We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

"Independence:" Tale 3, New Delhi (2): Self-disinheritance · 29 January 05

As Fran remarked, having read "Independence" I now know
why Valerie brought up the subject of the relationship of
sexuality to power.

The story of Sumitra is a Madame de Pompadour story.
She lived the sensual and self-satisfied life she did
by manipulating her sexuality. Recently we’ve had a
spate of biographies and studies returning us to this
as an ideal for at least experiencing some form of power.
I would say, however, that a perceptive reading of one of
the better of these books, Amanda Foreman’s on the Duchess
of Devonshire, reveals the real misery of that woman’s life, her
powerlessness before her husband (he could and did throw
her out when she got pregnant by someone else; he could
and did bully her into having sex to pay debts; she
was forced out of the public sphere after a decade
or so for reasons similar to those which hounded
de Stael and sand); her endless pregnancies, the way the
woman who lived with her was part of the _menage
a trois_ and makes the Duchess’s early death make
sense: this is not to say that for numbers of years
the Duchess was not at the linchpin of a group of people
who did wield power and an enabler: "Independence" is
the story of a saloniere, Eastern style as seen through
the eyes of a "modern" Indian careerist who makes
documentaries. A TV journalist. She much admires
her grandmother and that is the stance of the story.
As I say, I see the technique here as one which repeats
that of the nameless narrator of "Expiation" except that
Kuku has much less to hide, the matter she presents
is conventionally acceptable, admirable for some too.

And then what else is there? Would you be a Monica?

But (to take up the theme as Valerie proposed it—as it’s easier to follow on), I’d say that much more than
sexuality was needed here for Sumitra to live this life�
of ease and direction of others than sex. That to me
is important in the tale, and this other stuff takes up
much of its verbal space. We are first told, for example,
how this granddaughter and grandmother are part of
the upper class left over at the time of "Independence"
from the British. How wonderful to be dancing in
a room next to the one where the fate of a large group
of people is being decided by one’s male relative!
Late in late Sumitra is presented as densely malevolent,
as greedy and appetitive as she was through life: but
what is disgusting is her loss of decorum, her dropping
of manners and and sophisticated know-how to manipulate
people. That is what we see is as needed as sex,
as well as the kind of personality that densely bullies
others. That Sumitra has by her ability to breeze by;
to use another idiom, this is one thick-skinned woman.
She didn’t sit at home doing someone’s homework.
She was "needed" elsewhere: and she really was (p. 44).

The greatest or most delicious of ironies are those which
also tell a sort of truth. Yes indeedy cars and chaffeurs
at her disposal to go and her herself photographed
with ministers and their wives (a TV journalist, our
narrator, would certainly appreciate this); she became�
an arbiter of taste, single-handedly revived cottage
industry to export Indian textiles and crafts. Probably
helped many people to make a little money. What
sells is what tickles the vanity: I have a pair of shoes
I bought just before Christmas, Turkish hand-sewn
kind of mocassins; they are very good for bunions;
they cost me $140. I don’t know though how much
the women who sewed them got: I suspect their percentage
of the take was as minimal as the middle men could
make it.

Then she meets Lieutenant-General Har Dayal. Great
guy. She just "bustles about with masculine purpose
and feminine grace". It seems her husband and daughter
are "contemptuous" of "the great role" she played. To
me Jhabvala’s irony comes through strongly here. She
can’t resist going a little over the top: he was
indispensable you see: "he knew how to behave,
how to make conversation in English, to use the right
cutlery …" Don’t underestimate that.

Not that I’m implying Sumitra should have catered to�
her drone Harry—in the way that in _A Backward
Place_ Judy caters to her tyrant drone, Bal. The
ironies about him and that relationship are as strong.

I’d like to suggest that the old traditional heroine of the
tale is displaced in the manner of Austen’s Emma.
In Emma, Austen has taken the usual bitch of the
tales, the Miss Bingleys and put her at the center.
The traditional lost heroine of integrity is Jane Fairfax.
The traditional heroine here is Monica and Jhabvala
shows us just what her life was. Bullying by her
mother until 50, and then what?

Night after night Sumitra lies plotting the next step
of her great life of power. This is how she spends
her time. It seems she comes to the
decision the best thing is to go to bed with Har.
After a frustrated first attempt (naturally he has
a soldier guarding the place), she manages and
now we get a menage a trois. (This is where
I began to think of Foreman’s depiction of the
Duchess of Devonshire’s life—she participated
in interlocking menages a troist). Now things
really begin to swim. Too’s parties are just
superb. He is so pleased.

Have I said enough? Saturnine, jaundiced is the
tone underlying the cool tones in which this flat
narrator retells this admired life of the grandmother.

It isn’t true that this and the next tale are unlike
Jhabvala’s earlier work. There have been novels
which attempt politics outside the home as
experienced by women . An early one, _Get Ready
for the Battle_ which really focuses on the
desperately impoverished of India; it’s unusual,
but it has characters like Sumitra in it. A
more recent one is more in the manner of this:
The Three Continents takes place on more
than one continent and focuses on the supposedly
sophisticated Harriet (a much more obviously
unreliable narrator). The Three Continents
received poor notices, partly because it’s unlike
the stories of downtrodden women or sexually-
enthralled women or wandering promiscuous
women Jhabvala is most known for. They are
the popular ones. The cast for _The Three
Continents_ is the same semi-modern set
of this week’s two tales. The theme of _The
Three Continents_ (which has gotten some
perceptive criticism by Laurie Sucher) has
been called "self-disinheritance" and
I’ll suggest that is at the core of "Independence."

The next story is the companion of "Independence"—its theme is global disinheritance, and we see its
flotsam and jetsam, the characters who should
not be called victims as after all they eat and
sleep well and live in nice houses and are admired
by the hoi polloi.


Posted by: Ellen

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