By Sudeep Ghosh
And fear not lest Existence closing your
Account, and mine, should know the like no more;
The Eternal Saki from the Bowl has pour’d
Millions of Bubbles like us, and will pour. – THE RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM
This article is my personal perspective as a practitioner teaching in the International Baccalaureate (IB) programme. It foregrounds my animated conversation with my students in the Diploma Programme when we dwelt on Saikat Majumdar’s campus novel, The Middle Finger (Simon & Schuster 2022). What struck us about the opening chapter ‘The Death-shaped Window’ of the novel is the manner in which the novelist depicts and throws the victimised character’s bruised and battered self into a humanist context silhouetting the notion of self-knowledge induced by a liberating sense of empathy. I argue for a pedagogy of empathy and put forth my critical reading of the novel’s opening chapter.
Besides the definition of empathy as “the capacity to put oneself into the other’s shoes”, the “concept implies that one is both feeling oneself into the object and remaining aware of one’s own identity as another person” (A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis). I designed a framework to conceptualise the epistemology of empathy. I identified the following nine [no wonder, the beauty of its mystical connotation prodded me] attributes to absorb the total unity of empathy:
- A pure grace of gratitude
- A resplendent sense of redemption
- A discourse of illuminating intimacy
- Freedom from fearfulness
- Sovereignty of ‘invisible’, ‘unexamined’ selfhood
- A compassionate comradeship
- A transformative, mystical experience
- An act of unwavering faith
- An intuitive incentive to inwardness
The opening chapter ‘The Death-shaped Window’ is starkly horrid with concrete images of psychological torment, insanely tyrannical and claustrophobic. However, empathy glows against the glassy space of inner wilderness bordering on Camus’ world of ritualized irrationality. The chapter opens with scenes of stifling existence of shell-shocked Swapna being irrevocably sucked into a stinking abyss of horror and disgust. What dictates the confines of her ‘caged life’ are the recurrent, dreadful images of ‘the slaughter’, ‘underground cave, splattered with creaming men and dogs sniffing for bloody fish-gills’, ‘mess of dirty white feathers and red beaks’, ‘skinned breast’. Besides the motif of fowl, the fast and furious pace of ‘cruelty’ perpetrated is enough to choke neurotic Swapna to death! However, amidst this searing agony and angst, the empathetic body of Megha unleashes love and care. This healing empathy is a form of wisdom in the novel bearing out the Platonic epigram in the epigraph. The compassion in action when Megha declares about Swapna: “But Swapna’s pain has become mine.” is a profound statement I could not helping unpacking in my teaching lessons. Both Megha and Swapna experience ‘quantum entanglement’, to use a term from Physics. Megha’s assertion gives Swapna the immensity of unconditional love. When a tendril of tenderness connects Swapna to her tortured, bleeding self, she feels liberated and fulfilled. The love, until now inaccessible to her, accords her a liberated consciousness.
Saikat is a poet who feels Swapna’s unrelenting rawness of emptiness and agony rendering vigour to the novel’s tragic intensity. The tragedy breeds from the subordination of emotion to action; emotion of suffering and the action to be self-less and altruistic. To concede that the reconciliation, in the nature of absolute submission by Megha, creates a narrative denouement, as one of my critic-friends (read, my student) contends, is to discount the thoughtful side that testifies the transformative power of empathy. Swapna is not able to make peace with her ghosts (PTSD) of ‘dark chicken-bones’ until her obsession with the soul-numbing past is subverted by Megha’s sober, restrained, cathartic tone in embracing Swapna’s pain that echoes the wisdom of humanism in believing that (wo)man is the most important being in the universe. Megha is the ‘encouragement of light’ against Swapna’s being, to quote Hafiz’s poem, “It Felt Love”, and this light dispels Swapna’s darkness and produces a healing surge of loving empathy.
Megha’s unflinching conviction, “But Swapna’s pain has become mine” creates a confessional counterpoint to the moment of guilt, shame and fear Swapna feels. Weighed down by her inner exile, the reference to death is therapeutic in giving Swapna a new lease of life. The repetition of Megha’s emphatic tone in the closing lines of the chapter triggers the sixth sense what Osho calls the ‘inner sense’ in Megha: “But Swapna’s pain has become mine.” This gives a certain agelessness about the life Megha envisages for Swapna. The action poses questions about empathy I offered to my students for further exploration. How far is empathy an obedience to the inner sense? How can empathy mitigate human suffering? How can empathy forge inwardness in the face of tragic despair stemming from the oppression of outrageous cruelty? Can literature become a cornerstone of empathetic imagination and humanistic living?
The opening chapter ‘The Death-shaped Window’ inquires into the contestable, in Carl Jung’s proposition: “We need more understanding of the human nature, because the only real danger that exists is man himself.” Interestingly, the power of auditory imagery evoked by Majumdar in this chapter recalls another beautifully-written, experimental novel Tokyo Cancelled (2005) by Rana Dasgupta. There is also a reference to ‘window’ in one of the narratives. Inter-textually, it is compelling to discuss these two kinds of ‘windows’ and the role of auditory imagination. I also find another arresting evidence of anguish in Krishna Sobti’s Sunflowers of the Dark. I believe it would be stimulating enough to examine Sobti’s Ratti and Saikat’s Swapna in their attitude to life, their ways of navigating the nuances of human nature and the challenges of adversities pitted against them.
The notion of empathy is conveyed through the blend of the brutal and the beautiful in the opening chapter. The depiction of the hacking of chickens “when the heavy knife beheads the neck…there is a spurt of blood” brings out the unbridled beastliness of human behavior, the savagery human beings are capable of. However, the reference to Megha’s compassionate love counters this monstrosity and amply proves the redemptive grace the human beings are not denied and have access to. In the merging of the barbaric and the beatific, the wisdom of empathy is the mainstay. In this tension between deprivation and redemption, the need for self-knowledge is articulated and anticipated. Both Megha and Swapna are committed to discovering self-knowledge through a compassionate, unconditional and self-revelatory comradeship. Let me allude to John Banville’s The Untouchable (1997) where Victor Maskell characterises his task as one of self- revelation: “I shall strip away layer after layer of grime – the toffee- coloured varnish and caked soot left by a lifetime of dissembling – until I come to the very thing itself and know for what it is. My soul. My self.” Both Megha and Swapna discern a wide-awake inwardness and a penetrating subtlety of desires in mutual love. Megha is resilient enough to avert ‘emotional contagion’ and mitigate Swapna’s ‘anxiety disorders’ with a sense of detachment, closeness, absorption and impassioned love.
This campus novel has the lineaments of queer aesthetics by showing a keen awareness of the realm of the sexual. The body becomes a subversive alternative to reaffirm that Swapna is not maimed by the menace of stabbing memory, the fire of emotional and psychological torment leaving her reduced to a non-entity. She is delivered from the persistence of agony by Swapna’s empathy. The evocation of tactile sensations vindicates self-indulgently an unalloyed attachment, the non-normative desires between Megha and Swapna and the consequent fulfilment that nullifies all chaos in its wake. The narrative movement from loudness at the beginning to stillness in the end adds to the psychological characterisation facilitating inward-lookingness. The novel is an investment in seeing, healing, knowing, and transforming – thus, creating a paradigm of empathy.
Swapna and Megha have a sense of fulfilment in their companionship that dislodges Swapna from her state of torturous memory and its numbness. Their empathy is from the miracle of friendship and intimacy they enjoy to counter the crippling feelings of emptiness and inadequacy. Their empathetic gesturing is their interactive love: “Swapna and I now sleep in the same bed at night and hug each other, for night is the bleakest time to remember that we have no one else in this world to whom we can turn.” It will not be out of place to allude to a significant work in gay literature. The Urdu poet Josh Malihabadi’s letter to his intimate friend Saghar Nizami is a case a point. The langue of longing it evokes makes the outpourings intensely poignant: “I am alone in the bungalow…The rain seems to be enjoying itself. Brown clouds hide the mountains. The misty clouds touch the windowpanes as they dance outside. The cold touches my skin and permeates my bones. There is life and freshness in the air; the atmosphere is delightful and fantasises dance around me. Every pore of mine is screaming Saghar, Saghar, Saghar…” It is interesting to note the connotation of window metaphor in both Majumdar and Malihabadi as a metaphor for consummation – in the former it is fulfilled; in the latter, it is unrequited.
In fine, the intent of this article is to explore how to develop and enact a pedagogy of empathy. The idea emerges from the crucible of my teaching practice and I am tempted to press the opening pages of this acclaimed novel to analytical service by contesting how far does the prompt, the opening pages of the novel, inquire into what Jean Baudrillard says: “A hermeneutic window from which to hurl yourself beyond meaning.”
Isn’t a literary work transformative in its spirit of uplifting? Saikat Majumdar’s The Middle Finger sets this tone in the Opening Chapter. The window metaphor embodies empathy and this novel of education promises to be an invocation of the kind of language that is less about ‘clarity and efficiency’ and more about ‘humanity’, to borrow words from my favorite educationist, Neil Postman. The Middle Finger probes into the subliminal depths of human brutality only to be redeemed by the beauty and vitality of empathy. Empathy serves a transcendent purpose in the novel. I am reminded of the visionary-poet Walt Whitman’s prophecy in Democratic Vistas: “The priest departs, the divine literatus comes.” No wonder, The Middle Finger is a tender tapestry of empathy, where sensory energy transforms into swirling waves of subtle energy. Who can deny that literature has a messianic mission! The need for a pedagogy of empathy, viscerally provoked by The Middle Finger, aligns with that mission.
Sudeep Ghosh is a teacher and critic based in Hyderabad. Can be reached at email@example.com
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