Sunday, March 7, 2010

Beautiful Things, Ugly People


My wife sometimes translates from English into Hindi. When she wanted a story on a particular theme this time, she asked me to help her. I went through a large number of stories in search of an appropriate one on the theme she was interested in. One of the books I went through with this purpose was the Italian writer Alberto Moravia’s Paradise, an old collection of thirty-four short stories. It is here that I came across the story Lovelier than You.

“When I was a little girl,” begins the story, “my mother – so as not to let me realize perhaps that we were poor people and that I had a humble kind of doll, a poor child’s doll – taught me a little song which said, amongst other things: ‘How lovely is my doll! Almost, almost lovelier than me!’”

The little girl in the story, who as an adult is telling us her story, is poor, but she is extremely beautiful and no doll is a match to her in beauty. Beauty ran in her family and the little girl’s beauty kept growing with her age. She was more beautiful at fifteen than at ten, more beautiful at eighteen than at fifteen. Eventually she turned into such a beauty that at a seaside resort where she had gone on a holiday one summer, she was crowned Beauty Queen.

Among the judges who chose her as Beauty Queen was an elderly, rich industrialist who ‘if there had been a competition in ugliness, would certainly have won first prize.’ The man begins courting her and, for reasons she herself cannot explain, when he proposes marriage, she accepts and becomes his wife.

After her marriage, she lives with him in a large family with his relatives – all of them ugly in some way she cannot put precisely.

The man is not merely rich, but extraordinarily rich. And the man has a craze for modernity. Everything in their villa is the best that money can furnish. The man has a fascination for everything mechanical and the villa is ‘a museum of machines.’ There are machines for entertainment: television sets, radio, gramophones, cinema; machines for nutrition: stoves, refrigerators, mixers, ovens; machines for cleanliness: washing machines, water heaters, razors...” There is an underground gymnasium for exercise. “But the most favoured place was the great garage, at the far side of the park, in which my husband kept his cars, nine of them in all. He owned three purpose-made cars, three saloons for the family, three utility cars. He changed them continually, substituting new types for old. I believe that often he never even made use of them, contenting himself with gazing at them for a long time, as though fascinated, and perhaps making a few trial runs round the part.”

Her life becomes precisely what could be expected under these circumstances.

And then one day her husband brings home a friend with him – a friend of his student days. The man is a teacher in a secondary school and as teachers go, he is poor. After introducing the guest to his relatives with the pride of a self-made man – he was that – he takes his friend around to show him his house and possessions. ‘I don’t believe,’ says the girl narrating the story, ‘that my husband had any real feeling of friendship for this man whom, in his heart, he must have considered a failure. Probably he had thought: He saw me starting off. I want to show him where I’ve arrived.’

Together, the three of them go around the house. The husband would open the door to each room and show it to the guest, and the guest would say, ‘Fine, fine, fine.’ ‘In the ambiguous tone of voice that might even have been meant teasingly,’ says the wife narrating the story. They visit bedrooms, sitting rooms, kitchens, and finally the garage. The husband then takes the man for a short ride in one of his cars, the three of them squeezing together in the front seat, the teacher saying repeatedly ‘Fine, fine, fine.’

After they return home, the husband has to go to his factory. The wife and the guest are left alone, along with the woman’s two children. The man compliments the woman on the beauty of the house. He says, rather embarrassed, ‘A very fine house. So many beautiful things! But the most beautiful thing, the thing I most admired – do you know what that is?’ The woman asks what it is and the man says, ‘You.’

The man is not flirting with her, clarifies the woman. He is only complimenting her in his old fashioned style. But on her it has ‘the effect of a flash of sudden lightning in a dark landscape.’

‘I had always wondered,’ says the woman, ‘why the possession of this villa aroused no satisfaction in me; and suddenly the word ‘thing,’ used awkwardly about me by the teacher, opened my eyes. I was not proud of the many beautiful things that there were in the villa because I too was a thing, one amongst the many, at any rate for my husband. I recalled the splendid car that I had admired a few minutes before; and I told myself ... ‘my wonderful black hair, my glorious blue eyes, my magnificent mouth, my perfect figure, all these showed me to be of the same breed – I was almost going to say, of the same blood – as the car.’

She notices that the guest is now looking at her children with an air of perplexity. And she comments to him, ‘They are ugly, like their father.’

The man sits silent, without saying anything, apparently agreeing with what she had said. She then adds, ‘The house is full of beautiful things and ugly people.’

I loved the man’s response to her statement.

He said, “Alas! We live in a civilization whose chief characteristic is to create objects that are more beautiful than those who possess them and make use of them.’

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Describing the way the man makes that statement, the woman in the story uses the word ‘sententiously.’ Maybe the way the man said those words was sententious, but I do not think he was sententious – what he said is no more than a sad truth about our times. Our civilization does create objects that are more beautiful than those who possess them and make use of them.

And turns people less beautiful than the objects they possess and use.

And the saddest thing is, this need not happen. With the kind of science we have today, with the kind of technology we have today, people should have been more beautiful than ever before. We have enough science and technology today to wipe out poverty from the world, we have today conquered diseases that killed millions of people routinely and regularly, communication technology is so advanced that each of us today can be in touch with the whole world at any moment – and frequently is so; the comforts we have today were unimaginable even for emperors in the past. And in the middle of all this, people are becoming more and more ugly.

Just one or two examples would suffice.

There was a time, not far away, when people rarely needed to lock their homes in most parts of the world. They remained open for people to walk in, sit down, chat over a cup of tea or whatever, and go. Today this is increasingly becoming unimaginable. Our homes are ‘secure’ now – secure both from foes and friends. And rarely is anyone welcome without an appointment. And the richer you are, the richer the security a visitor has to go through before he is admitted.

Tales of hospitality are found in the lores of people from all over the world. People went out of their way to welcome guests. Our own culture said: atithidevo bhava – may your guest become a god to you! And this was not in theory – it was practiced. There was not a village anywhere in the world – barring very few, maybe – where a stranger was not welcome to spend a night. And he spent that night in the same comfort as the villagers spent it. But that hospitality has almost entirely disappeared from the world today. You cannot imagine knocking on the door of a stranger’s home today and asking for hospitality.

In fact, not even on the door of many of our friends’ homes.

People whose homes are open are healthier people. They speak of open hearts. And those whose homes are closed are insecure and suspicious. Insecurity and suspiciousness are not signs of health.

People who welcome strangers to their homes are any day healthier than those to whom they are unwelcome. But in today’s world, in spite of your best intentions, you cannot imagine allowing a total stranger to spend a night in your home.

Our civilization is ugly in far too many ways. And it produces ugly people while it produces beautiful things.

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Moravia’s story ends with one of the two little children of the woman – a little girl – approaching the guest and showing him her beautiful doll. Here is how the woman herself narrates the incident, ending the story.

“My ugly little girl went over to the teacher, carrying her very beautiful doll in her arms. It was a modern doll, dressed as a lady, with a mini skirt, stiletto-heeled shoes, knitted sweater and brassiere. She showed it to him and said: ‘Isn’t she lovely, my doll?’ And he, unconsciously quoting the little song of my childhood, answered: ‘Yes, lovely, very lovely. D’you know, she’s almost, almost lovelier than you?’”

The story had begun with a little girl – the woman in the story in her childhood – who was beautiful and her doll, ugly. It ends with an ugly child with a beautiful doll in her hand.

If I have to make a choice between the two, I would choose the beautiful girl with an ugly doll in her hand.

The ideal situation, of course, would be when both the little girl and her doll are beautiful.

And today we are capable of making that ideal situation possible.

Life could be beautiful in the middle of the wealth and comforts we have been able to produce.

And it should be so.

All we need is to pause and ask why we have not been able to make it so.

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This morning I read something in a management book and what I read hurt me. Let me reproduce below what I read. It is from a contemporary woman’s letter. The letter says:

“My husband and I work for a huge conglomerate. We are carrying workloads that used to be handled by three or four employees. We come home exhausted after putting in 12-hour days, drag ourselves behind lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners at 9.00 at night, miss our children’s soccer games and school plays, and barely see each other. Because of today’s business climate, we feel totally helpless to make a move. Nobody dares quit a job these days. It’s too risky. But the stress is killing us.”

Tell me, why do we need to do this to ourselves? Why would we make our lies so ugly?

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