The Son Who Rises Against the Patriarch

Meet the son who is a sore trial to all father figures and patriarchs – the biological father, guru, rulers or politicians. Harishankar Parsai (1924-1995) is once again at his satirical best.

Shravan Kumar’s shoulders have started aching. He has begun to take off the kaavad and set it down. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Shravan Kumar’s shoulders have started aching. He has begun to take off the kaavad and set it down. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The story of Shravan Kumar as the epitome of unquestioning filial obedience is well-known. But many youngsters are now reading it as a narrative of visionless older generations forcing the new ones to be as unseeing as them, writes Harishankar Parsai (1924-1995) in this sharp satire.

There’s a gentleman who constantly grumbles about his younger son: “He doesn’t listen to me and at times, he is far too outspoken for my liking”.

What about the elder son?

The gentleman replies, “He’s a good boy. Having completed his studies, he is now gainfully employed”.

He feels there’s a world of difference between his elder and younger son, which becomes evident to him in several contexts. For instance, the gentleman performs the sandhyavandan every evening without fail – that is, drinks alcohol. There’s nothing wrong about it. Many people do so – except that they imbibe gangajal for all to see and take to alcohol furtively; they talk about tedious topics uninhibitedly but wrap all mention of pleasurable experiences in secrecy, slotting them as ‘illicit’.

But let us not digress; it is the gentleman we are talking about here. His evening ritual is incomplete without soda water. Now, his elder son would promptly place his pencil in the textbook to mark the page he was reading and dash off to get the soda. The younger son also does the needful, but he doesn’t jump to his father’s bidding. He completes the paragraph he is studying and only then does he get to his feet.

The Indian father cannot tolerate the slightest show of disregard. He maintains his relationship at the extreme ends of the spectrum – he either beats up his son or gets beaten up by him. There’s no middle ground for him. The younger son acts up too. When the father gets impatient, he turns around and says, “I am going, aren’t I?”

The boy has his share of questions and doubts: “My father whiningly pays my school fee; he comes up with excuses to postpone buying new clothes; but it never occurs to him that I should not be asked to get up when I am in the midst of studying.”

Such questions or doubts never arose in the elder son’s mind. He must be about the same age as me, which means he would have read the same books that I did. We are products of the wrong kind of books – wrong because they were meant to kill the spirit of questioning. School would start with a prayer – ‘We have come to you, God, for protection; show us mercy, compassionate one’. As to why we had placed ourselves under divine protection, who exactly did we fear – we had not the slightest idea.

We were trained to seek God’s protection even before we began to seek the alphabet. We read the wrong books, embedded our eyes in them. The younger son reads different books and that too without burying his eyes in them – he looks at the world around him too. He is trying to save his eyes from getting blinded.

The younger son is a sore trial to all father figures and patriarchs – be it the biological father, the guru, venerable rulers or politicians. In our texts, patriarchs were above question and suspicion. The student invariably cut off his thumb for a teacher with a clear bias against him and both ended up being celebrated as the ‘blessed ones’.

Nowadays, the student lodges a complaint with the vice chancellor that so-and-so teacher is getting the students’ thumbs cut off. If the vice chancellor turns a blind eye, the youngster leads a charge against him, backed by a procession of students.

As for us, the story of the devotee who saws his child into two was dinned into our heads in class 3. Some people see no difference between a human and a pumpkin – both can be easily cut in two. The name of the devotee was Mordhwaj [a mythological story in which king Mordhwaj proves his devotion to Krishna by sawing his 18-year-old son into two, and pleased by the act of devotion, Krishna brings the prince back to life].

All such stories end in a way that is meant to enthuse those who have to undergo the fate of being split – God manifests and comes to the aid of the ‘losing party’ by either bringing alive the dead, getting lost property back or sending someone to heaven as compensation. I wonder how many generations have been torn apart by the conclusion of the story of Mordhwaj.

What is important is that neither I nor the gentleman’s elder son doubted this story for even a moment.

The younger son, however, will ask his father some straight questions: Before you split me in two, tell me what proof do you have that God will be happy with this action? Further, what guarantee do we have that he will definitely reveal himself to us and come to our aid? He has a thousand things to do. Also, how can we be sure that he will be able to rejoin the two halves? Assuming all of this will happen, the point still is that the beliefs you hold to be true are yours alone. To be true to that belief you should have yourself sawn in two. Why should people born earlier tear apart those born later for the sake of their beliefs? Why should one generation be torn asunder for the sake of another?

The boys have become outspoken. The rascals’ textbooks have changed. Why have they started changing the course so frequently? The elder son had been told to keep his textbooks properly so they could be passed on to the younger one. In the meantime, the textbooks changed; so the old books are of no use to anybody.

Why can’t one textbook run for generations? The patriarchs are a worried lot. The elder son would immediately place his pencil in the book-fold and run to get soda water; the younger one first completes the paragraph he is reading and then gets to his feet.

The story of Bhishma was also told to us in our tender years. We perceived him as virtuous and blessed. But the younger one will reproach Shantanu [Bhishma’s father].

Moreover, the places of virtue and reproach have been switched and people have not even realised it. The younger son will question Bhishma: Did you read the same books as my elder brother? Why couldn’t you tell your father that after a lifetime of pleasure, if you still want to indulge your lust, what am I supposed to do about it? I would part with some of my equilibrium if I could, but how can I part with my life? You can deprive me of your kingdom but I will never relinquish the natural right of a human.

This is what the younger one will say by way of comment: Bhishma could not bring himself to say all this; his father turned him from a human to an arrow-slinging apparatus – an automatic bow. Thus, the best character of the Mahabharata – brilliant, venerable and knowledgeable – emerges as the most hapless individual, to be pitied the most.

I can see that our Shravan Kumar’s shoulders have started aching [a reference to the mythological tale about Shravan Kumar who takes his blind old parents on a pilgrimage by carrying them in a kaavad, exemplifying filial duty as the greatest pilgrimage].

Our Shravan Kumar has started fidgeting with the kaavad and the visionless ones settled in it are troubled. It’s a strange sight – two visionless people burdening the one who can see with their dead weight, in fact, directing him. As one generation gets cut off from the sap of life, losing its vision, it clambers on the back of the coming generation. As soon as it loses its vision, it starts thinking about pilgrimages; says, take us on a pilgrimage. We have enjoyed the pleasures of an active life but to ensure pleasure in the next life, we now need to earn some spiritual merit.

The one who can see, fritters his youth carrying the dead weight of the visionless. He walks on the path chosen by them. He loses his right to take a decision, make a choice. His eyes do not search for a new path; they merely look around to avoid thorns on the way.

There are innumerable such kaavads – in politics, literature, art, religion and education where the visionless are well ensconced, driving those who can see. Those who have no vision develop a strange cunning – they can make out the difference between a real and fake coin, count money to perfection. They develop an uncanny ability to feel around and figure out things, be it positions, awards, recognition or bank cheques. They are able to see what even those with vision fail to figure out.

The new crop of the visionless has new pilgrimages in mind. They are not interested in going to Kashi, Haridwar or Puri. Ask this one where he wants to be taken and he will certainly utter the word pilgrimage. When you ask which one, he will reply – the cabinet or council of ministers. Ask that one and he too will be ready to go on a pilgrimage of his choice – some academy or university.

But it’s clear that the kaavads have started wobbling – the ones lugging them are beginning to ask questions; their minds are filling up with doubts. When they give the kaavad a jerk, the visionless scream – you sinner, what are you up to, do you plan to topple us?

And the one lugging the burden replies: We will not sacrifice our strength and our life to prop up those with no vision whatsoever. Sit in one place with your prayer beads. You will receive our respect, our protection. But you have to let us choose our own path. Give us your experiences, not your vision. That we will acquire through our own efforts.

Politics and literature happen to be public spheres, but even in other not so public spheres, Shravan Kumars have begun fidgeting with the kaavads with a mind to take them off. They are no longer willing to submit to the saw of just any belief.

Here, I am not talking about the youngster in the coffee house who has grown a beard in protest as if it just has to reach a certain shape and size for a revolution to erupt. Young men sporting big beards and drain pipe trousers and saying, “So what”, or young women in sharp dresses and hairstyles, saying, “Oh wonderful”, are not the ones to watch. They are steadfast neither in their beliefs nor in their skepticism. Look towards households where, without any show of display or noise, well-brought up young men and women, humble and obedient, have begun to take off their kaavads, refusing to be sacrificed for someone else’s beliefs.

An acquaintance of mine has great faith in astrology. He has an educated daughter whose horoscope did not match with that of the youth she wanted to marry. The family tried to match her horoscope with a couple of other eligible bachelors but the planets failed to oblige. The planets in her horoscope must have mutinously decided to get along with some good for nothing.

A couple of years went by. The young woman found the situation suffocating. One day, with all due respect, she told her family, “You believe in astrology, but I don’t. I should not be sacrificed for something I do not believe in.” The family was astonished but eventually gave in to her wishes. I can see that Mordhwaj’s saw is being flung aside.

Shravan Kumar’s shoulders have started aching. He has begun to take off the kaavad and set it down. The gentleman is distressed. The younger son invariably completes the paragraph he is studying before he gets to his feet. The elder one would promptly place his pencil in the book to mark the page he was reading and dash off.

Translated from the Hindi original by Chitra Padmanabhan.

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