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Of Marital Relationships

| Updated: August 28, 2021 12:32

Writing a column about marital relationships in a literary way can be rather fraught with risks for a columnist. I have always believed that any action taken with the best of intentions is acceptable. So, I’ll call it a ‘hedged risk’, using stock market parlance. In India, we hold the family sacrosanct as a unit. We do so in many other parts of the world too and for good measure. I have been extremely non-judgmental as a person in my personal as well as professional life. Stating it is good here.

I have often asked my students, current and former, literary friends, if they knew about the circumstances of Leo Tolstoy’s death. It seems none of them knew this fact. An excellent long-read article on his death as well as his preoccupations with death is found in The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/facing-death-with-tolstoy

 Leo Tolstoy was eighty-two and he died at a virtually unknown Russian village. He had walked out of his relationship, walking out on his wife, Sonya. This does sound terrible and one ought to blame Tolstoy. However, his wife of around fifty years, Sonya had been suffering long in the marriage too. She found his ideas about religion, his reforms for the poor too radical for her elite stock. Tolstoy had even renounced his title, Count, for the sake of the underprivileged people.  I’ll leave it to history and readers to judge. I’ll remain non-judgmental. However, Tolstoy spent quite a few of his last days, walking aimlessly. 

Tolstoy wrote a letter for his wife, which demonstrates how much the relationship had eroded for him. 

“I am doing what old men of my age usually do: leaving worldly life to spend the last days of my life in solitude and quiet.”

From “Facing Death With Tolstoy” by Mary Beard, The New Yorker

Do you still remember that first line from his novel, Anna Karenina? Tolstoy writes: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina is a great novel in many ways but also excellent to explore the difficulty of marriages.

As if this story of Tolstoy wasn’t painful enough, I bring to you another story. This is the iconic novel, Auto Da Fe by the Nobel Laureate, Elias Canetti. Canetti is quite a phenomenal author and do not let your umbrage (if any) against me affect your reading of his oeuvre. Auto Da Fe is a truly scary novel. It must scare the daylights out of anyone who believes in the Mills & Boon version of marriage. So many mushy romances around, so, good to have some stories with a difference. Or a lot of differences.

Auto Da Fe is a painful story. It deals with Professor Peter Kien, the world’s greatest sinologist. He has one of the best personal libraries and he visits local bookstores, before they open, to pour scorn on the poor taste of the reading public. Kien often holds discourses with the great thinkers and philosophers in his library.  He lives alone and has a routine life, where meals and other necessities take up the least of his time. Thus, he could devote himself to his scholarly studies. He advertises for a housekeeper, essentially, someone to look after the house and the library. Therese Krumbholz applies and is appointed. Therese is intrigued by the advertisement, which says, “Only applicants of the highest character need apply. Unsuitable persons will be shown the door. Money no object.” (translated from German by C. V. Wedgwood, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux edition, New York, 1947). 

She still hopes to end up with a suitable gentleman for life. He is touching forty. She is in her mid-fifties. He doesn’t notice her for a long time. When she asks for a book to read, he ignores her; she asks again, he finally gives a book, which isn’t in good shape. She puts a cover on the book. It is then that he notices her. He thinks, she’s a very caring person. She thinks, he’s very rich. Kien marries her. And then his world gets smashed up into smithereens. He is finally rescued by his brother. This is an excellent story of a marital mismatch. Just a marital mismatch that completely nukes his world.

Quotes from the novel:

“Understanding, as we understand it, is misunderstanding.”
― Elias Canetti, Auto-da-Fé

“She was crude, but loyal. He began to understand her even better than before. A pity she was so old; it was too late to try to make a human being of her.”
― Elias Canetti, Auto-da-Fé

I’m not misogynistic or anything, lest my earlier examples lead to misconceptions. Another thoroughly fascinating work that deals with marital relationships is the searing memoir, I Want to Destroy Myself by Malika Amar Shaikh, translated very ably from Marathi by Jerry Pinto (Speaking Tiger Publishing, 2016, New Delhi). Shaikh’s husband was the fiery and famous dalit Marathi poet, Namdeo Dhasal, who was the forbearer of the dalit literary movement in Marathi. As a poet, he was unparalleled and unique. But he was also an exceptionally bad husband. And he was also “an absent husband and father, given to drink, womanizing and violence” (from the jacket of the book).

If Canetti’s novel, Auto Da Fe is painful, Malika Amar Shaikh’s memoir, I Want to Destroy Myself is no less a painful story. I would say, much more painful. This thin volume of 200 pages, essentially Shaikh’s autobiography is worth reading. Dhasal’s activism meant there were financial strains on their marriage from the beginning. Shaikh gave the gold ornaments given by her father at the time of marriage, Namdeo pawned them immediately, so that guests could be entertained at home.

She endured the marriage and as far as I know, they didn’t divorce.  Of course, I do not stigmatize divorces, nor do I glorify painful marriages. My essential point is that relationships, moreso the marital ones, are intrinsically difficult and one may choose to live them (or not live them) as best as one could. To each her own and to each his own.

I personally think relationships are what they are, sacrosanct, maybe, but if they irretrievably damage a person’s being, maybe, they are not so good after all. At least, those ones, which are so corrosive. I’ll just leave you with these quotes from Malika Amar Shaikh’s book and let you ponder over, cogitate about these issues.


“Namdeo would go off immediately. Sometimes he would be in the mood for love. If that midnight knock came in the middle of our lovemaking, he would forget about me and get up and go.” (p. 165).

“Where is a woman’s real place in today’s society? Is she aware of all that is happening around her? And what are her ways out of it? I accept that all these are intensely personal questions. But no one wishes to pay attention to them.” (p. 189).

“When I watch Smita Patil on the screen, a sharp pain surges into my heart. I could have been there, I think, where she is. … Then I become aware of the huge gap between reality and my dreams. The same thing happens when I hear Gulzar’s songs and dialogue.” (p. 193)

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