activists have worked hard; they have done the rehearsals sincerely and honestly. The play has almost been ready for performance. As its message is solemn, they have confidence that it will wipe away liberalization and punish the fundamentalists and will bring unity and harmony among all communities and thus people will enjoy the freedom in the truest sense of the term. But, unfortunately, they have to stop the rehearsals and concentrate on other party work as per the order of their higher party leaders. The performance of the play seems impossible. While criticizing the changed attitude of the Communist Party towards liberalism and communalism, the narrator remarks:
Now, instructions were issued at the local unit of the party that cadres must get down to other business: assessing the needs of the locality; assessing its problems; preparing slowly for the next local elections. Whenever Bhaskar thought he would go for a rehearsal he was pressed by some senior cadre to attend a more pressing matter at hand. … there was also contradictory rumour in circulation these days that the “higher-Ups” in the party had, in secret conferences, been forced to reconsider their attitude to liberalization and the source of this change was the highest authority himself. (386)
Chaudhuri ironically exposes the hypocrisy of the so called Communist Party and Marxist leaders. The honest workers at the bottom level work hard but they are not allowed to carry out their work. As a result, they stop doing party work and turn to other fields like Bhaskar’s friends and co-artists. The idealist Bhaskar who compromises with his career and even in the choice of his life partner is unable to fulfill his quest for identity as a successful communist activist.
Besides Bhaskar’s quest for identity as a Communist Party member, Chaudhuri also explores his identity as a husband. As Bhaskar has already crossed twenty eight year and day by day his involvement in party work increases, his parents are forced to think about his marriage. Hence, his parents begin search for a bride for him. Especially, Bhaskar’s mother believed in the old fashioned belief that men will settle down and become mature if they are married. While analyzing Bhaskar’s mother’s consciousness about her son’s life and career, the narrator observes:
And it [marriage] will do him good, she thought, to have some responsibility on his shoulders at last; for I think he still depends too much on his father. … He needs to grow up; he is still such a boy; and she thought of him tenderly in her mind’s eye with a ‘Ganashakti in one hand. They all had dreams, but Bhaskar’s mother’s was practical rather than grandiose; for she hoped no, she believed, rather calculatingly, that the marriage would divide Bhaskar’s energies and weaken his attachment to politics. (397)
After thinking about her son’s problem, Bhaskar’s mother comes to the conclusion that marriage is the best solution for to it. Thus, “in February, Bhaskar’s parents began to look for a bride in earnest, surreptitiously almost, neither advertising in the newspaper nor telling relatives, but sending out signals discreetly”(342). As a result, Bhaskar’s mother receives two photographs of girls, one from Jodhpur Park and another from Dum Dum. Searching for bride or bridegroom by parents for their sons and daughters of marriageable age is a unique characteristic of Indian culture. The narrator vividly narrates the process of searching a bride for Bhaskar. Regarding marriage and Indian culture, Anu Shukla observes:
Marriage for most of us is a Samskar and the novelist tells us what it is for a middle class family in Kolkata. It is interesting to note that it is not Bhaskar who is so much interested in marriage as his mother, who wants to fill up the silence in her life with the bustle of children. This quest for the bride is also structurally important as it brings in an element of suspense if we can call it so and the suspense is whether a bride can be found for him. (104)
Bhaskar’s relatives including his parents are doubtful about his marriage because of his too much involvement in the party. They have fear that parents of girls may take objections due to Bhaskar’s party connections. In Indian culture, especially in typical middle class families, a boy who works as an activist of a particular political party and neglects his career and familial duties is generally not accepted as a bridegroom. The fear expressed by the relatives about Bhaskar proves to be true when Mr. Lahiri, the third girl’s father rejects Bhaskar as his would be son-in-law. Bhaskar’s father tries to defend his son’s party connections saying “my son is concerned about things affecting each one of us today … But I can say that his political ideals do not affect his work or his family life” (395). Mr. Lahiri ends the matter by saying that his daughter is the only child, and he cannot play with the future of his daughter. On the contrary, Bhaskar, after rejecting first two girls, wants to marry the third girl, that is, Mr. Lahiri’s daughter but his party connections have created a problem for him. In fact, Bhaskar also has fear that he will not get a bride as per his choice because he does not have a good job. So he puts the responsibility of selecting a bride for him on his parent’s shoulders. The narrator analyses Bhaskar’s mind as:
But it was as if his recent eloquence on politics had left him inarticulate about personal matters; and he had a profound fear that he would not find a bride to his liking. Which girl would marry someone who did not have a well-settled job with chances of promotion in an established company – at the very least? It was to conceal these fundamental and unspoken doubts that he commanded his parents, “Do what you want, then. And don’t wait for my permission. Frankly I have nothing to say on the matter; and when have you listened to me anyway. (382)
Though Bhaskar clearly tells his parents to take a decision on their own, his parents ask his opinion about the second girl he has met. Now it’s time for Bhaskar to take a decision. He cannot wait for long. The third girl, on whom he has set his heart secretly, has rejected him. Thinking that “we cannot control our own fate” (396), he agrees to marry the daughter of Dr. Ghosh, Sandhya, the second girl he has met. His mother becomes very happy because she has found a bride for her son quickly. The date of marriage is fixed after Mr. Bhola Biswas has said yes to Dr. Ghosh. The parents of the bride and bridegroom have made the marriage preparations hurriedly as they want “to get it over with as soon as possible, before the two concerned had a chance to change their mind” (397). Thus, Bhaskar and Sandhya’s marriage takes place according to Hindu tradition. After three days, Bhaskar brings his wife to his house by promising, at a ceremony, to provide her with food and clothes for the rest of the life. Thus, Bhaskar’s quest for identity to be husband is fulfilled.
Bhaskar’s wife, Sandhya, is one of the important minor characters in the novel. However, like Shehnaz and Mandira in Afternoon Raag, Sandhya too is like a shadow in the service of the viewpoint of the protagonist. Though Bhaskar attains a new identity as a husband, he does not stop his party work. He does not give enough time to his newly wedded bride. While commenting on their married life the narrator remarks:
But she and her husband hardly had any time together. They met in the morning at the dining table as acquaintances would, the reverberations of night time already having faded and left them almost more distant from each other. Bhaskar did not look at her in the presence of others; he as good as pretended she wasn’t there; and then he was gone for most of the day. (420)
In the house of her in-laws, Sandhya feels lonely. As having grown up elsewhere and have no friends in Calcutta, Sandhya expects her husband to give her company to come out of loneliness. But, unfortunately, Bhaskar does not understand her emotions. He continues his Party work as he has been doing before marriage. Every day, early in the morning he goes to the party office to collect the newspaper ‘Ganashakti’ and distributes it devotedly to spread the ideology of the Communist Party among the faithful people of the party. Sandhya is surprised to find him going out every day early in the morning. The narrator brings out Sandhya’s mind regarding Bhaskar’s going out early morning as:
Early in the morning, when it was not quite light, she sometimes sensed him going out; it was inexplicable; she sighed; and then once or twice she saw him returned with a pile of newspapers, the ‘Ganashakti’. It was a paper she never read; but Bhaskar insisted to her, … that it contained all the real and important news and that was really worth reading. She didn’t believe him; for ‘Ganashakti’ was a paper that no one she knew read. (421)
Though Sandhya sees her husband going out and coming with the pile of the newspaper, she does not ask him about it. She is a typical traditional Indian wife who does not dare to ask either her husband or her in- laws about her husband’s work. She is just a passive observer. Chaudhuri does not permit his heroines to assert themselves or to challenge the patriarchal family system and establish their identities as the independent new women. So far as their relationship as husband and wife is concerned, there is a type of a tug of war between the husband and the wife. Bhaskar wants his wife to understand communist philosophy and become a communist by reading the paper ‘Ganashakti’, whereas Bhaskar’s relatives expect Sandhya to divert her husband’s mind from party works to his wife and family. They have been waiting “to see if Bhaskar, upon getting married, would gradually relinquish his commitment to the party and take up a more respectable form of existence” (425). They think that Sandhya, being a hard-headed and sensible girl, will not allow him to continue for long. But, unfortunately, in this tug of war Sandhya fails because married life and family responsibilities seem to leave Bhaskar unchanged.
The other two important women characters whose ethnic identity is skillfully depicted are Bhola’s sister Khuku and her friend Mini. The novel begins with their anti Muslim sentiment and protest against the azaan (Muslim Priest’s call to prayer) sung by the Muslim priest. The singing of azaan early in the morning disturbs Khuku’s sleep. She expresses her feelings of hatred towards Muslims in front of Mini, who always agrees with her. They openly express their feelings even about the toppling of the Babri Mosque and support the racist party BJP and the other Hindu fundamentalists. Chaudhuri, through Khuku and her friend Mini, exposes the racist fundamentalists who are responsible for communal tensions, the racial riots and the bomb blasts and violence that hampers the unity and harmony among communities.
Thus, Chaudhuri succeeds in exploring Bhaskar’s quest for identity as a Communist Party worker. However, though Bhaskar succeeds in his quest for identity as a husband by marrying Sandhya, he fails to become a good husband due to his double identity, as a Marxist Party worker and as a husband. Similarly, Chaudhuri succeeds in depicting the ethnic identity of Khuku and her friend Mini, who support the racist fundamentalists who are responsible for creating communal tensions.
Chaudhuri, Amit. Freedom Song. London: Picador, 1998. Print.
King, Bruce. Rev. of Freedom Song, by, Amit Chaudhuri. World Literature Today. 32.2 (1999): 391-392. Print.
Kulkarni, Indu. “Native Melody in Amit Chaudhuri’s Freedom Song”. Indian English Literature. Vol.V. Ed. Naikar Basavaraj. New Delhi: Atlantic, 2004. Print.
Shukla, Anu. “Such Stuff as Amit Chaudhuri’s Song Is Made on”. The Novels of Amit Chaudhuri: An Exploration in the Alternative Tradition. Ed. Shukla S. et al. New Delhi: Sarup, 2004. Print.