Saturday, October 25, 2003

The grace in Coetzee's Disgrace
Khushwant Singh

Khushwant SinghWHEREVER an author or his book makes front pages of journals, I make it a point to read his works. Also when anyone gets the Pulitzer, Booker or the Nobel Prize, I ring up my favourite bookstore and ask for their work. It is a reasonably safe way of finding something worth reading. If ladies and gentlemen on the panels for selecting award winners who I know are better informed and more critical in the judgements than me, I feel doubly assured that I am not wasting my time or money. That is how I came to read J.M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace five years ago when it won the Booker Prize in 1999. A month ago when Coetzee was named winner of the Nobel Prize for literature I recalled his name but remembered nothing about his novel. So I got a second copy of Disgrace.

"How stupid of me," I said to myself as I read the first few pages. "How can anyone forget a novel which opens with the main character, a Professor of English Literature in Cape Town University, twice divorced consorting with an Indian woman who prostitutes herself once a week to keep her home and two children in reasonable comfort?" That part came back to my mind but the rest still eluded my memory. So the second time I read it to the end. And enjoyed it thoroughly.

Professor David Lurie aged 52 is a compulsive womaniser. His special subject is Lord Byron's last years in Italy. And like Byron, he takes his women as they come, young and middle-aged pretty nymphets as well as plain Janes. When Soraya, his once-a-week whore calls off the deal, he turns his attention to a nineteen-year-old student, Melanie Isaacs. In any university if a professor is, found seducing one of his students, he brings serious trouble on his head. Lurie is forced to resign his job, he knows no college will accept him as a teacher. Local newspapers have exposed his affair on their front pages. He has become an outcaste in South Africa's White society. He flees to his daughter, from his first wife Lucy, who is farming a few acres of land up country next to a Black African farmer Petrus. Petrus is a good neighbour who helps Lucy market her flowers and vegetables, keeps her farm production in the hope that one day he will be able to take it over with or without Lucy. He already has a Black wife and mistress; the addition of Lucy would make a nice menage a trois. Professor Lurie's arrival on the scene upsets Petrus's apple cart. He waits for Lurie to leave. But the Professor has dug his heels in helping his daughter on the farm and looking after dogs she keeps for other people while they are on vacation. He also does voluntary work in a pets' clinic some distance away where a white woman treats sick animals and puts those beyond healing to sleep. She's a married woman and physically not very appetising. Nevertheless after they have finished with the animals, they treat each other on the floor of the clinic.

One evening when Lurie and daughter are taking the dogs for an airing, they pass some young Blacks on the way. By the time they get back, the Blacks have ransacked their house. They lock the Professor in the lavatory, douse him with oil and set him alight. They take turns to rape Lucy; they shoot the dogs. And decamp. Lurie survives his ordeal with his head-hair singed and a black eye. So does the gang-raped Lucy. They report to the police, omitting any reference to the rape. The police files a report. Nothing happens.

A few days later, Petrus throws a large party to which he invites the Professor and his daughter. Among the guests, they spot one of the young Blacks who had raped Lucy. His name is Pollux and he is related to Petrus through his wife. They confront Petrus and Pollux. Both were involved in the crime. The Professor is livid with anger and wants the police to arrest Pollux. His daughter prevents him from doing so. She is pregnant. She means to stay in South Africa on whatever terms she can get ó even as Petrus's concubine and mother of a half-Black, half-White bastard child. Her father returns to Cape Town and finds another prostitute to comfort him.

There is a lot more to Coetzeeís novel than the story I have outlined. It conveys the stark reality of the colony once ruled over by Dutch and English settlers and now under the rule of its original inhabitants ó from Botha to Nelson Mandela and his Black countrymen. I have not read anything as powerful and pregnant with meaning.

Fort Ramgarh

The entrance to the Ramgarh heritage hotel
The entrance to the Ramgarh heritage hotel

The trouble with the desire to get to oneís destination as fast as possible often deprives us of the pleasure of seeing places which lie short distances from our set routes. I have travelled by the Grand Trunk Road scores of times and often wanted to stop at scenic villages, temples, dargahs, gurdwaras and forts on hill tops and find out something about them. But the hurry to get to Kasauli, Shimla or back to Delhi was so great that I never did so. I had heard of the 350-year-old Chandela Rajput Fort at Ramgarh, a bare 7 km off the main road from Panchkula, but had never visited it. I will now see it since it has been converted into a heritage hotel with modern amenities, including an indoor bathing pool and a health club with a masseur from Kerala. The fort has some unique features like 18-foot-thick walls and an entrance gate 37 feet high, the highest doorway in the world. It also preserves its old Rajput-style decor with lavish use of coloured glass to liven up its rooms and the dining hall. I am not sure if I will spend a night there: the food served is strictly vegetarian; I have no objection to that. But it is also strictly teetotal. If a thirsty traveller arriving there on a hot summer afternoon is to cool himself with a tumbler of iced nimboo pani or a tankard of chilled beer, most men would opt for the latter. And after a swim in the pool when you sit on its spacious lawns and let the evening air cool you, many customers would like a tot of whiskey on the rocks rather than a cup of Garam Chai. I donít know how a hotel can run without a liquor licence. Ramgarh Fort may show that it can be done.

Six blind men

Once upon a time there were six blind men

Who went to see an elephant inside its pen

The first felt its legs, straight and stout

"Itís like a big tree that can move about"

The second touched its trunk, felt it shake

"The elephant," he said, "is just like a snake"

The third touched its tusk, curved and broad

"This animal, the claimed, "must be like a sword"

The fourth reached its ears, floppy and flat

"Itís a big hand-fan, nothing more than that"

The fifth, at the rear, got hold of its tail

"It resembles a broom, hung up on a nail"

The sixth said, "I have solved the mystery"

"Itís called Jumbo, so it must be Ministry"

(Contributed by Rajeshwari Singh,New Delhi